Looking beyond the press conference

church money 2The other day in the National Press Club I happened to stroll by a press conference held by the Institute on Religion and Democracy while I was on my way to another press conference. I was able to catch a few minutes of the press conference before mine started and I resolved to look at how the mainstream media treated the story. The press conference announced the release of a booklet summarizing two years of research into the funding behind the National Council of Churches. The NCC bills itself as an ecumenical partnership of Christian denominations in the United States. The Institute on Religion and Democracy, which is a think tank that advocates for major change within some of the denominations represented by the NCC, claims that the NCC's funding comes at least as much from liberal foundations as it does from its member denominations. It argued that the NCC had strayed from its original mission of uniting Christian churches and had devolved into leftist political advocacy.

The first story I read was from The Washington Times. Religion reporter Julia Duin is on leave so another reporter filled in:

The National Council of Churches is becoming financially beholden to secular groups with liberal political leanings, according to a report by a religious watchdog organization.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy, a group formed by members of the NCC, says the group accepted the majority of its charitable donations last year from nonreligious organizations and has been pursuing an agenda that does not mesh with the majority of its church members, including support for abortion and homosexual "marriage."

It's fairly straightforward, but it does include an error. IRD was not formed by members of the NCC.

Now let's look at Alan Cooperman's piece in The Washington Post. What's most interesting to me is the way that the story is about the press conference rather than the underlying reason for the press conference. It's not unheard of to write up what happens at a press conference (although my editor gets mad at me when I do it), but it is rare -- and rare especially for Cooperman, who's written excellent stories based on Americans United for Separation of Church and State press releases without revealing the source. I'm all for transparency, but it's interesting when it happens and when it doesn't happen at the Post:

Two influential Christian nonprofit organizations questioned each other's finances yesterday, each suggesting that the other is beholden to big donors with partisan political motives.

The clash between the National Council of Churches and the Institute on Religion and Democracy was a rarity in Washington, where liberal and conservative advocacy groups fight fiercely over issues but seldom dig deeply into each other's funding.

Both groups call themselves nonpartisan and are incorporated as tax-exempt charitable organizations. But the council, a New York-based alliance of 35 Christian denominations, is deeply involved in liberal social causes, such as reducing poverty and making peace; it achieved a long-standing legislative goal yesterday when the House voted to increase the minimum wage.

The institute, a Washington-based think tank, is allied with conservative groups on issues such as same-sex marriage. From its founding in 1981, its primary effort has been to challenge what it calls the "leftist" political positions of mainline Protestant denominations, such as the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It has worked closely with conservatives in those denominations, including Episcopalians who have broken away from their church since it consecrated a gay bishop in 2003.

As far as I know, there is nothing factually inaccurate with what Cooperman wrote. My problem with this approach, however, is that one of these groups is an actual lobbying organization and one of these groups is not. NCC describes itself as an ecumenical association of Christian denominations but it proudly lobbies for the passage or blockage of Congressional legislation. IRD does not. And yet you don't get that feeling from the way Cooperman wrote this up. You would think it was just two equivalent political groups fighting each other.

IRD has a very different mission and agenda -- it tries to help theologically conservative members of mainline congregations fight against "leftist secular social and political agendas" within their churches and particularly among church leadership.

Let's look at another passage:

The first question at the institute's news conference on the report came from the Rev. Leslie Tune, a staff member of the council, who asked where the institute gets its own funds.

James Tonkowich, the institute's president, said that about 60 percent of its roughly $1 million in annual revenue comes from individual donors and about 40 percent from conservative foundations, such as the Scaife, Bradley, Coors and Smith Richardson family charities.

One must commend Tune for how well she managed to get Cooperman to follow her lead. NCC folks at the press conference asked questions about IRD's finances and now that's as much news as the two-year study looking into the non-church finances of a group that claims to be an association of Christian denominations.

churchpoliticsBut considering that the Institute on Religion and Democracy has programs designed to help conservative laypeople in Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches who oppose their liberal leadership and liberal political agenda, where exactly would one expect their funds to come from? Church headquarters? The Episcopal Diocese of Washington is so upset by efforts to fight liberal theology and political activism in The Episcopal Church that it drafted a huge document to expose the funding of the efforts.

The two groups have completely different claims and completely different approaches. NCC claims to be an association of denominations. IRD does not. Whether or not the NCC gets more than half of its funding from churches or liberal foundations is an interesting question. The IRD does not claim to be an association of churches. And again, only one of these groups actually lobbies Congress. The other lobbies churches, more or less. So whether or not the IRD gets funding by right-wing foundations to affect change in mainline denominations is interesting. What conservative foundations hope to achieve through their funding of IRD is also an interesting story -- but it's a different story than whether a group is claiming to be a middle-of-the-road association of churches while lobbying for liberal legislation.

Note: Neither I nor my church body is involved with either IRD or NCC. But I imagine a fair number of you or your churches are. As difficult as it is, please focus on how the media should treat this story and not on the political or theological stances of either group.

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