World magazine editor Marvin Olasky has exposed how the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has been receiving funds from the pro-choice Hewlett Foundation via the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which emphasizes contraceptive distribution. Apparently NAE received about $1 million over several years, comprising a large chunk of NAE’s annual budget, which is only about $1 million a year. The San Francisco Bay area based Hewlett Foundation funds Planned Parenthood, the Abortion Access Project, and Global Warming activism, including influencing evangelicals for climate causes.
This project funded ultimately by Hewlett, according to Olasky, facilitated an NAE-sponsored panel at the prestigious “Q” conference in April in Washington, D.C. for young evangelical elites that almost exclusively emphasized contraceptive distribution, including to unmarrieds. Afterwards, a poll of several hundred listeners showed most favoring church support for disseminating contraceptives to young unmarrieds, which fueled publicity that young evangelicals are more permissive in their sexual beliefs. The argument for the campaign is that it will reduce abortion.
NAE President Leith Anderson, a retired Minnesota megachurch pastor, declined really to answer Olasky’s questions about NAE’s finances. Instead he complained that Olasky had not published his full quotes, which Olasky later did. And he insisted NAE affirms traditional Christian sexual teachings. “We never want to promote or condone sexual immorality,” he said. “But, we are told that contraceptives can reduce abortions and we want to stop abortions.”
No one really doubts that NAE affirms Christian sexual ethics. The question is perhaps more about emphasis. The NAE was once a traditional, conservative evangelical voice that largely represented consensus opinion among evangelicals in denominations like the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterian Church in America. When longtime NAE chief Billy Melvin retired in the 1994 after nearly three decades, a vacuum arose within NAE. He was briefly succeeded by an Assemblies of God official and then a Free Methodist bishop. Eventually Colorado megachurch pastor Ted Haggard took the helm in 2003 until his 2006 sexual scandal. In the 1990s, NAE struggled over its budget, partly because of expenses in moving from Chicago to Los Angeles. In 2003 NAE relocated to Washington D.C.
My late and revered predecessor as president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Diane Knippers, was an active Anglican lay woman who joined the NAE board in the 1990s and served until her death in 2005. From the start she was concerned about NAE’s drift to the left. She joked that it was almost a full-time job counteracting the liberal influence of her friend Ron Sider, head of Evangelicals for Social Action. One NAE president became publicly close to then National Council of Churches chief Joan Brown Campbell, with whom he journeyed to China together, and where neither ostensibly found much evidence of religious persecution. Diane discerned that many NAE leaders were very nice Christian people who were often politically naive and susceptible to influence by whomever. Some on the Left rightly saw the leadership void and naïveté, coupled by a craving for wider respectability, as an opportunity.
NAE’s long-time Washington, D.C. representative Richard Cizik embodied NAE’s new direction. As NAE chiefs came and went, he became NAE’s most prominent voice. And he became an icon of Global Warming activism, infamously earning a 2006 full-page photo in Vanity Fair magazine, in which he was walking on water against an apocalyptic backdrop. Cizik went too far in 2008 when he endorsed same-sex civil unions during a national radio interview with NPR‘s Terry Gross. By then, Leith Anderson had become president, and he quickly dispatched Cizik.
Seemingly Cizik was going just a little too fast for Anderson, who has continued NAE’s political slant towards more liberal concerns. Under Anderson, NAE has adopted formal stances against U.S. enhanced interrogation techniques on terrorists, backed cooperation with pro-choice groups in a common quest for reducing abortion, endorsed Comprehensive Immigration Reform with an emphasis on legalizing illegals, and issued a denunciation of nuclear weapons strongly implying the U.S. should disarm. In the 1990s and before, international religious persecution was a strong NAE focus, and NAE often partnered with my group, IRD. In recent years, religious persecution has been less highlighted. Anderson endorsed the somewhat controversial 2007 “Loving God and Neighbor” outreach to global Muslims that critics thought overly sought theological commonality with Islam while apologizing for ostensible Christian misdeeds towards Islam, such as the Crusades and the War on Terror.
The one area where Anderson had not leaned liberal seemingly was NAE’s continued traditional stance for marriage and against abortion. He signed the ecumenical 2009 Manhattan Declaration pledging resistance to infringements on religious liberty by same-sex marriage and abortion. And he has signed statements opposing the Obamacare contraceptive/abortifacient mandate. But the revelation of NAE’s funding by and even financial reliance on a large pro-choice philanthropy, coupled with Anderson’s recently declining to endorse the current Minnesota marriage amendment, now calls to question NAE’s steadfastness even on marriage and abortion. Even as he shied away from the marriage debate in Minnesota as partisan he quickly backed President Obama’s new policy of selective non-enforcement of immigration law. Reflecting trends with the overall Evangelical Left, Anderson seems to want to de-emphasize traditional hot button so-called culture war issues. Instead, he seems to focus on issues of the Left that purportedly will expand NAE’s appeal.
Maybe the strategy will work. But it’s doubtful that most members of NAE congregations, still overwhelmingly conservative, identify with NAE’s new political thrust in their name. And of course, the vast majority are largely unaware of NAE, even though it commonly claims to represent millions.
In some ways, NAE now resembles the group it was founded partly to counteract, the National Council of Churches. No longer striving to speak for evangelicals, NAE now, like the NCC, tries to speak prophetically to its church members. This stratagem never really worked for the once influential NCC, which has hovered near collapse for nearly 15 years. Due to its own financial crisis starting in the 1990s, the NCC came to rely on secular foundation grants garnered by its then chief, former Democratic Congressman Bob Edgar, starting in the early 2000s. Edgar’s successors seem to have been less successful at fundraising, and denominational giving continues to sag.
The NCC got funds from liberal foundations for the NCC’s traditionally liberal politics. NAE got secular foundation funding for Richard Cizik’s environmental advocacy and later for liberalized immigration advocacy. And more recently it’s gotten secular funding for contraceptive advocacy. These grants raise the question: why is NAE seemingly seeking grants mainly if not exclusively from liberal philanthropies? There are many Christian foundations. And many secular conservative foundations appreciate the church’s role as primarily a faith and morals enterprise that strengthens society, as opposed to the liberal foundations seeking churches as political tools. Perhaps NAE officials seek grants from donors who will facilitate the more liberal direction they desire.
That neither NCC nor NAE can effectively survive with funding from their own member denominations probably illustrates their declining relevance. American churchgoers less and less identify with denominational structures, much less even more detached ecumenical groups to which those structures belong. NCC and NAE were both founded in the 1940’s, and they served a purpose during the post-war era when both Mainline and evangelical denominations were institutionally strong. Does either have an imperative purpose in the current era? The new year or two might tell.