The Curious Language of Liberal Church Activists: A Handy Guide

It has been said that in order to know what’s going on, you must speak the language. Nowhere is this truer than when dealing with the pronouncements of the “religious left.” Statements made by liberal church leaders on issues like the war on terrorism or the conflict in Iraq often appear incoherent or muddled to the uninitiated. However, to the individual liberal church agencies, a certain logic becomes readily apparent.

Part of the problem in deciphering liberal church missives and commentaries is that many of the words they use are identical to words already in use in the English language. As a public service to those seeking to understand these statements, the following is a translation of some of the more common terms and phrases.

prophetic, adj.. — describing any statement or commentary on public policy that lacks popular or biblical support [syn: irrelevant].

Perhaps the favorite word in the entire lexicon of church liberals is “prophetic.” With it, church leaders are free to assert authority for their comments, without having to resort to such tired constructs as majority support from their church members or scriptural backing.

A more traditional reading of “prophetic” indicates that the message being conveyed comes directly from God and that it’s proven to be true by subsequent events. These do not appear to be part of the criteria of modern-day prophecy, as God is rarely mentioned in liberal church edicts. When He does briefly appear, it’s usually in a passive role, as the object of church leaders’ faith or the inspiration for their efforts— not as the Sovereign who speaks with authority. Nor is it necessary that a given prophecy be correct. Liberal church leaders claimed to be speaking prophetically when they predicted hundreds of thousands of casualties, economic turmoil, and environmental catastrophe in the Persian Gulf War. The inaccuracy of these projections has apparently not cost the religious left its self-anointed role of prophet.

The term “prophetic” has experienced a certain renaissance in recent times. James Donahue, president and professor of ethics at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California, asks, “If religious leaders aren’t asked to be prophetic, what are they asked to be?” (It is left to the imagination as to who is doing the asking.) A fellow professor of social ethics at GTU, Rev. Bill O’Neill, sums up the position nicely: “Ultimately, to be prophetic is to seek to be faithful to the truth as best as you understand it.” There’s no need to verify a prophecy by any objective standard; it’s enough that the prophet is right in his own eyes.

At a joint hand-wringing session of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and NCC last September, an attempt was made to produce a “prophetic” statement concerning the war on terrorism. Despite some concerns that such a statement might not be inclusive of all Christians, the group plowed ahead with a statement. “We cannot let our prophetic voice be silenced by tolerance,” said Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) representative Catherine Gordon.

“The church must be prophetic, or it will be pathetic,” cried Rev. Cecil Murray of the First AME Church in Los Angeles. But why choose? Using the religious left’s new definition of “prophetic,” the church can be both.

rush, n — a forward movement at a rate that exceeds glacial advancement.

In the months leading up to the initial attacks on Baghdad, this word was used almost exclusively in reference to the inevitability of war in Iraq (i.e., “rush to war”). The NCC issued a press release titled “A Call to Stop the Rush to War.” Church leaders within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and other mainline congregations issued similar statements.

While a more traditional interpretation of the word , “rush” usually implies a certain rashness or intemperance on the part of the subject, a liberal church rendering of the word would encompass a more drawn-out process. In the case of the war in Iraq, the “rushing” process began when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein first violated the terms of the cease-fire brokered by President George H. W. Bush and the United Nations (UN) in 1991. Subsequent violations during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—and the citations, warnings, and sanctions that followed—are all included in the “rush.”

unilateral, adj. — of or relating to any action or agreement that does not garner the full support of the UN, nor seeks the counsel of the religious left or its allies [ant: unanimity].

Left-leaning religious leaders have been consistent in their condemnation of the United States’s use of force against Iraq. In a letter to President Bush in October 2002, NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar and NCC President Elenie Huszagh appeal to “the depth and breadth of the correspondence…from the Christian community in opposition to a unilateral preemptive military strike against Iraq.” Similarly, Jim Winkler of the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society claims, “The administration’s proposed attack is essentially a unilateral U.S. effort that uses as its rationale Iraq’s non-compliance with the UN Security Council Resolution 687 requiring full compliance with UN weapons inspectors.”

Many readers of the above statements are likely to respond with a certain sense of befuddlement. How can a nation that has obtained the support of more than two dozen nations worldwide (including NATO) and that has received military cooperation from several nations in the Middle East be considered to be acting in a unilateral fashion? The answer lies in the definition of the term “unilateral.”

To the religious left, the UN is a quasi-religious body, with a divine anointment over all it says and does. UN resolutions are sacrosanct, and its edicts infallible. That the Bush administration would even consider acting without the full consent and approval of the UN is enough to send some church officials into apoplexy. Anything short of the enthusiastic support of the UN would thus qualify as being “unilateral.”

Likewise, any action that doesn’t seek the blessing or approval of the NCC, WCC, or other left-leaning church bodies could also be described as “unilateral.” When a gaggle of liberal clergy was denied a meeting with President Bush to discuss the situation in Iraq, the group felt compelled to fly overseas to complain about Bush’s “unilateralism” to his ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. While most people would consider this to be illogical (those that act unilaterally, the thinking goes, have no allies), it’s perfectly consistent with the liberal definition of the word.

