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Church Council Plans for Finances, Liberal Political Activism

John Lomperis

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NCC attempts to revive role as institutional voice of the religious left.

At their May 16-18 meeting in Chicago, members of the Executive Board of the National Council of Churches (NCC) stressed "interfaith" political cooperation on liberal issues while expressing alarm about Christians with an "evangelical" theology.

Board members repeatedly discussed the NCC's activism against the U.S. government's "illegal" detention of foreign terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, denounced the "din of domination" that he claimed was emanating strongly from the United States. He asserted that "the world Christians are waiting" to hear "a clear voice" from American Christians with a contrary message.

The Rev. Marshall Hatch, a local activist with Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/Push Coalition, opened the final day of the meeting with a brief speech and prayer in which he claimed to be "not entirely pacifist" but strongly denounced war as "a dirty business." He also claimed that soldiers from underprivileged backgrounds were "taking the fall for Don Rumsfeld" in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. While they might be accused of being unpatriotic or of dragging the churches into the unholy grime of worldly politics, Hatch assured the NCC board members that they were doing the right thing by serving as "a prophetic voice" to "inject a Godly sanity" into American politics.

NCC General Secretary Edgar led the group in a prayer in which he said that war should be "a last resort...if that" and seemed to denounce Palestinian suicide bombings, residents of Fallujah, Iraq dancing over mutilated corpses, and Israeli missile strikes against terrorist leaders with similar degrees of abhorrence. According to one board member, the American Jewish Committee was apparently so concerned with the widely perceived pro-Palestinian tilt in the NCC's political advocacy that they asked to meet with NCC leaders on May 4.

Edgar spoke about NCC efforts to boycott Mt. Olive Pickle Company in order to pressure its cucumber suppliers to raise their payments to farm workers. He also reported that the NCC had recently paid for a full-page ad in the New York Times to attack the "immoral" environmental policies of the Bush administration. Edgar is a former Democratic Congressman, and has elsewhere said that he was one of the ten "most liberal" Representatives.

The NCC board also discussed its ambitious plans for influencing the 2004 U.S. elections. The ecumenical group is pouring much of its energies and resources into increasing voter turnout and "education," with a special emphasis on demographic groups in the population that tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Much of the church council's election-related work is being done in close coordination with such left-wing and Democratic activist groups as the Center for Community Change and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

It was revealed during the board meeting that the NCC has recently joined with the politically far-left www.truemajority.org to set up a new activist website intended to be "an online wing of a powerful, new progressive faith movement": www.faithfulamerica.org. The "Faithful America" website links to numerous secular and religiously-related political action sites, all of which are decidedly left-of-center.

The NCC board members also spent a brief, sobering amount of time talking about the problem of genocide. They mentioned recent memorial events centered on the Rwandan genocide of the early 1990s and the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century. They also adopted a resolution condemning violence related to "the 20-year civil war in Sudan," and briefly acknowledged the links they saw between the current events in that country and the genocide in Rwanda.

As dogmatic as it can be in its partisan politics, the NCC board seemed to be much looser in its theology. The board meeting was liberally peppered with discussions of "interfaith" political events that the NCC had sponsored in the recent past or was organizing for the future...even worship services led jointly by Christians and clergy of other religions. The church council helped organize "interfaith worship services" held around the nation on May 27 to commemorate all of those killed in the Iraq conflict. Without acknowledging any inherent distinction between providing ministerial resources to different Christian denominations and to communities of completely different religions, Edgar reported that the NCC had developed prayer and worship templates that they hoped would be used on May 27 by "churches, mosques, and synagogues."

Their aforementioned "Faithful America" website links to Jewish and Muslim as well as Christian sites for spiritual "Inspiration and Interaction." The recently unveiled "Faithful Democracy" website promoting voter "education" and participation in the 2004 elections is a joint effort of the NCC and several Jewish, Unitarian, and mainline Protestant groups.

