The Clergy Leadership Network was formed late last year to help the progressive religious community organize against Bush Administration policies. The Rev. Dr. Albert M. Pennybacker is CEO/Chair of group’s National Committee. Rev. Pennybacker is a former executive with the National Council of Churches.
CLN is hosting a National Gathering of progressive religious leaders on May 16-18 in Cleveland. He took some time to talk with me about the National Gathering and the goals of his organization. I have been working to help get seminarians involved with the CLN.
This will be the first in a series of interviews with CLN leaders as the National Gathering approaches.
The Clergy Leadership Network will be holding a National Gathering on May 16-18 in Cleveland. What is the general purpose behind the gathering?
There is deep dismay, even outrage, among clergy over the current national leadership of our country and the policies being pursued internationally and domestically. Clergy from all religious traditions - liberal, moderate and even progressive evangelical religious leaders - need to be heard. To stand together - priest, pastor, rabbi, imam, and other religious leaders, both men and women, ordained, seminarians, and even lay supporters - serves to make clear that the present Bush Administration does not have a lock on the religious communities of America. The National Clergy Gathering offers the opportunity for such a witness. And that may make it one of the most significant gatherings of religious progressives in our nation's history!
You and others have said that clergy have a prophetic role to play this election year. What are the issues that are of deepest concern to the progressive religious community?
International policies, including starting war and including the present tragic occupation, has been rooted in America swagger and made our country a bully in the world, contrary to God's will as we understand it. Domestic policies have been rooted in insensitivity to the vast numbers of normal American households and in rampant greed. The President's rhetoric bears little resemblance to his actions. He talks of compassion but poor families suffer. He talks of personal integrity but lies about the reasons for war and its consequences. He talks of peace and freedom while death continues to take young lives away. He talks about protecting Americans but cuts funding for firefighters and police. He soothes but then stings. He often uses a religious vocabulary to distort circumstances and mislead Americans. The Clergy Network and the thrust of its National Clergy Gathering are to stand up to the Bush Administration's abusing and cheapening of religion.
What are the ways the CLN hopes to be involved in the election? Will the group register voters? Will you run commercial advertising?
Clergy Network offers a way to move beyond classic religious nonpartisanship and pursue an influential clergy role on behalf of national leadership change. Short of endorsing a candidate, there are many options. Clergy Network encourages local religious leaders to affirm political involvement as a spiritual witness. It asks local pastors, for instance, to urge their congregations to register voters, participate in voter education programs and follow up with voter mobilization when election day comes. Clergy Network will recommend clergy for prayers and other public campaign roles. Organized in local and state Clergy Network committees now being formed, clergy will be asked to speak out and give moral leadership once again to the election decisions of 2004. Many feel that this is the most crucial social justice election in our history. The impact of four more years without change can warp our nation's life for generations, socially, economically and internationally. There are no plans for public ads by Clergy Network due to funding limitations but support for the ads others place compatible with Clergy Network's leadership change goal is being encouraged.
Jim Wallis has done a good job of bringing together conservative evangelicals and progressive Christians to work on issues of common concern. Are there issues you could identify with which you could see conservative and progressive Christians working on together?
First let me say that some outstanding conservative Christians, including evangelical seminary professors, have joined Clergy Network. They see collaborative political action for leadership change with liberal and progressive Christians as urgent. They want to reclaim the radical social vision of evangelical Christianity and the absolute independence of the evangelical community from vest-pocket political party captivity. Shared issues abound: war and peace, environmental stewardship, international policies that affirm and build up life free of coercion, a common fear of American imperialism, a commitment to address the causes of terrorism as well as protection from terrorists, a sharing of wealth with a special concern for the disadvantaged and the poor, a militant rejection of our continuing racism, a firm commitment to the separation of church and state. Work of these issues together occur daily. Unleashing our shared political action capacities in addressing these issues is the special focus of Clergy Network.
Is the Clergy Leadership Network just for clergy or do you hope to have lay people and seminarians involved with the group?
This is an easy one: the answer is No! The focus is clergy because progressive clergy have often been intimidated or driven into silence by the stridency of extreme right religious voices. Uninformed congregations have sometimes threatened progressive clergy with isolation or dismissal. Theologies of prosperity or self-adjustment have become popular and tend to replaced social ethics and a passion for justice. Christian exclusivism has built barriers out of human differences and estranged the valuable public ties of mutual religious respect. Renewing clergy courage often relies on active and mature lay partnership and support. So it is in Clergy Network. Seminarians are especially urged to affiliate. A special section - Seminarians Leadership Network - is a full partner. Lay religious partners have been members from the first. Every aspect of Clergy Network is open to lay and seminarian involvement except those entrusted by our religious traditions to established or ordained leaders. Further, on the clergy positive side, a recovery of the acknowledging and supporting of moral leadership from clergy can occur through Clergy Network. It promises a new sense of social justice at the heart of our various religious communities.