On September 27, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) released an extensive critique of the mainline protestant churches’ human rights advocacy between 2000 and 2003. The 40-page report “examined” and “scrutinized” resolutions passed by the governing bodies of four of the more liberal protestant denominations and the two largest ecumenical bodies of which the churches take part, and harshly criticized the “choice of the nations at which they aim their human rights criticisms.”
The targets of the extensive report were some of the nation’s largest denominations: the Episcopal Church (ECUSA), Presbyterian Church USA (PC(USA)), United Methodist Church (UMC) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In addition to the four denominations - traditionally known for their “progressive” or “ecumenical” stances – the report also blasted nation’s leading ecumenical body, the U.S. National Council of Churches (NCC), and the world’s largest ecumenical group, the World Council of Churches (WCC).
According to the four year study, the mainline churches have been focusing their human rights criticisms in the wrong places.
“The results showed that over one-third of all church criticisms of human rights abuses were aimed at a single small nation: Israel. Slightly less than one-third were aimed at the United States, and the rest were distributed among twenty other nations,” the report stated. “Only 19 percent of the church criticisms were aimed at nations deemed "not free" in the 2004 Freedom House assessments. Many of the countries rated lowest by Freedom House-such as China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia-were not criticized even once. Of the fifteen worst human rights abusers listed by Freedom House, only five received any criticism during the four years studied.”
The president and researchers at the IRD added to the sting of the report by implying that the “imbalance” of criticism against Israel is “anti-semetic.”
"Israel is certainly responsible for some human rights abuses, as are all nations," said Diane Knippers. "But an extreme focus on Israel, while ignoring major human rights violators, seriously distorts the churches' message on universal human rights. We cannot find a rational explanation for the imbalance. We are forced to ask: Is there an anti-Jewish animus, conscious or unconscious, that drives this drumbeat of criticism against the world's only Jewish state?"
The IRD Research Assistant Erik Nelson also said, “Explicit criticism of Israel was completely out of proportion, in volume and in severity of tone, with church criticism of more notable human rights abusers. That excessive criticism, paired with the fact that none of the churches or groups that we studied criticized human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority or other neighboring governments, certainly raises concerns about a prejudiced double standard. Mainline churches need to face frankly the possibility of anti-Semitism among 'our kind of people.'"
IRD Vice President Alan Wisdom, co-author with Nelson of the report, commented: "I hope that leaders in my denomination (the PCUSA) will see this situation as more than a public relations problem with an external group (the Jewish community) that needs to be mollified. I hope that they will take this opportunity for some serious introspection, asking whether we Presbyterians have been faithful to our own Christian commitment to value equally the human rights of all peoples."
In addition, Knippers commented that the Ecumenical bodies, namely the World Council of Churches and its constituents, are repeating the same mistakes it did in the past.
"After the Cold War, some church leaders apologized for ignoring human rights abuses behind the Iron Curtain. Today the churches seem to be ignoring human rights abuses in other parts of the world, most notably the Arab world. Did these churches really learn anything from their failures during the Cold War? We need an entirely different approach for the 21st century."
Following the release of the IRD report, the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, responded by calling the report “fatally flawed.”
“The Institute of Religion and Democracy's report titled "Human Rights Advocacy in the Mainline Protestant Churches 2000-2003," released today addresses the important matter of human rights in a fatally flawed way,” said Edgar.
Edgar, as head of the largest ecumenical and liberal body of churches, called the IRD “ideologically conservative” and said the report could not have been objective.
“In truth, the ideologically conservative IRD cannot claim to have produced an objective report, having among other things used another ideologically conservative group, Freedom House, as its barometer on human rights,” Edgar added.
The general secretary then defended the NCC, saying that the group’s social policies are based on statements and actions beyond what was examined in the IRD report.
“The report assumes that all that the National Council of Churches USA does or says about human rights gets reported out in resolutions and news releases. It ignores the NCC's sound, comprehensive policy base on human rights, especially the foundational "Human Rights" policy adopted by the Council's highest governing body in December 1963, and that body's November 1995 reaffirmation and expansion of that policy, "Human Rights: The Fulfillment of Life in the Social Order,”” said Edgar.
In addition, Edgar said the IRD’s implication that the NCC is anti-Semitic is “wrong and dangerous.”
Commented Edgar, “The most unfortunate part of the IRD's report is its apparent attempt to hurt Jewish-Christian relations by quite blatantly planting seeds of suspicion that the mainline churches are anti-Semitic. The IRD wrongly and dangerously equates any criticism of the government of Israel and its policies with anti-Semitism.”
Edgar concluded his statement by firing back at the IRD: “We regret the IRD's attempt to play partisan, secular politics with important matters of Christian faith and ministry.”