Material History of American Religion Project

Do You Know Where Your Church Offerings Go?

Another document is an article about/fund-raising appeal for Church World Service, the global relief arm of the National Council of Churches. The 1965 article, written by CWS’s director of interpretation, appeared in a publication for Sunday school teachers and was designed to encourage church members to support its work.

Here is a somewhat different perspective. Starting in the 1970s CWS began to include political analysis and advocacy in its international work. It sought to discover the political and economic structures which contributed to the disasters it responded to. A NCC administrator argued that "at the same time we meet needs we must also be engaged in a sophisticated political analysis of the root causes of poverty and oppression." (James M. Wall, "Strategy Conflict at Church World Service," Christian Century 91:26 (17 July 1974), 715.)

This approach caused dissent within the CWS staff and within the churches. This month’s document, criticizing the political agenda of CWS, offers a mirror image to last month’s fund-raising appeal. (Notice how the titles are similar.) Reader’s Digest, a popular magazine with a conservative editorial angle, ran this article in January 1983. It criticizes the politicization of mainline Protestantism, relying heavily on the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a Washington think tank supported by conservatives and dedicated to challenging the supposed left-wing bias of the churches. (The article also included a sidebar recommending support of the IRD.) It features a strong Cold War perspective, including a suggestion of crime by association. A broadcast on CBS News repeated many of these accusations; CWS and NCC spent years trying to cope with the public-relations fallout.

The article suggests the complexity of fund-raising for church-related organizations, particularly in an era of ideological conflict. It offers an important perspective, but—like the CWS appeal—it is worth questioning. Who does she quote? Does she have a bias?


In 1977 Linda and David Jessup began sending their children to the Marvin Memorial United Methodist Church in their Silver Spring, Md., neighborhood. When the children came home from Sunday school with "rice bags" the family was to fill with money to be used to buy wheat for Vietnam, Linda Jessup thought it odd. She had read that Vietnam’s Communist government was using food as a means of forcing compliance with its repressive regime.

David Jessup, who works for the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education, found that the money was to go to Vietnam via Church World Service (CWS), the relief and development arm of the National Council of Churches. Moreover, he discovered and documented that over a two year period $442,000 in Methodist churchgoers’ money alone had been sent to a number of political organizations, among them, in Jessup’s words, "groups supporting the Palestinian Liberation Organization; the governments of Cuba and Vietnam; the pro-Soviet totalitarian movements of Latin America, Asia, and Africa; and several violence-prone fringe groups in the United States.

Were Jessup’s surprising findings isolated cases? Hardly. Consider the activities of the National Council of Churches.

A flawed United States.

The NCC consists of 32 Protestant and Orthodox communions representing 40 million Christians (Southern Baptists and Catholics are the largest churches that do not belong to the NCC). The Methodist Church, with nine million members, is the largest denomination in the NCC, and its chief contributor. After the Methodists, with their 1980 contribution of close to $8 million, come the United Presbyterians, with nearly $3 million, followed by the United Church of Christ, with close to $2 million, and the Disciples of Christ and the Episcopal Church, each of which contributes over $1 million.

Established in 1950, the NCC can point to major achievements. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published under NCC auspices. The organization took a leadership role in the civil rights movement. Church World Service has aided victims of natural and political disasters the world over, helped in refugee resettlement, and supported a host of projects in the Third World.

But in the last decade the National Council has become increasingly politicized. Critics charge that it supports Marxist-Leninist movements in the Third World, that it has betrayed the liberal tradition and that it has become obsessed with the alleged inherent injustices of America.

