God is not a right-wing zealot

The Rev. Albert Pennybacker is a Bible Belt preacher with a drawl who's urging people to support “basic religious values.” But he's no Jerry Falwell clone.
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By Leslie R. Guttman

Dec. 24, 2003  |  LEXINGTON, Ky. — In the heart of the Bluegrass, a Bible Belt preacher is rallying people to political action around what he calls “basic religious values.” Think you can describe his politics? Think again. This man of the cloth wants “regime change” in Washington.

The Rev. Albert Pennybacker, a Lexington, Ky.-based pastor, is head of the Clergy Leadership Network, a new, cross-denominational group of liberal and moderate religious leaders seeking to counter the influence of the religious right and to mobilize voters to change leadership in Washington. Pennybacker, affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a pastor of 35 years, is tired of the conventional wisdom that equates religiosity with conservatism. Nationwide, he says, the religious right often squeezes out the left in public debate.

Now is the moment for liberal religious voices to make themselves heard, Pennybacker says. He believes the Bush administration's record runs contrary to the core values of America's religious communities, and, as examples, he points to what he says are deceptions about war in Iraq, economic programs that favor the wealthy and destructive environmental policies.

It's “wake-up time” for religious liberals and moderates disenchanted with the current White House, Pennybacker tells Salon. He sees a historic moment for progressive religious leaders in the tradition of liberal clergy who led protests during the civil rights and Vietnam War eras. “One of the gifts of the present administration is the summons — or call to arms — for progressive religious people,” he said in a recent interview.

About 1,000 clergy from a range of religions have joined the Clergy Leadership Network since its inception last month; about 100 lay people have signed on, too, and Pennybacker says he gets about 60 inquiries a day from around the country. The network also includes the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, noted leader in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movement; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, former president of the American Jewish Congress; and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, a prolific writer and lecturer on spiritual matters.

Pennybacker is tall, bald, blue-eyed and, at 72, he has the electric energy that comes to someone whose passion is his work. His office on the 21st floor of an office/apartment high-rise overlooks downtown Lexington; the room is crammed, and his wide desk is overflowing with issues of the New Yorker, Mother Jones, Esquire and Christian Century.

In years past, he worked for congressional candidates in Ohio and New York who, he says, were under attack by the religious right. He formerly directed the Washington office of the National Council of Churches.

Pennybacker's group plans to equip clergy to educate congregations on political and social issues and train religious leaders to operate voter registration drives, advise candidates and conduct public discussions. The organization is exploring the possibility of a national gathering in the spring, possibly in the Midwest. By law, the group's tax status permits it to raise unlimited funds and advocate on issues, but it cannot endorse or fund specific candidates. That hasn't stopped the group from attacking the White House, especially the administration's policy over war in Iraq.

Indeed, some of Pennybacker's strongest criticism for the White House comes over the perception, widely held by war opponents, that the administration has failed to adequately publicize and recognize funerals for U.S. soldiers slain in Iraq.

“We don't have the choice as religious leaders whether or not to go to a funeral. We have to go. We can't avoid the hard reality of what war means,” he says. “When a parent says to me or any of us: 'Why did God take my child?' the answer is: God didn't take your child, the policies of this government took your child.”

Salon spoke with Pennybacker at his office in Lexington, and in a later follow-up interview by phone.

What led to the formation of the Clergy Leadership Network?

The main impetus was a growing sense of dismay over current national leadership and national policies and hearing that echoed in lots of candid conversations with clergy — repeated expressions of anger, disappointment and outrage in conversations in communities at national and regional church meetings.

I talked with the canon of an Episcopal cathedral who was a United States Marine Corps chaplain for 25 years. And he said, “I'll do anything to have a change in administration,” because of what he saw as the White House's deceptive defense of the Iraq war.

Would you talk about some of the specific issues you're focusing on?

One of the things we're very concerned about is the economic impact of policies in this administration. When people lose jobs, we see it as pastors and religious leaders. It means that families are shortchanged. It means that domestic violence increases. It means that alcoholism increases. And then we're very concerned about the international policies. This administration has set us against the world. From 9/11 to now, we've done a 180-degree turn with our relations with the world. In a very profound way our democracy is at stake.

Do you see a need for progressive leaders in the country to acknowledge the spiritual needs of progressive voters?

Progressive forces tend to be suspicious of religion. But that's partly because being religious has been defined in such individual and spiritual terms. But I think religious heritage is rooted in the thing called the Lord's Prayer, which says, “Thy kingdom come on Earth (as it is in heaven).” That is, justice, peace, hope, love, compassion — you know, caring for your neighbor. Those are earthly things.

Most religious leaders are moderate to progressive. [William Sloane] Coffin has written this wonderful book where he quotes an archbishop in South America who says, “God's given us two eyes, two ears and two arms and two hands, but only one heart. And it's in the center and a little bit to the left.”

If, as you say, countless religious people are largely progressive, why do you think religious conservatives have dominated the political debate in America? How do you see the media's influence?

They've been funded generously from conservative sources; they have been very skilled in quickly learning how to use the media and Internet capacities, and the mainstream progressive religious voice has been far too timid and quiet.

