Reaching Across the Church Aisle

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To some people, the word “Christians” brings to mind conservative, anti-everything culture warriors. Others think of peace-and-justice activism or the Civil Rights movement. In fact, the U.S. church has long been divided along theological, cultural, and political lines–and the different groups have tended to keep their distance. 

A two-year-old group called Christian Churches Together in the USA (CCT) is working to bridge this divide. CCT–an ecumenical group, or one focused on Christian unity across traditions–has brought together an unusually broad group of church denominations to build relationships and to speak with one voice on consensus subjects.

The Reverend Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, convened the group and serves as one of its five presidents. spoke with Granberg-Michaelson about CCT’s plans to meet with the president-elect about poverty, as well as about his earlier work as the main Vietnam-era legislative assistant to Sen. Mark Hatfield and as a writer on ecotheology.

CCT has released a pretty concrete policy statement on poverty. Among other things, it calls for a specific target and timeline for reducing child poverty–just the kind of thing that serious anti-poverty advocates are promoting. What did it take for such a broad group to produce this statement?

Conversation. Building trust. But the proposal that we turn to the issue of poverty actually came from the evangelical/Pentecostal family of the church. The old stereotype was that evangelicals care [only] about personal conversion and doctrinal integrity. Now, Christians have come together and asked, “What can we all agree on?” Poverty is one thing.

What are the statement’s implications? Are the denominations expected to promote its goals in their policy shops or to organize their members around it?

Well, CCT doesn’t operate such that this is the central thing that everyone [has to] embrace. But we’re sharing our resources, approaches, and understanding. And we plan to pursue a meeting with the country’s eventual president-elect, to present the statement and talk about how its goals could be achieved. Such a meeting is likely to happen, given the breadth of leadership at CCT.

Because the White House can’t write it off as simply a partisan thing coming from one side or the other.

That’s been exactly the problem before. Christians have divided ideologically and politically, reducing their overall effectiveness.

Can we expect to see similar statements in the future? Maybe on global warming or human rights?

It’s likely we’ll keep considering what we can reach consensus on, but we don’t have a list.

How is interfaith work like and unlike ecumenical work?

Both are extremely important. But they’re different, and sometimes there’s a tendency to blur that distinction. Ecumenical work is about Christian unity. In interfaith relations, Christians sometimes try to find the easiest common denominator–joining hands with those of other faiths to address issues in the world. And this is important.

But in my experience, what dialogue partners from other faiths really desire and expect is an earnest witness of each to the other. Muslims want to hear how Christian faith is understood and articulated, and I want to hear the same about theirfaith. That’s what makes interfaith discussion really rich.

Has U.S. foreign policy posed any challenges for international ecumenical work?

There used to be 1.3 million Christians in Iraq. Now, about half have been forced out and are living in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and so forth. But U.S. policy has made things really difficult for Christians in those countries. It’s had the consequence of equating Christianity, in the minds of many, with a very aggressive stance in the region.

As legislative assistant to Republican Senator Mark Hatfield from 1968 to 1976, you worked on the Hatfield-McGovern amendment to end the war in Vietnam. Any insights for our current situation?

The Hatfield-McGovern legislation was genuinely bipartisan. Hatfield was a Republican, joined by others. And those who most strongly resisted the proposal included prominent Democrats, such as John Stennis, chair of the Armed Services committee. So the debate at that time within Congress was healthier–it wasn’t locked into the severe partisanship that we see today. The same with the country at large.

You mean, specifically, party lines–not political polarization broadly, which was as severe as ever in 1970.

Absolutely. It wasn’t polarized around parties, so it was possible to have a debate about the real merits. Hatfield argued around constitutional issues of war-making powers, the interests of the United States, the nature of the conflict in Vietnam itself. These arguments could be made in ways in which one’s party affiliation didn’t just close off the discussion.

That’s not to say that party didn’t matter. Nixon tried to use all kinds of influence on Republicans, as Johnson did before him with Democrats. But party loyalty did not immediately determine one’s stance on the war. This is different from what it’s mostly been like today.

Of course, Hatfield-McGovern didn’t pass. In today’s more partisan climate, is there any hope of meaningful congressional action?

It didn’t pass, though a modified version did get 49 votes in the Senate. Congressional action against the war is far more unlikely now. Nothing will happen before the presidential election, in any event.

In the 1980s, you did some work on ecotheology. Arguing that a theology of “stewardship” of the earth is inadequate–because it conceives of people as separate from and above nature–you called instead for a theology of “interrelationship.” Recently, many evangelicals have signed on to a pro-environment agenda framed in terms of stewardship. Do you feel any tension between the ideas you developed then and the ecumenical work you do now?

No. Back then, I felt that the language of “stewardship” could too easily be misused. Secretary of the Interior James Watt and others would throw the word around as a justification to use creation, to do with it what we want.

We still see that. Religious right leader James Dobson talks positively about stewardship, but he doesn’t mean it.

It’s a word that you can pour a variety of meanings into, so I thought other terms and approaches might be more helpful. Today, I mainly marvel at the way this has come onto the church’s agenda. It was barely on the radar, and now a majority of Christians acknowledge a responsibility to relate to creation as a gift.

When I went to work for the World Council of Churches in 1988, we started working on global warming. Many of my colleagues initially said, “What does this have to do with the burning questions of economic justice?” Since then, the church’s work has helped reveal the interconnection between those questions. Now, when you look at the coverage of global warming, people are making the connections to the effect on the poor and vulnerable. This wasn’t understood even 15 years ago.

Still, there is a fundamental difference between stewardship and interconnectedness. Maybe what it comes down to is that now that we’re seeing this idea of stewardship actually lived out by evangelicals, the end result isn’t a difference that matters much.

From where I sit now, that’s about what I’d say. Those questions still matter; they go back to fundamental things: How do you understand humanity’s role in creation? But what finally makes a difference is that 17- and 18-year-olds in evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox churches are more likely to take for granted that global warming is something that Christians need to be concerned about.

Do you worry that the current focus on global warming might lead us to neglect other environmental issues?

It could. But with the global food crisis in the headlines, it’s interesting to note the connections to energy and other issues. The more you get into any environmental question, the more you see its interconnectedness with other questions. Because it’s simply the way it is.

Image courtesy of Reformed Church in America.

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