January 2007

The Institute on Religion and Democracy has made chapter 4 of Strange Yokefellows available. In it, authors John Lomperis and Alan Wisdom continue their discussion of the connection between the National Council of Churches and left-wing funding sources. They begin by offering a detailed reminder of some of the kinds of politics the NCC used to indulge in, and still does, in a somewhat more subtle way:

An NCC mission study book in 1978 had likened Chinese dictator Mao Zedong to the biblical Good Samaritan, recounting how Mao supposedly healed the battered Chinese people from the wounds inflicted by imperialist robbers. The book compared Mao’s bloody Cultural Revolution to “renewal movements which have taken place in the church throughout the centuries.” According to the NCC study, “This Cultural Revolution emphasized community interest, anti-elitism, commitment to revolutionary social goals, dignity of manual labor, equality of women and men, and education for the common people…. There is no reason to assume that campaigns for moral renewal will cease. Many people have grasped Mao’s vision of continuous struggle against selfishness. Such people are striving to build a new society in which all will work and all will have access to cultural and material resources. The ongoing revolution to create such a society will never be a picnic.”

Similarly, a 1975 NCC mission study pamphlet described the joys of life in Cuba under Fidel Castro’s dictatorship: “In sum, at home Cubans have found a new dignity in their existence. Internationally, the island-nation has gained in status, has been adopted as a symbol of revolutionary hope and courage by the Third World, and has the long-term support of a country [the Soviet Union] which does not seek economic domination in the form of trade agreements.” Noting that many social services are ostensibly free in Cuba, the pamphlet rejoiced: “Later on the leaders are to call that socialism. The poor people call it great.”

They suggest that stuff like this contributed to the decline in giving to the NCC on the part of its member denominations, from $2.95 million in 2001 to a plateau of $1.8 million over the past couple of years (unfortunately, they don’t include figures from years before 2001). The decline in membership of NCC member denominations also contributed to this financial disaster, which resulted in the layoff of over half of the NCC’s work force between 2000 and 2002. Income then jumped enormously in fiscal year 2002-03, almost entirely as a result of a one-time $7 million gift of stock from a woman who wasn’t a member of any NCC denomination, but liked it’s “peace work.” In the meantime, contributions from a variety of other sources–foundations, individuals such as Vanessa Redgrave and Peter Yarrow, and recipients of a notorious 2005 direct mail letter that based its appeal solely on politics, so much so that the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese pulled out of the Council–rose from $629,000 in 2000-01 to almost $2.5 million in 2004-05, as contributions by “Others” for the first time (except for the year of the one big donation) outstripped those of the NCC’s member denominations. That continues to be the case up until now.

Lomperis and Wisdom indicate that the next chapter is sure to be hot:

Who are these foundations and other non-church groups that now play such an important role in sustaining the council? What are their interests and agendas? Why are they giving to the NCC? What follows are the results of our research into these questions.

Who, what, and why. More to come.

That would seem to be the conclusion of Chris Hedges, a former New York Times reporter who now turns out hateful screeds against evangelical Christians. The Volokh Conspiracy quotes from Hedges’ book, American Fascists:

This is the awful paradox of tolerance. There arise moments when those who would destroy the tolerance that makes an open society possible should no longer be tolerated. They must be held accountable by institutions that maintain the free exchange of ideas and liberty.

The radical Christian Right must be forced to include other points of view to counter their hate talk in their own broadcasts, watched by tens of millions of Americans. They must be denied the right to demonize whole segments of American society, saying they are manipulated by Satan and worthy only of conversion or eradication. They must be made to treat their opponents with respect and acknowledge the right of a fair hearing even as they exercise their own freedom to disagree with their opponents.

Passivity in the face of the rise of the Christian Right threatens the democratic state. And the movement has targeted the last remaining obstacles to its systems of indoctrination, mounting a fierce campaign to defeat hate-crime legislation, fearing the courts could apply it to them as they spew hate talk over the radio, television and Internet.

Just in case there’s any question about what Hedges is advocating, Professor Volokh continues with a citation from National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” program last week:

JIM (Caller): Yes. Yes, I am. I needed to ask the author — I mean, I myself am a Christian, but I wouldn’t even somewhat agree with Pat Roberts. But the author stating that you need to restrict someone’s free speech just for mere words, he’s advocating — I mean, what he’s advocating is fascism, is he (unintelligible)? …

Mr. HEDGES: I think that, you know, in a democratic society, people don’t have a right to preach the extermination of others, which has been a part of this movement of – certainly in terms of what should be done with homosexuals. You know, Rushdoony and others have talked about 18 moral crimes for which people should be executed, including apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and all – in order for an open society to function, it must function with a mutual respect, with a respect…

JIM: Sure.

Mr. HEDGES: …for other ways to be and other ways to believe. And I think that the fringes of this movement have denied people that respect, which is why they fight so hard against hate crimes legislation — such as exist in Canada — being made law in the United States.

