Features

Silence isn't golden

National | Confront culture or accommodate it? Religious broadcasters' dispute raises old questions

Issue: "View from the Axis," March 9, 2002

in Nashville-Static isn't what the 1,500-member National Religious Broadcasters group is about. But sometimes it happens: the so-called televangelism scandals of the 1980s, an uproar over financial accountability standards, cutting of ties more recently to its birth parent, the National Association of Evangelicals. Last month it was the ouster of new president Wayne Pederson, a move that highlights a dispute over the cultural and public-policy orientation of the organization (WORLD, March 2). Popular broadcaster James Dobson was so exercised by issues raised in the Pederson controversy that he appended a warning in his keynote speech to several thousand people at the annual NRB convention in Nashville: In the face of worsening social ills, from homosexual propaganda in the public schools to partial-birth abortions, confrontation is a must, he asserted. He chided those who believe that "if you just preach the gospel, everything else will fall into place." Broadcasters and preachers who remain silent on important social issues, he declared, bear a moral responsibility for the consequences. He challenged them to speak out loudly and clearly. He received a standing ovation. It all started in early January when the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published excerpts of an interview with Mr. Pederson. A Minnesota broadcaster elected earlier to the prestigious post of NRB chair, he was tapped last fall to succeed the late E. Brandt Gustavson as president, the NRB's top staff post. At one point in the wide-ranging interview, reporter Martha Sawyer-Allen probed him about the NRB's reputation as a bastion of socio-political conservatism. (Prominent NRB broadcasters like Jerry Falwell, decency advocate Don Wildmon, Focus on the Family president Dobson, author Tim LaHaye, talk show host and commentator Janet Parshall, and others are known for speaking out on social and public-policy issues.) Mr. Pederson told the newspaper he didn't like the NRB's being "typecast" as part of "the far Christian right." He referred to "an element in NRB that wants us to be politically oriented-to take stands on public issues," while the NRB's main constitutional mandate is to boost the effectiveness of the Christian media overall. "We need not be pulled into the political arena." Copies of the interview were circulated in NRB circles, sparking alarm and outrage among the NRB's outspoken public-policy advocates. NRB's members tend to fall into one of three camps: (1) traditionalists who stick to gospel preaching, ministry to believers, and missionary work; (2) activists/traditionalists who believe in speaking out on social and cultural issues; and (3) a younger, growing wave of broadcasters emphasizing music, seeker-friendliness, and other strategies to influence popular culture. It is an uneasy alliance held together by allegiance to evangelical faith, forbearance of one another's turf, and common broadcast interests. Mr. Pederson, himself a pro-life political conservative, admitted to unwise word choices. He expressed "regret" but said he had been misunderstood, and he denied having a secret agenda to change the direction of the NRB. However, his critics doubted that. Dr. Dobson warned NRB executive committee members he would leave the NRB if Mr. Pederson were retained, and he indicated he might even withdraw as keynote speaker at the NRB convention in Nashville. Dr. Dobson also rallied a group of evangelical leaders to his side. An e-mail campaign urged NRB board members to let Mr. Pederson go. The nine-member executive committee met in emergency session with Mr. Pederson on Jan. 28 near NRB headquarters in Manassas, Va. Minutes of that and subsequent meetings obtained by WORLD showed four members in favor of firing the new president, and four in favor of keeping him. For firing: Janet Parshall ("Janet Parshall's America"), Bill Skelton ("Love Worth Finding"), Stu Epperson (Salem Communications), David Clark (FamilyNet); for retaining: Jerry Rose (Total Living Network), Sue Bahner (Crossway Consulting), Michael Little (Christian Broadcasting Network), and Jim Gwinn (Crista Ministries). NRB chair Glenn Plummer, a TV preacher in Detroit, cast the deciding vote, in Mr. Pederson's favor. The committee muzzled Mr. Pederson, restricting him to administrative duties, and ordering him to refer all matters involving public policy, including media inquiries, to the chair, executive committee, and the NRB Public Policy Committee. The committee also instructed Mr. Pederson to write a letter to the full board, explaining himself and seeking to put out fires. He faxed the letter on Feb. 1, but it bombed. In the letter, which the executive committee didn't see in advance, Mr. Pederson again voiced regret for words in the interview that "seemed to indicate NRB is changing direction." However, he then launched into self-defense mode, accusing some unnamed opponents of making "grossly unfair assumptions … about my politics, my theology, and my integrity." He said the NRB "is not abandoning its cultural mandate, but rather prioritizing our mission in line with the Great Commission." To his opponents, the latter statement was but further proof Mr. Pederson was still bent on re-imaging the NRB. Even some of Mr. Pederson's supporters on the executive committee were dismayed. At minimum, they said, the letter showed he lacked competence in leading the NRB's diverse membership and in keeping the peace. They agreed in a conference phone call he should resign; only Mr. Gwinn remained in Mr. Pederson's corner. Under pressure, Mr. Pederson decided to submit his resignation on Feb. 8. "It seemed the right thing to do in light of the committee's request," he told WORLD. Yet he felt confident the full board would vote not to accept his resignation. The executive committee beat the board to the punch. Although they had agreed earlier to let the board decide Mr. Pederson's fate, members voted 7 to 1 on Feb. 15 in Nashville to accept the resignation. On Feb. 16 the entire board convened and devoted most of the morning to its leadership crisis. Mr. Pederson tried to make amends, and some others spoke on his behalf, too. Religious liberty advocate Jay Sekulow argued that the matter was closed, that the NRB constitution forbids the board not to accept the executive committee's decision. His argument carried the day, but the board decided to take a "nonbinding" vote anyway. A bid to retain Mr. Pederson failed 47 to 36. The executive committee reaffirmed its vote; it had earlier mentioned a severance package of possibly up to one year of pay and benefits, but details were still pending. That afternoon, some of Mr. Pederson's supporters reacted angrily at the annual meeting of the membership. They accused the board and executive committee of having done something "terrible" by caving in to "a loud minority." Veteran broadcaster Tom Sommerville said he was "embarrassed" by how the executive committee had handled the mess. Committee member Jerry Rose, a Chicago TV station operator, agreed: "We didn't handle it very well." David Clark of Familynet in Dallas said: "If you don't like the way we work, don't reelect us." He wasn't reelected to the executive committee. In other elections, Bishop T.D. Jakes was elected to the board; nominee Don Wildmon was not. To some of the vocal activists, Mr. Wildmon's defeat was a predictor of which way the NRB is moving.

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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