On the day before the annual General Assembly of the National Council of Churches (NCC) last November, nearly two dozen mainline Protestants and members of historically African-American denominations, as well as one Orthodox woman, convened for a day-long "Young Adult Pre-Event." The most striking feature of the program was a presentation by Catholic columnist Colleen Carroll Campbell, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and current fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Campbell spoke on her recent book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.
It is not clear why council staffers chose Campbell as a speaker. Her presentation was about a movement that is decidedly differerent from the NCC's expression of Christianity. Indeed, the council seems to be headed precisely in the opposite direction from the trend described by Campbell. Rather than welcoming the movement as a source of new energy for ecumenism in the coming century, NCC leaders appear determined to drive it away. Their programs and positions have little that would appeal to--and much that would alienate--the growing edge of American Christianity.
Campbell's research project involved a year of interviews with over 500 Christians throughout America aged 18 to 35. She discerned a broad movement of American young adults within Protestant as well as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox contexts. Large numbers in all three branches of the Christian family are embracing theologically orthodox, morally conservative, and very personally demanding forms of Christianity. They are driven by a "[h]unger to know and experience the richness of their own religious tradition--and to share their faith," in the words of a fair synopsis of Campbell's remarks on the NCC web site.
In clarifying her terminology, Campbell cited G. K. Chesterton's autobiography, Orthodoxy: "When the word 'orthodoxy' is used here, it means the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed."
Noting that these young people have largely grown up in a secular culture and often in churches where the more challenging and counter-cultural teachings of Christianity were de-emphasized, Campbell stressed: "Contrary to stereotypes, the young Americans driving this trend are generally not products of a 'religious ghetto' or fundamentalists seeking a refuge from a world they fear or loathe. Rather, these new faithful tend to be highly educated and worldly-wise." Furthermore, these young Christians quite counter-culturally "base their morality on truth claims that they believe apply to everyone. That belief flies in the face of the moral relativism that so many of them were weaned on as children."
That belief also flies in the face of the dominant ethos at the NCC. NCC leaders often imply their disagreement with the foundational Christian doctrine that humankind can be redeemed only through Christ's sacrifice. At last spring's meeting of the NCC Executive Board, the Rev. Rothang Chhangte of the American Baptist Churches, who now co-chairs the council's Interfaith Relations Commission, blasted "the evangelical, or the right-wing" for their "exclusivism" in believing that "Jesus is the only way." Not one board member challenged her. As the featured speaker of the Women's Caucus luncheon during the November General Assembly, Dr. Aruna Gnanadason, an official of the World Council of Churches, declared that "as Christians, we can no longer claim to have the only truth." She urged her audience to recognize a "plurality of truths."
The NCC's dedication to moral relativism was poignantly illustrated during the question-and-answer session following Gnanadason's speech. A clearly conflicted member of the Young Adult Stewards team shared that while she understood that she should not seek to "impose" her own cultural or religious values on others, she was deeply troubled by the brutal practice of female genital mutilation in Africa. Gnanadason responded by acknowledging that every culture has its problems, but stressed that fixing problems in African cultures was strictly "for African women to do." She went on to warn the Women's Caucus against "the danger of universalizing even human rights."
Another characteristic that sets Campbell's new faithful apart is their "avoidance of pre-marital, extra-marital or homosexual sex" and their opposition to efforts to redefine the institution of marriage to include same-sex unions. The NCC has no official position on matters of sexual morality; however, all the evidence suggests that its leaders are not in sympathy with traditional biblical teachings. A booklet produced in the last year by the NCC's Justice for Women Working Group included a pro-homosexuality group, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), in a short list of recommended "Resources." Bishop Thomas Hoyt of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, who currently serves as NCC President, has lobbied unsuccessfully to allow the Metropolitan Community Churches, a predominantly homosexual denomination, to participate in some official capacity in the NCC.
At the NCC's "Ecumenical Advocacy Days for Global Peace with Justice" conference last March, the council's General Secretary, the Rev. Robert Edgar, publicly assured Louie Crew, founder of the pro-homosexuality Episcopal group Integrity, that "all" members of the NCC staff are working for acceptance of homosexual practice within their own denominations. Edgar added that he was involved in his own United Methodist denomination's "reconciling" movement. His reference was presumably to the pro-homosexual Reconciling Ministries Network. At the 2000 General Assembly, Edgar announced his support for same-sex "marriage."
