Beliefs Politics

NEWS FEATURE: McCall: The preacher is a politician, looking at a national stage

c. 1997 Religion News Service

ALBANY, N.Y. _ With animated gestures and a lyrical voice, the preacher roused the ecumenical gathering, urging believers to get politically involved as government retreats from commitments to the poor.

Amid applause and shouts of affirmation, he told the packed church that when Jesus announced he had come to”preach the gospel to the poor … to preach deliverance to captives,”he was essentially saying,”I have come to do politics!””Those of us who follow Jesus, we’ve got to preach that message, too,”the preacher added.”We’ve got to practice it.””That’s right, reverend!”a woman in the crowd shouted.

The reverend, in fact, is H. Carl McCall, the comptroller of New York state.

In his day job, McCall oversees state finances, and as sole trustee of $83 billion in pension investments, his influence reaches beyond New York to all of corporate America. The 61-year-old New York City Democratic is considering a run for governor next year.

But the state’s minister of finance is also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. While he has never pastored a church, McCall earned a master’s of divinity before entering political and corporate life, and preaches regularly in churches and synagogues. He says it keeps him in touch with people of faith and, in turn, lets him motivate congregants to become activists beyond their stained-glass sanctuaries. “I think that’s an important audience, and I try to always figure out where the nexus is between religious activities and secular activities,”McCall said in an interview with RNS.

He admits his preaching”has a political dimension”_ it builds grassroots support.”But I guess I have the unique experience where I can go to a church or synagogue and deliver a message that has both a religious content and a social-political-economic content.” In his government dealings, McCall emphasizes he doesn’t raise religious issues explicitly.”But I’ve always tried to think about the ethical dimensions of what I do.” McCall, for example, uses the state’s vast stock holdings to change corporate behavior.

He helped pressure Time Warner to sell off Interscope Records, which markets gangsta rap, and he prodded Texaco to improve policies toward minorities after its executives made racially offensive remarks on tape.

But McCall has also had to compromise. He refused anti-cigarette activists’ pleas to dump the state’s tobacco investments, although he refuses to buy new tobacco stocks and is pushing tobacco firms to stop marketing cigarettes to minors.”I have a fiduciary responsibility,”he said.”These stocks are very valuable.” Developing a broader political agenda, McCall calls the current system of financing political campaigns ethically flawed because”money and special interests give advantage to certain people and not to others.” And he regularly attacks current welfare reform initiatives, saying government now”punishes people because they happen to be poor.” The issue is sensitive to McCall. He was raised in Boston with five sisters by a single mother on welfare. But he said he had a strong family and his church provided an extended family of African-American role models, including lawyers, dentists and Edward Brooke, who became a U.S. senator from Massachusetts.

When McCall’s high school principal assigned him to vocational courses, parishioners interceded and had him placed in a college preparatory track.”They made it clear to me that college was an attainable goal,”he said.

He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1958 and Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts in 1963.”I found theology challenging, and I wanted to go through that experience,”he said.”I didn’t want to be a pastor, but I thought whatever I did would have a religious dimension.” He worked in the rough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, organizing church groups on housing, jobs and other issues. He later became deputy ambassador to the United Nations and vice president at Citicorp/Citibank, and he held various political offices. Appointed comptroller to fill a vacancy in 1993, he retained office in 1994, becoming the first African American to win statewide election in New York.

McCall has strong support in the black community but”transcends race”in appealing to other ethnic groups, said pollster John Zogby of Utica, an observer of New York politics.

Preaching at a Reform synagogue in upstate Troy, McCall impressed congregants by denouncing the anti-Semitic”message of hatred”of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan. McCall acknowledges his outspokenness on Farrakhan has strained his alliance with some African-American supporters.

While his preaching style at the synagogue was more subdued than at the ecumenical Christian gathering, McCall’s sermon themes remain consistent wherever he preaches.

He calls for tolerance. He cites role models such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Oseola McCarty, the elderly Mississippi laundress who is donating her hard-earned savings to a scholarship fund. And he preaches hope in the face of adversity.”No matter how bad things are, no matter how much arrogance, greed, bigotry, and selfishness may seem to prevail,”faith provides the hope with which to endure, he says.

For all the importance McCall places on his faith, he described his beliefs as always”in a state of flux. You always have to test your beliefs against the realities and the experiences that you have, and see how they hold up.” While he described himself as Christian in his sermon to the ecumenical group, he equivocated during an interview hours earlier.”I think I’m basically very committed to what I would consider the Judeo-Christian tradition,”he said.”I think that itself is a tradition that is ever-changing, that is very dynamic, but it’s one that works for me, and I’m very understanding that it may not work for others.” McCall, however, says he does pray, and one subject of those prayers is whether to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. George Pataki in 1998. Pataki will be tough to beat.

But McCall, said pollster Zogby, has as strong a chance as any Democrat to win.

(OPTIONAL TRIM – STORY MAY END HERE)

Republicans are readying a fight, criticizing McCall for patronage hiring and for using spending audits to embarrass GOP stalwarts such as New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

McCall has also taken on the conservative Christian Coalition, whom he said”represent a wing of the church that has gone overboard in promoting their brand of morality.” For its part, the coalition points to McCall’s blending of preaching and politics as no different from its own style.

Jeff Baran, executive director of the Christian Coalition of New York, said the public often applies a double standard for liberals and conservatives who mix politics and religion.”I’m glad a government official feels it’s OK to go to a house of worship to share with members,”Baran said.”Let’s remember that next year when the Christian Coalition gets called on the carpet for talking about political items in churches.”

MJP END SMITH

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