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New ‘Clergy Leadership Network’ targets political conservatives

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)-A newly launched “Clergy Leadership Network” is seeking to become, as the Associated Press described it, “the Christian Coalition of the left.”

The Washington-based network’s 24-member national committee includes a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jimmy Allen, alongside a former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, John A. Buehrens, and the National Council of Churches’ former general secretary, Joan Campbell Brown.

The “CLN” network, which is calling for “dramatically different” direction for the United States, also lists among its founding board members the former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, James Dunn, and the editor of the Capital Baptist, newsjournal of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, Bob Maddox.

The network’s founding CEO, meanwhile, Albert M. Pennybacker, is a former National Council of Churches associate general secretary for public policy and former president of The Interfaith Alliance, another Washington-based ecumenical organization that has taken various pro-homosexual stances, such as speaking “with one voice” in endorsing the recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling in favor of same-sex “marriage.” The NCC’s Brown is a current Interfaith Alliance board member.

Pennybacker, in a statement of the Clergy Leadership Network’s aims, stopped short of calling for President Bush’s defeat in next year’s election. But he said the organization will pursue “collaborative relationships with the Democratic Party, Republicans who seek change and other political groups who share these goals,” such as countering “economic policies that favor the wealthy over the poor” and an “us against the world” approach to international relations.

The network’s activities, as reported by the Associated Press, will include issue ads – if funds permit. It will not endorse candidates, although individual CLN members may do so. “The normal avenues of citizen participation,” as Pennybacker put it, “are fully open to the clergy.”

Also planned: assistance to churches, temples and mosques for voter registration drives and statewide and community CLN “clergy groups” who will, according to Pennybacker, “provide counsel to campaign leaders on issues of concern to religious communities” and organize “nonpartisan candidate forums.”

“CLN funding will come from grants, gifts and membership contributions, none of which will be tax deductible,” Pennybacker stated. “Grant requests have been prepared and are being considered. Potential donors and CLN members are currently being identified. Financial support is currently needed for CLN to move forward on a timely schedule.” The network “will accept no party funds at any level,” he also said.

Pennybacker, in his statement, noted, “Over all, we are drawn to Bill Moyers’ insight that the power of the oligarchy is replacing the processes of democracy, and it simply must not be allowed!”

Among the 24 members of the CLN national committee, Allen was the last SBC president elected before the conservative resurgence began in 1979 and he subsequently became president of the convention’s Radio and Television Commission. He was active in the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an SBC breakaway group, in 1991, and earlier he served as president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, another Washington-based group that has been critical of religious conservatives.

Dunn was executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee when it was defunded by the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1990s and was a longtime Americans United board member. In recent years, he has been president of the BJC Endowment office. Maddox, meanwhile, is a former executive director of Americans United and a former member of President Carter’s White House staff.

Also among the CLN national committee members are:

— William Sloan Coffin, a retired Presbyterian minister who formerly was pastor of Riverside Church in New York City and chaplain at Yale University. In a New York Times article about the network’s formation, Coffin charged that, “The arrogance and self-righteousness of the present administration are very dangerous. And silence by members of the clergy, in the face of such arrogance, is tantamount to betrayal of the Gospel or the Torah or the Koran.”

— George Regas, an Episcopal clergyman and founder of the Regas Institute in Pasadena, Calif. As one of the founders of another clergy organization, the Progressive Religious Partnership in 1991 in Washington, Regas in a sermon declared, “Many people accept the legality of abortion, but we must move beyond this and affirm its moral legitimacy. A woman can choose to terminate a pregnancy and be a holy and righteous person. It is on this moral issue that the Religious Right has dominated the debate. I admit abortion is devastatingly complex but deep in my soul I believe there is something vicious and violent about coercing a woman to carry to term an unwanted child. This God-given freedom to choose is what it means to be a human being. To force the unwanted on the unwilling, to coerce a woman to use her body against her will and choice, is a kind of legalize rape – and it is morally repugnant. This Progressive Religious Partnership must confront the Religious Right with this gross immorality.”

— Thom White Wolf Fassett, general secretary emeritus of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Fassett was the board’s chief executive in 1999 when it voted to support the pro-homosexual Lambda Legal Defense Fund’s opposition to the Boy Scouts in the U.S. Supreme Court over Scouting’s ban on homosexual troop leaders.

— Arthur Hertzberg, a rabbi and former moderator of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which is a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, along with the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, the United Church of Christ and other groups. When President Clinton vetoed a ban on partial-birth abortion passed by Congress in 1996, the coalition thanked him for his “leadership, courage, and compassion” and urged Congress not to override the veto. Hertzberg also is a former board member of The Interfaith Alliance.

— Paul H. Sherry, a former president of the United Church of Christ who signed the letter to Clinton from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice thanking him for his veto, as did the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Buehrens. Methodist exec Fassett was among a second group of signatories.

— Charles G. Adams, Detroit pastor and Baptist Joint Committee board member.

The Interfaith Alliance ties of Pennybacker, Brown and Hertzberg hearken back to the homosexual protests at the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2002 annual meeting in St. Louis. TIA’s current president, Arun Gandhi, was the keynote speaker at a rally prior to the protests organized by the homosexual activist group Soulforce. Another member of TIA’s board is David Currie, leader of the anti-SBC “Mainstream Baptists” network.

Several of the Clergy Leadership Network’s national committee members also were among 2,100-plus clergymen and others in religious leadership who signed the “Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing” promoted by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). The one-page document includes a call for “full inclusion” of “sexual minorities in congregational life, including their ordination and the blessing of same-sex unions” and a “faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights,” including elective abortion.

Among conservatives commenting on Clergy Leadership Network’s formation, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said it should be taken seriously. “There are organizations out there … working to undermine this [presidential] administration or conservative policies that this administration has adopted,” he noted. The CLN’s formation, he added, reflects the success conservative organizations like the FRC and Focus on the Family have had on public policy.

Diane Knippers, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, an organization that monitors and challenges mainline religious bodies, said, “I’ve seen no evidence that the current religious left has anything to offer in terms of creative energy or ideas involve social problems in moving this country ahead in the 21st century.”

Roger Moran, a Missouri layman who has studied the religious left since 1985 when he was appointed to a Baptist associational Christian moral concerns committee, said, “The recent formation of the Clergy Leadership Network is just one more example of religious liberals working frantically to put a religious face on the agenda of the political far left. The heavy involvement of prominent Cooperative Baptist Fellowship personalities in liberal groups like the CLN, The Interfaith Alliance, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Baptist Joint Committee and People for the American Way should raise serious concerns among Bible-believing Southern Baptists about the nature of the battles that have now come to the various SBC state conventions.

“For too long now, the CBF crowd has tried to deflect criticism for their involvement in far-left organizations by accusing their critics of employing ‘guilt by association’ tactics. But for the growing number of Southern Baptists who have been watching and listening to the debate between pro-SBC conservatives and pro-CBF moderates, it is now clear: If there is any ‘guilt,’ it’s not by virtue of their associations but by virtue of the morality, theology and political agenda they are advocating.”

In a related development, a Dallas-based private foundation known as the Leadership Network has asked the CLN to “cease and desist from using its name because of confusion and adverse reaction” among existing clients of the older nonprofit foundation that works with large Protestant churches to develop leadership skills. “Many of these churches have strong feelings about the position on issues being addressed by the proposed Clergy Leadership Network,” stated Tom Wilson, CEO and president. “We believe the American culture can be best influenced and transformed for the good by working through the innovative and influential churches across America rather than political statements and lobbying activities.”
Based on reporting by Tammi Ledbetter & Art Toalston.

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