Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Spring 2001

Related Articles:
"Faithless in Seattle? The WTO Protests", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

Other articles
in this issue:

From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does

Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!

Faith-Based Ambivalence

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

Hide, Jesse, Hide

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Aum Alone

Left Behind at the Box Office

The Voucher Circus

Puffing Exorcism













































































































































Hit Counter

What Would Moses Do?
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year
by Dennis R. Hoover

"The worldwide advances toward debt relief constitute the biggest religious news story of the year," David Beckman, president of the Christian anti-hunger group Bread for the World, wrote in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed on December 8, 1999. The organization, like many religious advocacy groups, worked hard in the late 1990s to build a sense of growing momentum, even of inevitability, for the movement to relieve the debt burden of the Third World.

Beckman’s op-ed reflected more wishful thinking than hard-nosed assessment of actual coverage patterns in 1999. But Bread for the World and other religious groups held even higher hopes for 2000—namely, that serious and sustained media attention would be given to a vast, carefully prepared, religiously diverse international movement called Jubilee 2000. The movement coordinated the campaign for debt relief with the jubilee or Holy Year celebrated by Catholics around the world last year.

At least in the American press, things didn’t go Beckman’s way. While the European press gave significant coverage to the Jubilee movement, for the most part the U.S. news media passed on the story. In so doing journalists slighted a major global story that revealed a lot about the power of organized religious groups to influence political and economic policies. In the United States, for example, the campaign achieved considerable legislative success in the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress. Although the debt relief campaign may have seemed to issue overwhelmingly from the religious left, by the end, even Sen. Jesse Helms was on board.

A few journalists did note the unusual religious and political diversity of the campaigners. "The movement illustrates what can happen when the religious left and right unite on an issue," noted Mark O’Keefe in a column published in the November 21, 1999 Portland Oregonian. Laura Billings of the St. Paul Pioneer Press described Jubilee 2000’s coalition as "almost miraculous," stretching from Catholics to Mennonites, Pat Robertson to Jesse Jackson.

The practice of observing jubilee years is based on the biblical account in Leviticus. There Moses announced God’s decree that special years be set aside for the forgiveness of debt, freeing of slaves, and other measures to re-balance the social order. For his part, Pope John Paul II was eyeing debt relief as a jubilee year cause celebre as far back as 1994. In an apostolic letter titled, "As the Third Millennium Draws Near," he wrote, "In the spirit of the Book of Leviticus (25:8-12), Christians will have to raise their voice on behalf of all the poor of the world, proposing the jubilee as an appropriate time to give thought, among other things, to reducing substantially, if not canceling outright, the international debt."

As Jonathan Peterson reported in an engaging retrospective piece in the January 7, 2001 Los Angeles Times, in the early 1990s others were also connecting the jubilee with debt relief, especially in Britain, where the Jubilee 2000 campaign took shape. Peterson recounted how Martin Dent, 75, a retired professor and great-great-great-grandson of a British abolitionist, envisioned the jubilee movement at a pub in Oxford, England. "Dent knew that the Old Testament calls for jubilee every 50 years, a fresh start for slaves and debtors. Linking that Leviticus teaching to the coming millennium, he figured, might goad politicians and galvanize the public." In 1996 Dent and Bill Peters, a retired British ambassador, dubbed the quest Jubilee 2000. Several Christian aid agencies in Britain, including an evangelical group called Tearfund, stepped up to provide crucial early support.

The movement struck a cord in Britain. (Some 50,000 people came out for rallies in Birmingham on May 16, 1998.) But the campaign also crossed borders quickly, and is now active in over 60 countries.

Many British journalists were impressed with Jubilee 2000 as a religious social movement. Will Sutton’s column in the October 3, 1999 London Observer argued that Jubilee 2000 "owes its success and inspiration to the Bible. I doubt many readers know the Old Testament books of Leviticus, Exodus, and Deuteronomy any more than I do, but without them there would be no Jubilee 2000, no debt campaign, and no international public pressure. At the end of an increasingly secular century, it has been the biblical proof and moral imagination of religion that have torched the principles of the hitherto unassailable citadels of international finance." The November 27, 2000 Guardian called Jubilee 2000 "comfortably the most successful mass movement of the past 25 years."

If these assessments erred on the side of triumphalism, most of the U.S. coverage erred on the side of indifference. A search of news databases from the fall of 1999 up through the first two months of 2001 yielded only about a hundred print stories that mentioned Jubilee 2000. The broadcasting media did slightly better in the bean-counting sense--some 150 stories over the same one and a half year period (though many of these were brief and oriented to sound bites from protesters or celebrities). Contrast that with a story the U.S. media did regard as a 'big' religion-and-politics story—President Bush’s initiatives for faith-based social services. Over 600 stories (print and broadcast combined) were generated on this topic in the first two and a half months of 2001 alone.

