Editorial: Truth, Power, American Way

Becky O’Malley
Friday June 11, 2004

As part of our ongoing series of Planet editorials which annoy proponents of major and minor religions, we’d like to share with our readers a press release which we received this week from the United Methodist Communications Office of Public Information in Nashville. Here’s the headline: “Crawford Pastor Leaving Bush Back Yard for Iraq; United Methodist Clergyman To Serve as Military Chaplain.” 

The Rev. Kent Berry of Crawford United Methodist Church, just a few miles from the “western White House,” who is in the Army National Guard, is being called to active duty. The press release quotes his analysis of the situation in Iraq: “Keep praying,” he advises, “and hang in there. Stay with it. Our goal is to stabilize the government, help the people, and then get out,” he says. “We’re doing the right thing.” 

The gushy press release goes on to tell us that “church members are praying for the president who put Crawford on the map, as well as for their pastor. They and Berry’s family say their support for Operation Iraqi Freedom brings them closer together. ‘I’m very proud of my Dad,’ says daughter Britney, ‘because he’ll be over there fighting for our country and for Iraq.’” 

The United Methodists in Nashville are so proud of Berry they’ve made a video about him, which you can see, if you’re interested, on their corporate website, umtv.org. Yes, that word is corporate. Pro-government propaganda seems to be big business for United Methodist Communications, as you can see for yourself at umtv.org. The site links to the Crawford, Texas, official website, which in turn links to Western White House Gifts, which boasts that “We are PROUD to be the Official Merchandiser for the McLennan County Republican Party...the Home County Party of President George W. Bush!” The site hawks Bush memorabilia of all kinds, including the Official “From Crawford to Baghdad” Commemorative Mugs. Cozy, isn’t it? 

Here in Berkeley, Methodists are best known for standing up to their national organization on a variety of gay rights issues, but in Crawford and Nashville it’s obvious that you aren’t in Berkeley any more, Dorothy. The press releases out of Nashville provide yet another example of why some of the founding fathers didn’t think we should cut any slack for anyone just because they wrap themselves in the mantle of religion.  

The UMTV website says that “at UMCom, our mission is to help the church tell its story.” Pardon us for not getting it, but why are Bush and company’s politically stupid and obviously immoral activities in Iraq part of the church’s story?  

The Methodists are not the only mainstream religious group which has tried to climb on the political bandwagon lately, either. Some (not all) U.S. Catholic bishops are out in full cry against John Kerry and any other Catholic candidates who deviate from selected mainstream church positions. Of course, these same bishops don’t propose sanctions against candidates who don’t agree with the Pope’s stalwart opposition to both the war on Iraq and capital punishment.  

There’s nothing wrong with churches expressing opinions on moral topics which intersect with the political sphere. In fact, some would see it as their duty, consistent with their articulated principles. In the olden days, children, at the beginning of the Vietnam war, it was the Methodists and the Catholics, in Ann Arbor where we lived, who first started expressing doubts about the morality of the U.S. government’s position, long before local politicos got on board.  

The maxim, often articulated by Quakers, that religious people should “speak truth to power,” is compelling. But when religious leaders appear to be sycophantically aligning themselves with power, they look less noble. The United Methodists are certainly entitled to their own opinion about the legitimacy and efficacy of Bush’s war on Iraq, but an outside observer might wonder exactly how what looks like pro-Bush political propaganda activity squares with the tax exemptions of which they undoubtedly take full advantage. The website solicits contributions for the sponsoring Foundation for United Methodist Communications, identified as a tax-exempt corporation organized under U. S. Internal Revenue chapter 501(c)(3). Perhaps someone ought to ask the IRS a few questions about this exemption. 


—Becky O’Malley