Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

National Council of Churches General Assembly Meets in St. Louis

John Lomperis

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From November 9-11, 2004, several hundred delegates gathered in St. Louis, Missouri, for the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches (NCC). Calling itself "the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States," the NCC has 36 member denominations. Inspired by Ephesians 4:15-16, the theme of this year's annual gathering was "Weave Anew: Unity, Peace and Justice, Hope." Ideologically narrow politics and liberal theology were prominent themes woven through the caucus gatherings, banquets, workshops, meetings, resolutions, official speeches, and brief times of worship and Bible study during the week.

On November 8, the day before the Assembly began, nearly two dozen mainline Protestants (and one Orthodox woman) gathered for a day-long "Young Adult Pre-Event." They were treated to a speech by Catholic columnist Colleen Carroll Campbell, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and current fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She spoke on her recent book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. (For more information on Campbell's speech, as well as reflections on its implications for the NCC, see this commentary by John Lomperis.)

Later in the week, representatives of the Young Adult Caucus reported to the General Assembly on their pre-assembly experience and their desires for the NCC. They requested quotas for young adult members on the council's the board and commissions. A spokesperson also announced that the young adults would not "worry about hurting anybody's feelings." As one application of this attitude, she blasted the NCC-affiliated denominations that do not ordain women. This exclusion, she declared, was "no longer acceptable in 2004." Her remark provoked much of the room to erupt in applause, while others, notably the Eastern Orthodox delegates, sat silently and uncomfortably.

Divisive Politics

Throughout the week, the General Assembly took on hotly debated political issues, supporting consistently left-of-center means to combat social ills. The "broad-based" Faithful America, the NCC's new Internet-based political activist project, was heavily promoted. According to the Rev. Robert Edgar, the NCC General Secretary, the project was created with the goal of becoming a religious version of MoveOn.org. The website will advocate "progressive" public policies within "the faith community." MoveOn is a partisan, liberal Democratic Internet-based activist group known for its sharp attacks on political enemies.

Official speakers talked at length about the NCC's political activities, including the council's vigorous opposition to the Iraq War, protests of the detention of foreign terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay, ongoing support for a boycott of Taco Bell, and calls for increased environmental regulation. Assembly leaders also distributed copies of the council's ten liberal-leaning "Christian Principles in an Election Year." At the NCC Executive Board meeting that week, a participant explained that the principles were largely intended to discourage church members from determining their votes based on issues such as abortion and same-sex "marriage."

NCC leaders reported their satisfaction with the Let Justice Roll project, which had held pre-election rallies in 15 cities and registered 100,000 voters. That effort challenged politicians with utopian calls to "end poverty" through a vast expansion of government social welfare programs and "progressive tax policy.". The Let Justice Roll website touted the participation of several prominent representatives of John Kerry's presidential campaign as well as anti-Bush filmmaker Michael Moore.

Former United Church of Christ president. Paul Sherry, who headed Let Justice Roll, parried a question about its apparent partisanship by noting that some of its rallies had included some local Republican politicians. Robert Edgar, himself a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, described the project as "non-partisan work for regime change." He was borrowing a popular Democratic campaign slogan, using "regime change in America" as a code phrase for ousting President Bush and congressional Republicans. Edgar's take on the Let Justice Roll project is corroborated by the fact that its official participating organizations campaign included narrow, polarizing left-wing groups such as the People for the American Way, USAction, and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The latter two were also a part of "America Votes," a patently partisan "527" coalition that worked to augment the electioneering efforts of the Democratic Party.

Official speakers were not shy about delving into controversial politics. As part of an "Interfaith conversation on public education," Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO) charged that many children and schools were "being left behind by this administration and the Republican-led Congress." Clay warned that "children are going to suffer" because of Republican policies.

Recalling his former career as a politician and abortion rights champion, Edgar chatted with a small group of General Assembly participants about his failure to unseat Republican Senator Arlen Specter in 1986. Edgar said that he was very thankful now for his defeat, because, as the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the "pro-choice, pro-environment" Specter is now ideally placed to "be a thorn in [President Bush's] side."

The featured speaker at the Women's Caucus luncheon was Aruna Gnanadason, the Coordinator for the World Council of Churches' Justice, Peace and Creation Team. She complained that "religious language" was being employed "in this so-called War on Terror." as "our faith has been twisted to justify imperialism." At another point, Gnanadason asserted that new "exclusionary immigration polic[ies]" of the United States showed that "racism is alive and well." She also recalled listening sadly to U.S. election returns the previous week and blasted President Bush for opposing U.S. ratification of the Kyoto international environmental treaty.

