New Time Religion 

According to the media, November’s elections turned on “moral values.” Whose moral values? One Missoula congregation is out to reclaim the high ground.

Every presidential election has its bottom line. When Clinton topped George Herbert Walker Bush, it was the economy, stupid. When George W. Bush beat out Al Gore, the defeat was attributed, somewhat vaguely, to character. And according to November’s pundits, the defeat of John Kerry came down to the “moral values” selected by exit poll respondents as a key factor in their ballot choices.

Moral values, of course, might mean anything from thou shalt not kill to an unbending certainty that God put Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, not—as the zealot signage inevitably quips—Adam and Steve.

But with the Bush victory racked up to these fuzzy “moral values,” whatever they might be, broadly diverse peoples of faith are beginning to question the evangelical orthodoxy that was paraded through the election season—the same orthodoxy that now claims victory for its followers and threatens to marginalize nonsupporters.

People of faith, though, are hard to define along red state/blue state lines. Religion is not a two-party system. And the faithful are fighting back, trying to reclaim the literal moral high ground, basing their claims to faithfulness not on exclusion and judgement, but on a much older Christian principle: the directive to love thy neighbor.

At University Congregational Church, a “progressive” Christian church in Missoula’s University district, Sunday’s pews are fuller than they have been in decades. Here, the faithful find refuge from the faith-based prejudices that choked their television sets and newspapers during the campaign season. President Bush, following the bent of his party’s right wing on issues from stem cell research to abortion to gay marriage, seems to have unwittingly unleashed a quiet but growing opposition.

After the election, the Rev. Pat Robertson encouraged George W. Bush to hold tight to “his deeply held” position on “traditional marriage.” Bob Jones University President Bob Jones III sent Bush a letter absolving him of responsibility to the very idea of a diverse society: “You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ.”

As it turns out, liberals who may despise Bush continue to give Christ the benefit of the doubt. They’re self-described progressive Christians, they don’t accept the Bush=God’s will equation pushed by the president’s more theologically rabid supporters, and they appear to be startled from slumber. Perhaps the most striking difference between progressive believers and their socially conservative counterparts is that they don’t see a direct relationship between sexual orientation and religion. In other words, they don’t see being gay and being Christian as mutually exclusive identities.

Bonnie Buckingham has attended University Congregational Church, the local affiliate of the United Church of Christ (UCC), for 10 years, and she’s seen recent attendance spike. “The election was sort of a wake-up call to a lot of people,” she says. “It makes you stop and think, ‘This isn’t the country that I thought I was living in. This isn’t the neighborhood that I thought I was living in.’ And I think a lot of people, that really made them stop and question and say, ‘What is going on? What do we do at this point?’”

Faced with a sense of increasingly federalized morals and an apparent narrowing of officially sanctioned religious diversity, a lot of people have apparently decided to go back to church.

God versus gays

Trumpets sang and trombones buzzed as Christmas Eve revelers filed down the aisle of the University Congregational Church. Glowing paper bags lined the stone walk outside. Inside, giant wreaths hung from one wall and potted poinsettias sat on tables in a foyer. Just in front of the entryway’s double doors stood a black and red sign: “We don’t sing, ‘Come some of ye faithful.’” The sign is part of the UCC’s national ad campaign, “God is Still Speaking,” launched in late November to attract new members. The message? Inclusivity: All are welcome at UCC churches, no matter their color, their age or—sometimes a shocker in the religious world—their sexual orientation. The poster is an unobtrusive component of the campaign; a television commercial intimating that gay people are welcome at UCC churches (and the concurrent implication that gays are not welcome at other churches) generated national news after two major networks refused to broadcast the ad. CBS claimed the ad constituted advocacy in the face of Bush’s proposed ban against gay marriage. NBC called the ad “too controversial.”

The commercial features a scene of a bouncer selectively turning people away, nightclub-style, from a church. He refuses entry to anyone who doesn’t look squeaky-clean white. He denies admittance to two men—the only potentially “gay” reference in the ad. During December, while the advertisement was being debated on op-ed pages, Missoula’s UCC was drawing new faces. On Christmas Eve, nearly a month after UCC learned the ads wouldn’t be broadcast, the church overflowed. More than a dozen people, some bundled up in fleece hats and wool sweaters, sat outside in a church courtyard (equipped with heat lamps and speakers) adjacent to the main sanctuary.

UCC pastors say they had begun seeing an influx well before the news stories hit the wires.

“Our attendance really started jumping up the week before the election,” says Assistant Pastor Amy Carter. “And then since the election, it’s gone up.”

The church, on University Avenue, typically sees 250 people on an average Sunday; now, attendance is up to between 325 and 350. The leap in attendance is unprecedented.

