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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Guilt by Associations"--A Concern and an Excuse

 My article on Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is up at Patheos. This is a story that I expect will continue to grow because of Rev. Rodriguez’s significance to both religion in America and the politics of immigration. As I was working on this story and in the days since I turned it in for publication the phrase “guilt by association” has been on my mind. I want to explain how I see it as both a genuine concern and a troubling excuse in debates over the role of religion in public life.

Genuine Concern

I am convinced that in the case of Rev. Rodriguez there is some “guilt by association” going on in the reporting of his story that is unfair. As I say in the article, Rodriguez’s links to the Oak Initiative were genuinely troubling because he was listed as Vice President of the group at their website and because both the Oak Initiative and Rodriguez’s National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) share Cindy Jacobs as a part of their broad leadership team. Both of those things indicated a level of connection that made for a substantive story worthy of concern and coverage. I am grateful to Rachel Tabachnik and Talk to Action to bringing it to my attention. I do not think, however, that there is substance to the charge that Rev. Rodriguez is deeply tied to the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), an accusation that is regularly brought against him on anti-Religious Right websites. My reporting led me to the conclusion that this is the kind of “guilt by association” charge that can not stand up to serious examination and serves to damage the credibility of the person charged and ultimately of the people making the charge. First of all, the International Coalition of Apostles (ICA), which Rodriguez was briefly a member of, is not the same thing as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Secondly, Rodriguez claimed in an interview with me that he has not been a part of the ICA for two years and that his participation in it was minimal. I spoke with ICA today and they confirmed Rodriguez’s story. Furthermore, the effort to make ICA membership or tangential connections to NAR a permanent stain upon a leader’s character, while never allowing the leader a chance to defend against the charge, is a type of McCarthyism that I would want nothing to do with. There is a real and profound difference between someone currently and clearly being identified as a Vice President of a group with a troubling extremist agenda, and his having been at one time a part of a large group that for all its controversial doctrinal beliefs does not have the clear track record of the Oak Initiative or NAR. We have to leave space for such distinctions or else our reporting will no longer serve the common good, but rather serve an uncompromising understanding of complicity that does not even allow for discussion and moral complexity.

A Troubling Excuse

As equally problematic as shallow guilt by association reporting is the nonchalant response you can easily find in evangelical circles to charges from media sources outside the evangelical tent. This attitude often prevents evangelical institutions and individuals from taking steps to assure that marginal/extremist institutions and individuals are monitored and where necessary challenged. I have written about this extensively at this blog and elsewhere, but it bears repeating—the interplay of ideas and ideologies between evangelicalism, Pentecostalism and the Religious Right is not being adequately covered and discussed by mainstream evangelical media outlets, and in some cases those outlets are themselves becoming conduits for theological radicalism breathtaking in its scope. Serious theological and political questions are not being raised as a result of this neglect, and agendas light years from the centrist “John Stott” evangelicalism that many hold dear are being allowed to pose as mainstream evangelical.

In the gap between guilt by association reporting and lazy denial lie the kind of thoughtful, reflective reporting we desperately need if the varieties of ways in which religion interacts with public life is to be genuinely understood and engaged.

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