The superheated election-year rhetoric of TV evangelist Jerry Falwell and the evangelical right has finally pushed leaders of the religious establishment to shatter their unspoken 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not criticize another preacher -- at least not in public."
In recent days, mainline Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clerics have been taking to their pulpits, calling press conferences and signing statements to express their sharp disapproval of religious leaders who have tried to rally a "Christian" voting bloc this election year. At least two national organizations have been formed this month to fight the influence of groups such as the Moral Majority, the Christian Voice and the Religious Roundtable.
Careful, scholarly statements have given way to unmistakeable attacks. In a recent sermon in New York's Riverside Church, for instance, the Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin criticized the way preachers of the evangelical right use the Bible:
"I would agree that the Bible contains all the answers, at least all the significant ones," he said. But, he added, "the Bible is something like a mirror: if an ass peers in, you can't expect an apostle to peer out."
By proclaiming what it calls "the Christian position" on complicated political issues and attempting to mobilize voting blocs to choose politicians on the basis of their stands on those issues, the evangelical right has infuriated and alarmed religious leader from virtually every point along the theological spectrum.
A statement issued yesterday by leaders of 15 of the nations's largest Prostestant denominations unreservedly condemned the evangelical right as theologically, biblically and politically unsound and unChristian in their style of operation.
"There is no place in a Christian manner of political life for arrogance, manipulation, subterfuge or holding others in contempt," the church leaders said in their "Christian Theological Observations on the Religious Right Movement," adding that, "There is no justification in a pluralistic and democratic society for demands for conformity along religious or ideological lines."
The church leaders went on to take strong exception to "the list of issues which the religious right has identified as the moral agenda facing our nation . . . the moral criteria that many in the religious right use to evaluate candidates for public office . . . the assumption that human beings can know with absolute certainty the will of God on particular public policy issues."
The statement was signed by top executives of Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, United Church of Christ and Presbyterian denominations.
Gary Jarmin of the Christian Voice lobby, one of the groups under attack, countered that it is the establishment church leaders who are "extraordinarily hypocritical . . . They creep around the corriders of Congress with their collars on backwards, claiming to represent the Lutheran Church or the United Church of Christ or whatever. . . . I'll wager 99 percent of [the members of] those denominations don't have the faintest idea of the things they [the ministers] stand for."
Jarmin defended the name of his group and its "report card" on congressional candidates' votes on selected issues, both points of criticism from the establishment religious groups. "We have never presupposed that there is [only] one Christian viewpoint" on political issues, he said. "Christians will obviously have differences."
Two organizations, one made up entirely of mainline religious leaders and the other with them predominating, have sprung up in recent weeks to fight the evangelists of the Christian right.
One group, People for the American Way, will be launched formally today by a coalition that includes television producer Norman Lear, former senator Harold Hughes (D-Iowa), the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee and Dr. William Howard and Dr. William P. Thompson, the current and past presidents of the National Council of Churches.
Their plans call for distributing five 60-second TV spots, already produced by Lear, dealing with the Christian right. "We are trying to communicate to the American people that the Christian community understands that people must make up their own minds" about political issues, explained Thompson, who is the chief executive officer of the United Presbyterian Church.
"The church has the right to express its views," Thompson continued, "but it does not have the right to tell people how to vote."
Backers of People for the American Way, which will have its headquarters here, hope to continue their educational work after the election, focusing on other national problems.The Rev. Michael McIntyre, a Methodist minister who has been working with the group, said Lear got involved when he began looking at the New Right as a subject for a possible TV satire. "But he became so frightened by what he saw that he felt he had to do something about it," McIntyre said.
A similar group, called Moral Alternatives in Politics, has been formed in Milwaukee by a Marquette University theologian and nationally known ethicist, Daniel Maguire. Branding the new Christian right as "religious fascism," Maguire and his group are trying to raise money to fight it on a number of fronts. "We are getting together articles to submit as op-ed [newspaper] pieces; we are trying to reach pulpits [with sample sermons and sermon outlines]; we are trying to reach legislators.
"The right wing every week has a mailing to every legislator in the United States," Maguire said. "Even if Reagan loses they will continue with that kind of activity."
Among the board members of Maguire's group are Rabbi Balfour Brickner of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, theologian-historian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, the Rev. Charles Curran of Catholic University and June Totten, director of governmental relations in Washington for the American Baptist Churches.
One of the problems that mainline church leaders have with the approach of Falwell and others of the evangelical right is the issues they choose to fiure their "morality" ratings. "Many of those who populate this religious position want prayer in schools . . . even if the schools are inadequate and segregated," complained African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Frank Madison Reid Jr. at a conference of black church leaders here last month. "They want to protect the home by not having sex education in the schools. . . . It is all very confusing, those who have experienced the presence of Christ, preparing a political hit list and bragging about it."
None of the mainline critics has challenged the right of religious leaders to comment on the political scene from whatever religious vantage point they have. What they criticize is the way the evangelical right does it.
"Religion in the election year? Yes it's unavoidable," Rabbi Steven S. Mason of the Washington Hebrew Congregation concluded his sermon on the topic on a recent Friday night. "But not a religion of demogoguery, fear and bias; rather a religion of justice, mercy, compassion and peace."