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The Rev. Karen Oliveto, the personable pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church in Noe Valley, is the last person one might imagine to be the subject of scrutiny from a former CIA analyst employed by a pressure group co-founded by a one-time collaborator of Col. Oliver North.
In most ways Oliveto is like any other Methodist minister: She organizes church suppers, gives Communion, leads funerals, baptizes children, preaches the Christian gospel, and performs weddings -- she joined eight couples in the first 2 1/2 weeks of this month. But because those weddings were for same-sex partners, Oliveto's next steps, those of her bishop, and her bishop's superiors' will be followed with great interest by the oddly named Institute on Religion and Democracy, a lobbying group dedicated to using money from secular right-wing foundations to encourage dissent among conservative churchgoers in the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches. Oliveto explained during a press conference last week that because the weddings were not "holy unions" between same-sex couples -- which are expressly banned by United Methodist rules -- and instead were government-recognized "weddings" under Mayor Gavin Newsom's policy granting same-sex marriage licenses, she did not fall afoul of church doctrine.
Also last week, an unidentified church member objecting to Oliveto's actions filed a complaint with Northern California Methodist Bishop Beverly Shamana, setting in motion a long bureaucratic process that could result in Oliveto being defrocked for violating church rules. In the past, church officials have been allowed some leeway in such matters; five years ago 68 pastors simultaneously performed a union ceremony in Sacramento between two lesbians as a protest against the church's gay wedding ban. The event spawned complaints, formal hearings, and much consternation among United Methodists nationwide. But the pastors, one of whom was my father, were not punished.
Shamana was on leave last week and unavailable for comment. But she released a statement that seemed to leave her options open. "There are clear processes in the Book of Discipline which provide for ways that matters of this kind can be addressed and reviewed. As a Bishop of the church, I have been entrusted with upholding the Book of Discipline as it currently stands, a mantle that I embrace prayerfully, God being my helper," Shamana said.
Last Friday, the Institute on Religion and Democracy issued a press release making it known that it was scrutinizing Oliveto's actions, and any pending punishment for the Noe Valley reverend.
"I pray that Rev. Oliveto's bishop, Beverly Shamana, will uphold her ecclesial obligations and discipline Rev. Oliveto," the release quoted Mark Tooley, a former CIA analyst the IRD hired in 1994 to set up a front group called United Methodist Action, as saying. In an interview last week, Tooley suggested he would not be satisfied with a repeat of five years ago, when then-Bishop Melvin Talbert failed to discipline the pastors who joined high-ranking church lay leader Jeanne Barnett and her love, great-grandmother Ellie Charleton.
"I hope that the local bishop out there will uphold church law, but I would be surprised if she does that very vigorously, so we'll have to wait and see," Tooley said. "If the bishop does not act, I would hope the national church court will call a judicial council" -- a process that could lead to Oliveto being removed from the ministry.
On its face, this would seem a picayune tempest in a corner of the world far from most San Franciscans. Relatively few of us are regular churchgoers; I'm not. And Oliveto's church is small, with 50 or so congregants on a typical Sunday. A good argument could be made that Oliveto has earned her plight; she's convened multiple gay-marriage press conferences with herself as the centerpiece. Even Oliveto's former bishop, Talbert, an advocate for allowing gay weddings, says Oliveto's argument that gay marriages are not the same as gay holy unions is "stretching it."
Concerning Oliveto's attention from the IRD, there's nothing inherently wrong with conservative Christians advocating their viewpoint within the church of their choice. Nonetheless, San Franciscans should pay attention to this church war over gay marriage if we want our city's 2004 winter of love to become anything more than a passing Left Coast feel-good fest. The positions churches take on issues such as war, peace, poverty, racism, sexism -- and especially sexual morality issues such as gay marriage -- have an outsize effect on the sensibilities of the country at large.
What parishioners hear from the pulpit will weigh heavily on how they view the efforts of their president, a committed United Methodist, to use gay marriage as an election-year wedge issue. A San Francisco pastor has sought to publicize the fact that some leaders of the president's faith disagree with his stance, and in so doing has risked becoming the target of an unholy crusade. San Franciscans, both Christian and not, stand to profit by standing by her side.
While people who get their impressions of contemporary Christian theology from Pat Robertson's 700 Club TV show may believe that Christianity uniformly condemns same-sex love, the fact is modern theology allows plenty of wiggle room on issues such as this.
For many pastors, biblical criticisms of homosexuality fall into the same category as the Apostle Paul's instructions regarding women's hair length, say, or scriptural scolds against gossip. For these pastors, Old Testament Hebrew mores are overshadowed by Jesus Christ's New Testament lessons on love, brotherhood, and acceptance. These differences in interpretation of Scripture have spawned earnest, impassioned debate among mainline Christians. Yet if one asks a United Methodist or a Presbyterian about her opponents' opinions on this issue, she will likely give you a respectful description of how a fellow churchgoer is acting on his faith. In a spirit similar to the one that guides Jewish Talmudic debate, most of America's churches have been respectful of difference.