Given the prominence of the New York Times and Washington Post in international news and national political news, respectively, it is not surprising that they led the field in numbers of articles about Jubilee 2000. Other papers that demonstrated a moderate amount of interest included the Columbus Dispatch, Cleveland Plain Dealer, St. Petersburg Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, and San Jose Mercury News. Overall, though, coverage was spotty at best. And too often journalists understated, or failed to state at all, the role of religion—arguably the most important dimension of the story.

Emblematic of this problem was a National Public Radio segment that aired on January 7, 2001, the day after the jubilee year officially closed. Host Liane Hansen called on the normally reliable Sylvia Poggioli, who described the jubilee as "a great platform for the Catholic Church to…promote its position on numerous social issues." But when Hansen asked, "What were some of the issues the pope actually focused on?" Poggioli didn’t even mention debt relief. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t mentioned at all. Later, when Hansen asked about aspects of the jubilee year that were disappointing or controversial, Poggioli offered the wildly inaccurate claim that the pope’s appeal for debt forgiveness was "more or less ignored."

Actually, the pope pursued a very high publicity strategy—he just didn’t travel to the United States to do it. In September of 1999 he hosted celebrity advocates of debt relief at a retreat in Italy, including Bob Geldoff (of Live Aid fame), Quincy Jones, and U2 lead singer Bono. (The best anecdote to emerge from this encounter was that the pope tried on, then kept, Bono’s trademark sunglasses.) Then on May 1, 2000 he hosted an outdoor concert in Rome—the Great Jubilee Concert for a Debt-Free World—that drew a couple hundred thousand fans and featured the notably un-pious Eurythmics, Alanis Morissette, and Lou Reed. "Solidarity too must be globalized," the pope told the gathered throng.

Moreover, Jubilee 2000 is part of the eclectic revival of grassroots mobilization and street protest that has brought public pressure to bear on most of the major multilateral meetings of the past few years.

Remember Seattle? When the WTO met there in the fall of 1999, and likewise when the IMF and World Bank met in Washington, D.C. the following spring, Jubilee 2000 was also on hand. With the help of area church networks, Jubilee 2000 drew several thousand people to join in its "human chain" demonstrations. In late September 2000 the IMF and World Bank met in Prague, with all the usual demonstrators in tow. But Jubilee 2000 was the only one to show up with the signed support of 24 million people from 166 different countries. Its petition drive was several years in the making, and earned Jubilee 2000 an entry in the 2001 Guinness Book of World Records.

In American newsrooms, Jubilee 2000’s international road show did attract a modicum of attention from the foreign desk. And a few journalists were also able to make the campaign a local story by exploring connections between it and local churches. However, what was too often missing from coverage was the story of how Jubilee 2000 proved that religious lobbying can still, at least in certain circumstances, tip the scales of American policy making.

In fact, last fall Jubilee 2000 was able to win over the toughest of American crowds—the conservative wing of the Republican Party in Congress, which has long been skeptical of foreign aid and international institutions. Last fall, prospects were looking dim for a Clinton administration request for $435 million dollars to fund the first installment of the U.S. contribution to a debt relief plan hatched by G7 countries during the summer of 1999 in Cologne, Germany. GOP leadership in Congress, especially Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, was resisting and trying to make U.S. support for debt relief conditional on a variety of reforms of the IMF and World Bank.

However, Jubilee 2000 had made powerful converts, including Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Alabama. On October 9, 1999 the Washington Post’s Michael Grunwald profiled Bachus ("the unlikely Sally Struthers of the Third World debt crisis"), noting that, "For Bachus, 51, a plainspoken Baptist …loan forgiveness is a religious thing." A conservative’s conservative both religiously and politically, Bachus appears to have been moved by the personal lobbying of several members of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, who also happen to be members of Bread for the World.

Bachus became instrumental in raising awareness in Congress. During Banking Committee hearings he exclaimed, "I haven’t read much by Catholics before, but I don’t know how any Christian could read what the pope is saying here and not agree that we need to do something about the debt of these countries." He also joined with Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, in responding to a Jubilee 2000 call for supporters to fast as a show of solidarity.