Says Pastor Peter Shober: “I’ve never seen anything like this in my 20 years in the ministry.”

Regular citizens may have wondered why bans on gay marriage were suddenly on the November ballots in 11 states, including states like Montana where the issue was so far on the back burner of gay rights activists that the ban constituted an unprovoked preemptive strike.

But savvy political observers suspect that by purposefully keeping issues dear to the hearts of socially conservative Christians at the forefront as November approached, the Bush campaign was able to sway heartland and swing-state voters who might otherwise have focused on their own falling wages and laid-off co-workers.

“I believe that Bush really knew how to bring in votes with the gay marriage amendment to the Constitution, or the definition of marriage, whichever,” says Fern Hart, who has attended Missoula’s UCC since the early 1970s.

“I don’t know how he thinks, but someone planned something very well, looking at the campaign. That’s very smart.”

At a coffee shop near UCC, Dani and Tamiko Soto-Foster discuss the political and religious climate. They’re lesbians, recently married, and have been attending UCC for almost two years. The Bush campaign’s rhetoric disappointed them. “Now, there’s this stereotypical picture of Christians that only a very small segment of the faith community fits,” Dani says. “But that’s the general consensus: Christians are all like Bush, basically, which is not true at all.”

Since the election, she says, “We know of several gay people who are interested in coming [to UCC services]—or who are coming—because this whole election made it seem like it was God versus the gay people.”

Religious right, religious wrong

UCC Pastor Shober’s basement office is warmly lit. He sits back into the couch, legs crossed. Assistant Pastor Carter stretches her legs in front of her. They laugh a lot.

Typically, they agree, people turn to religion—or away from it—during life crises or milestones. The current influx, they say, is different. “I feel like some people are wanting to come back to church because they want in some way to also influence how religion is defined,” Carter says, spelling out the argument that draws newcomers to the fold: “I know I have a sense of faith, and I know my faith isn’t like that—it’s not what the religious right is saying.”

“The story I take from [the recent rise in attendance],” Carter says, “is that there are a lot of people who realize on some level that the religious right possesses a great deal of power and has a lot to do with the results of this election.”

Shober agrees: “There’s a whole lot of people out there who are saying, ‘I have a faith as well, and I am a progressive, thinking person theologically and often politically. And there must be a place for me.’”

Those in the progressive religious community believe the presidential campaign purposefully and incorrectly painted the face of religion in monochrome. Christian denominations number more than 1,500 in North America alone, according to Religious Tolerance, a website that promotes religious freedom and diversity. The denominations subscribe to widely varying beliefs and practices.

“And boy, those differences are incredible,” Shober says. “And I think that tends to be an unknown reality to many un-churched people. They tend to look at the Christian church as a monolith, and it’s anything but.”

Elsewhere in Missoula, other religious groups planted outside the socially conservative mainline denominations are also witnessing swells in attendance, even as they seek to redefine what values are moral. War, for instance, is seen by many denominations as immoral. Beverly Young, clerk for the pacifist Quakers, says, “We have seen an increase since about a year and a half ago due to the war in Iraq.”

The Missoula Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, too, has seen an increase in attendance. The fellowship’s chairwoman is soft-spoken Bonna Graham-Hall. About 38 people attend services at UUF most Sundays, she says, but “right away in the fall” she started seeing between six and eight new faces. The new attendees showed up regularly. While the UUF sees only a handful of regulars compared to the UCC, the increase is still a substantial 18 percent.

“I think the political atmosphere has made people more aware of what they want, what’s important to them,” Graham-Hall says. “The conservative majority seems already connected. And I think that there are so many people out there that are more of a middle ground, who have just let things kind of slide because things have been going okay until the last four years.”

Now, she believes, she’s seeing some of these people at her church.

“And I think that has maybe energized people to look at what their values are and say, ‘I better look at what I believe and where I want to put my energy.’”

The bump in attendance at the UUF and the leap at UCC seem to indicate that plenty of people in Missoula are feeling compelled to put their energy into building a religious community that bucks the vision of morality offered by Pat Robertson, Bob Jones and George W. Bush.

Moral minorities

Progressive churchgoers hold moral values and concern themselves with moral issues, but they define those issues differently than do their socially conservative counterparts.

Jim Wallis, executive director of Sojourners, a 33-year-old Washington, D.C.-based Christian ministry with a mission to integrate spirituality with social justice, is a regular columnist for the organization’s journal, also Sojourners.

“Republicans,” Wallis writes, “…have been able to define ‘religious issues’ only in terms of issues like gay marriage or abortion, ignoring the deeply biblical issues of economic justice, the environment or war and peace.”

The UCC’s Shober and Carter consider morality through the lens of Jesus’ teachings, which mostly address poverty, they say.

