Sunday, November 23, 2008

Focus on the Families' layoff raises biblical questions

Two news events this past week raise serious questions about how ethically Christians and non-Christians alike will muddle through these tough economic times. They also make me wonder whether when it's over in a few years anyone will be able to tell the difference between the Christians' responses and the secular world's responses to the current turmoil.

Case in point #1: By flying into Washington, D.C., on private jets and displaying uncommon opulence at the very moment they were begging for a government bailout, the leaders of the Big 3 Automakers looked like spoiled children whining for ice cream after being served a huge dinner and large pieces of cake for dessert. 

Their PR staffs blew it by not advising those fat-cat corporate execs to drive their smallest, most fuel-efficient models to the nation's capital and proclaim every mile along the way their commitments to cutting the blubber from their own budgets as well as to energy conservation. 

Instead Detroit's automakers looked like a bunch of greedy pigs gathering at the feeding trough. They looked unwilling to make the changes necessary for their bloated, debt-ridden businesses to survive.

Case in point #2: Focus on the Family announced that after "looking at October trends and talking to donors who are not in a position where they can give", it was cutting 202 jobs now to prepare for the shortfall later. On the surface the announcement sounded like good business sense. Had I not attended Focus' 25th anniversary several years ago in its fabulously opulent, new, palatial facilities in Colorado Springs, CO, I might not have stumbled so quickly on the announcement. 

Let's re-frame Focus' announcement another way: The supposed family-oriented Focus on the Family ministry is going to lay off 149 workers (and rid itself of 53 vacant positions) to balance its books quickly while creating financial hardships for the 149 or so families impacted by the decision. With unemployment escalating, people's nest-eggs shrinking, and property values declining, what person in his or her right mind believes all 149 people will find new jobs quickly? Won't Focus' actions negatively impact not only the 149 people involved but also their families, including spouses, children and maybe even grandchildren?

With the ill winds of economic problems blowing across our country and around the world right now, expect other Christian organizations, denominational agencies, and even churches during the next year or two to follow Focus' lead.

I can't help but wonder whether anyone at Focus stopped and said, "Hey guys, let's look for some creative, biblical solutions here, like maybe all 1,150 of us, including James Dobson and the other top execs, taking a 20-percent pay cut so our fellow Christians will not have to face the economic hurricane alone out there."

In times like these, Christians may need to go back and re-read the Bible, starting with the Book of Acts. When the chips were down and persecution rampant, Acts reports that the early church "had everything in common" (see Acts 2:43-47).  No where can I find a passage that says when the going got tough, the early church threw nearly one-sixth of its members overboard so the rest of them could continue to eat well and live lavishly.

Too often today the church--especially in its business practices--reflects too much the world's culture.  Making money and the things money will buy has become far too important for churches and church organizations than they should be. Focus on the Family has grown its ministry based on challenging the world's standards and assumptions on many important issues; today that organization needs to look in its own mirrors.

After living for far too many years like people with heads in the sand, Detroit's pitiful jet-led campaign into Washington, D.C., could be expected. Buying first-class, round-trip tickets on American's Airlines next time won't undue the damage their stupidity has cost them. But at least those executives can plead ignorance of any ethical handbook for operating their business.

Churches including para-church organizations, on the other hand, can't plead the same ignorance. The Bible is supposed to be their moral compass. That book makes very clear many ethical matters, including how one is to treat fellow believers especially in difficult times.

When prosperity returns, will anyone be able to tell the Christians from their mortal enemies, the secularists? I sure hope so, but without radical solutions and actions no distinction may be apparent.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Keeping Secrets in the Church, part 2

(When Terry Mattingly interviewed me for his excellent column on my new book, Witness to the Truth, he said he was writing two columns about secrecy in the church. For column #1 he used my book to zero in on secrecy in the Southern Baptist Convention. For column #2 he used Russ Shaw's new book to hone in on secrecy in the Roman Catholic Church.  He found the fact to be interesting that both books came out simultaneously and focused so clearly on the lack of truth telling among church leaders and institutions today.

