In February 2001, I happened to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Trinity Episcopal Church, on lower Broadway at Wall Street in Manhattan. Call it advancing maturity, or just age, but the experience made me think it was time to resume the churchgoing habits that had lapsed decades earlier. I would return to Trinity several times over the next eight months.
Then came September 11. Though it escaped serious damage, Trinity was covered with a coating of the gray-white ash that was all that remained of the World Trade Center towers. Its congregation responded admirably, and the church was scrubbed clean and reopened a few months later. Meanwhile, the adjacent St. Paul’s Chapel — one of New York City’s most historic buildings, where George Washington’s pew is still marked by an oil painting of the Great Seal of the United States — was dedicated to the needs of Ground Zero volunteers, offering a range of services from prayer to podiatry.
Unfortunately, some of the most prominent leaders of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., have been less constructive in their response. At a time when many Americans feel a need to reaffirm their commitment to Christian practice and American patriotism, the denomination’s most visible spokesmen are doing their best to persuade us that the two are fundamentally incompatible. A statement issued in the name of the church’s bishops, two weeks after the attacks, was generally unobjectionable but hinted at problems to come. The letter acknowledged that terrorism in general was the product of “evil forces,” but went on to add that the proper response was “a radical act of peace-making,” defined as “waging reconciliation.” Reading between the lines, one could see the bishops believed that American affluence was the root cause of the attacks.
Matters have deteriorated since then. The most dramatic demonstration of Episcopalian opposition to the war on terror was a sermon delivered last March 23 by retired Bishop Paul Moore, Jr. Eighty-three years old and suffering from terminal cancer of the lungs and brain, Bishop Moore was invited to take over the pulpit of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for what everyone knew would be his last sermon. (As, indeed, it was — he died on May 1.)
The scion of old money and a Marine combat veteran injured at Guadalcanal, Bishop Moore grew up socializing with McGeorge Bundy, Cyrus Vance, Ben Bradlee, and John F. Kennedy. (Arrested for stealing a stop sign while at Yale, he and his friends used their one phone call from jail to alert their tailor, J. Press, who posted bail for them.) As a seminarian, Moore was shocked to learn that the Bishop of Birmingham did not believe in the Resurrection. A professor assured him that this was nothing to worry about: “Probably the next Bishop of Birmingham will believe in the Resurrection.” Alas, it didn’t turn out that way, and Moore himself soon took a sharp turn in the direction of the gospel of Social Action, inspired by the example of the French worker-priests and by his friendship with the notorious Bishop James Pike.
The limitations of Bishop Moore’s vision of social justice were never more obvious than when he addressed foreign-policy issues. In his 1997 autobiography, Presences: A Bishop’s Life in the City, Moore wrote that the end of the Cold War had left the United States “like a wounded rooster crowing on the top of the dung heap.” Blaming “corporate greed and lust” as well as “unbridled nationalism” for manufacturing causes for war, Moore held out the hope that a more enlightened generation committed to the cause of human rights would be able to “organize a mechanism to govern the economies of nations and corporations.” His fear was that politicians and corporate leaders would find new enemies to take the place of the Soviet Union, most likely targeting “nations that are not part of Western culture.”
Over a thousand people turned out to hear Bishop Moore speak last March, many of them aging veterans of the civil-rights marches of the ’60s and the New York housing wars of the ’70s. Characteristically, Moore wasted no time reminiscing about the past. Instead, he used the occasion to lambast George W. Bush. “It appears we have two types of religion here,” he said. “One is a solitary Texas politician who says, ‘I talk to God and I am right’; the other involves millions of people of all faiths who disagree.” Moore professed to find such rhetoric “terrifying,” adding: “I believe it will lead to a terrible crack in the whole culture we have come to know.”
This was, indeed, a pithy summation of the state of the Episcopal Church in the year 2003. We have a president of the United States who believes that American values are basically good and who prays to God for guidance in perilous times. For this he is denounced by a bishop who worries about not so much the toll of innocent lives in Iraq, as the dissolution of the cultural consensus represented by the international human-rights lobby. Of course, it was hardly accurate to describe George W. Bush as “solitary”: At the time, a solid majority of Americans supported his position that terrorism must be rooted out. Even some members of the opinion-making classes, who at one time would have placed their faith in U. N. resolutions and multilateral initiatives, have begun to come around to the president’s way of thinking. This is precisely what makes George W. Bush “terrifying” in the eyes of the bishops.
Of course, Bishop Moore was never reluctant to generate controversy. Longtime New Yorkers may recall that in 1970, he sponsored an antiwar rally at the cathedral, featuring the performance of a skit by Norman Mailer so riddled with obscenities that playwright Tennessee Williams walked out in protest. (Moore did intervene when a group of bare-chested men waving Viet Cong flags attempted to storm the altar.) This time, however, Moore was taking his cues from a statement made three months earlier by Frank T. Griswold, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. In an interview marking his fifth anniversary in office, Bishop Griswold indulged in a fit of pique over President Bush’s use of the term “Axis of Evil”: “I’d like to be able to go somewhere in the world and not have to apologize for being from the United States,” said Griswold, “Quite apart from the bombs we drop, words are weapons and we have used our language so unwisely, so intemperately, so thoughtlessly… that I’m not surprised we are hated and loathed everywhere we go.”