There was also much discussion of the NCC adopting several more official policies on political matters. The General Assembly accepted, without significant debate, a new policy document called "The Church and Children." Resolutions presented to the NCC Executive Board endorsed the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the SMART security platform of the left-wing Physicians for Social Responsibility. The latter platform broadly denounces nuclear weapons and "unilateral preemptive war," while calling for increased international support for the controversial International Criminal Court.

Robina Winbush, a representative of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), shared information on her denomination's recent action to initiate a process of "phased, selected divestment" from companies doing business in Israel. She clarified that the PCUSA was not asking that the NCC "take any [related] action at this time" (emphasis hers). Without debate, the Executive Board passed a resolution supporting the "Ecumenical Accompaniment Program" of the World Council of Churches. That program sends international volunteers to live with Palestinians under Israeli occupation, as a demonstration of solidarity with the Palestinian goal of "seek[ing] an end to the occupation."

At one point, Edgar remarked that, with all the various resolutions and official statements adopted by the NCC over the years, "we have policies on almost every issue you can conceive of." With the possible exception of one private conversation, at no point did this reporter hear a single delegate or NCC leader express any qualms about the council's use of the names and funds of its affiliated churches for one-sided advocacy on controversial political issues. In fact, throughout the week, participants conveyed their eagerness for the NCC to be even more outspoken and energetic in its political activism.

Progressive Theology

A less prominent but nevertheless recurrent theme of the General Assembly was challenging biblical teachings on human sexuality. The new "Church and Children" policy statement avoids any affirmation of the importance for children of being reared by a mother and father married to one another. On the contrary, the statement seems to insist that all family forms are equally valid. The endorsers "commit" themselves to "[p]rotect the dignity and value the diversity of every family."

As part of a panel on ecumenism, the Rev. Heather Dillshaw of the United Church of Christ stressed that the NCC's ecumenism was "much more inclusive" than the ecumenism of Colleen Carroll Campbell's "new faithful." The difference, according to Dillshaw, was that the NCC "includes gay and lesbian people" while the "new faithful" disapprove of homosexual practice.

In addressing the young adults, Thomas Hoyt, the President of the NCC and a bishop in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, recalled his unsuccessful efforts to allow the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) to participate in some official capacity in the NCC. The MCC denomination was founded in 1968 largely upon the repudiation of Christian opposition to homosexual practice.

An Assembly-wide worship service was held at the St. Louis Episcopal cathedral. Prominently displayed by the door was the rainbow flag of "gay" pride, and there were brochures for a pro-homosexuality Episcopal group in the narthex. During a meeting of the Young Adult Caucus, several participants passionately urged the church council to take an open pro-homosexuality stand. While some others expressed doubts that NCC governing bodies could be persuaded in the near future to approve such a position, no one objected on moral or biblical grounds.

Participants in the General Assembly frequently took their "ecumenism" beyond Christianity, with implied and explicit challenges to the uniqueness of Christ as "the way, the truth, and the life." In welcoming the young adult participants, Hoyt told them that the NCC works to bring "the people of God" together, whether they are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. The new co-chair of the NCC's Interfaith Relations Commission is the Rev. Rothang Chhangte, who at the May meeting of the NCC Executive Board blasted "the evangelical, or the right-wing" for their "exclusivism" of believing that "Jesus is the only way."

One employee of Church World Service (CWS), the NCC's international relief arm, praised CWS's "great strength" of being "thoroughly interfaith." This employee spoke of how CWS gathers people from different faith communities to work for common goals based on a more "humanistic" perspective. At the Women's Caucus luncheon, Gnanadason declared that "as Christians, we can no longer claim to have the only truth." She urged her audience to recognize a "plurality of truths."

At a couple points, the embrace of other faiths went even further than attacking Christian "exclusivism." One delegate boasted to others at his table in the plenary session that as a leader in his church, he subtly injected elements of the Sikh religion into his teaching. When an Episcopal delegate told her fellow participants in the Women's Caucus luncheon that she would soon be croned, the only reactions in the room were enthusiastic, congratulatory cheers. Croning is a Wiccan rite of passage for older women.

Variations of Christian Unity

Another matter addressed was the development of the new ecumenical coalitions of Churches Uniting in Christ, which will focus on combating racism, and Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. (CCT). The latter, according to Edgar, includes Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, the Salvation Army, and "those evangelicals who read the Bible carefully enough to know that God cares about poor people." These comments implied that evangelical denominations not participating in CCT--for example, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God--were unaware of God's concern for the poor.

