National Council of Churches: Worldviews, Activities, and Agendas
By Jacob Laksin
Since its founding in 1950, the New York City-based National Council of Churches (NCC) has remained faithful to the legacy of its predecessor, the Communist front-group known as the Federal Council of Churches, which the NCC absorbed in 1950. At one time an unabashed apostle of the Communist cause, the NCC has today recast itself as a leading representative of the so-called religious Left. Adhering to what it has described as “liberation theology”—that is, Marxist ideology disguised as Christianity—the NCC lays claim to a membership of 36 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox Christian denominations, and some 50 million members in over 140,000 congregations.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the NCC has soft-pedaled its radical message, dressing up its demands for global collectivization and its rejection of democratic capitalism in the garb of religious teachings. Yet the organization’s history suggests that it was—and remains—a devout backer of a gallery of socialist governments. In the 1950s and 1960s, under cover of charity, the NCC provided financial succor to the Communist regimes in Yugoslavia and Poland, funneling money to both through its relief agency, the Church World Service. In the 1970s, working with its Geneva-based parent organization, the World Council of Churches, the NCC supplied financial support for Soviet-sponsored incursions into Africa, aiding the terrorist rampages of Communist guerrillas in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, and Angola.
As one of the leading contributors to the Program to Combat Racism (a program created in 1939 by the NCC-parent group, the World Council of Churches, and discontinued in 1996), the NCC played a central role in subsidizing revolutionary Communist movements in the Third World. Sensitive to the controversy which over the years has enveloped the Program to Combat Racism (PCR), the WCC has consistently declined to divulge both the contributors to, and the recipients of, the program. The WCC has gone so far as to establish an independent budget, the Special Fund to Combat Racism, in order to conceal details about the funding of the program. Despite these efforts, the WCC has not been entirely successful in obscuring the PCR’s paper trail. An August 1982 report by Reader’s Digest revealed that during the 1970s the PCR disbursed over $5 million to some 130 organizations in 30 countries. While the WCC held fast to the claim that the funds were directed solely toward those organizations dedicated to fighting racism, the facts suggested otherwise. According to the Reader’s Digest report, more than half of the money that went to the PCR wound up in the hands of Communist guerrillas. The report further traced PCR funds to a series of Communist rampages in Africa. During the 1970s, over $78,000 went to Cuba’s Soviet-sponsored MPLA to foment Communist revolution in Angola; some $120,000 went to the Marxist FRELIMO in Mozambique; and another $832,000 to Namibia’s Communist regime, the SWAPO; another grant, for $108,000, was funneled to the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), a Communist guerrilla force whose campaign of indiscriminate terror claimed the lives of 207 white civilians, 1,721 blacks, and nine missionaries as well as their children. In the face of this grim evidence, PCR administrators—many of whom were culled from the ranks of the NCC—continued to push the line that, rather than bankrolling Communist death squads, the organization was simply supporting “liberation movements.” From this position the WCC has never wavered. In an archival overview of the PRC, published in 2004, the WCC dusted off its claim that “the main aim of the PCR is to define, propose and carry out ecumenical policies and programs that substantially contribute to the liberation of the victims of racism.”
Using the Evangelical Committee for Aid to Development (CEPAD), an organization established to distribute the charity donations collected by U.S. churches in Latin America—and whose leadership openly professed solidarity with the Sandinistas’ Marxist aims—the NCC made common cause with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, contributing nearly $400,000 to the Sandinista Party between 1981 and 1983. Documents seized from El Salvador’s guerrillas in 1983 revealed yet another Communist group on the take from the NCC’s collection plate.
Another of the NCC’s leftist faith-based initiatives is support for Communist Cuba. Having pushed for the United States to normalize relations with the Castro regime since 1968, the NCC throughout the Cold War pressed its considerable authority on moral issues into the service of whitewashing the hard-line regime’s record of oppression. In 1977, after heading a delegation of American church officials to Cuba, the Methodist bishop James Armstrong, who would be elected NCC president the following year, issued a report that may justifiably be described as supportive of the murderous dictatorship. “There is a significant difference,” Armstrong insisted, “between situations where people are imprisoned for opposing regimes designed to perpetuate inequities, as in Chile and Brazil, for example, and situations were people are imprisoned for opposing regimes designed to remove inequities, as in Cuba.”