Indeed, the National Council’s policy statements and resolutions portray the United States as deeply flawed. A 1979 policy statement passed by the NCC entitled "Challenges to the Injustice of the Criminal Justice system" basically attributes crime to social conditions for which the criminal is not responsible. It claims that our criminal justice system is "inadequate to respond to the crime-related conditions which are essentially those of social injustice and conflicting values." While president of the NCC from 1979 to 1981, the Rev. M. William Howard embarked on a series of visits to those he described as "political prisoners." In choosing which prisoners to visit, he was guided by research of the National Conference of Black Lawyers. That organization is affiliated with the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (ADL), a group listed by the CIA as an international Soviet-front organization. Howard visited such "political prisoners" as convicted murderer Larry Jackson of the Republic of New Africa, an organization whose goal is to establish an independent black country in five Southern states.

A number of NCC executives feel a just society is impossible under capitalism. In 1975 an Ecumenical Consultation on Domestic Hunger sponsored by the NCC passed a statement that said there was a basic contradiction between capitalism "and biblical justice, mercy, stewardship, service, community and self-giving love." Warren Day, the NCC’s director of News and Information, points out that such statements do not reflect the "official" view of the NCC. Nonetheless, the statements passed by such conferences are revealing of attitudes among the NCC staff members that organize them. Similar antagonistic views toward the American economic system are evident in the publications of the NCC’s Friendship Press and in NCC-sponsored films.

"Romantic, Na´ve People."

As a religious organization concerned with social action, the NCC understandably gives high priority to human rights. What is troubling is that William Wipfler, director of the NCC’s human-rights office, says that the Council and its member denominations are "consistent in their witness on behalf of human rights." But most of the great human-rights outrages of our time have never been condemned by the NCC’s governing board. While a few individual officials of the NCC have spoken out, the official policy-making body of the NCC has failed to pass resolutions denouncing the atrocities of Idi Amin in Uganda; the killing of half a million non-Moslems by Moslems in the Sudan; Vietnam’s creation of almost a million boat people; the barbarities of the cultural revolution in China; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—to name but a few. The NCC did condemn the Cambodian genocide, but put as much blame on the U.S. government as on the Pol Pot regime.

On the other hand, the NCC governing board has passed resolutions censuring, among others, El Salvador, Turkey, Nicaragua (under Somoza), Chile, South Korea and Guatemala, whose violations cannot be compared to the countries the NCC governing board has ignored.

Warren Day explains the NCC’s stance on human rights by saying that only countries friendly the United States are sensitive to our public opinion, so only resolutions directed against friendly countries have any effect. But in that case, the NCC should not claim that it offers a "consistent witness on human rights."

The problem seems to go deeper. Many of those in key positions in the NCC identify several of the countries with the worst record on human rights as models for Christians. In 1977, the NCC sponsored a visit to Cuba. The delegation of church leaders reported that a "theological rebirth is evolving in Cuba that we believe can inform Christians around the world with a new intensity and dept of insight about the meaning of faith." The group insisted that there was full freedom of worship in Cuba. Yet, Cuban children are indoctrinated in atheism in schools, and no one who professes belief in God can be a member of the Communist Party or advance in his career.

Similarly, NCC officials persist in their praise of Vietnamese society. According to a brochure published by Church World Service, "Vietnam today is a nation of dedicated people, hard at work, and enthusiastically building a new society from the rubble of war." After folk singer Joan Baez and other disillusioned anti-war activists protested against human-rights violations by Vietnam, Paul McCleary, director of CWS, and James Armstrong, then a Methodist bishop and now president of the NCC, joined with a number of others to publish an advertisement in the New York Times. It insisted that "the present government of Vietnam should be hailed for its moderation and for its extraordinary effort to achieve reconciliation among all of its people." Strange adulation for a country whose cruelty is creating hundreds of thousands of refugees, whose "re-education" camps are full, and whose soldiers are engaged in warfare—including chemical warfare—in a neighboring country.

What is the attraction of leading churchmen to Third World Marxist-Leninist societies that have severely restricted and in some cases all but eliminated religion? Judging from the characteristics of the countries singled out for praise, it is the very attempt to control all aspects of people’s lives. This is interpreted as "caring" and "a sense of community." Isaac Rottenberg, a minister of the Reformed Church in America who was part of the NCC world for ten years until he was dismissed for criticizing it, offers this explanation: "These are extremely romantic people, often quite na´ve."

