Once again, the Very Rev. Ted Turner has bravely stepped forward to blaze new trails for peace, love and religious tolerance.
And all the people said: Say what?
"I was looking at this woman and I was trying to figure out what was on her forehead," said the founder of the Cable News Network, during a retirement party for anchorman Bernard Shaw. Looking around, Turner realized it was Ash Wednesday and several other Catholics were standing nearby.
"What are you, a bunch of Jesus freaks?", he asked. "You ought to be working for Fox."
There was nothing particularly shocking about the latest statement from the vice chairman of AOL Time Warner, Inc. After all, the Mouth of the South has previously said that Christianity is "for losers," pro-lifers are Bozos and the pope is a Polish idiot. Perhaps he was shocked to see signs of Lenten repentance in his newsroom and he was caught off guard.
But the key to this story came when Turner responded to the latest howls of outrage from his critics. "I apologize to all Christians for my comment about Catholics wearing ashes on their foreheads," he said. "I do not believe in any form of prejudice or discrimination, especially religious intolerance."
If his recent sermons are to be taken seriously, Turner is openly campaigning for the role of religious leader and prophet. By holding himself up as an advocate of religious tolerance, he also is implying that his enemies are the true advocates of religious intolerance.
Turner spoke at length on this topic last fall in a highly confessional address to more than 1,000 rabbis, swamis, monks, ministers and other spiritual leaders at the United Nations. Of course, the media leader did more than speak at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders -- he helped create it.
As a boy, stressed Turner, he had wanted to be a Christian missionary. But now, he said, he understands that missionaries are the enemies of truth and tolerance.
"Instead of all these different gods," he said, "maybe there's one God who manifests himself and reveals himself in different ways to different people. How about that? ... Basically, the major religions which have survived today don't have blood sacrifice and they don't have hatred behind them. Those which have done the best are the ones that are built on love."
Thus, he concluded: "It's time to get rid of hatred. It's time to get rid of prejudice. It's time to have love and respect and tolerance for each other."
Turner doesn't consider himself anti-religious. He is merely opposed to religious groups that he believes are intolerant of other faith groups. Turner believes he is not anti-Christian. He is opposed to Christians who still believe that Jesus is the only path to salvation. And Turner is not anti-Catholic, per se. He financially supports Catholics who oppose their church's teachings on messy, personal subjects such as sex and salvation.
And Turner is not alone in seeing direct links between missionaries and hate groups, between evangelism and violence.
As part of a global United Religions Initiative, California Episcopal Bishop William Swing has said that in order for "religions to pursue peace among each other, there will have to be a godly cease-fire, a temporary truce where the absolute, exclusive claims of each will be honored, but an agreed-upon neutrality will be exercised in terms of proselytizing, condemning, murdering or dominating. These will not be tolerated in the United Religions zone."
Critics who think Turner and his allies are anti-religious crusaders are not seeing the big picture, said Mary Jo Anderson, a contributing editor at the Catholic journal Crisis. There's a reason Turner is so critical of religious groups that he believes are mired in the past. He is convinced that he is helping create the religion of the future.
"Ted Turner has a kind of vision," she said. "He sees a world in which everyone is free to live the way Western man lives, with three TVs, two BMWs and one child. He believes man is evolving spiritually, as well as physically. ... He is absolutely sure that he is going to be a leader in what happens next."