On the rare occasions that the NCC was unforthcoming with a public rationalization for Communist repression, it communicated its support through silence. For example, despite its oft-declared commitment to human rights, the NCC could find little to say about the ascension to power of Ethiopia’s Marxist government, which left 10,000 dead and shuttered 200 churches. Likewise, on the matter of the Soviet Union’s 1978 invasion of Afghanistan, the NCC kept conspicuously mum.
Not until the Soviet Union’s collapse did the NCC see it fit to weigh in on the subject of Communist oppression. In 1993, Joan Brown Campbell, a former NCC General Secretary, made a striking admission. Acknowledging that the NCC had failed to challenge the brutality of Communist rule, she explained, “We did not understand the depth of the suffering of Christians under Communism. And we failed to really cry out under the Communist oppression.”
Campbell’s comments, however, did not prompt the NCC to withdraw its support for Communist totalitarianism. On the contrary, to this day the NCC remains an unwavering ally of the Cuban government. Still pressing for the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, the NCC continues to evince scant concern for the plight of victims of the Castro regime. On occasion, the NCC has even turned against them. No sooner had the NCC used its charity arm, the Church World Service, to establish a Cuban Refugee Emergency Center in Miami, than it soured on the center. The reason was that Cuban refugees had regularly denounced the Cuban government—an outcry that was intolerable to the NCC’s Castro-friendly executives. Kenneth Lloyd, the author of a history of the NCC called From Mainline to Sideline: The Social Witness of the National Council of Churches, noted that one NCC declaration condemned the anti-Castro recriminations of the refugees because they “abetted our government’s effort to discredit Cuba” and “encouraged humanitarian sentiment that generated hostile attitudes toward Cuba among U.S. congregations.”
In January of 2000, eager to affirm its Castroite sympathies, the NCC forced itself into the controversy over the fate of Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez, becoming one of the loudest voices demanding that the boy be sent back to Cuba. Most recently, in January of 2004, the NCC dispatched a delegation of church leaders to Cuba for a six-day visit. NCC spokesmen claimed that, in addition to paying a visit to Havana churches, the delegates intended to discuss with Castro himself the fate of 75 political prisoners jailed by the dictator in 2003. But if an NCC statement was any indication, the delegates had no intention of seriously pressing for the prisoners’ release. The NCC’s only bone of contention was, “We find [their] sentences excessive.”
This should not be taken to mean that the NCC has been wholly silent on the issue of human rights. The organization continues to issue press releases decrying abhorrent human rights conditions around the world. However, the countries that the NCC chooses to single out for opprobrium evidence the extent to which the organization’s religious mission has been corrupted by its radical leftist politics. One study, conducted by the Institute of Religion and Democracy in September 2004, found that “of the seven human rights criticisms it issued from 2000-2003, Israel received four, the United States two, and Sudan one.” Moreover, the study noted, “Fully 80 percent of the NCC resolutions targeting foreign nations for human rights abuses were aimed at Israel.”
The NCC’s programmatic opposition to U.S. foreign policy is another manifestation of its deep-rooted leftist politics. Taking refuge in the counsel of the New Testament — “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9) — the NCC has repeatedly condemned U.S. military interventions. In 1991, the NCC played a central role in The Return of the Peace Movement, a coalition of leftwing religious groups arrayed against the first Gulf war, when American forces repulsed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. At that time, the leaders of 32 NCC churches announced that the risk of military intervention was “out of proportion to any conceivable gain.”
