Church Of The New Song
A two-year-sect made up primarily of prison inmates is gaining considerable recognition throughout the United States, much to the consternation of corrections officials.
The Church of the New Song, founded by Maine-born Harry W. Theriault, who is serving sentences for theft and escape (currently in a La Tuna, Texas, prison), seems to focus its doctrines upon the rights of prisoners. Or at least that has been the source of its popularity. Wardens in several federal penitentiaries where the movement is strong have refused to accommodate these “rights,” and the prisoners have taken the resulting disputes to courts.
A federal judge in San Francisco dismissed a suit filed in behalf of inmates, calling the claims “patently frivolous.” A warden at San Quentin said the group’s communion services specify using Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry and Porterhouse steak. A federal judge in Texas also ruled against the Church of the New Song, but that case is being appealed.
Theriault, 33, has made the most headway in litigation before Federal Judge Newell Edenfield of Atlanta. A year ago Edenfield ruled in effect that the Church of the New Song was a legitimate religious group as worthy of recognition by prison officials as a group of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, or Muslims would be. Theriault subsequently brought charges against Norman Carlson, director of the U. S. Bureau of Prisons, and the Reverend Frederick Silber, director of chaplaincy services for the bureau. Theriault argued that they were in contempt of court because they were not giving New Song adherents adequate freedom to practice their religion. Edenfield again ruled in his favor, but put off sentencing Carlson and Silber pending the outcome of appeals.
The New Song has a 600-page “bible” drawn from an assortment of sources and using exotic terminology. Theriault, who calls New Song “the highest fulfillment of the Christian prophecy,” has a ministerial license from the mail-order Universal Life Church in Modesto. California. (ULC also elevated a rapist at California’s Folsom prison to “cardinal,” causing a furor there.)
Zaire Zaps Its Religious Press
The religious press in Zaire (formerly Congo) is the most recent victim of the government’s continuing pressure on churches. On February 8, Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko signed a law suspending thirty-one publications. Every major church-sponsored periodical appeared on the list.
The Roman Caltholic monthly Afrique Chrétienne was closed down for the third time in three years by the government’s action. Banned Protestant publications ranged from the vernacular Minsamu Miayenge, the oldest periodical in the country (founded 1892), to Zaire Church News, official journal of the Church of Christ in Zaire and its predecessor body since 1912. Even the mimeographed news bulletins of the three major churches (Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Kimbanguist) were interdicted.
Religious youth organizations were suspended late last year when the regime decreed that the only youth group that could function was the youth wing of the nation’s single political party. About the same time all religious programs were barred from the government-owned national radio and television network.
“Authenticity” is the catch-all word used by the government to justify its various restrictive moves against the churches. The reason given for suspending religious youth groups illustrates the logic: Different religious groups disseminate differing doctrines that tend to confuse and divide the Zairian people; this division weakens President Mobutu Sese Seko’s campaign to build a strong united nation founded on authentic Bantu concepts.
The decree suspending all these publications put this logic in official form: “It is indispensable that the media of mass communication be engaged under the Department of National Orientation in the development of an authentic Zairian revolution, given that the harmonious development of the country necessitates unity of action.”
A government-controlled daily newspaper, Elima, intimated that the government’s restrictive measure on the religious press was directed primarily against the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The Catholic Church has been stubbornly resisting the regime’s moves toward a secular state for it would thereby lose its favored and politically powerful status.
But if the recent repressive moves of the regime are indeed directed primarily against the Catholics, Protestants find small consolation or compensation in this. Ever since Dr. Bokambanza Bokeleale assumed leadership in 1970 of what is now the Church of Christ in Zaire, he has closely allied the CCZ to the regime’s moves and aims. As late as December, 1972, he praised the government’s policies without reserve in his Christmas message. But despite this loyalty, the CCZ was hit as hard as the Catholic Church.
ROBERT L. NIKLAUS
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