It's within this church spirit of vigorous civil discourse that the tactics behind the IRD's attempt to move mainstream churches to the right are troublesome. The IRD and its allies' strategy of using right-wing nonreligious foundation money to smear liberal church leaders through mailings, articles in IRD-aligned publications, press releases, and stories in secular newspapers and magazines has more in common with a CIA Third World destabilization campaign than ordinary civilized debate. During 2000 and 2001, IRD board member Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. spent $1 million on right-wing agitation in the Anglican Church that included an attempt to falsely defame that denomination's openly gay bishop, the Right Rev. Eugene Robinson, according to Salon.com. During that period, Ahmanson donated another half-million dollars directly to the IRD for similar work in all three of the group's target denominations. In the Presbyterian Church the IRD has fought, with some success, to include condemnation of homosexuality in an official church paper, The American Family. And in the Methodist Church, Mark Tooley has engaged in a vigorous direct-mail campaign to convince churchgoers that their more liberal bishops are not true Christians, and should be purged.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy was co-founded 23 years ago by a group of neoconservatives led by Penn Kemble, who served as a matchmaker between Oliver North and U.S.-based financial backers of the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Kemble went on to lead the U.S. Information Agency, the foreign propaganda arm of the federal government.
During the Iran-Contra years, Kemble was quoted in newspapers saying liberal leaders of America's mainline Protestant churches had frustrated the CIA's efforts to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government. He helped launch the IRD along with fellow neocons Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor turned Catholic priest who went on to edit the conservative journal First Things, and Michael Novak, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Like the American Enterprise Institute's, the IRD's top donors include conservative foundations such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation.
According to the IRD's 1981 manifesto, the new group would enlist religious principles in the struggle against communism. In practice, this has seemed to mean attacking the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches in the way the CIA has dealt with Third World countries deemed at risk of going Red. During the last 20 years the IRD has spent some $4 million financing new front organizations within the three major Protestant denominations, while also supporting existing right-wing dissident groups within those churches.
With the wane of the Cold War, the group moved from foreign communism to domestic bugaboos. In 1994 it hired Mark Tooley, who had worked for eight years as a CIA Eastern Africa analyst, to set up an office under the name UMAction for Faith, Freedom, and Family. Tooley set to work directly across the street from the United Methodist Church's national offices in Washington, D.C. He created media smear campaigns against church officials seen as too liberal, and sent out mailings designed to roil internal debates over sexual morality, homosexuality, and feminist ideology.
When I asked Tooley whether he saw similarities between his current work and his previous job as an Africa analyst for the CIA, he said, "None that I see, except that I was a writer there and I'm a writer here."
United Methodist officials I spoke with said Karen Oliveto has reason to fear IRD attention. In previous campaigns against Methodist hierarchs, Tooley has sent mailings to a list of more than 300,000 select United Methodists calling for the removal of clergy, bishops, and other church officials deemed guilty of liberal leanings. He has issued press releases accusing officials of un-Christian beliefs, published articles in IRD-linked publications smearing church officials, and arranged for media articles denouncing United Methodist leaders.
Melvin Talbert preceded Beverly Shamana as bishop of the church's Northern California conference and is now director of the denomination's Commission on Christian Unity. He has been outspoken on the issues of rights for women, African-Americans, homosexuals, and the poor, and as a result he's one of several bishops over the years who have suffered Tooley-run smears.
Tooley recently unleashed a broadside saying it was a "scandal that somebody like Bishop Talbert is Chief Ecumenical Officer for the Bishops of the Methodist Church." Tooley added that Talbert "has distinguished himself for promoting homosexuality with a church and chasing out those churches who uphold the church's position on Christian sexual morality."
Actually, Talbert has never "promoted" homosexuality; he's merely stated, in various ways, that gays, like everyone else, should be regarded with Christian love. As for "chasing out" churches, it's a good example of how Tooley takes a sliver of history and twists it: Five years ago, members of a couple of Northern California congregations threatened to leave over the issue of gay holy unions. Talbert fought to keep those churches in the fold by respectfully accommodating religious views opposed to gay unions. And the conservative churches stayed.
"They are attempting to defame me, and they are not accountable to anyone," Talbert told me. "They are self-appointees who band together for a cause; in this case it is to take over the church and to run it however they want to do it.
"The voice of the church has been very influential in secular society in this country. Some of the groups funding the IRD are groups that do not appreciate the church's prophetic witness over the years. Since they cannot influence churches in any other way, they are using their money through an organization like the IRD."
With regard to the IRD's attention to the Rev. Oliveto, Talbert offered advance words in her defense.
"All I can say is that Karen is one of the competent and capable pastors in that conference. She is committed in serving all people, including gays and lesbians. I think she has given careful thought to these positions. She feels she has not violated the Book of Discipline because of the actions of the city of San Francisco when the city of San Francisco said it would acknowledge same-sex marriages," Talbert said.
Before writing this story I spoke with my mother, a liberal Methodist pastor who serves four tiny churches in rural Tehama County, a 3-1/2-hour drive north of here.
"There are people in my small churches that are anti-homosexual. They're on the homosexuality-is-a-sin side. But they don't have any great desire to kick me out. I had supper with a couple that feels very strongly that way last night," Mom said.
After Bishop Talbert failed to discipline my father and the 67 other pastors who officiated over the joint lesbian union ceremony in 1998, a lay pastor in one of my mother's churches became so upset over what he saw as a failure to enforce church doctrine that he quit the church.
"But that did not tarnish our relationship," recalled my mother, who remains close to the former lay leader.
In America's mainline churches, like in the country at large, radical elements of the conservative movement seek to turn such peaceful disagreement into holy war. We will see this in the rhetoric of this fall's presidential elections, in the state and national debate over San Francisco's winter of love, and in the response to a Noe Valley pastor's attempt to make a statement about what she believes is the legitimacy of gay marriage.
As the city teeters between a role as a national model and a political scapegoat on this issue, the fates of San Francisco, America's major Protestant denominations, and the Rev. Karen Oliveto are joined. Let's give the good reverend our support.