I think now it's wake-up time. One of the gifts of the present administration is the summons — or call to arms — for progressive religious people.

The media finds itself attracted to two things, controversy and brief, neat answers. I recall speaking at a meeting several years ago in Seattle about the political influence of the religious right. Six hundred people were inside and three people (from the religious right) were outside, and the media, in this instance television, gave equal time to both sides.

I don't fault the media on that, in part it's because that's the interest of the audience, but it is a distortion, and it plays into the hands of the extreme right, both politically and religiously. I think the media should be ferreting out some solid, moderate-to-progressive religious voices.

In both the Vietnam Era and in the protests against Reagan's Central America policy, liberal religious leaders had a huge role in opposition movements. Why haven't we seen that presence in recent years and recent political protests?

Well, I think there's been a mood in religious life, particularly in mainstream Christian congregations, that has been more focused on personal religion, personal growth, personal adjustment, and community service … all of which has its place.

But (another) area asks: What do the systems of life do to us? Where is public justice? What are the priorities of our society? That area hasn't galvanized the religious community's focus.

We've got to get out of a religion that's self-centered and self-serving.

How is your view of Christianity different from that practiced and preached by George W. Bush or others who consider themselves religious conservatives?

Well, I'm not part of the evangelical right. I believe that God's spirit is inclusive, not exclusive. I believe that the public marketplace — the place where ideas are exchanged and decisions are made — is not to be monopolized by one religious point of view.

I believe that we are an open country with religious and even non-religious diversity, and that's a good thing, a democratic thing and very American.

And then I believe part of the appeal of the evangelical religion is for offering certainty, not faith. Certainty about what's doctrinally correct. I think one of the dangers of religion is to believe we've got God all buttoned down. And I believe just the opposite. I believe in the freedom and mystery of God that doesn't allow us to be certain but allows us to be loving.

To put it in street talk, I look more to how people live than what they say they believe.

On the death penalty, in your view, can a Christian favor the death penalty for Saddam? Or, say, for a mentally retarded Texas man who killed someone?

I think it's pretty appalling without trial and without public hearing to begin by advocating the death penalty (for Saddam). I find that appalling. I find that difficult to reconcile with Christian spirit.

I have problems with the death penalty. Lots of Christians don't — I'm one who does. I think taking life individually is criminal, and when we do it collectively, it has the same moral meaning.

You've gotten criticism (in a recent Newsday column by author and Rutgers sociology professor Arlene Stein) that you're staying away from issues such as abortion and gay marriage in order to appeal to religious moderates.

We're not staying away from those issues. What we're saying is: We've got differences on those issues in the religious community, and we're not going to be divided because our major concern right now is regime change.

On those issues, we would be strongly in favor of a level playing field, so we would support all human and civil rights for all Americans, including gay and lesbian people. And I would assume, personally, that includes the right to make choices about marriage.

Do you think Democrats are more hesitant to talk about God than Republicans, and if so, why?

I think that Democratic candidates have been so committed to the separation of church and state, and wanting to avoid religious controversy, that they have stayed away from religious talk. That's one of the points.

The other is that Democrats with progressive and liberal views have been attacked by the religious right. There's no doubt Democrats have to learn how to talk about their convictions in ways that resonate with the progressive religious communities.

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post said Democrats shouldn't even try to win Southern states in the next presidential election because the numbers are so bad. Do you agree?

I just think it's a little bit unknown. I grew up in the South, and when those Bible-believing Southerners start thinking about a faith-based social conscience, you just can't tell how they're going to vote. When they look at the issue of the war and they try and make that square with what's fair and right with the world, you can't predict how they're going to vote.

Also, you've got the black vote. They're strongly religious, and [their voting is] going to be guided by a progressive religious point of view. There's some places where [we believe] black communities in the South hold the swing votes. Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina. …

At the center of black religion is a passion for social justice. At the center of the religious right, the passion is for personal piety. And those are very, very different agendas.

How are you going to answer potential criticism that your group may be blurring the separation of church and state?

I think the religious heritage has always affirmed a prophetic role for religious leaders and so I make no apologies about that. It's calling people to action, and it's calling around basic religious values. As long as we've got free speech, free press and free religious institutions, then we're going to make it. And one of the problems under this administration, in the Justice Department, for instance, is that it is infringing on those freedoms, infringing on human rights. There's a big decision here for America (in the next election).

Why do Christian leaders appear to have such a strong influence over their congregations? What does this say about their congregations?

Religious leaders are still looked to as being leaders with integrity — [whether they are] moderate, progressive, evangelical. It's important for religious leaders to address our public, democratic decisions. And they will be listened to.

What we need is public leadership that's informed by what I call a faith-based social conscience. I want the values that have flowed for generations through American life to be embraced and continue to a part of our life together.

How are you going to get your message out?

It's not like we're going to have to teach people how to be progressive. Religious people are progressive. All we've got to do is give handles of expression.

There are more religious congregations than any other institution in American life, except bars. And we're saying this country belongs to those kind of people, and by golly, we're going to be heard in terms of its leadership and its direction.

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About the writer: Leslie R. Guttman is a writer based in San Francisco.

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