WASHINGTON -- As funding from its member denominations continues to decline, the National Council of Churches (NCC) is increasingly relying on support from liberal foundations and polemical direct mail campaigns.
A recent fundraising letter from NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar blasts "Jerry Falwell and his friends," "hard-right fundamentalists," libertarians, President Bush, Rush Limbaugh, the Heritage Foundation, and the organization for which I work (the Institute on Religion and Democracy).
Reading the June 2005 letter, it is hard to remember that the NCC ostensibly represents nearly 50 million American church members and was once a mainstream organization that championed civil rights and supported the U.S. in the Cold War.
Edgar condemns the "easy certainty" with which President Bush and his "fundamentalist supporters" approach "complex problems." Never defining what he means by "fundamentalist," the NCC chief lumps together nearly all conservatives with the tiny movement of Christian "reconstructionists," who want to revive the old Hebrew penal code (stoning adulturers, for example), and which includes almost no major conservative Christian leader, not even the dreaded Rev. Falwell.
Preoccupied with its political purposes, Edgar's letter never once mentions what is officially still the NCC's purpose: to foster ecumenical unity within America's churches. Talking too much about Christianity might sound too "fundamentalist."
So, seemingly writing for a largely secular audience, who are expected to react viscerally to the mere mention of names like Falwell and Limbaugh and Bush, Edgar hacks away at hard-core political themes. In so doing, he seems to want to confirm the worst allegations of the NCC's critics: that the NCC has ceased to be a church organization and has instead become a political lobby of the Left. Indeed, to remove all doubt, Edgar mentions that the NCC works closely with the far-left MoveOn.org, which, though unmentioned by Edgar in his letter, also has provided funding to the NCC.
Surreally, Edgar never indirectly acknowledges that most of the NCC's own purported constituency, millions of Americans who attend NCC denominations, do not politically support the NCC's goals and decidedly vote differently from Edgar's preferences. Church-going mainline Protestants once again last year voted more Republican than Democrat.
Much of Edgar's theme is that the NCC, unlike the "fundamentalists" he repeatedly condemns, is subtle, nuanced, and reflective. But the NCC is not a think tank or even a careful political commentator. Its policy statements, usually delivered as brief news releases, merely provide a slight religious veneer to talking points that could just as easily be found on MoveOn.org. Although Edgar rejects the supposed "easy certainty" of his adversaries, the NCC's politics are in fact quite simple: anti-U.S. military and pro-big government. Its stances are largely the now aging protest slogans of the 1960s and 1970s, the era in which Edgar came politically of age, culminating in his six years as a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania.
Returning to the simple old political themes from his salad days of chronic protest is no doubt reassuring to Edgar. Still, unaware of the irony, Edgar insists in his fundraising letter that "easy certainty" has led to many human disasters: communist and Nazi genocide, along with Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers. This assertion is remarkable, not only for its implied comparison of conservative Christians to mass murderers, but also because it is a rare occasion for the NCC to criticize communism and radical Islam!
EDGAR BOASTS OF THE NCC'S STRUGGLE against the "tragic 'easy certainty'" of the "war of liberation" in Iraq, ostentatiously putting quotation marks around "liberation." Liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam was never a major concern for the NCC. Incredibly, Edgar also brags that the NCC helped tsunami victims in Africa because it rejects the "religious fundamentalist confidence that disasters... are to be welcomed as 'end-times signs' pointing the select few towards the paradise beyond Armageddon."
Who are these Christian monsters who rejoice over natural disasters and the deaths of innocent thousands? Edgar does not name them, of course. At this point, it is easy to suspect that Edgar does not actually know any conservative Christians, so he must rely exclusively on angry stereotypes constructed by his secularist neighbors in Manhattan. But perhaps that is a generous interpretation.
Edgar regrets that "progressives and moderates" underestimated the political impact of the "gospel of easy certainty." But "progressives and moderates" (i.e. liberals) in the faith community were energized by the 2004 presidential election and increased voter turnout "dramatically," he enthuses.
Promising a "positive vision of a world built on justice and compassion, Edgar reveals that the NCC needs a "sustained investment" of $1 million a year to be truly competitive with the "Heritage/Cato/Institute for Religion and Democracy complex that sustains and backs the right wing agenda."
Edgar proposes to set up a "24 hour dialogue team" that will confront the "biased statements" of Rush Limbaugh, James Dobson and Richard Land (an officer with the Southern Baptist Convention.). And he boasts of the NCC's political e-mail organizing tool called FaithfulAmerica.org, which he reports works "closely" with MoveOn.org. Distressed about the influence of Rush Limbaugh, Edgar also proposes to set up a "progressive faith radio."
THE LETTER FROM EDGAR is formulaic, as most such fundraising letters are. It identifies the enemy (conservatives who are derided as "fundamentalists") and offers the politics of the NCC as the savior. It also emerges out of the context of the NCC's near financial collapse. When Edgar became NCC general secretary in 2000, the NCC was millions of dollars over budget. To survive, the NCC trimmed its spending from nearly $10 million to just over $6 million. Its staff has also fallen from over 100 persons to fewer than 40.
Under Edgar, giving from the NCC's 36 member communions has declined by about one third, to less than $2 million a year. Edgar has shifted to reliance on foundation income and direct mail, which together provide more than what is received from churches. Groups like MoveOn.org, the Sierra Club, the Tides Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, along with liberal celebrity donors such as Ben Cohen, Peter Yarrow and Vanessa Redgrave, have contributed heavily to the NCC's anti-war advocacy, among other political causes.
Actual church members are becoming less and less important to the NCC's survival. Secular foundations and non-religious celebrity donors are more important. With the consequent polemical demands of direct mail aimed at a mostly secular audience, Edgar's rhetoric inevitably will veer even further left and away from any pretense of importance attached to promoting Christianity.
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