[NEAL] CONAN: But Chris, to be fair, aren’t you talking about violating their right to free speech, their right to religion as laid out in the First Amendment?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, I think that when you preach — or when you call for the physical extermination of other people within the society, you know, you’ve crossed the bounds of free speech. I mean, we’re not going to turn a cable channel over to the Ku Klux Klan. Yet the kinds of things that are allowed to be spewed out over much of Christian radio and television essentially preaches sedition. It preaches civil war. It’s not a difference of opinion. With that kind of rhetoric, it becomes a fight for survival….

The reference to “Rushdoony” is to R. J. Rushdoony, the founder of the Christian Reconstructionist movement that advocates applying Old Testament law to American criminal law. Well, it’s not exactly a movement. It’s more like a couple of kooks (Rushdoony’s son-in-law Gary North and Greg L. Bahnsen, and a handful of others no one’s ever heard of) tirelessly working to push a collection of ideas that no one is interested in. Christian Reconstructionism and its evil twin, “Dominion Theology,” are being thrown up by certain secular and far-left types as somehow representative of evangelical thought and political goals, despite their utter marginality. (Others who have spilled ink warning about the apocalyptic influence of Rushdoonyism include Michelle Goldberg of Salon.com, political analyst Kevin Phillips, and Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee.) Truth is, people like Hedges sound more like 1950s John Birchers in their methodology (bringing together far flung, out-of-context, and irrelevant quotations from disparate sources, then tying their sources to one another through guilt-by-association, and then pronouncing it all proof of a giant conspiracy). What’s different is that he’s thought of as a mainstreamer by virtue of his previous work at the Times and NPR, and he’s essentially advocating repeal of the First Amendment as it effects those with whom he has political or religious disagreements. Oh, and his book is #41 on Amazon’s best-seller list.

(Thanks to the wonderful Anglican site Stand Firm for the heads-up.)

The Presbyterian Outlook has an article about the recent decision of Montreat Presbyterian Church in North Carolina to leave the PCUSA and join the EPC. It contained the following helpful information:

The mecca of southern Presbyterianism has been shaken, as the Montreat Presbyterian Church (MPC) has voted its desire to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). At a congregational meeting held on Sunday, January 21, the congregation voted 311 to 27 (with three abstentions) to request the Presbytery of Western North Carolina (PWNC) to dismiss them with property to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

The congregation rents its worship space, Gaither Hall, from Montreat College, but the education building they use was built in the mid-1990s with funds contributed by the congregation. Both buildings intermingle with the facilities of the conference center and the college, a PC(USA)-related school.

Congregational secessions are being encouraged by The Layman, which is published within the bounds of the presbytery. In anticipation that some churches might wish to secede, the presbytery this past October adopted a policy that no congregation’s request to leave will be considered unless at least 50% of its members are present and actually cast a vote, and the margin of support is at least 75%. With 341 votes cast out of 455 members, and with a 92% margin of support, MPC’s petition to leave will be considered by the PWNC.

The presbytery will act on the proposal at the stated meeting of April 24, which will be held at the Montreat facilities. In the meantime the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry will study the situation and recommend whether or not they believe the congregation should be dismissed. The policy adopted last October specifies that the vote to dismiss the congregation will require a two-thirds majority at a presbytery meeting for approval. If approved, then a second vote to allow them to take the property will require a simple majority.

Aside from the gratuitous slap at The Layman (which from my reading of the online version hasn’t been encouraging secession, but perhaps I’ve missed something), this helps fill in the situation at Montreat and in the Western North Carolina presbytery. Certainly there are more than enough votes to make clear that this is a genuinely congregation-wide decision, rather than just a rigged vote of a small number of malcontents. I certainly hope that the presbytery will respect the voice of the congregation.

In the first suicide bombing since April, Palestinians have apparently decided that fighting one another is silly, and it’s time to remember who the real enemy is:

A Palestinian suicide bomber killed three Israelis at a bakery Monday in the first such attack inside the country in nine months, and the two radical groups that claimed to have sent him said they were trying to end weeks of Palestinian infighting by taking aim at Israel instead.

The bombing was praised by the Palestinians’ governing Hamas movement as legitimate resistance — a position that was sure to hurt efforts to end a crippling economic boycott imposed by the international community.

Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades claimed joint responsibility. Both militant groups said they hoped to encourage warring Palestinian factions to end weeks of clashes.

I would certainly hope so. So that’s Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the suicide wing of the Fatah movement–which is to say all the major players in Palestinian politics except the lonesome President Mahmoud Abbas–agreeing that it’s time to go back to killing Israeli civilians. I hope that mainline church leadership will remember that before they issue their next condemnation of the Israeli security fence, or the Jewish state’s reluctance to negotiate (translation: make real on-the-ground concessions while getting pretty words in return) with those who wish them dead. I hope, though I don’t expect it.

