The Institute for Religion and Democracy has long sought to bring mainline Protestantism back to its theological roots, and one way it has done that is by opposing the frequent forays of mainline denominations into politics, particularly left-wing politics. IRD’s arguments have essentially been three:

1) That by taking liberal positions on questions such as abortion and gay marriage, mainline leaders have abandoned biblical principles for secular political ones.

2) That by espousing consistently liberal political positions, the leadership of the mainline churches has failed to be representative of members in the pews.

3) That in taking far-left positions on foreign policy and human rights issues, especially with regard to Israel and American involvement in the world in general, mainline leaders have ignored or even supported egregious human rights offenders, treated Israel as though it were responsible for virtually everything wrong in the Middle East, and acted as though the United States were responsible for almost everything wrong with the world that was not Israel’s fault. In doing so, mainline leaders have failed to speak for the standards of the gospel rather than those of political ideology.

No where have these trends been more evident than at the National Council of Churches. Now, an interesting thing seems to be happening: as the NCC has become more and more overtly politicized, a greater and greater portion of its financial support is coming from organizations that aren’t Christian, but have a political agenda that’s in sync with what the NCC is seeking to accomplish. Presbyterian Alan Wisdom and Methodist John Lomperis have put together a report, entitled Strange Yokefellows: The National Council of Churches and Its Growing Non-Church Constituency, on this phenomenon that will be appearing in installments over the next several weeks at IRD (or you can buy the paper version for a donation). It promises to be a blockbuster, not in terms of sales, but in its potential impact on the growing reluctance of mainline denominations to support an unaccountable organization that claims to speak for their members. Here’s a sample from the executive summary:

[NCC Executive Director Bob] Edgar has been widely credited with rescuing the dying church council from collapse. But the NCC’s fiscal stabilization has not resulted from a renewed surge of support among member denominations committed to Christian unity. In fact, those gifts have continued to decline, from $2.9 million in fiscal year 2000-2001 to $1.75 million in 2004-2005—a drop of 40 percent in four years.

Instead the council was saved by other means-means that have brought about a little-noticed transformation in the NCC’s identity. First, Edgar granted financial and administrative independence to the NCC-affiliated Church World Service relief agency. Then he sharply trimmed expenses and staffing in what remained of the council. Most important, Edgar has pursued new income from non-church sources. The NCC’s “other” income has grown from $800,000 in 2000-2001 to $2.9 million in 2004-2005–a more than threefold increase….

The NCC has also sought and received funding from secular foundations and other non-church organizations. In fact, in the fiscal year ending June 2005, it received $1.76 million from such organizations. This total surpassed the $1.75 million that year from member communions, signaling a radical new development in the council’s history.

In analyzing the council’s financial statements, we found a number of surprising funding sources for a church group that has as its primary purpose seeking Christian unity. Among those institutions contributing at least $50,000 to the NCC in 2004-2005, ten of the sixteen were non-church bodies. These included:

  • $344,514 from the National Religious Partnership for the Environment
  • $300,000 from the Knight Foundation
  • $225,000 from the Tides Foundation
  • $150,000 from the Ford Foundation
  • $141,450 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
  • $100,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund
  • $85,000 from the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons)
  • $80,000 from the Wyss Foundation
  • $60,000 from the Sierra Club
  • $50,000 from the Connect US Network

These gifts are far greater than the donations that the NCC receives from most of its member denominations. They suggest, for instance, that the council is more dependent financially upon the Ford Foundation than upon 32 of its 35 member denominations.

Most of the NCC-supporting groups share several 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.”

There’s more–much more–to come. Readers from ECUSA, PCUSA, ELCA, UMC, UCC, RCA, Disciples of Christ, etc., take note.