The recent Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) report on the mainline churches’ policies on human rights stirred yet another round of debates within the ecumenical circle. The Rev Robert Edgar, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC), on Thursday released a harsh criticism the IRD report, calling it “grievously off the mark” and completely “biased.” Edgar also slammed a U.S. News & World Report columnist for suggesting the Council was anti-Semitic, saying that the columnist’s reliance on the IRD report was a case of “journalistic malpractice.”
In a letter written to the U.S. News’ editor-in-chief Mortimer Zuckerman, Edgar pointed out that columnist John Leo had wrongly attacked four American Protest Churches and two ecumenical bodies (NCC and World Council of Churches) for their criticism of the human rights actions by the Israeli government.
The Oct. 18 column suggested that the NCC specifically was biased against the Israeli government, and was thus anti-semetic. Information for Leo’s column was obtained by the IRD’s September report that implied similar statements.
"No one at the National Council of Churches was asked, in advance of publication or since, to confirm, clarify or refute any of the statements or statistics quoted as fact," Edgar said, adding that the column "employs the smear tactics of McCarthy-era propaganda, and contributes to the abuse of religious belief as a tool of partisan politics."
The column noted that 37 percent of the mainline churches’ human rights resolutions were aimed at Israel; it also stated that 80 percent of the NCC’s resolutions were aimed at the same nation.
Edgar rebutted this statement by saying that in the “entire 54-year history of the National Council of Churches, only two policy statements have referred to Israel and Palestine. And out of 650 resolutions adopted during that time, fewer than 40 have dealt with the Middle East, many of those concerned such matters as Christians in Egypt, hostages in Iran and Lebanon, and war in Kuwait and Iraq. Only five NCC statements about Israel were issued during the period of the IRD's survey, and several of those also criticized Palestinian leaders.
"This readily available public record, which the writer chose to ignore, hardly represents an anti-Israel bias," Edgar said, adding that the current NCC policy statement, adopted in 1980, explicitly calls on U.S. Christians "to work with Jews and Muslims toward cooperative relationships based on friendship and trust."
However, according to IRD Research Assistant Erik Nelson, the report was not biased. In fact, Nelson noted, the report did not state that the NCC was anti-Semitic. Rather, the report was a call to raise awareness of a possibility of such sentiments.
“Our report specifically says that the church has ignored the human rights in the past. We were afraid that some parts of the NCC and other churches and advocacy are avoiding talking about human rights abuses in the Arab world,” said Nelson. “One of which is that some are driven by anti-Semitic feelings. We do not say that the NCC policy is anti-Semitic. We simply say that the NCC should address the possibility; We are simply raising the question.”
Meanwhile, Leo’s criticism of the NCC stretched further beyond the possibility of anti-Semitic sentiments in the policies. The column, set to be released on October 18, said that the faith groups failed to criticize governments on policies related to human rights.
In response, Edgar wrote: "The right and responsibility of our nation's churches to speak out on issues of national policy is as old as the Constitution," adding that such activity is "as vital to our public life as the freedom of the press which you enjoy. . . As we are an association of American churches, most of our statements on public policy logically deal with the work of our own government."
The reach of the U.S. government is so broad and powerful, the NCC leader noted, that "it touches issues of moral and spiritual concern as diverse as the environment, civil liberties, war and peace, poverty, foreign policy and national budget priorities."
The National Council of Churches, with 36 Christian faith groups, is the largest and broadest ecumenical association of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox and African-American Christians in the United States, encompassing more than 100,000 local congregations in all 50 states.