I believe that its failure to walk in the light of truth and honesty severely hinders the church and denominations today. Obviously Russ Shaw and Terry Mattingly believe along parallel lines. Spin-doctoring and and media manipulation in their own midst are serious problems that church leaders refuse to address.

(Read below how Terry has condensed quite nicely Russ's book.)

WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly's religion column for 11/12/08.

If you want to cause trouble for American bishops, stick them in a vise
between Rome and the armies of dissenters employed on Catholic campuses.

But the bishops had to vote on Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the
Church"). After all, they had been arguing about this papal document
throughout the 1990s, trying to square the doctrinal vision of Pope John
Paul II with their American reality. Rome said their first response was too
weak, when it came to insisting that Catholic schools remain openly
Catholic. Finally, the bishops approved a tougher document on a 223-to-31

Soon after that 1999 showdown, someone "with a good reason for wanting to
know" emailed a simple question to Russell Shaw of the United States
Catholic Conference. Who voted against the statement?

"There was no way to know. In fact, the Vatican doesn't know -- for sure --
who those 31 bishops where," said Shaw, discussing one of the many
mysteries in his book, "Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and
Communion in the Catholic Church.

"The secret ballots were destroyed," he noted. "These days the voting
process is even more secret, since the bishops just push a button and
they've voted. Even if you wanted to know how your bishop voted, or you
wanted the Vatican to know how your bishop voted, there's no way to do

Professionals have learned to read between the lines of debates held in the
open sessions that the U.S. bishops choose to schedule. Outside those
doors, insiders talk and spread rumors. Some bishops spin the press and
others, usually those sending messages to Rome, hold press conferences,
publish editorials or preach sermons. But many of the crucial facts remain
cloaked in secrecy.

Of course, noted Shaw, few leaders of powerful institutions enjoy
discussing their crucial decisions -- let alone corporate or personal sins
-- in public. When Catholic insiders complain about "clericalism" they are
confronting a problem that affects all hierarchies, from government to
academia, from the Pentagon to Wall Street.

"It's a kind of elitism, a way of thinking and behaving that assigns to the
managerial class a superior status," he said. "They are chiefs and everyone
else is an Indian. They set the agenda. They always make the final
decisions. They get to tell everyone else what to do."

Of course, there's truth in the old image that puts the pope at the top of
an ecclesiastical pyramid, with ranks of clergy cascading down to the pews.
Catholicism is not a democracy and there are times when leaders must keep
secrets. That's "a truth," said Shaw, but it is "not the only truth," since
the whole church is meant to be knit together in a Communion built on a
"radical equality of dignity and rights."

Part of what is happening, he explained, is that some bishops are
protecting a "facade of unity" that hides their doctrinal disagreements
with the Vatican. While Shaw believes the bishops are more united with Rome
now than they where were about 25 years ago, some bishops may be pushing
for more and more closed "executive" sessions as a subconscious way to
protect themselves.

Take, for example, the brutal waves of scandal caused by the sexual abuse
of children and teens by clergy. For several decades, argued Shaw, the
bishops have been afraid to openly discuss "the causes of the dreadful mess
-- nasty things like homosexuality among priests, theological rationalizing
on the subject of sex and the entrenched self-protectiveness of the old
clericalist culture."

That's the kind of scandal that creates global headlines. But, for most
Catholics, more commonplace forms of secrecy shape their lives at the local
level, said Shaw.

Consider another story reported in Shaw's book, about a woman who quietly
confronted a priest after a Mass in which he omitted the creed. When he
failed to acknowledge the error, she said, "Father, you teach your people
to be disobedient when you disobey the Church."

The offended priest was silent. Then he leaned forward and whispered, "You
know what honey? You're full of it." The priest walked away, giving the
woman and her husband what appeared to be "the single-digit salute."

Truth is, said Shaw, "clericalism is often alive and well at the local
level. That's the kind of secrecy and dishonesty that really cuts the heart
of many local parishes, destroying any hope for real Communion there."

