Photo By David Robert John Auer of Reno’s First United Methodist Church says it takes a lot of work to worry about politics when your primary job is to worry about souls.

Religious groups have been forming around the nation to counter the political heft of the religious right. Such a group may be in the wind for Northern Nevada, but it’s far from certain.

The first move came during the dispute about Congress’s intrusion into the matter of Theresa Schiavo. A local group called Clergy United for Moral Dialogue released a statement challenging the claims of evangelicals that their stance was the moral or ethical position:

“We advocate for the rights of the “least” in our society—especially the poor, the homeless, the sick, and people with disabilities. Terri’s legacy has stirred us to a national examination of our beliefs, morals, choices and access to health care in the most powerful nation in the world.

“We also believe that the unprecedented act of Congress on the Schiavo legislation was irresponsible, and we express outrage especially toward those who took advantage of Terri for political gain.

“Within the Schiavos’ Catholic tradition—as within many of our religious traditions—authorities differ as to whether it is morally obligatory to continue artificial feeding for those in persistent vegetative state or whether a person may forgo extraordinary or disproportionate means of preserving life when those means do not offer a reasonable hope of benefit and/or place excessive hardship on the individual, family or community. Catholic ethicists, along with those of other faith traditions, affirm that withdrawal of artificial feeding to terminally ill patients is not killing, but rather allowing to die.”

Clergy United’s statement was signed by Rev. John Auer of Reno’s First United Methodist Church, Pastor Tom Butler of Sparks United Methodist Church, Rev. William Bartlett of St. Mary’s Health Network, Rev. Richard Dalton of Metropolitan Community Church of the Sierras, Rev. Jim Jeffery of Trinity Episcopal Church, Rabbi Myra Soifer of Temple Sinai, Pastor Bruce Taylor of Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Rev. Carl Wilfrid, Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, and Rev. Noel Tiano, a Congregational minister.

The statement was a product of an informal group of clergy who study together and call themselves the “Study Buddies.” During the Schiavo controversy, they met and found themselves in agreement on the complexity of the issues and the way some evangelical leaders were describing the moral issues in simple and categorical terms, which many of the Study Buddies found unacceptable.

But their action in that instance was a one-time thing. Whether it will lead to a more formal leadership role is not clear.

“I’m quite interested in what’s called faith-based organizing,” Auer says, “but it takes seven or eight clergy who have the time or the willingness to take time from their busy schedules to focus on it for a while, and that’s tough.”

“We are perking on the need to have a much more forceful voice out there on issues that the right has taken, has co-opted, that they don’t own, as far as I’m concerned,” says Soifer. “But we’ve let them. So we kind of threw ourselves together, and we don’t exist any more formally than that at the moment. But we’re perking on what to do about that.”

Groups to counter the religious right often have a difficult time. In 1996 there was an effort to start a Reno/Sparks chapter of a national group called the Interfaith Alliance (RN&R, “Who speaks for God?” Sept. 25, 1996). The Alliance described itself as “the faith-based voice countering the radical right and promoting the positive role of religion.”

Among those involved were Reno Methodist minister Jacqueline Meadows, Sparks Lutheran minister Ron Rentner, and Unitarian lay member Elmer Rusco. Rentner said then, “As a pastor of a mainline church, I get a little worn out being painted by the same brush as the religious right.” The group issued a School Board Voters Guide, but little more was heard from it.

Even older than that group is the Sierra Interfaith Action for Peace, which has been around for nearly two decades, but lately has been focused on opposition to the war.

Many Nevada religious figures say that one of the major difficulties of traditional, mainstream faiths trying to compete with evangelical Christians is that they don’t want to be like the evangelical Christians. By that, they mean they (1) don’t want to question the faith of those on the right, and (2) they don’t want to talk in absolutist, condemnatory terms of good and evil, black and white.

What little “perking” has taken place has also been ill-timed. Clergy United issued its Schiavo statement in April. The Study Buddies don’t meet at all in the summer. Then there is the problem of turnover which, among clergy as among the rest of Nevada’s population, is high.

“There’s been a lot of pastoral turnover,” Auer says. “Father Jeffrey’s leaving after 33 years at Trinity. I’ve just been here two years, and there’s already been three different pastors at St. Thomas Cathederal. … Anthony Steele, who was at Bethel AME and had an interest in community-based work, has moved to St. Louis.”

At the Study Buddies meeting after Schiavo, there was discussion of how to frame statements. The group discussed “how the prophets spoke … trying to kind of get a sense of, you know, what powerful language looks like that isn’t right wing and dogmatic.”

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who encourages the formation of such groups around the nation, says he believes there is another reason such organizations have more difficulty than faith groups on the right. More mainstream denominations, he says, actually believe in the separation of church and state and are uncomfortable in political roles.

“There’s a fine line between … church and state,” Reid says. “A lot of them are progressive organizations, [and they] believe that their job is to take care of the sick and distressed and the poor … and a lot of them feel that they don’t have time for politics. I think that’s changing.”

That may not, however, help Reid and the Democrats, at least in tactical terms. Reid tells of how, during the early battle this year over George Bush’s budget, he was approached by a group of mainstream religious leaders who asked him to denounce the budget as “immoral.” That kind of language may help the Democrats, but it’s not the kind of language Clergy United wants to use.

A Methodist or a Jew, for instance, would probably be reluctant to condemn Presbyterians or Baptists or the faith or ethics of another group, and that kind of nuanced approach doesn’t work well either in politics or journalism. It makes it difficult to attract the kind of news coverage that the right gets.

“We’re not about to say, because we don’t believe it, that we have an ultimate lock on God’s truth, so we don’t carry the same theological club,” Soifer says. “And the minute you’re willing to say, ‘I think I know what’s right, and I really oppose what you’re about, but you have every God-given right to be on the other side of it, too'—you just don’t have the same club. … The real downside of that is, if you can’t speak with an absolute voice, it’s tempting just not to be there at all.”

But falling silent again is not an appetizing prospect for the group, either. That would leave the right unchallenged.

“Well, we have a vision, but we don’t know exactly what it means,” she continues. “I mean we’re very, very clear that we need to be out there sort of in the marketplace, if that’s the word, speaking up. … And people are prepared to do that, but we’re not a whole lot further than that.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...