A priest, a rabbi, and some ministers…: Clergy mix it up, theologically speaking, on longtime TV show

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
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One of the drawbacks of a life in ministry is that Sunday morning television – with all its political debates, spin doctoring, and ideological posing – is generally off-limits.

“I’m usually busy on Sundays,” jokes the Rev. Tom Plumbley, senior minister at First Christian Church in Fort Worth. “I don’t get much chance to watch the politicians argue.”

But for decades, religious leaders have been assembling in a Dallas studio to have their own version of Meet the Press or Face the Nation. Their show, The American Religious Town Hall Meeting, is one of the longest-running television programs of all time.

Its unique ecumenical ministry is also one of the few places where Americans can regularly see representatives of a half-dozen faith traditions debate the religious issues of the day.

“It’s just a bunch of preachers sitting around arguing about religion, and that’s really fun,” said Bishop Othal Lakey of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, who, like Mr. Plumbley, is a panelist on the half-hour program.

“The format is almost identical to those political shows, and that’s what I like about it,” he said. “Religion is not the set thing we like to believe. It’s a fulcrum of activity. Religion does us a disservice when people think we’ve settled everything once and for all.”

The program, which debuted in 1952 and which has been based in Dallas since 1970, is seen on 300 stations across the country and transmitted over five satellites. Locally it airs at 6:30 a.m. Sunday on Channel 39.

It was founded in St. Paul, Minn., by Bishop A.A. Leiske, a Seventh-day Adventist minister who believed there was much to be gained from having an open discussion between faiths. The show usually features a Roman Catholic priest, a rabbi, and representatives of a variety of Protestant denominations.

“We believe there’s a lot we can learn from talking to each other,” said Pastor Robert Leiske, Bishop Leiske’s son and the show’s host. “It’s a great expression of our freedom in America to have these people openly discussing these topics on television.”

Their topics range from the deeply theological to politics, economics, and culture. The Town Hall will soon start a series on “America at War,” which will include shows on religion and patriotism, free speech, American Muslims, and racial/ethnic profiling. Recent shows have discussed issues as diverse as the
nature of Satan, free trade with China, Jewish-Christian relations, and the impact on faith of globalization.

“We’re not trying to proselytize anybody or save anybody,” said the Rev. Ray Flachmeier of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “We’re trying to give people an opportunity to think and reflect and grow.”

Some topics are more divisive than others. Mr. Plumbley said one “explosive” discussion drew heated responses from viewers.

Mr. Plumbley said most of the panel disagreed with his arguments supporting gays and lesbians’ full participation in the church.

“Pastor Leiske didn’t let me know about it at the time, but his wife told me later that some stations threatened to no longer carry the program because of the things I said on the air,” he said. “They didn’t want people saying those kinds of things on their station. That showed the kind of integrity he has in wanting to let people have their say.”

On the back wall of Pastor Leiske’s Buckner Boulevard office is a framed photograph of him meeting with Pope John Paul II – not something every non-Catholic clergy would display prominently.

“It is a bit unusual,” he said. “I’m a strong Protestant and a devout Seventh-day Adventist. But the Roman Catholic Church is a very important part of the world, and I sometimes feel that all of us are too suspicious of each other.”

That devotion to interfaith understanding is the basis for Pastor Leiske’s television show. Despite his strong beliefs, Pastor Leiske generally withholds his own point of view.

“Some of my brethren within the church have been upset over the years that I haven’t used this program as an opportunity to talk more about our faith,” he said. “But I work hard to make sure it’s not an Adventist ministry. That’s not what the show is for. If I were to get up and talk about Adventism, the interest would go away immediately.”

While the show does present a range of religious points of view, some panelists said it lacks diversity in other ways. All the regular panelists are male, all but Bishop Lakey are white, and most are at least 50 years old.

Pastor Leiske sometimes invites women and ethnic minorities to participate in specific shows. Imam Yusuf Kavakci of the Dallas Central Mosque will join the panel for shows related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example.

Pastor Leiske said he thinks that he has diversified the show’s guest lineup as much as he can.

“The panel can’t grow any bigger without it becoming very unwieldy,” he said.

Several panelists said the give and take of the program has affected the way they work with their own congregations.

“There’s usually a guy or two on the other side of the panel who disagree with me on most issues,” Mr. Plumbley said, mentioning Dr. Bert Beach, who represents the Seventh-day Adventist Church on the program. “So when I’m preparing a sermon, I always think, ‘How would Bert receive this?’ It helps me to think through my reasoning.”

Prentice Meador, senior minister at Prestoncrest Church of Christ, said the show’s interaction helps him minister to those with doubts about religion.

“I teach a ‘searchers’ class for unchurched people,” Dr. Meador said. “Those people are coming in to our church with caution, doubt, disbelief, questions. The work at I do on American Religious Town Hall helps me get over into the mind of someone who doesn’t believe in everything I do and say, ‘These are reasonable questions, and they deserve reasonable answers.’ ”

Appearing on the show has another side benefit for the panelists: It makes them into television stars. Admittedly, it’s a grade of stardom a few steps below Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts, but it’s stardom nonetheless. Panelists said they regularly get recognized when traveling as “that guy on TV.” Autograph requests aren’t uncommon.

“Last week, I was in Baldwin, Mississippi, for a funeral,” Bishop Lakey said. “My wife and I were sitting at dinner and this fellow came up to me and said, ‘Don’t I know you? Aren’t you on TV?’ He shook my hand and said how glad he was to meet me. He said he watches it religiously.”

It costs about $1 million a year to buy the airtime on stations across the country. But unlike many other religious programs, the Town Hall doesn’t ask viewers to send checks. Pastor Leiske and his staff run a chain of nursing homes and assisted-living centers, mostly in Texas, whose proceeds go toward funding their ministry.

Pastor Leiske, 70, plans to retire next year, when the program turns 50. Unlike his father, he has no family members interested in taking over his role. He’s looking for a successor.

His panelists hope he’ll be able to find someone to continue his father’s work.

“This is really a ’50s model of ecumenism,” Mr. Plumbley said. “Back in those days, people thought that if you could just get the different groups to talk to each other, you’d really accomplish something.”

What they’re accomplishing isn’t always easy to see, Pastor Leiske said.

“The goal, of course, is to be in a setting or society with the richness that each of us provides in a different way, and that in spite of that diversity we bury the things that divide us and emphasize the things that unite us,” he said. “It’s a very, very elusive thing.”