WASHINGTON (BP)–For the first time since its founding in 1950, the National Council of Churches is receiving a majority of its operating revenue from non-church sources and foundations that often support liberal causes, a report issued by the Institute on Religion and Democracy said Jan. 10.
“Strange Yokefellows: The National Council of Churches and Its Growing Non-Church Constituency,” also claims that the NCC has aligned with leftist political organizations such as MoveOn.org and People for the American Way to combat and “defeat the alleged totalitarian ambitions of a right-wing conspiracy involving President Bush, Rush Limbaugh, James Dobson, and the IRD, among others.” People for the American Way was founded by Hollywood magnate Norman Lear to oppose conservative public policies and political candidates.
Alan Wisdom, vice president of the IRD, a conservative ecumenical alliance working to recapture a biblical social witness for the church, said in a press conference at the National Press Club that the NCC has abandoned its essential mission of Christian unity and is working to “construct a Religious Left that will be a counterweight to the much-reviled Religious Right.” Wisdom said the NCC’s political stances “fall almost uniformly left of center,” including the church group’s stance on “gay marriage.”
NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar, who also attended the press conference, has declared his personal support for “gay marriage,” Wisdom said.
“He and other NCC leaders repeatedly criticize fellow Christians who defend the traditional definition of marriage. In thus fostering the impression of an evenly split U.S. Christian community, the NCC serves the interests of its ‘progressive’ yokefellows who are campaigning for the legitimization of same-sex marriage,” Wisdom said.
The IRD report is the result of two years of research by Wisdom and John Lomperis, an IRD research associate and former Bush-Cheney campaign volunteer. Both men say they found that mostly liberal foundations are filling NCC coffers as much, if not more, than the member churches the NCC is supposed to represent.
The NCC experienced financial problems in the 1980s and 1990s as contributions from many of the churches of its 35 member denominations diminished. Gifts to the NCC declined from $2.9 million in the 2000-2001 fiscal year to $1.78 million in the 2004-2005 fiscal year — a drop of 40 percent — according to the IRD report.
But Edgar, a former six-term Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, was named general secretary of the church group in 2000, and began trimming costs and cutting staff in order to make the NCC more financially stable. He also sought non-church funding sources, with $2.9 million coming from foundations and non-church groups in 2004-2005. Edgar told Baptist Press in an interview that the NCC’s financial reserves have increased from $2 million to $10 million under his leadership and that the organization has operated with a balanced budget for the past five years.
“I am delighted that the IRD has validated what I was called to the National Council of Churches to do, and that is to raise money and raise money,” Edgar told Baptist Press. “I am also delighted that the IRD admitted that it, too, receives 40 percent of its funding from foundations, albeit conservative foundations.”
IRD was founded as an anti-communist parachurch organization in the 1980s and has since received the support of foundations concerned with spreading democracy and making a place for religion in American public life. One of the IRD’s largest supporters is the Castle Rock Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Coors Brewing Co. The IRD also receives support from the mostly conservative Carthage, Sarah Scaife, John M. Olin, W.H. Brady and Lynde and Harry Bradley foundations.
The IRD, however, is not a “church group” like the NCC, under the guidelines set in place by the Internal Revenue Service, Wisdom told Baptist Press in an interview. “We are a parachurch group and advocacy is exactly what we should be doing. We should be, as an organization made up of Christians, advocating our positions in the public square. But the NCC is a church group, and they have a special obligation to avoid being on one side of political arguments.”
In the press conference, Lomperis said he and Wisdom “found numerous common themes among the dozens of non-church entities from which the church council has recently sought or received funding. These groups have very little demonstrated interest in religion beyond recruiting faith communities to support their favored social and political causes.”
“NCC programmatic partners include People for the American Way — founded in the early 1980s to fight the emerging ‘Religious Right’ – and US Action, whose president spoke at the 2005 Convention of the Communist Party USA,” Lomperis said.
Edgar contends that the NCC’s work is not political. “They kept talking [at the press conference] about political advocacy. But we believe Jesus is calling us to feed the poor, to end the poverty that kills, to be peacemakers and to work for justice.” Edgar said he would like to see the IRD expend some of its resources to engage in a collaborative effort with the NCC to end poverty instead of “being divisive.”
“I believe Christ is in tears because of the division that exists between us,” Edgar said.
But Edgar himself has been the cause of some of the division. In April 2005, Edgar told The Washington Times that Americans were “in the darkest time in our history.” He said then that the Religious Right had been “systematically working toward this [conservative takeover] for 40 years. The question is, where is the Religious Left?” At the time, Edgar was attending a conference sponsored by MoveOn.org.
And in a June 2005 fundraising letter obtained by Baptist Press, the NCC general secretary likened “Jerry Falwell and his friends” and the IRD to Nazis, communists and Islamic militants who pursue the problems of life with an “easy certainty.” He also wrote that “hard right fundamentalists” have a “‘reconstructionist’ recipe” for America.
When asked by Baptist Press about the comparison of conservative Christians with some of the most murderous regimes in history, Edgar told Baptist Press, “That letter could have been written a lot better.”
In the letter, Edgar also advocated reclaiming much of the radio and television media from conservatives. “We aspire to create a ‘Dialogue Team’ that will have the capacity to respond with facts and interpretations every time a Rush Limbaugh, a James Dobson, or a Richard Land publicly makes an untrue or biased statement,” Edgar wrote in the letter. Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
To reclaim the media, Edgar wrote that the NCC would create a communication system to support its agenda. Through that system, FaithfulAmerica.org, the NCC placed an add on Arab television co-signed by 100,000 Americans, apologizing for the use of torture at Abu Ghraib. But the communication system does seem to have an explicit political purpose beyond seeking reconciliation and communicating the needs of the NCC’s social ministries.
“FaithfulAmerica.org works closely with MoveOn.org and TrueMajority.org, and can, when working together, generate 600,000 messages to Congress, the President or a governor,” Edgar wrote in the letter. MoveOn.org was formed in 1998 to oppose the impeachment of then President Bill Clinton. TrueMajority.org is a liberal Internet activist group founded by ice cream executive Ben Cohen.
In the executive summary of the IRD’s report, Wisdom and Lomperis claim that most of the groups supporting the NCC share common characteristics:
“(a) They are not affiliated with an NCC member communion, or any other church body. (b) Christian unity and common witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ do not appear to be among their principal aims. (c) They have a much stronger interest in addressing social and political issues. (d) Their positions on those issues, insofar as they can be discerned, lean overwhelmingly toward the left. Several of the groups are so patently partisan that they can be described accurately as belonging to what journalists have called ‘the shadow Democratic Party.’”
“The same political pattern holds true for other non-church organizations from which the council has received smaller gifts, or gifts in earlier years, or from which it has received pledges of financial support, or from which it is openly seeking support. In addition, there are groups that do not fund the NCC but that have been acknowledged by the council as its close partners in joint political efforts,” the IRD report said.