It’s important to note that while “unilateral” is often used to describe the actions of other bodies, it apparently doesn’t apply to the liberal church leaders themselves. Thus, when church leaders such as Edgar, Winkler, or Donahue make statements that are not representative of their own constituencies, they’re not said to be acting “unilaterally.” Rather, they’re acting “prophetically” (see above).

terrorism, n. — any unjustified use of force by a Western power — especially the United States — against a weaker nation that has been designated as a victim of the West.

Though church leaders expressed great sadness over the events of September 11, 2001, the response by the Bush administration placed many liberals squarely on the horns of a dilemma. While wanting to sound sympathetic to those who had suffered loss, liberal theologians feared that if they condemned the perpetrators of the bombings in New York and Washington, they’d implicitly be endorsing, or at least condoning, a military response.

The solution? Redefine “terrorism” so that any military response by the United States would also qualify as a terrorist act. While a classic definition of terrorism focuses on the use of deadly force on unarmed civilians by unauthorized individuals seeking to advance a political or religious message, the religious left seeks to include all uses of force against those who have been designated as “victims” of Western society.

“We [Americans] speak of the bombers as ‘terrorists?” says liberal Methodist theologian Walter Wink, “but we perpetrated the greatest act of terror in human history—the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima.” By equating a previous military action with the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the religious left is now free to condemn any future military strike as being of the nature of the atomic bombings of World War II.

Once the true terrorists are identified, liberal theologians are then able to soften the image of those originally labeled terrorists. “If we were the poor of the earth, with no food to put in the hands of our children, would we be content to watch them die?” Wink asks. “Would we become ‘terrorists’? Wouldn’t we insist, rather, that we are ‘freedom fighters’?” The transformation is complete—the initial actors are now “freedom fighters?’ while the U.S. government is now cast as the ultimate purveyor of terror for threatening retaliation.

In many articles written by members of the religious left, the words “terrorist” and “terrorism,” when referring to those participants in the September 11 bombings, appear in quotes. This is meant to convey that the individuals who took part in the planning and execution of these acts, while commonly thought of as terrorists, are only nominally so when compared with the greater evil that is the United States government.

Fundamentalist, adj. —  of or relating to any religion that values traditional scriptures and traditional teachings, holding them as authoritative in both private and public life [syn: conservative].

Few words have a more convoluted history than “fundamentalist.” Originally, the term referred to a specific branch of evangelicalism in the United States that developed in response to the church modernist movement of the 19th century. Fundamentalists did not seek to change society by force or coercion. Rather, they sought to separate themselves from a society they considered corrupt. Because of this, they had little or no desire to impose religious rules on the greater society, favoring the improvement of their own, secluded Christian society.

For many years, church liberals have ignored this historic definition, preferring to use the term pejoratively to describe all conservative Christians. In this manner, individuals with such diverse theologies as Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, and Mother Angelica can all be identified as “fundamentalists.” The term has also been used to describe President Bush—which should come as a bit of a shock to Methodists worldwide.

More recently, there has been a significant reinterpretation of the term to describe radical adherents to any faith (particularly Islam) that uses force and intimidation to procure adherence to certain key tenets. The differences between these “Islamic fundamentalists” and classic fundamentalist Christians are stark—while Christian fundamentalists have generally accepted religious freedom and pluralism, Muslim “fundamentalists” seek to impose their religious beliefs on others, by force if necessary. Rather than maintaining an isolationist outlook toward “immoral” society, Muslim “fundamentalists” look to punish the decadent West.

Liberal Christian theologians have seized this new definition in an attempt to connect conservative Christians with radical Islamic groups like al Qaeda and oppressive Islamic regimes like the Taliban. In this manner, these church leaders can implicitly condemn Christian figures with whom they disagree, while explicitly denouncing the acts of a “very small” contingent of Muslim radicals. There’s even the implication that Christian “fundamentalists” are capable of the same kinds of acts committed by al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups. This clever linguistic “bait and switch” allows any critique of one “fundamentalism” to be transferred automatically to the other.

Use of the word “fundamentalist” is particularly effective when attempting to discredit conservative opponents without addressing the context of their critiques. “We have nothing to learn from [Christian] fundamentalists any more than we have anything to learn from racists and sexists, except to learn to recognize in ourselves and confess the same sins that we condemn in others,” argues Presbyterian minister David Bos of the Interfaith Communities Ministries Network. In a similar vein, Jim Winkler of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society denounces “fundamentalism in all its forms,” uniting the terrorist attacks of September 11, the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon toward the Palestinians, Hindu violence against Muslims in India, and “the continuing threat to mainline Protestantism” in the United States as examples of this fundamentalism.

religious community, n. — all politically active religious figures who align themselves with the religious left on a given issue [syn: faith community, persons of faith] [ant: fundamentalist].

In order for their pronouncements to have any measure of authority, it’s important for the religious left to find a constituency for which to speak. The broader this coalition, the better. Thus, the creation of the phrase “religious community.”

