Congressmen Tangle With Church Leaders : Lawmakers Becoming Increasingly Vocal in Defending Their Positions Against Criticism

Associated Press

Politicians, apparently smarting at church rebukes to policies they help shape, sometimes talk back. In several recent instances, some members of Congress have fired off rejoinders to their denominations.

The legislators argue that they are right about the issues involved and that in questioning their positions, the churches are on the wrong track.

Such give and take seems to be becoming part of the church-state interaction.

The Rev. James Andrews of Atlanta, chief executive of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said of the lawmakers' complaints: "I'm delighted they're interested."

In the past, he noted, they generally did not responded at all to denominational stands about public issues.

Open political reactions seem to have become increasingly common since the Reagan Administration tangled publicly three years ago with Catholic bishops about their stand against nuclear weaponry.

Another apparent influence is Institute for Religion and Democracy, a conservative, independent group in Washington that is often critical of stands of mainline Protestant denominations and the National Council of Churches.

'A Definite Effect'

That public officeholders are concerned and also affected by church views is something many of them readily acknowledge. This has been brought out in studies and in recent interviews.

Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), one of several congressional members of the United Church of Christ surveyed last month by the denomination's United Church News, said:

"I rarely feel that I can receive a message from on high as to how I should vote, but I'm sure the values and concerns that are stressed by the church have a very definite effect on my decisions."

The latest retort to church leadership came from two United Methodists, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) and Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), criticizing a draft pastoral letter by their bishops on nuclear arms.

"We are concerned that the bishops did not receive adequate testimony from those who support the basic outlines of our bipartisan defense policy of the last 40 years," Barton and Boren wrote.

"We are also concerned about whether adequate consideration has been given to the beliefs, goals and policies of the Soviet Union."

United Methodist bishops, in the preliminary draft of their pastoral, condemn the nuclear arms buildup, reject nuclear deterrence, saying it perpetuates the arms race, and call for a multilateral nuclear freeze.

'Independent Effort'

Barton and Boren said that they appreciate the bishops' efforts to grapple with the issue but that they disagreed with the pastoral, commending instead plans for an "alternative statement" by a group called United Methodists for Religious Liberty and Human Rights. That group is a small caucus within the Institute for Religion and Democracy.

Glenn Griffin, legislative aide to Barton, told United Methodist News Service that although the contents of the Barton-Boren letter were discussed with the institute, "this is an independent effort."

Two United Methodist bishops later met briefly with Barton, who said he believed that "we were not listening well" to Administration policies and that not enough emphasis was put on containing "atheistic Communism."

The bishops, C. P. Minnick Jr. of Raleigh, N.C., and C. Dale White of White Plains, N.Y., said the meeting was cordial. "In this whole process, we want to be brothers and sisters in dialogue and not adversaries seeking to discredit each other," Minnick said.

Griffin said that Barton was "pleased" with the meeting but that the letter, seeking to get other United Methodists in Congress to join in it, would not be withdrawn.

About 75 members of Congress are United Methodists.

Earlier, 20 Presbyterian members of the House of Representatives signed a letter to Andrews, criticizing postions taken by the denomination's representative general assembly.

There are about 55 Presbyterians in the House and Senate.

The letter said that although the signers "look to the guidance of the church for direction and moral sustenance," they object to denominational positions on U.S.-Soviet relations, nuclear deterrence and Central America.

The denomination has urged a toning down of hostile U.S.-Soviet "rhetoric," denounced use of nuclear weapons, questioned nuclear deterrence and opposed U.S. military intervention in Central America.

The protesting Presbyterian Congress members, most of them Republicans, say the denominational positions don't recognize the "expanding military nature of the international Communist presence" in Central America.

The church assembly "seems to suggest that U.S.-Soviet relations should not be based on the question of human freedom" but on fears of nuclear war and efforts "to smooth over very meaningful differences between our countries to attain an aura of peace," the lawmakers wrote.

The letter of the Presbyterians in Congress, 17 of them Republicans and three Democrats, commended differing views of a recently formed conservative group, Presbyterians for Democracy and Religious Freedom, also linked to the Institute.

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