Last fall Reverend Richard Morse was doing some cleaning at his church in Kirkland, Washington. He was busy scrubbing the toilets when he received a message that made him stop in his tracks, with his scrub brush in his hand — the White House was on the phone. He had been invited to attend the National Prayer Breakfast with President Clinton.
Without his scrubbing brush, Morse headed to the White House in September for the prayer breakfast. In an interview with Freedom Writer Magazine, Morse observed that he counts his trip to the White House as one of the highlights of his life, but he emphasized that people don't have to go to the White House to make a difference. He said, "There is a need for religious people to stand up and be counted on issues of religious plurality. If we won't stand up and be counted on these important issues, then the abuse [of religion] will continue."
As acting president of The Interfaith Alliance in Washington, Morse has been stirring up controversy for the past year with his outspokenness. He thinks that the polarization of religious opinion in public discourse is "cruel" and wants to encourage more sensitivity, more compassion and more tolerance in the public forum.
Morse is unshaken in his call for civility in public discourse and opposes the legislation of a particular brand of religion in America. He noted that "if you take away religious freedom from one group, then you take it away from all of us. If you allow one group to express its faith in public policy, then you hurt us all."
He also disputes the exclusive claim to political opinion made by the Christian Right. "We like to remind a certain group here in Washington that it is a Christian Coalition, not the Christian Coalition." As an example, Morse cited the diversity of Christian opinion on the abortion issue, observing that "the pro-life view is one Christian view, but it is not the Christian view. Many Christians support a woman's right to choose."
Furthermore, Morse staunchly defends the separation of church and state, and is saddened by those in the Christian Right who would dictate the particulars of public school curriculum, but then hand over prayer to state control. "Prayer is a private matter, not a public matter. It is the responsibility of the church and the home to teach children." He remains convinced that student-led school prayer amendments trample the rights of others and actually damage the exercise of religion.
The Interfaith Alliance is only one year old in Washington, but it boasts 1,600 members. Morse operates as its field director and coordinates its education efforts, fundraising, grant writing, and public relations with the assistance of a ten-pastor steering committee. The committee shares responsibilities, and The Interfaith Alliance has no paid staff. The state organization has grown so rapidly over the past year that, according to Morse, "it's hard to keep the mechanics of the organization moving."
Morse said that The Interfaith Alliance targets elections where religious endorsements are abused, where candidates use a lot of "God" language, and where cries for a return to a Christian nation are the loudest. It has done well by choosing its battles carefully. In the last election it focused on four school campaigns and prepared voter guides which it mailed to voters. It tried to be very fair in its critiques and to stay in the middle of the road. Morse was very proud when it was labeled "moderate religious leaders" by a local newspaper, because it had finally shaken the polarized stereotyping by the media which he so dislikes.
Morse emphasizes that he is not the Christian Coalition's archnemesis, and that he is only a voice of reason attempting to moderate the public discourse in a civil manner. The Christian Coalition finds The Interfaith Alliance perplexing, observed Morse, because it does not have a political agenda. He observed that Christian Right supporters often want to debate with him. Surprisingly, Morse has compassion for his opponents, noting that "they are people with genuine faith who have felt margin-alized for a long time, and they have a point, but they are polarizing the discourse."
With an extremely active Christian Right and an estimated 40,000 Christian Coalition members, there are plenty of people in Washington who want to argue with Morse. Christian right supporters who called in to a Christian talk radio show which featured Morse as a speaker, turned the show into a mockery and hijacked the discussion. Morse observed that "the calls that came in were venomous and mean-spirited. Bringing peace is important, not polarity."
Even Morse's own family and congregation have expressed concern about his activities. Morse's views are a definitive break with his family's conservative tradition. Striking out on his own path has been painful for Morse at times, because "people don't understand what we're about." When he was invited to the National Prayer Breakfast, his congregation feared that he would abandon his pastorate for work with The Interfaith Alliance.
They needn't have worried. Morse has no plans to leave the congregation that he has pastored for twelve years. His congregation remains supportive, even taking up a collection to fund his second trip to the White House in April when he was invited for coffee with the President. In a discussion over whether charities and churches should provide social services instead of the government, the President leaned back in his chair and said, "Well what do you think, Rick?" Morse responded that it was "not within the realm of reality" for churches and charities to shoulder the full burden of social services. Clinton responded that he agreed with Morse, but added, "I think government and charities could work together better."
Critical of those in the Christian Right who pass judgment on President Clinton's spirituality, Morse observed that "we don't have the right to say that this man [President Clinton] is not a member of the faith he professes to be. It's a human issue, not a faith issue. It is not for us to question another person's faith. It's not what we're about."
With its emphasis on freedom and diversity within its membership, Morse's denomination, Disciples of Christ, has a strong commitment to ecumenicism and forging interfaith connections. People shouldn't "put God in a tiny little box," said Morse, who became a pastor because he wanted to make a difference in the world. "I could see where the genius of faith is — in making a difference in people's lives."
That desire to make a difference, and spiritual fervor, are what keep Morse going in spite of the opposition he faces. Morse remains committed to peace, even in the midst of a turbulent and politicized public discourse, saying "bringing peace is important, not division and polarity. If we are going to be people of faith, we need to recover the roots of our religion which will lead us all toward peace."
He is not easily intimidated. "We don't need 40,000 people, we just need some common sense," observed Morse while discussing The Interfaith Alliance and the Christian Coalition in his state. He counseled activists not to be intimidated by their opponents and "not to marginalize the Christian Coalition but to take it seriously. It has a right at the public table of discourse, but it doesn't own the table."
One of the best lessons activists can draw from Reverend Richard Morse's example is to not surrender their individual peace of mind to the battles that they fight. He has counseled activists to take comfort "in knowing that what you are doing is the right thing. There's a peace in knowing that what you are doing is right."