“Poverty is a moral issue, peace is a moral issue, peace and war is a moral issue,” Shober says. “So why aren’t we speaking out in that way in defining those things from a moral perspective, and why do those things always get ignored?”

The UCC, for its part, has a history of working on behalf of social justice—not ignoring it.

The church, Shober says, was the first to ordain a female minister, and that was more than a century ago. In the 1960s, when television stations in Mississippi refused to televise Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons—at the time, black people weren’t shown on TV in the deep South—King called on the UCC for help. The church, through a lawsuit against a TV station, proved instrumental in bringing King and other black faces to the screen.

Carter enumerates recent areas of activity: Labor-related boycotts of Taco Bell and Coca Cola, and opposition to U.S. Navy exercises on Vieques, Puerto Rico, where residents suffer disproportionately high rates of cancer.

“We tend to just sort of be out there, on the edge,” Shober says.

In its acceptance of worshippers of any sexual orientation, the church is definitely on the religious fringe. In stark contrast to the stance taken by national evangelical leaders who expect their president to deliver a ban on gay marriage, the local UCC has performed a handful of marriage ceremonies for lesbian and gay couples, most recently this summer. In its own vernacular, Missoula’s UCC identifies itself as “open and affirming.”

Superficially, that means the church doors are open to all ethnicities, socio-economic levels and age groups, explains longtime member Gary Brown. But what “open and affirming” really means, he says, is that the church accepts gays and lesbians.

Missoula’s UCC became “open and affirming” in 1993. Now, five of the 33 churches in the UCC’s Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference have followed suit.

Most churches that considered the designation, Brown says, could have easily agreed to open their doors to broad swaths of ethnic and/or socioeconomic groupings; the sticking point was homosexuality.

“It wasn’t if you were Indian or Black or anything else,” Brown says. “It comes down to your sexual orientation.”

Tamiko and Dani Soto-Foster attend UCC regularly and are active in church leadership. They say the church is open to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community in practice—not just in name. Both women felt ostracized in the past by their respective church communities.

“I turned my back on the church for a while because I was gay,” Tamiko says. “You can’t possibly be Christian and gay at the same time, and the Lord doesn’t love gays—that’s what I heard.”

Dani was an active church member and leader, and says she came out to a campus pastor in early 2003.

“I was a student leader, I led worship. All of that ended—bang, like that,” she says. “I was a mentor within the group and I was told not to have any contact with those people anymore.”

The pastor in whom she confided broke confidentiality: “He outed me to most of my family, to my sister, to my grandparents and the rest of the group.”

Dani’s sense of faith overrode her initial desire to turn to atheism. She began looking for a religious community that would accept her: “I was very, very hurt by this whole experience and I was just looking for a place where people weren’t going to point fingers at me and talk about me behind my back.”

At the time, she didn’t know whether any churches accepted gay people. “I was thinking, well, even if I’m the only person in the world, I’m going to make it work: I’m gay and I’m Christian.”

She had already met Tamiko, who was attending the UCC. Dani began attending with her.

At first, Dani says, “I was leery of meeting people.”

“I was thinking that they probably had ulterior motives for welcoming gay people,” she says. She and Tamiko joke about the prospect of being asked to attend a “demon-casting-out service” or being attacked with buckets of holy water.

The couple teaches a fall Sunday school class to elementary students, and the couple sees the fact that church leaders welcomed the couple’s participation in leading its youth as a true sign of the church’s acceptance of homosexuality.

Not all Missoula churches are so accepting; some even counsel parishioners against gay or lesbian “lifestyles.”

“It’s my job and obligation to point out that [homosexuality] is a sin in their life,” says the Messiah Lutheran Church Pastor Jim Drummond. Drummond’s flock counts 220 members—none of whom are openly gay.

“If we know that they are openly gay or lesbian, I don’t think we’d welcome them as members,” he says.

Calvary Community Church, a 50-member nondenominational church, generally tries to steer gays and lesbians toward recovery programs, says pastor and church founder Jim Ramsey.

Walking the walk

UCC hasn’t always accepted homosexuals, but a search for a new pastor in 1986 thrust the church into a new identity. After reviewing close to 40 applications from around the country, the search committee settled on a candidate. Then, the committee learned she was a lesbian. “Several of us said, ‘I’m a little uncomfortable with this. I don’t know how the congregation will take this,’” remembers longtime UCC member Gary Brown, who served on the search committee.

The committee chair recommended the group take a two-week break to individually study the issue and pray. The group came to a consensus upon return.

“When we came back together…we decided that it didn’t make any difference. We felt that our congregation was open enough. We said we were all these years,” Brown says.

Plus, he says, lesbian or not, the minister selected was by far the best candidate.