From food to philosophy.

Church World Service is easily the most popular NCC program with churchgoers, a popularity reflected in its budget, which is roughly 70 percent of the NCC total. Yet even CWS has not been able to escape political influence. In 1973, it was proposed that CWS embark on a new direction, committing itself to "liberation and justice." When its longtime director, James MacCracken, refused to re-orient the agency from its traditional mission of helping the poor and hungry, he was summarily fired by Eugene Stockwell, associate general secretary of the Division of Overseas Ministries, of which CWS is a part.

Church World Service’s traditional assistance programs of relief and development continue. But now CWS also engages in political advocacy, contributing churchgoer funds to programs designed to further strategic goals of governments with which CWS leaders sympathize. Recently, for example, CWS gave nearly half a million dollars for Vietnam’s "New Economic Zones"—which a number of major newspapers depict as little better than concentration camps for "political undesirables." The new politicization of CWS also emerges clearly in the form of the CWS Office on Indochina Relations set up in Washington to "educate" members of Congress and government agencies on the need for diplomatic relations with and economic aid to Vietnam.

The Domestic Hunger Network coordinated by the NCC has much more to do with changing society than with feeding the hungry. It consists of 105 projects that in 1980 received over $650,000 raised from churchgoers responding to hunger appeals by their churches, which typically show a photograph of needy children. As Mary Ellen Lloyd, director of the project, points out, "This isn’t just funding a bag of groceries." Some of the money from hunger appeals, how much she could not say, does go for emergency help, but a significant portion of it is funding political activists.

Fundamental Task.

Not surprisingly, such actions by NCC leadership have alienated many churchgoers. Dean Kelley, a NCC official and author of a widely read book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, declares: "The gap between the denominational leaders and the people in the pew is huge." Ten denominations belonging to the NCC have lost over three million members in the last decade. The obsession of the church leadership with advancing causes that contradict the basic beliefs of most churchgoers is felt by many to be a contributing factor.

A number of dissatisfied churchgoers first became aware that something was wrong through reading NCC literature. Laura Hathaway, 61, of Spickard, Mo., a Methodist since she was 12, bought material at a United Methodist Women School of Missions she attended. Mrs. Hathaway says, "There was a play set in Mozambique, with an American woman and a woman from Mozambique discussing the celebration of Mozambique’s freedom. At the end of the play the American woman says that in the United States everything is so complicated and immense that many Americans don’t know where to begin a revolution. ‘I know,’ says the woman from Mozambique. ‘But perhaps you will learn from our struggle. There are ways.’ Then the American woman says, ‘Yes, there must be.’ That’s when I saw red. And I still do."

A major obstacle to reform is the unwillingness of the average churchgoer to acknowledge what has happened to his church. "People just can’t believe that their church, the church they’ve loved all their lives, can be financing all these Marxist-Leninist projects," says David Jessup. "The very idea seems preposterous, an affront to common sense."

If there is to be change, it will have to be made by the men and women in the pews. Ministers for the most part are too dependent on the church bureaucracy to take the lead. Several Methodists ministers who urged their congregations not to pay their World Service apportionment have been punished, some actually forced out of the church.

Methodist Edmund Robb, who heads the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a new Washington-based organization of distinguished ministers and laymen, recognizes that there are churchgoers reluctant to take action for fear that it will divide the church. But he feels that, on the contrary, action is essential to renew and restore the church to its fundamental task of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

"At the root of the problem," says Robb, "is the secularization of the church. The NCC has substituted revolution for religion. I believe that Christians have an obligation to work for social justice. But there will be no justice without freedom."

Rael Jean Isaac, "Do You Know Where Your Church Offerings Go?," Reader’s Digest, January 1983, 120-125. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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