Terry Mattingly ( directs the Washington Journalism Center at
the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Keeping secrets in Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic churches

(My book, Witness to the Truth, contains about 80,000 words.  In about 650 words Scripps-Howard religion columnist Terry Mattingly did a masterful job capturing the essense of what I said in the book. Terry's column will appear in Scripps-Howard newspapers across the country for the next several weeks. Normally, I post only my columns on this blog. However, Terry did such a fine job that I asked his permission to post it here.) 

WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly's religion column for 11/05/08.

EDITOR'S NOTE: First of two columns on keeping secrets in church.

Reporter Louis Moore didn't know much about the Lutheran Church-Missouri
Synod when he began covering its bitter civil war in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, as a Southern Baptist with a seminary degree he knew a
biblical-authority battle when he saw one -- so he caught on fast. Soon he
was appalled by the viciousness of the combat between "moderates" and
"conservatives" as the 2.7 million-member denomination careened toward

Things got so bad he told a Houston Chronicle colleague that if the
Southern Baptist Convention "ever became embroiled in such a heinous war, I
would rather quit my job than be forced to cover it," noted Moore, in
"Witness to the Truth," his memoir about his life in the middle of some of
America's hottest religion stories.

"Regrettably, years later, I was an eyewitness to SBC behavior that made
the Lutherans' battle look like a Sunday school picnic."

The Lutheran fight was his "learner schism" and Moore witnessed many other
skirmishes in pulpits and pews before -- like it or not -- he was engulfed
by the battle to control America's largest non-Catholic flock. He also
served as president of the Religion Newswriters Association during that

The Southern Baptist Convention's return to the theological right would be
near the top of any journalist's list of the pivotal events in American
religion in the late 20th Century. This Bible Belt apocalypse also affected
politicians ranging from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, and anyone else who
sought national office in the "culture war" era following the 1960s and,
especially, Roe v. Wade.

After leaving daily journalism, Moore saw the Southern Baptist world from
the other side of the notebook for 14 years, serving as an SBC media aide
on policy issues and then with the convention's giant foreign missions

Moore said that in the "best of times" he saw believers in many flocks who
were so "servant-hearted and so demonstrative of Godlike virtues" that the
memory of their faithful acts -- in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for
example -- still inspires tears. But in the worst of times?

"I have seen church people ... violate every one of the Ten Commandments,
act boorish and selfish, be prejudiced, broadcast secular value systems and
in general behave worse than the heathen people they tried to reach," noted
Moore. In fact, just "name some sin or some act the Bible eschews, and I
could pair that vice up with some church leader or member I have known."

Moore said his career affirmed basic values that he learned as a young
journalist, values he saw vindicated time after time in the trenches. Wise
religious leaders, he said, would dare to:

* Adopt "sunshine laws" so that as many as possible of their meetings are
open to coverage by journalists from the mainstream and religious press.
"When you're dealing with money your people have put in the offering plate,
you should be as open as possible," he said. "The things that belong on the
table need to stay on the table."

* Acknowledge that "politics is a way of life and they need to make it
clear to the people in the pews how the game is played," he said. "I truly
admire the people who let the covert be overt."

* Come right out and admit what they believe, when it comes to divisive
issues of theology and public life. "Say what you mean and mean what you
say," he said. "Way too many religious leaders take one position in public
and say something completely different somewhere else."

It's easy to pinpoint the root cause of these temptations, said Moore. At
some point, religious leaders become so committed to protecting the
institution they lead that they are driven to hide its sins and failures.
There's a reason that clergy and politicians share a love of public
relations and have, at best, mixed feelings about journalism.

"People who get caught up in this kind of group think spend so much of
their time testing the waters and floating their trial balloons," he said.
"I prefer to deal with the people who are honest about what they truly
believe . . ..

"Of course, the other side of that equation is that these authentic
believers are often politically naive and that means that they don't
survive the realities of the political process."

NEXT WEEK: Why Catholic doors kept closing.

Terry Mattingly ( directs the Washington Journalism Center 
at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.