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Commentary: Profiling delegates is disservice to Body of Christ

A UMNS Commentary
By Paul Black*

Dec. 6, 2007

Paul Black

I now know what it feels like to be profiled.

For the past several years, racial profiling has been identified as one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time. It is a scourge that negatively affects all people of color of all generations and income levels. On many occasions, profiling ends up victimizing the innocent, non-criminal public.

The 2004 General Conference of the United Methodist Church called profiling "an abhorrent manifestation of racism" and "a painful and tragic reality of our lives."

Sadly, my profiling experience came because of my position in the church.

I realized just how painful and tragic profiling can be when I received a November telephone call from a telemarketer from Conquest Communications asking me to take part in a survey concerning issues at the upcoming 2008 General Conference.

Having spent a number of years in the political world as a congressional staff assistant, I am somewhat dubious of such calls. I am well aware the wording of questions and the underlying messages can have great impact in skewing results.

I informed the caller that before I answered any of his questions, I had one of my own: "Who is paying for the survey?" His response: "The United Methodist Church."

I was aware that the General Council on Finance and Administration conducts a survey to gather demographic information about those whom annual conferences elected to serve as delegates to the worldwide body. However, the caller indicated we would be discussing issues –– matters to be considered by delegates who gather in Fort Worth in late April and early May.

I pressed the issue further, asking, "Are you saying that the General Council on Finance and Administration is paying for this survey?" The caller backed away from his earlier statement, saying a supervisor would have to answer the question.

After putting me on hold for two minutes, the caller came back and told me the supervisor wasn’t available. At that point, I ended the telephone conversation without participating in the survey.

Targeting ‘anger points’

As I did a Google search on Conquest Communications, I found that the Richmond, Va.,-based organization "provides message consulting and direct contact services to political campaigns and business organizations throughout the United States" (www.conquestgroup.com). I found out that its customers have almost exclusively been for Republican or conservative political causes. Conquest’s call center has 80 phones and 1,200 telephone lines operating simultaneously, so calling the 750 U.S. elected delegates to General Conference would be a simple task.

But what drew my attention and raised my ire at the same time was a blog entry from the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette-Mail concerning a 2006 state campaign in which Conquest was involved. Employing a tactic known as "micro-targeting," Conquest’s goal is to identify voters most likely to elect favored candidates (or be favorable to certain issues), and then tailor messages that appeal specifically to those voters, according to the blog.

Political consultants build sophisticated databases that include not just how you voted in previous elections, but whether you drive a Subaru Outback or a Ford F-150, and whether you prefer to shop at Wal-Mart (a likely Republican) or Target (a swing voter).

Then they develop profiles of the types of voters that support their preferred candidate or issues and determine which are swing voters who need further convincing.

Next, they conduct polls to determine what sets you off, known as "anger points." These are the issues that make you mad enough to show up and vote.

Finally, you might receive mailings targeted to your "anger" issue.

Similar to push polling, in which a campaign call is shrouded as a survey meant to trash one candidate or viewpoint, or racial profiling by law enforcement, micro-targeting used by anyone in The United Methodist Church is "an unjust and evil reality that needs to be corrected," to use a phrase from church’ resolution on racial profiling.

I have no problem discussing issues of concern to my church, but I will not be a party to political agendas, whether they come from the conservative side or the liberal side. In fact, for groups to be counting heads five months before General Conference convenes means that we close ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s guidance while gathered in Fort Worth.

Open to conferencing

John Wesley saw Christian conferencing as a means of grace. To have one’s mind made up on all the issues prior to General Conference, without deeply listening to a variety of viewpoints, means we could all mail in our votes and save millions of dollars because what we do when we gather makes no worldly or heavenly difference.

Furthermore, the segmenting and micro-targeting of delegates betrays the notion of being a delegate. In the political world, there is tension in the role our elected officials play in the legislative arena: Are they elected to be representatives (meaning individuals who merely stick their finger in the wind and vote as their constituency would like) or delegates (people who are elected to listen to the debate, discern God’s Spirit in the midst of disparate voices and then be guided in their voting)?

Throughout history, major things have occurred because people functioned as delegates. Even delegates to political conventions are only pledged to their declared candidate for the first ballot; from then on, they are given freedom to respond in the moment.

And even the word used in The Book of Discipline for those elected to General and jurisdictional conferences is "delegate."

Please uphold your General Conference delegates in prayer as they begin their spiritual journey through preparation, serving on legislative sub-committees and voting in plenary sessions. Ask for the Holy Spirit –– not some unofficial caucus or group that has its own agenda, which may or may not be aligned with the mission of "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" –– to guide those who will travel from all over the world to be a part of Christian conferencing.

If we do that, then the profiling of delegates, internal polling and spurious agendas will fall prostrate at the feet of Christ and our resolve as stated by the 2004 assembly, "to remain in covenant with one another, even in the midst of disagreement," and our reaffirmation to Christ’s Great Commission will reign supreme.

*Black is the director of communication ministries for the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference and a lay delegate to the 2008 General Conference. He also is on the United Methodist Commission on Communication, which oversees United Methodist Communications. The United Methodist Church’s statement on “Racial Profiling in the USA” can be found on pp. 429-431 of the 2004 Book of Resolutions.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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