The NCC’s assessment of the second Gulf War was identical. In January of 2003, the NCC’s current president, the Methodist preacher Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr., joined 46 other religious leaders in signing a letter to President Bush. The letter expressed the signatories’ “continuing uneasiness about the moral justification for war on Iraq,” and suggested that the President accord them the “opportunity to bring this message to you in person.” Citing scheduling conflicts, Mr. Bush, through a spokesman, politely declined. Having failed to thwart U.S. military intervention, the NCC did not reconsider its reflexive opposition to U.S. policy following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Rejecting the notion that America could play the role of a post-war peacemaker, the NCC, in May of 2004, issued yet another letter (which it encouraged member pastors to read to their congregations) urging the U.S. to abdicate authority in Iraq in favor of the United Nations. “We would ask that members of our churches, as they feel appropriate, contact their respective congressional delegations to urge the U.S. to change course in Iraq,” the letter noted. The NCC is a member organization of the Win Without War and United for Peace and Justice anti-war coalitions.
Even as it has traduced U.S. foreign policy, the NCC has continuously injected itself into debates on domestic policy. Here, again, the NCC’s strategy involves veiling its leftwing politics in expressions of religious faith. On more than a few occasions, the NCC has preached the gospel of environmentalism. In 2002, the NCC was a party to an environmentalist campaign against the automobile industry. This campaign — called “What would Jesus drive?” — exhorted car manufactures to embrace stricter emissions standards. It was engineered by the Evangelical Environmental Network, a coalition of left-leaning religious groups that views “‘environmental’ problems as fundamentally spiritual problems.”
The NCC also levied an opposition campaign against the Bush administration’s environmental initiative, the Clean Air Act. In an ad placed in The New York Times, the NCC framed its agenda in the language of a concerned moral appeal. Wrote the NCC leadership, “In a spirit of shared faith and respect, we feel called to express grave moral concern about your ‘Clear Skies’ initiative—which we believe is the Administration’s continuous effort to weaken critical environmental standards to protect God’s creation.” Nor was this the first time that the NCC employed such tactics. While proclaiming the virtues of the Kyoto protocol in 1998, the NCC’s then-General Secretary, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, insisted that an acceptance of the (radical) environmentalist movement’s assertions about global warming ought to be made a “litmus test for the faith community.”
The NCC has also expressed concern that the Patriot Act constitutes a trampling on the civil liberties of those living in America, whether they live there legally or illegally. “We believe it is time for us to stop and think about where we should draw the line in our search for security,” said the NCC in 2004. “The 2004 Social Justice Sunday [September 26] theme invites us to consider this issue as a critical point in our history. . . . Only a self-obsessed society pursues security at all costs.”
Recently, some prominent religious figures have voiced concerns that the NCC is less a spiritual than a political organization, less concerned with ministering to the souls of its parishioners than with shaping a future that is in concordance with its leftist agenda. Mark Tooley, a director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, has taken the NCC to task for positioning itself as an impartial religious group. “We do not think the NCC is impartial. They have been openly sympathetic to the Cuban government for many years,” Tooley told the Washington Times in January 2000. The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran minister and now editor of the Catholic journal First Things, has observed that 50 years of rigid adherence to leftwing orthodoxy has taken its toll on the NCC. “The NCC is a shadow of what it once was,” Neuhaus has said. “It has been sidelined. Its 50th anniversary was more of a requiem than a celebration. It has lost the confidence of its membership.”
Complicating the NCC’s situation is its history of financial mismanagement. While doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of various leftist causes, the NCC been saddled with fiscal woes. The organization’s leadership has long spent beyond its means, and in 1998 the NCC found itself facing a deficit of $1.5 million. In 1999, NCC expenses exceeded total revenues by some $4 million. These budgetary shortfalls have compelled the NCC to appeal to its member denominations—seven of which account for 90 percent of the NCC’s budget—to step up their contributions. For instance, in 1999 the NCC requested that its chief sponsor, the United Methodist Church, increase its yearly contribution of $2.5 million by an additional $700,000.