A church leader announced the committee’s choice during Sunday services—and announced that she was a lesbian.

“Some members of our congregation really took exception to that,” says Brown.

UCC-regular Fern Hart remembers grieving that Sunday. She sang in the choir then. In the mid-1960s, in Tennessee, Hart had renounced her Methodist membership because her local church refused to integrate. In 1986, in Missoula, she remembers sitting with the choir facing all her friends in the congregation when the church decided against hiring the lesbian pastor. “I sat there and cried because the church couldn’t do it,” she says. “And I knew not that we’d failed, but that this didn’t work. It didn’t work.”

The search committee was asked to look for another candidate. At the same time, the church decided it had to try to come to terms with homosexuality.

“It’s very easy to dismiss a church like this becoming open and affirming as it just being some way of being politically correct,” Pastor Shober says. “[Outsiders] can’t quite imagine the depth of inquiry and the number of tears that fell. It was a big deal. It was remarkable for me to be here in a liberal church where you have people not only talking theology and studying scriptures, but holding onto each other and crying.”

The entire process lasted seven years.

“It was wrenching, in many ways,” Shober says. “It was wrenching and it was exciting and it was deepening.”

Churchgoers came together to meet, initially once every month. Later in the process, various groups met weekly. They studied and prayed and shared personal stories.

“When those stories start rolling out, you realize, oh my God, everybody feels excluded, on some level, in some way…we all do,” says Shober.

One woman came out during one of the small group discussions, remembers Hart. She’s still a UCC member.

“Eventually we did a survey of 100 people in the congregation,” Brown says. The survey showed that church members were ready to vote on whether to become “open and affirming.”

The vote was held during one of the church’s congregational meetings—a gathering separate from the usual Sunday service, and one that isn’t always well attended, says Brown.

“We had the largest turnout for a congregational meeting in my experience,” Brown says—nearly 100 people.

“When we were all through, a little over 95 percent of the people voted in favor,” he says.

Bonnie Buckingham joined the church just after it voted to become open and affirming, when it was first taking on its new identity.

“It seemed like every Sunday they mentioned it, and it was a little bit odd,” says Buckingham, who was trying to reconcile her spirituality with her sexuality. “Why is this such a huge focus? It sort of seemed almost a little bit forced, if you will.”

But over the past decade, the church grew into its identification as “open and affirming.” The church hosts lesbian-gay potlucks, and both pastors perform marriage ceremonies, though they’re not legally binding, for gays and lesbians.

Dani and Tamiko were legally married in Portland, Ore., last March.

“Even the darling little old ladies at church, when they find out we’re married, they might look surprised, but they say, ‘that’s so nice, you guys really love each other,’” Dani says.

Righteous indignation

When two major networks banned the church’s welcoming ad, UCC churchgoers took exception. Church members had long struggled to reach acceptance of homosexuality, and they pride themselves on their “open and affirming” designation. Historically, the national church had helped expand the spectrum of moral voices heard and religious faces seen. Now, forcibly quieted by Bush’s sacred free market, it found itself among the voiceless and the faceless it has so often championed, silenced. Instead of feeling quashed, though, UCC regulars are now even more committed to their identity.

“I think there is kind of a new energy or invigoration because of it, and people are talking about the controversy, not just at church, even, but in the community,” Buckingham says.

Dani Soto-Foster remembers the church service when the congregation learned that ad wouldn’t be nationally broadcast.

“I was just so happy that Sunday to hear people talking about it: ‘isn’t it terrible;’ ‘I just don’t understand it,’” she says. “It was the coolest thing to feel like there are other people on our side. And the whole church is on our side.”

“What I have said to Peter [Shober] is ‘you’re getting more publicity now than if the ad were running,’” says Fern Hart.

Carter knows it’s true—she calls the networks’ refusal to broadcast the ad “a gift.”

“We really are in the best shape I can remember,” Hart says. Certainly in terms of membership, she says, but also “as a congregation committed to community and to our faith.”

Ask the pastors what they plan to do with this newfound moral awakening in their congregation, the apparent backlash against the voice of the so-called moral majority, and they laugh heartily.

“We’ve never been here before,” Shober says. “We have no idea.”

It’s much too early to tell whether a resurgent religious left can wield the same sort of political influence that the right demonstrated this past year. What is clear, though, is that a message of Christian exclusivity and intolerance echoed across the nation and rang false in the ears of citizens who themselves held perhaps only fading memories of church. That false ring is bringing them back, calling their lingering but fragile faith to help create a Christian community reflecting a simpler, more inclusive Christian message: love your neighbor.

On Christmas Eve at UCC, the packed house and the worshippers outside in the cold courtyard sang “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.”

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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