Edgar did, however, seem to concede that the NCC's sectarian political activism had alienated some other Christians. He noted that, in order to have "more people at the table" of CCT, its "prophetic voice will be thinner." While some NCC leaders originally thought that CCT might replace the council, Edgar voiced his expectation that the emergence of CCT will strengthen the NCC.

While several official speakers acknowledged that some people were critical of it, these complaints were never substantively addressed. At the end of the Racial/Ethnic Caucus breakfast, Bishop Hoyt accused people who call the church council "too liberal" of being closeted bigots. He opined that such criticisms were really "code words" for the critics' discomfort with the council's inclusion of non-whites.

Speakers and delegates repeatedly spoke of NCC being "progressive to moderate" and representative of the "middle church" in America. At many of the occasions in which a speaker referred to the previous week's election results, there were widespread reactions of shared disappointment from the audience. During the course of the week, there was little sign of any recognition that many of the 45 million Christians within the NCC's own member communions do not share the council's liberal politics or progressive theology. In fact, exit polls indicated that a majority of mainline Protestants voted for President Bush's re-election.

General Assembly participants did at least acknowledge the presence of differently-minded Christians outside their denominations. Throughout the week, delegates and NCC leaders spoke of their eagerness to use the council as a vehicle for countering the public voice of more conservative American Christians. Vince Isner, director of the NCC's Faithful America website, disparaged the more conservative "values voters" who overwhelmingly supported President Bush. "A lot of people believe they voted their values," he said, but they really just "voted their fears." Neither Isner nor anyone else at the meeting attempted to explain how this antagonistic attitude toward conservative Christians fit with the NCC's ostensible purpose of promoting "ecumenical cooperation among Christians."

Noting the divisiveness of the recent election and the prominence given to "moral values" in voting, the General Assembly passed two resolutions. One called on "all Christians in our nation to engage in conversation and the restoration of broken relationships in our community." The other asked the council to attempt "to engage the spectrum of Christian churches in our communities in dialogues about Christian values." Without much debate, delegates amended one of those resolutions to say that "this General Assembly boldly affirms that Christian values include" such things as the NCC's advocacy focus on anti-poverty, anti-war, and environmental activism. One NCC Executive Board member quietly noted to those sitting near her that the amendment ironically injected divisiveness into a statement intended to bring reconciliation between the NCC and more conservative Christians.

General Secretary Edgar, however, thanked the General Assembly for the amendment. He declared that it was right that the church should focus on a "broad" values centered on "peace, poverty, and planet Earth." By contrast, Edgar dismissed as "narrow" those Christians who emphasized their moral objections to abortion and homosexuality.

Miscellaneous Business

A significant part of the week was also devoted to Church World Service (CWS), the autonomous relief arm of the NCC. In addition to touting the aid group's laudable relief work around the world, its leaders also briefly reported on some of their advocacy work. CWS had been vocal in criticizing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), preferring "Fair Trade" as an alternative to free trade.

Much of the General Assembly was devoted to basic housekeeping and business matters of the NCC. Staffers lauded the council's third consecutive year of a balanced budget. The NCC brought in consultant Mike Burns to lead small groups in "strategic planning" sessions. The main topics for the groups were drafts of an NCC "Statement of Values" and "Statement of Mission." The latter read: "Community of Christian communions expressing unity through prayer, dialogue and mission so that humanity may be reconciled in justice and peace and God may be glorified." The sociological focus of this recent draft contrasts notably with the stronger theological focus of the NCC's 1950 founding statement, which spoke of how its member communions, "in response to the gospel as revealed in the Scriptures, confess Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, as Savior and Lord."

Other highlights of the week included brief times set aside to welcome and hear the greetings of ecumenical leaders from other parts of the world, a panel discussion on practical ways that churches could partner with schools to help children's education, and brief mentions of the council's "poverty benefit bank," through which hundreds of thousands of dollars from private foundations as well as the federal government are used to help poor people gain federal benefits for which they are eligible. NCC leaders also celebrated the end of their five-and-a-half year boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. They presented an award to Bill Bryan, the company's president, and Baldemar Velasquez, a union activist, for working out their differences.

The NCC's closing awards banquet ended with a "jam session" in which Jewish folksinger Peter Yarrow led NCC staffers and delegates in singing such protest songs as "We Shall Overcome," "If I had a Hammer," and "Have You Been to Jail for Justice?"

Read this article on the Institute for Religion and Democracy website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 24-Jan-05

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