The phrase, as used by church leaders, is almost always singular. It suggests the existence of a worldwide, monolithic bloc of people united by common beliefs that are “religious.” The nature of the “religion” involved isn’t specified. Since Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (to name the world’s four largest religions) do not agree on whether there is a god or gods— much less what humans must do to please this deity or deities— there wouldn’t appear to be many common beliefs in the traditional sense of “religion.”

In practice, the beliefs that unite the liberals’ “religious community” are more political than religious. If you detest the Bush administration and all its works, then you have a place in the “religious community.” If not, then you just don’t count as “religious.”

And of course, the NCC and its friends would never dilute their influence by admitting the existence of more than one “religious community.”

NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar speaks on behalf of the monolithic bloc when he says:

We in the religious community are asking the administration why it has done little else to help ensure that the weapons inspections succeed. We are concerned that the administration’s continued bellicose threats of war, the visible U.S. military buildup around Iraq and the intensified bombings in the northern and southern no-fly zones have worked against successful weapons inspections.

Of course, there are some who consider themselves persons of faith who would argue that the above statement didn’t represent them. Quite a few, actually. A Gallup poll indicated that among those individuals who consider religion “very important” in their lives, support for military action in Iraq was actually slightly higher than the national average (59 percent). The same was true of those individuals who claimed to be members of a church or synagogue, attended church once a week, or identified themselves as evangelicals. Only those who claimed that religion was “not very important” in their lives supported military action at less than 50 percent (49 percent).

Membership in the “religious community” is fairly selective. The leadership of the single largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, voiced its support of the Bush administration. So did many leaders within the Jewish community. Most evangelical leaders didn’t take a position in the months preceding war, feeling it beyond their competence to dictate matters of foreign policy. None of these groups would thus qualify as part of the “religious community?’ Other religious authorities, notably the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, are conditional members—only considered as such when they align themselves with the religious left (e.g., on war in Iraq) and not when they don’t (e.g., on school vouchers).

The religious left responds to contrasting positions with the appropriate amount of condescension. In bemoaning what he viewed as a “bastardization of just-war theory,” United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague anguished, “When in the name of God will the religious community stand up and be the religious community?” The implied answer was, “When they acknowledge the religious left as the sole representative of Christian conscience.”

unprovoked aggression, n. — any military action by the United States, regardless of reason or intent [syn: preemptive strike].

There’s a certain redundancy to this phrase. By its definition, the religious left would consider any forceful action of the United States “aggression.” This would include a surgical military strike, economic sanctions, or generally any act in excess of a stern finger-wagging. Similarly, there’s no conceivable provocation that would justify an American response. Thus, whenever the United States acts internationally, it does so provocatively.

Only acts committed by the United States can rightfully be described as “unprovoked.” While most religious leaders stopped short of categorizing the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings as “justified?’ neither were many willing to say that those attacks were “unprovoked?’ In fact, several left-leaning church leaders were quick to claim the United States had done much to provoke retaliation, citing the “unilateralism” of U.S. foreign policy (see above), America’s materialism, and its unwavering support for Israel as a rationalization for the bombings.

Such reticence was not evident in the church critiques prior to the war in Iraq. Despite documented human rights abuses, evidence of the development of weapons of mass destruction, and repeated violations of UN resolutions, any potential action by U.S. forces was roundly criticized as “unprovoked:’ And this unprovoked aggression would have dire consequences. “Unprovoked war [against Iraq] will increase human suffering, arouse animosity toward our country, increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks, damage the economy, and undermine our moral standing in the world;’ read an NCC statement.

Indeed, Jim Winkler used the phrase as a rallying cry for his own denomination. “United Methodists have a particular duty to speak out against an unprovoked attack. President Bush and Vice President Cheney are members of our denomination. Our silence now could be interpreted as tacit approval of war.” The “our” apparently referred to the “religious community” (see above) as Methodists on the whole have explicitly supported the Bush administration policies at levels comparable to the general population.

Learn the Vernacular

Deciphering church statements is more art than science. It’s important to note that this liberal language is a very malleable one that evolves over time—terms such as “heresy” or “resurrection” have undergone a significant reinterpretation over the years, while other phrases such as “sin” have almost entirely fallen out of use. Nonetheless, by using these definitions, these cryptic pronouncements become comprehensible (if not entirely coherent).

Once the basic lexicon is established, interpretation of church edicts can begin. Take, for example, the following hypothetical statement:

As representatives of the religious community, we speak with a prophetic voice, urging the Bush administration to halt its unilateral rush to war. Such unprovoked aggression will do nothing but ensure future acts of terrorism.

Using the definitions, this statement can now be deciphered:

As members of a small group of politically active, left-leaning religious figures, we speak with an unauthoritative, unsupported voice, urging the Bush administration to halt this meticulous military action on which we were not consulted. This military action, irrespective of its basis or purpose, will be seen as an act of terror and will result in future acts of unjustified force by the U.S. military.

It all becomes much clearer once the lingo has been established. Press releases and statements from the religious left that initially seem illogical suddenly make perfect sense, so long as you know the vernacular.


  • Steve Rempe

    At the time this article was published, Steve Rempe was the associate editor of Faith and Freedom at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.

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