National Council of Churches Funded by Secular Leftists
He Who Pays the Piper . . .Neuhaus is right, of course, that the NCC didn’t change its politics in response to getting all that secular leftist money.
By Richard John Neuhaus
One of the most dramatic stories of religious and cultural change in recent American history is the collapse of what was viewed as the Protestant establishment. Its main institutional embodiment was the National Council of Churches (NCC), established in 1950 as the successor to the Federal Council of Churches. The NCC, like its predecessor body established in 1908, was part of the American establishment in a way comparable to, say, the American Medical Association. Over the years, I have written about how the NCC has become barely a skeleton of its former self. By the late 1990s, it was in severe financial crisis, laying off staff, shutting down programs, and struggling to pay the phone bills.
Then it brought in as its new general-secretary the Rev. Robert Edgar, a former six-term Democratic congressman, and things began to turn around, although in curious ways. The NCC has thirty-five member denominations representing various Protestant and Orthodox traditions, and its founding definition is to be “a community of Christian communions” with the purpose of advancing Christian unity in “confessing Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, as Savior and Lord.” Beginning in the 1960s, like so many establishment institutions of the time, the NCC took a sharp leftward turn, with the predictable result that it alienated many of the members of its member churches. The contributions of those churches to the NCC precipitously declined, and continue to decline. Since 2000, the decline has been from $2.9 million to $1.75 million–a drop of 40 percent in four years. So how is the NCC recovering from its financial crisis and near collapse? The answer is that Edgar turned to non-church sources of income. In 2003, he obtained a $7 million gift from an anonymous woman who did not belong to any member church but admired the NCC’s politics. Income from other non-church sources has, since 2000, grown from $800,000 to $2.9 million–more than a threefold increase. Such income includes major grants from foundations such as Rockefeller, Ford, Tides, and Kellogg, as well as organizations such as the Sierra Club.
A recent publication by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), Strange Yokefellows, observes that “the council is more dependent financially upon the Ford Foundation than upon 32 of its 35 member denominations.” The IRD notes that the groups that are keeping the NCC alive have several characteristics in common: They are not affiliated with any church body; they have no record of interest in Christian unity or witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ; they are overwhelmingly on the political and social left. In addition to its financial sources, the NCC under Robert Edgar is very upfront about its alliance with groups such as MoveOn.org and People for the American Way in combating the political influence of what it describes in alarmist terms as “the religious right.” Mr. Edgar is indeed to be credited with the financial rescue of the NCC, but at the price of turning it into what for all the world appears to be an auxiliary of the left wing of the Democratic party.
All this is not news to some critics of the NCC. In an endorsement of Strange Yokefellows, one such critic says, “If the NCC is unable to find enough support from the very churches it supposedly represents, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by its complete capitulation to liberal politics. But it hardly represents those churches anymore. This is more than betrayal. It’s prostitution.” Well, not quite. The fact is that the few member bodies that do contribute to the NCC probably have no problem with the new arrangement, since their politics are pretty much the politics of the NCC. One thinks, for instance, of the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ. No “capitulation” to the NCC’s new funding sources was required.
Rather, it attracted the secular leftist money with its secular leftist politics -- which it wraps, of course, in religious rhetoric.
It is significant that it can’t raise its budget from member denominations, even though those denominations are dominated by a clerical elite just as secular and leftist as the NCC.
What is clear is that the NCC can no longer convincingly claim to represent even “mainstream Protestantism” -- which of course is no longer mainstream.