Racist group’s Maine visit raises question: What is a church?

Bangor Daily News, Jan. 18, 2003
http://– BROKEN URL yellowbrix.com -/

The World Church of the Creator, the white supremacist group that organized the anti-Somali rally in Lewiston last weekend, lays dubious claim to its name.

Legally, the Illinois-based group recently lost a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by a religious organization in Oregon that uses the same name. U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow ruled against the Illinois WCOTC and ordered destruction of printed materials bearing the name.

She also ordered the group to assume a new name, one not including the words “church” or “creator.”

Two area clergy leaders say the Illinois group’s name distorts accepted theological terminology in an effort to draw converts.

The word “church” has its roots in ancient Greek. Originally referring to an assembly of governing councilors, it has since at least A.D. 825 been associated with religious gatherings and gathering places, most often Christian, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although there are no legal limitations on its use, “there is an assumption of Christianity” associated with the word, said the Rev. Terry Phillips, president of Grace Evangelical Seminary in Bangor.

That assumption makes affiliation with a “church” acceptable to mainstream Americans, he said.

Christians understand that “Christ went to the cross for the benefit of all humans, for those who trust the message of salvation and those who don’t,” Phillips said. “There are no barriers – not gender or ethnicity or social status.”

WCOTC’s message of hatred toward nonwhites is “an instant dead giveaway of their cult status,” he said. “True Christianity is nonexclusive.” Phillips said,

But WCOTC doesn’t make a claim to be Christian or belief in any kind of God.

So how has the WCOTC justified its status as a church? Its Web site says that religion addresses a broader spectrum of human concerns, and it compares the “religion” of Creativity with more accepted nontheistic philosophies.

Glenn T. Miller, a professor at Bangor Theological Seminary, said the “church” designator also provides concrete constitutional benefits.

“The broadest laws protecting freedom of expression in the United States deal with the freedom of religion,” he said. “It’s always been an absolute. Historically, Americans have been willing to take the risk of allowing all sorts of things to bubble up under the name of religion.”

On the positive side, Miller said, this liberalism has allowed the development of movements such as Pentecostalism, which began as a controversial, even reviled interpretation of Christian tenets but has survived to influence such mainstream stalwarts as the Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. “It’s brought a very creative mix and lots of new ideas,” Miller said. “That’s the good side of there being no monopoly on the word ‘church.'”

The bad side, he said, is that “you can make it mean anything you want,” even the espousal of hatred and intolerance.

“This [Illinois group] seems to me to be devoted to racial hatred. It’s very hard to

see how it reconciles with Christian teaching. … They are very close to violating

the laws of hate crime. Putting it under the rubric of ‘church’ makes it harder to prosecute.”

Phillips and Miller agree that the name World Church of the Creator likely sparks interest from angry, disenfranchised whites from Christian backgrounds who might otherwise turn away from the racist organization.

“Personally, I’m really distressed by the way this group uses the word ‘church,'” Miller said. Hate speech should be no more protected under the guise of “religion” than in any other context, he said. “Groups that maintain old hatreds and encourage violence are something our society has to outlaw. True Christians believe the church exists to increase of the love of God and neighbor.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday January 21, 2003.
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