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US Protestant denomination stirs debate on political agenda

The United Church of Christ (UCC), often described as one of the socially critical Protestant denominations in the United States, has turned to television commercials and the Internet hammer home its message that it is an inclusive church.

At the same time, the denomination’s president has accused the Institute on Religion and Democracy advocacy group of promoting a "neo-conservative agenda" within Protestant churches, as different US religious groups engage in labelling those seen to be supporters of opposing political views or social values as either "liberal" or "conservative".

"Detractors and allies agree that the recent actions by the United Church of Christ signal a growing impatience among the mainline denominations with their far-right brethren and an increasing willingness to take some of them on," The New York Times reported on 7 April.

One television commercial produced by the UCC, which has 1.3 million members and more than 5700 congregations, features a church fitted with ejector seats. In the commercial, an elderly man, a homeless woman, a gay couple and a bi-racial couple are ejected out of the building when a white, wealthy family push a secret button in their own pew.

"God doesn’t reject people. Neither do we," says the commercial.

Ben Voth, associate professor of communication at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, described the commercial as "well done and professionally designed. It overcomes a stereotype of church ads as being cheap and behind the times".

Voth told Ecumenical News International, "From the position of religious advocacy, I think the ad will tend to attract attention from a community of non-church goers." Still, the advertisement also "employs a frustrating stereotype of conservative Christian congregations," Voth noted. "In my own experience, the local church I attend is more diverse than the university next door."

The publicity campaign comes as the denomination’s president, the Rev. John H. Thomas, accused the Institute of Religion and Democracy (IRD), a Christian political watchdog, of attempting to "disrupt and ultimately control" denominations including his own.

"IRD’s interests are not primarily fostering church renewal or encouraging lively theological and ethical debate in church councils and assemblies," Thomas said in March during a speech made in Pennsylvania. "The ultimate goal is to reshape the Protestant mainline into a powerful force advancing the
neo-conservative political agenda."

He asserted that the group defines itself as "an ecumenical alliance of US Christians working to reform their churches’ social witness, in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings". It says on its Web site that many Protestant leaders have "thrown themselves into multiple, often leftist crusades – radical forms of feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, multi-culturalism, revolutionary socialism, sexual liberation and so forth".

IRD president Jim Tonkowich said in response to Thomas’ speech, "It is not surprising that the head of a denomination that has lost over 40 per cent of its members should blame outside forces for its plight rather than examine its own mistakes." Tonkowich added, "Liberal theology has failed for the UCC and for all mainline churches. IRD reports about that. But we did not cause it."

(c) Ecumenical News International