It isn’t on the church’s Web site yet, but the Chattanooga Times Free Press is reporting that the congregation voted “overwhelmingly” to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) Sunday:

Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church, a 1,200-member congregation that is the area’s largest church in the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination, overwhelmingly voted to leave that body Sunday and join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

Church members said they voted to leave over theological differences with the denomination.

The vote to leave the denomination, including proxies, was 1,172-10. The vote to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was 1,138-14.

The vote will now be considered by the PCUSA denomination before any final approval is granted.

Yeah, I think those votes qualify as overwhelming. Thank God for the clarity that He has given this congregation. I look forward to meeting the folks they send to this summer’s EPC General Assembly in Colorado.

I didn’t even know there was any talk of a merger between the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church, but apparently some folks have been considering the possibility. According to Christian Century:

On the eve of the CRC’s 150th anniversary this year, many in the two Dutch Reformed denominations believe that they could offer a stronger Christian witness as one church. But in a newly released comparative study of the CRC and RCA, the authors caution that an organizational merger would come at considerable cost.

In Divided by a Common Heritage, four scholars from CRC’s Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and RCA’s Hope College in Holland, Michigan, say a formal merger could cause as many as 100,000 people to leave the two churches over theological and policy disagreements. While not arguing for or against merger, they write that it would be “extremely difficult.”

I’m sure it would be. One also wonder what the point would be, exactly. Between them, the RCA and CRC have about 355,000 members (168,000 in the RCA, 187,000 in the CRC). If 100,000 were to leave, then you’d be left with a denomination only about 75,000 members bigger than the CRC is now. You’d be bringing together denominations that are theologically rather different–CRC is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, RCA of the National Council of Churches–and while they have grown more like one another in recent years (for instance, CRC has moved in the last 30 years from prohibiting female deacons to approving women teaching elders), there are still enough differences to make a projected merger a mess. The mainline churches are daily discovering new ways to illustrate Jesus’ teaching that “no city or houses divided against itself will stand” (Matthew12:25), and a merged RCA-CRC would in short order join the ranks of those churches discovering that no amount of spackle can hold together a structure built upon a cracked foundation.

And now we go from the ridiculous to the sublime, as Rev. Edward Oakes, S.J., discusses current popular atheism and its rebellion against reason. (For examples of what he calls “pop atheism,” see such books as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion or David Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, both of which have been on the New York Times best-seller list recently.) Oakes asks the question, “Since God exists, what makes atheism conceptually possible?” He finds his answer in the writing of the French theologian Henri de Lubac, who says that atheism is in fact made possible by God, inasmuch as He has given to His creatures the ability to reason, the possession of which faculty is itself proof for the existence of God. “In other words, what all proofs [of the existence of God] are really reaching for is this common fund of inchoate awareness of the necessity of God already present whenever reason exercises its rational faculties.”

It’s an interesting meditation. Read it all, and if possible, become a regular reader of the First Things feature “On the Square.”

I probably shouldn’t post this, but I can’t help myself. It’s one of the most unintentionally funny things I’ve seen in a long time. I saw it at Rev. Kendall Harmon’s Titusonenine blog (one of the very best religion-oriented blogs on the Web, by the way), and at first thought it was a piece of satire. When I followed the link, I realized that it was meant in utter seriousness.

The Sunday after General Convention I returned to my home parish for Gay Pride Sunday and participated in a Disco Mass for which gays and lesbians turned out in force. The opening hymn was a beautiful jazz rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Musical offerings came from gay men in sequined tank tops and from the Director of Music who was ushered into the service singing a disco number complete with Go-Go girls. The queen of St. Mark’s appeared in full drag to deliver the homily and the closing hymn was, Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” As I stood singing among straight men and women, young parents with their children, gays and lesbians, teenagers in hip hop clothing, Asians, whites, African Americans and Spanish speaking people I realized I was part of the realm of God and I was glad to be there – in a place where God’s creation of a new thing was being lived out.

This doesn’t come from Robin Williams (though it sounds sort of like the closing scene of The Birdcage, which I saw once purely by accident as I was channel surfing–I still haven’t entirely recovered), but from Neil Braxton Gibson, coordinator of the Episcopal Urban Caucus. If the Episcopal Church is ever formally buried, I believe this will make a most descriptive epitaph.

Remember those folks from the Presbyterian Church (USA) who were traveling in the Middle East, reporting on the conditions they found there? They went to Lebanon, and duly dispatched a report that is found here and that I wrote about here. Funny thing, though. They were headed to Israel next, and haven’t been heard from since, at least as far as the Presbyterian News Service is concerned. I wonder if a scouting party is being sent out from Louisville to find them?

Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church of Signal Mountain, Tennessee, a growing church of almost 2,000 members, will be voting this Sunday at a 3 pm meeting on whether to leave the PCUSA and join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Please be praying for the congregation’s discernment of the Lord’s will for them in this decision.

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