The Common Good

Controversy in Wisconsin

It was a nice invitation, not unlike many I've received before. Every summer, a number of Christian music and arts festivals convene around the country, featuring musicians and speakers and attracting tens of thousands of young people. I have spoken at many such events over the years and, in fact, met my wife, Joy Carroll, at the Greenbelt festival in England! I'm guessing I've spoken there as many as 10 times. Joy is helping to organize an "American Greenbelt" for next summer called the "Wild Goose" Festival, an image that in Celtic spirituality signifies the Holy Spirit.

So when Lifest, a Christian festival in Wisconsin invited me to come and speak this summer, and the date was free, I accepted. Bob Lenz, who directs the annual gathering, is a wonderful man with a big heart and a powerful ministry among high school kids that has saved many from suicide. He's the kind of guy you want to say yes to. It was put in the calendar.

Then a firestorm erupted. A local Christian radio station, which had always supported Lifest, and a local pastor started circulating attacks against me, suggesting that I was a communist, a deceiver, and, worst of all, an adviser to Barack Obama. My favorite was that I was an "avowed Marxist" and that any young person that heard me would be in "spiritual peril." They were especially concerned that "the social justice message and agenda [Sojourners] promote[s] is a seed of secular humanism, seeking an unholy alliance between the Church and Government." Does that sound anything like the language of a certain Fox News talk show host who has recently come after "social justice" Christians and me in particular? Oh no, they insisted, this had nothing to do with Glenn Beck.

The intimidation of Bob Lenz and Lifest began, insisting that I be canceled or they would face pull-outs and protests. A letter was sent to local churches to call for my cancellation and, like Glenn Beck, the authors just made stuff up. Under a great deal of pressure, Bob called me to discuss what to do. He believed that these people were spreading lies and didn't want to capitulate to their threats. But they were really stirring up trouble, and people were coming after him personally. I decided to call the president of the radio station myself, to ask him what his concerns were, and to offer a dialogue with his board or anybody else he wanted while I was in Wisconsin. But he refused the dialogue unless the station's demands for my cancellation were met (sounds like Glenn Beck again).

He said he was against the "unholy marriage between the government and the church." Me too, I said. When I told him how I successfully worked with the Obama administration to preserve religious freedom in hiring for faith-based organizations who receive any public funds (such as World Vision and The Salvation Army), and spent half of my time on health care in preserving the rule against federal funding of abortion, he became silent and kept moving on to "other issues"

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