Seattle? The WTO Protests", Religion in the News, Spring 2000
in this issue:
From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does
Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return
Palestinians and Israelis:
Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On
Hide, Jesse, Hide
Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight
Left Behind at the Box Office
The Voucher Circus
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.
Beckmans 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 2000namely, 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
At least in the American press, things didnt go
Beckmans 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
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 OKeefe in a
column published in the November 21, 1999 Portland Oregonian. Laura Billings of the
St. Paul Pioneer Press described Jubilee 2000s 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 Gods 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
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 Suttons 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
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
storyPresident Bushs 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 religionarguably the most important dimension of the
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 didnt even mention debt relief. Which
isnt to say that it wasnt 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 popes appeal for debt forgiveness was "more or
Actually, the pope pursued a very high publicity
strategyhe just didnt 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, Bonos trademark
sunglasses.) Then on May 1, 2000 he hosted an outdoor concert in Romethe Great
Jubilee Concert for a Debt-Free Worldthat 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 2000s 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 crowdsthe 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 Posts
Michael Grunwald profiled Bachus ("the unlikely Sally Struthers of the Third World
debt crisis"), noting that, "For Bachus, 51, a plainspoken Baptist
forgiveness is a religious thing." A conservatives 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 havent read much by
Catholics before, but I dont 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 hed 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, "Weve 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 didnt the storys 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 worlds 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 shouldnt 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 Posts
editorial board, a clearly jazzed Sebastian Mallaby knocked out "Pro Bono," a
September 25, 2000 column which announced that, "Its 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 U2s longstanding if somewhat ambiguous Christian
sympathies and its social activism on debt relief and other issues. As for Bono himself,
it isnt necessary to read between the lyrics.
Just ask him. Thats 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 dont really bow the knee to religion. Im a believer,
Im famous for that, but Im pretty suspicious of religionsorganized
religions, I mean. The point is, I wasnt 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: "Im sure the work that I do at Jubilee 2000
some kind of Catholic guilt, but its working, so well 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
The public policy achievements of Jubilee 2000 have been
tangible, but limitedand, 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
Journalists, mark your calendars: the next G7 meeting is in
July in the popes back yardGenoa, Italy.
Seattle? The WTO Protests", Religion in the News,