Griswold softened his rhetoric a bit in the days that followed. Still, the disturbing feature of this interview was not the bishop’s overweening concern for the good opinion of his French, German, and British counterparts, but rather his failure to say anything about Saddam Hussein and the rulers of North Korea and Iran — except to note mildly that these men were “hardly… paragons of virtue.” How could it be that calling dictators evil was more worthy of condemnation than actually being an evil dictator?
The following weekend, in a sermon delivered at Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral, Griswold denounced defense spending as a “manifestation of evil” and called on the congregation to accept that God’s love is “radically subversive” of “structures of power” and authority. Bishop Griswold attributed this insight to a visit he paid to St. Paul’s Chapel three days after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Returning to the subject of this visit in an interview he later granted to the Islamic information and marketing website, SoundVision.com, Griswold elaborated: “I thought to myself, ‘Now we as a nation have experienced our own vulnerability and that should give us a sense of greater solidarity with other parts of the world where terrorism and death are a daily reality. Therefore, that should open a way for us to enter into the suffering of other people based on our own suffering.”
Griswold envisions the American government taking on the role of a “superservant” to the world, undertaking good deeds even at the expense of our own national interests. The first step in this course of action would be a massive diversion of spending from defense in order to address the AIDS crisis in Africa. One problem with this prescription is that Congress and the president are elected by a diverse population, including many non-Christians, who naturally expect them to put American interests first. Nor is it clear why religious leaders should be calling on government to take on the primary responsibility for fighting AIDS, rather than mobilizing the faithful to do the job. Griswold believes George W. Bush’s rhetoric has divided the nation. In reality, Bush did a rather masterful job of channeling the rage that was ignited by the events of 9/ll.
Of course, we expect the clergy to advocate humility, reconciliation, and service to others. We expect them, too, to prefer peace to war. But unfortunately, the gospel of Social Action has plunged liberal Protestantism into a suicidal spiral. Rather than talking about Original Sin, bishops are raging against capitalism, American triumphalism, and “power structures.” Unwilling — or possibly unable — to suggest that Christianity might be in any way preferable to other religions, they also politely refrain from criticizing any cultures other than our own. It never seems to occur to the church spokesmen that anti-American sentiment on the Arab street — or, for that matter, on the boulevards of Paris — is anything more than a spontaneous and justified reaction to American power. Listen to this message long enough and you inevitably begin to wonder: “If Western culture is so arrogant and power-drunk, what I am I doing here in church? Why not study Buddhism or the Sufi mystics? Or maybe I could just sign up for a yoga class.” Bishop Paul Moore’s response was to haphazardly import all the elements of the spiritual bazaar onto the grounds of his cathedral: The Dalai Lama, modern dance groups, drummers, and even circus elephants all made appearances. The services at St. John the Divine were always entertaining, but as it turned out, this approach internalized the problem without solving it. As the church’s religious message became more and more diffuse, political ideology rushed in to fill the vacuum.
This was never more evident than in the past month. After having taken a strong stand on the war in Iraq, the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., took no notice whatever of the fall of the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein. The only news report dated April 9 to appear on its official website was a story filed from Jordan under the headline, “IRAQ CONFLICT HEIGHTENS SUSPICIONS OF U.S. INTENTIONS.” The story quoted David Harvard, an Anglican deacon from Sheffield, England, who called the war “a huge mistake.”
One of the clergy’s strongest antiwar arguments was their prediction that the invasion of Iraq would destabilize the Middle East. And certainly there were, and still are, grounds for apprehension on this score. Interestingly, however, Peace and Justice Ministries, the church’s policy arm, does not hesitate to propose initiatives that could potentially cost more lives still. The Ministries’ plan for settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict calls for Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders, the right of return for Palestinians, and “unconditional recognition” of a Palestinian state — with Jerusalem as its capital, shared with Israel. The Israelis’ use of American-made weapons in Gaza is condemned, as is their policy of “collective punishment.” Nothing is asked of the Palestinian leadership.
What will happen when Israelis are instantly outnumbered in their own country by Palestinian returnees? What if the new Palestinian state becomes a staging ground for international terrorism? The office of the Peace and Justice Ministries is content to leave such problems in the hands of a multinational peacekeeping force “under the auspices of the United Nations, European Union, Russia and the United States” — four sponsors who, presumably, will have no trouble at all agreeing on the correct response.
As Bishop Moore’s theology professor pointed out long ago, the Episcopal Church has always been a big tent that shelters free thinkers. This is what makes it attractive to people like me. But it’s one thing to tolerate dissent, and something else again to have a leadership incapable of using “evil” in a sentence without also including the word “simplistic.” Episcopalians seem to do a good job of reaching out to the American Muslim community. Perhaps the denomination should consider creating an outreach program for conservatives. If nothing else, the effort would sensitize church leaders against using certain buzz words that conservatives find offensive. (“Texan” employed as a term of insult should head the list.)
In the meantime, it is easy to see why the predicted resurgence of church membership in the wake of 9/11 may not materialize — and that, even if it does, mainline Protestant denominations will be the last to realize any lasting gains. We can best honor Bishop Moore by recognizing his passing as the end of an era. The gospel of Social Action had its exhilarating moments — especially during the heyday of the civil-rights movement — but it soon degenerated into a mélange of warmed-over Marxism and Euro-complacency. We Christians who drifted away from the church in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s certainly don’t want to be told that we must repudiate our strengths and learn to identify ourselves as victims. Been there, done that.
— Joyce Milton’s most recent book is The Road to Malpsychia.