Not too long ago, the NCC appeared to be willing to work with more conservative Christians on common ground issues like strengthening the family. Beginning in May 2000, a broadly ecumenical Christian team of leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the NCC developed "A Christian Declaration on Marriage." The declaration called on churches to work harder to strengthen the institution of marriage in the face of such challenges as decreasing interest in marriage and increasing rates of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births. However, in a stunning about-face, Edgar yanked his name and the endorsement of the NCC from the document three days after it was released. Although the declaration made no mention of homosexuality, Edgar was yielding to a vocal minority of pro-homosexuality church activists who objected to a single phrase in the declaration: "We believe that marriage is a holy union of one man and one woman." Edgar reneged on his commitment to this landmark endeavor of ecumenical cooperation despite the fact that the NCC representative who had helped draft the declaration explicitly assured her colleagues that the phrase would not be a problem, as it was how 34 of the NCC's 35 member communions defined marriage.
On such matters, the NCC appears to be more comfortable working with non-Christian leftist activists. Last month, the General Assembly adopted a new policy statement entitled "The Church and Children: Visions and Goals for the 21st Century." The committee responsible for developing the statement consisted of representatives from eight of the NCC's current 36 member denominations as well as individuals from the Ecumenical Child Care Network, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the pro-homosexuality Search Institute, the Democratic-leaning Children's Defense Fund, the Zero to Three organization (which opposes the "heterosexist bias" that influences how many Americans think of family ideals), and the anti-war Parenting for Peace and Justice Network. The new NCC policy statement, unlike the earlier "Christian Declaration on Marriage," says nothing about the value for children of growing up in the care of a mother and a father married to one another. Instead it affirms an unqualified commitment to "[p]rotect[ing] the dignity and valu[ing] the diversity of every family."
The new faithful, according to Campbell, are also strongly pro-life. They see "their stand against abortion as more counter-cultural than conservative, a rebellion against a society that has failed to defend its weakest members." While the NCC takes no official position on abortion, again the leanings of its leaders are entirely opposed to the sensibilities of the new faithful. The NCC regularly co-sponsors political events with pro-abortion rights groups, while it virtually never joins hands with pro-life groups. As a Democratic U.S. representative and then U.S. Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, Robert Edgar was an uncompromising champion of abortion on demand, fighting for taxpayer funding of all types of abortions and speaking at a large abortion rights rally in 1986. More recently, he has publicly "thanked God" for his failure to unseat Republican Senator Arlen Specter in 1986, explaining that as the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the "pro-choice, pro-environment" Specter is ideally placed to "be a thorn in [President Bush's] side" on judicial nominees. In a fundraising letter for his 1982 congressional campaign, Edgar excoriated pro-lifers for their "totalitarian dedication to a narrow fundamentalist vision of morality."
Campbell also reported that "[e]cumenism is flourishing among these new faithful," who participate in interdenominational programs like the Vine, which is dedicated to a "highest common denominator ecumenism" in which they "bring all of their beliefs to the table for frank conversations that honor the importance of doctrine and affirm the existence of absolute truth."
This approach stands in obvious contrast to the NCC's "plurality of truths." The rallying point around which the NCC seeks to unite people does not seem to be orthodox Christianity as much as sectarian politics. This approach could explain the ease with which the NCC broadens its "ecumenical" endeavors, such as the aforementioned statement on children and the Faithful Democracy "civic participation" effort, to include Unitarian Universalists, liberal Jewish groups, and secular political activists. During the November General Assembly, one employee of the NCC's relief arm stressed that a "great strength" of Church World Service was that it is "thoroughly interfaith," uniting people on "humanistic" goals and principles. In introducing Jewish folksinger and activist "Brother Peter Yarrow" to the 2004 NCC General Assembly, Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Associate General Secretary for Justice and Advocacy, explained, "He's a nice guy, and that makes him part of our family."
The new faithful, according to Campbell, have generally "gravitated toward the Republican Party" because of the GOP's stand on their "non-negotiable issues," especially pro-life issues. But they are by no means a partisan political monolith, and "no party should take these voters for granted." On many political issues they have a wide spectrum of views. Furthermore, Campbell observed that "most passionately object to the false dichotomy that pits social justice on the one hand against orthodox theology on the other" and "[m]any are passionately working to combat poverty, promote racial reconciliation, and eradicate the death penalty -- causes that do not conform to the reactionary political label their critics assign to them."
The NCC, by contrast, does appear to be a partisan political monolith. Not only is the council headed by a former Democratic congressman who has boasted at NCC functions of having been one of the "most liberal" members of Congress, but its political advocacy consists of advancing positions almost invariably aligned with the left wing of the Democratic Party. For example, in recent years the council has: opposed the Iraq War; criticized the detention of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay; opposed restrictions on trade with Cuba and North Korea; denounced free trade agreements elsewhere in the world; condemned President Bush's tax cut proposals; pushed for increased government spending on a range of entitlement programs; supported amnesty for illegal immigrants; and called President Bush's environmental policies "immoral." At official NCC meetings, it is extremely rare to hear anyone inside the council question this one-sided agenda.