In delivering the report of the Interfaith Relations Committee, Rothang Chhangte of the American Baptist Churches went so far as to claim that current American foreign policy "is being fueled by the evangelical, or the right-wing" as she called on her fellow board members to help present "a multi-lateral alternative." When one board member protested that some Christians from "evangelical" traditions believed their faith compelled them to oppose the Bush administration's foreign policy, Chhangte attempted to clarify by denouncing the "exclusivism" of those evangelicals who believe that "Jesus is the only way" and want to see "all the world ...come to Christ." No one in the room expressed disagreement with Chhangte's comments.

A booklet from the NCC's Justice for Women Working Group was distributed to the board members. According to this document, "[t]here are no right or wrong answers" to such true-or-false questions as "Two-parent families are better for children," "Fathers need to be more involved in the lives of their children," and "Faith formation in the family can be a source of strength." A short list of organizations listed as "Family Resources" includes a pro-homosexuality activist group called Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). A list of websites readers are encouraged to visit "for a range of perspectives" includes the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Alternatives to Marriage Project, along with relatively more conservative organizations. The Alternatives to Marriage group is dedicated to ending marriage's status as a moral and cultural norm and promoting such "alternatives" as cohabitation, homosexuality, bisexuality, and "polyamory."

The board members were generally happy with the income and their stewardship of the council's monetary resources, although Edgar urged them to understand that they were still "at sea level" and not yet "in the mountains." Emphasizing that "budgets are hypothetical documents," they discussed NCC finances at length and adopted a new budget.

So far this fiscal year, the NCC has raised $148,202 less than at this point last year, or $4,752,451 compared to $4,900,653 last year. It has also spent $220,733 less so far this year compared to last year.

With the assertion that "people love this organization," the board was called to work on expanding the NCC's base of individual donors. Board members also expect some revenues from sub-leases of office space, as well as the continued royalties that they receive from sales of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translations of the Bible. According to Edgar, if it were not for the latter source of revenue, "this council would have gone out of business years ago."

With a consistently balanced budget ten months into this fiscal year, the organization was declared to be in good financial shape. The NCC currently has roughly $9.7 million in long-term investment funds (including reserves) that fluctuate with the market. One board member expressed her deep appreciation for how Bob Edgar "has brought us to a place where we're in recovery."

Edgar has elsewhere admitted that the NCC was largely saved from financial ruin by a $6 million gift given last year by a single donor (whose identity the NCC refuses to divulge) in appreciation for the council's political activism. Although the NCC uses its resources to speak in the name of all of the members of its affiliated denominations with its frequent political pronouncements, this organization-saving donor was not even a member of any NCC-affiliated denomination.

Unrealized appreciation on investments accounted for nearly $1 million in income so far this year for the NCC, or about 20 percent of the NCC's overall income. Clearly without this appreciation, based largely off of the $6 million anonymous grant, the NCC would still be facing difficult financial straits.

The Ecumenical Commitment Fund (ECF) from the member denominations was called "the rock upon which the Council's financial stability is built." Alluding to the fact that nearly two-thirds of the $923,000 in ECF funds received so far in this fiscal year has come from just two denominations (the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)), the board spoke of the need for more "balance." This included the decision to make "a special effort" to reach out to the leadership of the 10 member denominations that have not been offering any financial support or participating in Executive Board meetings for some time.

The Administration and Finance Committee reported that "barring a miracle," individual and congregational donations for the fiscal year would be 20 percent ($200,000) less than what had been budgeted. Next year the board will accordingly lower their expectations. The failure to meet this year's increased expectations was attributed to not having a provocative "dominant issue" like they did last year with the Iraq War.

There was no debate when a board member declared that "we need to match NCC programs and policies" with the objectives and priorities of foundations whose money they want by altering the former. The funds "Received" column of an official document distributed at the meeting lists $10,500 from the Sierra Club, $3,000 from the left-wing advocacy group USAction, and $14,686 from performers/activists Vanessa Redgrave and Peter Yarrow. The "Pledged" column lists $100,000 from ice cream guru Ben Cohen and another $100,000 from the thoroughly partisan MoveOn.Org group, with both gifts expected "June first week." According to NCC documents, the church council is also looking at ACORN, the Ford Foundation, and anti-Bush billionaire George Soros as promising potential sources of large grants.

Read this artice on the Institute for Religion and Democracy website. Reprinted with permission of IRD.

Posted 8/6/04

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