FACETIME- Telford's task: Taking on the religious right

George Telford remembers the rise of Nazi Germany– and the role of some major religious organizations. "Some were co-opted by the Nazis; others were fearful and silent," he says. "Never again."

A couple of years ago, man-of-the-cloth Telford and some of his clergy buddies became alarmed that the religious voices they were hearing on political issues were all coming from the right.

Telford calls them a "radical read on Christianity," one the now-retired Presbyterian minister feels doesn't represent his experience with his faith.

"The major spark was the decision to go to war in Iraq and the unqualified support of the religious right," says Telford. "We didn't really hear anyone speaking in another voice."

Like the Nazi era, Telford thinks the religous right is too tight with the current administration. "Never again should one perspective be so tightly aligned with those in power," he says, "the kind of alignment and sense of righteousness that no one can question."

Thus was born Clergy & Laity United for Justice & Peace. Telford concedes the name is rather clunky and the group, now numbering 33, keeps trying to think of something a little snappier.

What the group has come up with is its first public event: a September 20 forum with a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim– a mix Telford calls "absolutely stellar"– discussing the role of religion in politics. 

 And he stresses the "lay" in the group– it's not just clergy.

Carl Matthews, a diplomat for 25 years, is the group's chairman and chief layman. He was recruited by Telford, and notes the minister's special skill set. "He's the only person in our group with the combined experience of leading a church here in Charlottesville and the national church organization," Matthews says.

Telford, 72, was the pastor of Westminister Presbyterian from 1962 to 1968, a term during which the now-defunct Prism Coffeehouse was born. When he retired, he was a professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, the educational bastion of the American Presbyterian Church.

Clergy and Laity United is not Telford's first foray into activism– though he doesn't look at combining his lifelong faith with a public presence as merely activism. "I was here in the '60s," he recalls, "a difficult time with race issues. My church was trying to speak for an inclusive and just community."

Telford's still trying to speak for an inclusive community, "a public policy predicated on values shaped through the widest engagement of citizens– not just the Christian right– or even just Christian. There are many other perspectives.

"I'm really getting nervous about this being focused on me," Telford protests after chatting with a reporter. But sometimes, even with the noblest of intentions and causes, a deal with the devil is unavoidable.

The Role of Religion in Politics: Jewish, Christian and Islamic Perspectives, takes place 7:30-9:30pm September 20 at the Albemarle County Office Building on 5th Street Extended.

George Telford