Despite such stopgap measures, the NCC has proved incapable of reining in spending. In 2002, records showed that the NCC continued to spend 30 percent more than it received, with the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church USA responsible for 64 percent of NCC revenues. The support of the United Methodist Church is of particular importance to the NCC. According to the 2004 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, a chronicle of church membership published by the NCC and edited by the NCC Deputy General Secretary for Research and Planning, Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, the United Methodist Church has recently experienced small declines in membership. That sets it apart from other NCC member churches. Partially as a consequence of growing dissatisfaction with the radical agenda espoused by the NCC’s leadership, many of these churches have suffered a precipitous decline in their membership.
The NCC endorsed the Million Mom March, a May 2000 anti-gun rally in Washington, DC that drew some 750,000 participants and has since evolved into a national organization with the same name. Today Million Mom March is a member group of America Votes, a national coalition of 33 grassroots, get-out-the-vote organizations. America Votes is one of the seven groups forming the administrative core of the Democrat Shadow Party. Its get-out-the-vote efforts — and those of NCC — target likely Democratic voters, such as swing voters (working women and young people) and Democrat base voters (especially blacks and Hispanics). Among the causes America Votes promotes are environmental extremism, unregulated immigration (Open Borders), and the leftwing agendas of the teachers’ unions. By contrast, it opposes the Patriot Act and gun ownership rights. The coalition’s most pressing objective in 2004 was to defeat George W. Bush in the Presidential election. These are ideals to which NCC similarly subscribes.
Moreover, the NCC was a signatory to a November 1, 2001 document characterizing the 9/11 attacks as a legal matter to be addressed by criminal-justice procedures rather than military means. Ascribing the hijackers’ motives to alleged social injustices against which they were protesting, this document explained that “security and justice are mutually reinforcing goals that ultimately depend upon the promotion of all human rights for all people,” and called on the United States “to promote fundamental rights around the world.”
The NCC was also a signatory – along with more than 120 other leftwing organizations – to a 2000 campaign to increase the minimum wage.
Compensating somewhat for its sagging private donations of recent years, the NCC has received some funding from a handful of foundations, including: the Ford Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Beldon Fund, the Lilly Endowment, the Rasmussen Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Tides Foundation. It also gets funding from political advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and MoveOn.org.
In February 2005 the NCC condemned Israel – a nation plagued in recent years by an epidemic of Palestinian suicide bombings aimed at civilians – for having “established hundreds upon hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks, and gates across the Occupied Territories, making daily life and travel extremely difficult for ordinary Palestinians.” Proclaiming that “[s]tereotypes of all Palestinians as terrorists must be broken,” the Council explained that “[t]he crushing burden of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory contributes to deep anger and violent resistance, which contributes to fear throughout Israeli society.” The Council lamented that while “[a]t least half of the Palestinian people live in poverty, . . . too many Israelis have little or no knowledge of the human rights abuses experienced by Palestinians.”
In making the these statements, the National Council of Churches offered neither social nor historical context. For example, it did not mention that fully 70 percent of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza approve of the murder of Jews via suicide bombings; that there is no trace of an Arab peace movement urging the cessation of such terror attacks (a stark contrast to Israel, where the movement demanding concessions to Arabs in the name of peace is a formidable political force); that Palestinians in Israel enjoy more civil and human rights than their counterparts in any Arab nation on earth; that Israel came to occupy the West Bank and Gaza not as a result of expansionist impulses, but rather because of its victory in the 1967 war that was ignited when Israel was attacked by Egypt, Syria and Jordan; that in 1973, yet another coalition of Arab armies attacked Israel and were defeated; and that when Egypt (the spearhead of that 1973 assault) became the lone nation to agree to a formal peace with Israel, it was rewarded by Israel with the return of the entire captured Sinai with all its oil riches.
The foregoing facts notwithstanding, the National Council of Churches betrays no recognition of the fact that Israel has demonstrated a remarkable willingness to negotiate peace with, and relinquish land to, even defeated aggressors who have previously demonstrated a burning desire to destroy the Jewish state. “[I]t is clear,” maintains the Council, that “the overriding problem is Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian territory.” The Council’s critical stance on Israel is mirrored by its history of consistently opposing U.S. policies as well. These two nations are singled out for rebuke by the Council with greater frequency than any others.
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