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NCC Relies on Liberal Foundations

Mark Tooley

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The National Council of Churches (NCC) now receives more funding from private foundations, most of them secular and politically liberal, than from its member denominations, it was revealed at its fall 2005 Governing Board meeting.

Founded nearly 60 years ago, the council is America's oldest and largest ecumenical organization. It claims to speak for over 45 million church members who belong to its 35 member denominations.

"Some may think that foundation money dilutes our responsibility to the churches," NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar preemptively commented at the meeting. But he insisted that the money was spent on church-based programs. He also commented defensively that the foundations have "people of faith" on their boards.

There were also closed-door discussions at the board meeting about the Antiochian Orthodox Church's recent withdrawal from the NCC, in protest over the NCC's increased politicization. An Antiochian spokesman objected particularly to a searing partisan fundraising letter that the NCC had mailed to thousands of churches earlier this year. The letter asked for gifts to the NCC in order to defeat the alleged totalitarian ambitions of a vast right-wing conspiracy involving President Bush, Rush Limbaugh, James Dobson, and the IRD, among others. The missive made no mention of Jesus Christ or of the NCC's ostensible mission of seeking unity among his followers.

That NCC fundraising letter even provoked the United Methodist Church's ecumenical agency, itself fairly liberal, to protest. In a September letter to the NCC's president, the Methodist agency expressed concern about the "partisan political tone" of the council's fundraising letter. The Methodists urged the NCC to "avoid partisan politics" and adopt a "more temperate tone."

But the drive to attract left-wing donors interested in precisely the partisan agenda described in the fundraising letter will likely make political temperance more difficult to maintain. In the fiscal year ending June 2005, the NCC received $1,761,714 from liberal foundations compared to $1,750,332 from its 35 member churches.

The foundations include the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation, the Better World Fund, the Sierra Club, the AARP, the Ocean Conservancy, and the National Religious Partnership on the Environment. Almost all of the grants went for the NCC's political work, especially in favor of stricter environmental regulations. Other council programs receiving substantial support included its "multilateralism" project opposing U.S. foreign policy and its "FaithfulAmerica" website and action program, which attempted to increase liberal voter turn-out during last year's elections.

NCC General Secretary Edgar, a former Democratic congressman and United Methodist minister, helped to rescue the council from near-bankruptcy five years ago. Edgar instituted draconian spending cuts, but he has failed to reverse the decline in denominational giving to the NCC. So he has relied increasingly on gifts from secular foundations. The Ford Foundation, for example, gave $150,000 to the NCC during its last fiscal year--an amount exceeding the contributions of the 5-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the NCC's second-largest member denomination.

The NCC's largest donors were the 8.2-million-member United Methodist Church, which gave $596,233, and the 3.3-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which gave $401,550. Despite the departure of the Antiochians and the ensuing controversy, the NCC's political rhetoric continued to flow at the September board meeting in New York.

The NCC President, Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Thomas Hoyt, told the NCC board of his recent consultations with Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Bishop Hoyt supported the Democrats' call for an independent congressional commission to investigate the Bush Administration response to Hurricane Katrina, as proposed by Senator Hillary Clinton. He did not mention any similar consultations with Republican political leaders.

"It's almost like the Middle Passage again," Hoyt dramatically insisted, comparing the Bush Administration's policies towards hurricane victims to the notorious voyage of slave ships across the Atlantic centuries ago. "Why is it that that the levees broke in black parts of town but not in the white parts?" he asked.

Hoyt expressed concern about hurricane refugees from New Orleans being unable to vote. "Democrats have been very strong on this," he noted. "This should be a wake-up call, when people are saying this is your fault because you're poor, it's God's punishment on a wicked city," Hoyt said. "In that case, Las Vegas should have been hit." He did not name any U.S. religious or political leaders who had claimed that Hurricane Katrina was "God's punishment on a wicked city."

"This is an opportunity to make racism and classism be addressed in a way they haven't been addressed before," Hoyt declared. He shared the fear that reconstruction jobs would be given to Halliburton, an ostensible favorite of the Bush Administration, while minority contractors would be told that they lacked expertise.

Hoyt acknowledged that his comments were divisive but surmised, "When you take sides with poor folk, you are going to get hurt." To enthusiastic applause from the NCC board, Hoyt insisted, "I don't apologize for the council taking a stand on some issues.... That's what the Gospel is about!" He criticized the Bush Administration's tax policies as a "stupidity."

"People talk about gay marriage and abortion, and you got to deal with it," Hoyt said. "But those shouldn't take precedence over justice issues for life between birth and death."

The NCC's often polemical political rhetoric, having contributed to the departure of the Antiochian Church, also elicited a complaint from the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Inter-religious Concerns. A letter to Bishop Hoyt, signed by Bishop Ann Sherer on behalf of the Methodist ecumenical agency, stated, "We are saddened to receive the news of the withdrawal of membership by our friends [the Antiochians]." The letter criticized the NCC's response to the Antiochian withdrawal as "inadequate."

Sherer also wrote, "We are troubled by the distribution of a fundraising letter that characterizes the National Council in a partisan political tone." She further noted the concern that the NCC might be shifting away from being "an ecumenical council of its member churches." The United Methodist bishop expressed the "hope that ... future letters of this kind will be more temperate in tone, avoid partisan politics, and give witness to social justice concerns in a manner that affirms the NCC's primary task of working for the unity of the church."

In a written response, Bishop Hoyt explained that the fundraising letter had been mailed from the "Development Office without proper review." But he did not respond to the concerns about the NCC's "partisan" tone.

When the fundraising letter and the Antiochian withdrawal were discussed at the NCC meeting, reporters and other observers were asked to leave the room. Concluding the NCC board meeting, Bob Edgar observed, "We've dealt with some tough issues, but I think there's been some healing here."

Read the entire article on the Institute on Religion and Democracy website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 02-Nov-05



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