In September of 2000 other congressional leaders were stumping for debt relief, including Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, who was having fun leading Bono around Hill offices. One stop was the office of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, who also jumped on the debt relief bandwagon, saying (according to the Los Angeles Times) that he’d be willing to quit the Senate to aid starving children "if the Lord would show me how." Then on October 3 Pat Robertson used his 700 Club TV program to advise viewers in Texas to "let Senator Gramm know that this is a good initiative." And a week later during the second presidential debate George W. Bush championed debt relief.

By October 18 congressional resistance was overwhelmed. Rep. Sonny Callahan, R-Alabama (chair of a subcommittee that had earlier approved only $69 million of the $435 million request), told the Religion News Service, "We’ve got the pope and every missionary in the world involved in this thing, and they persuaded just about everyone here that this is the noble thing to do." When the vote was taken on October 25, Congress approved the full amount by a wide margin.

So why did so few journalists think Jubilee 2000 was ready for prime time? And why didn’t the story’s religious dimensions figure more prominently? Part of the answer may be the perception among journalists that Americans are not interested in international news. As Larry Witham noted in the August 14, 2000 Washington Times, "The entire year in Rome has been ‘Jubilee 2000’ for Roman Catholics...Yet the lack of interest in foreign news in North America… is making the celebration by the world’s largest faith almost disappear from consciousness."

U.S. coverage may also have been stunted by comparison with European coverage due to differences in lobbying styles. In Europe the campaign had more of a mass movement character, filling streets and stadiums and contributing many more signatures to the petition than did the United States. Journalists covering the smaller events staged by the U.S. campaign too often treated Jubilee 2000 as just another leftist voice in the anti-globalization choir.

In this connection, some of the key U.S. backers of debt relief were mainline groups like Catholics and Episcopalians, who have a reputation for practicing "elite" lobbying rather than mass mobilization. (On religious lobbying, a must-read work is Representing God in Washington, by political scientist Allen D. Hertzke.) Mainline lobbies may not carry the weight they once did, but journalists shouldn’t write them off entirely. They have added more grassroots capacity over the years, and they still get their voices heard, especially when linked with coalitions that include religious conservatives.

More broadly, the American news media may have been too easily star-struck. In his January 24, 2000 Newsweek piece, "Can Bono Save the Third World?" John Leland gushed, "Thanks to a series of surreal encounters between a rock-and-roller and some people in very high places, debt relief is now a hot issue." In the wake of a visit by Bono with the Washington Post’s editorial board, a clearly jazzed Sebastian Mallaby knocked out "Pro Bono," a September 25, 2000 column which announced that, "It’s pretty clear that Bono and the alliance of nongovernmental advocates he represents make debt relief more likely." But Mallaby had precious little to say about the "nongovernmental advocates," most of which are religious, or the religious motivations that connect them to their "representative" rock star.

In fact, the Bono connection itself contains a religion story. In his January 27, 2001 article "God & Band," Rich Copley, arts writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader, was almost alone among journalists in noting the connection between U2’s longstanding if somewhat ambiguous Christian sympathies and its social activism on debt relief and other issues. As for Bono himself, it isn’t necessary to read between the lyrics.

Just ask him. That’s what Barbara Ellen did for her September 26, 1999 piece for the London Observer. On his meeting with the pope about debt relief, Bono said: "[T]here was a real sense that, here was a holy man. Which surprised me. I don’t really bow the knee to religion. I’m a believer, I’m famous for that, but I’m pretty suspicious of religions—organized religions, I mean. The point is, I wasn’t expecting to be in any way moved. But there was something about the sheer act of will involved. The determination of the man, ill as he was, to be there today. You realised that Jubilee 2000 is a very big deal to the pope. This idea is perhaps his swan song, and what a swan song it would be if he pulls it off." Likewise on November 25, 2000 the San Jose Mercury News found Bono musing in Rio de Janeiro: "I’m sure the work that I do at Jubilee 2000…is some kind of Catholic guilt, but it’s working, so we’ll continue with it."

In short, Will Hutton got it right in the October 3, 1999 London Observer: "[I]t has been the financial contribution, time, and energy of churches that have given the campaign its spine, notwithstanding Bob Geldoff…."

The public policy achievements of Jubilee 2000 have been tangible, but limited—and, by the lights of debt activists, only a start. (Out of some 52 highly indebted poor countries just 22, almost all in Africa, have qualified for debt relief). Successor organizations to Jubilee 2000 called Jubilee Plus and Drop the Debt plan to make use of the existing movement network and carry on into the "post-Jubilee" era.

Journalists, mark your calendars: the next G7 meeting is in July in the pope’s back yard—Genoa, Italy.

Related Articles:

"Faithless in Seattle? The WTO Protests", Religion in the News, Spring 2000