General Secretary Edgar described the NCC's efforts to influence the 2004 elections as "non-partisan work for regime change," echoing the rhetoric of Democratic activists. NCC voter "education" and "mobilization" programs featured polarizing left-wing figures such as Michael Moore and the Rev. James Forbes. Several of the NCC's official partners in these efforts were clearly working to boost the prospects of Senator John Kerry and other Democratic candidates. Such partners included the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and USAction and People for the American Way.
Furthermore, according to NCC financial documents, the council has received significant direct funding ($100,000) from the left-wing activist group, MoveOn.org. This amount is larger than the contributions of all but four of the council's member denominations. Eli Pariser, the MoveOn's PAC director, recently remarked on the financial resources his group had channeled to help the Democratic Party: "Now it's our party: we bought it, we own it." One wonders what Pariser would say about the NCC.
At the November General Assembly, Hoyt preached on Ephesians 4, claiming that the council is dedicated to "speaking the truth in love." Perhaps he was not thinking of one of the organizations with which the NCC has a close partnership: a partisan, liberal Democratic activist group called True Majority. The website for True Majority, promoted at the November General Assembly meeting, refers to President Bush as a "frat boy jerk" and "aristocrat goon." It also features a (literally!) Bush-bashing page that allows visitors to spank a bare-bottomed cartoon of the President for such offenses as the existence of poverty, "being a complete jerk," and "threatening war with Iraq to distract us from the sucking economy." It is not clear if any NCC leader has expressed any objection to True Majority's treatment of those who disagree with its narrow left-wing politics. What is clear, however, is that the NCC is so much of one mind with True Majority that the two activist groups share a staffer, Andrew Greenblatt. In addition, True Majority's founder, the ice cream mogul Ben Cohen, pledged $100,000 to support the church council last summer.
At a political activism conference co-sponsored by the NCC last March, Edgar praised the work of a Pennsylvania Republican congressman on North Korea, while jocularly admitting that "on almost every [other] issue, I'd like to have my fingerprints around [Congressman] Curt Weldon's neck." Apparently, Edgar is not a complete pacifist.
One of the most striking contrasts between the NCC and the new faithful can be seen in broad demographic trends. While Campbell noted that the young orthodox Christians she studied "are a minority in their generation," she cited anecdotal as well as statistical evidence that suggests that their numbers are growing. For example, Campus Crusade for Christ, a "conservative evangelical fellowship," "saw its [college] student ranks nearly double between 1995 and 2000, rising from 21,000 to 40,000 students." Similarly, "evangelical schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities" saw their enrollments increase by 40 percent between 1990 and 1998 while overall American college and university enrollment increased by only five percent. Furthermore, Campbell argued that the new faithful's "zeal for cultural engagement and their positions of cultural influence suggest that their impact may far exceed their numbers."
The trends all point in the opposite direction for the predominantly white "mainline" Protestant denominations--the financial and organizational backbone of the NCC. Their numbers have been steadily declining for the last generation. In the 1990s, the United Church of Christ lost almost 15 percent of its membership, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 11.6 percent, the United Methodist Church 6.7 percent, the Episcopal Church 5.3 percent and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 2.2 percent. Within the United Methodist Church of Edgar and this author, the average age is 57, compared to the average age in the United States of 35.
At NCC conferences, the generation gap often becomes painfully evident. Edgar and other leaders frequently hark back to the Religious Left's glory days of the 1960s, when they demonstrated for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. They present the council's liberal activism today as a continuation of that bygone era, even singing the same protest anthems from forty years ago. For most young Christians born in the 1970s or 1980s, these kinds of events do not paint an image of the NCC as a body well-suited to offer a distinctive Christian witness for the 21st century.
The overall reaction of the two dozen members of the NCC's Young Adult Caucus to Campbell's speech was mixed, at best. They were respectful, if at times pointed, during the following question-and-answer session. A few later told Campbell that they appreciated her presentation, even though not all of these shared the perspective of the "new faithful." One woman even thanked Campbell for "giving me hope for the future" and helping her understand how to more effectively minister to young adults in her church. Others, however, complained bitterly at the following lunch: "We just heard a Republican speak!" At least one angry skeptic declared that she did not know anybody who fit the "new faithful" description. At several times during the rest of the week, Young Adult "Stewards" and delegates stressed how strongly they disagreed with Campbell and the worldview of her "new faithful," eliciting knowing laughs from others who had been there. A few complained to the organizer of the Pre-Event.
I thanked this same gentleman for having invited Campbell to speak, as he deserves to be commended for inviting this alternative voice to an NCC function. He responded by noting that "it's not a voice we hear from that often." Indeed. The young progressives need not have worried. The rest of the General Assembly was NCC business-as-usual: heaps of self-congratulatory rhetoric about the council's "inclusiveness" and "diversity" within an environment devoid of and unwelcoming to meaningful participation from any Christians who dissent from the council's relativist theology and leftist politics.
Read this article on the Institute of Religion and Democracy website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.