In 1993, Joan Brown Campbell, the former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC), made a startling admission of wrong-doing. She said, “We did not understand the depth of the suffering of Christians under communism. We failed to…cry out under the communist oppression.” Normally such a candid confession implies that selfless reflection and a mending of one’s ways took place.
Not so according to the new study “Human Rights and the Protestant Mainline,” released by the conservative religious watchdog group Institute for Religion and Democracy. Campbell’s admission has done nothing to change the selective and left-leaning condemnation of human rights abuses around the world. Mainstream Protestant denominations and their activist arms like the NCC appear less concerned with human rights than they do with garnering the approval of their progressive peers.
Briefly the study reveals that mainstream Protestantism is uniformly critical of free nations but highly selective in their critiques of partly free and not free nations. (The criteria established by Freedom House.) Israel and the United States garnered 74 percent of all criticisms with the remaining 26 percent divided among all other nations. Of the 49 not free nations, only nine were criticized. Of the fifteen worst human rights offenders, only five received criticism (Sudan, Burma, Laos, Cuba, and Vietnam). The other ten received none (China, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan).
Muslim and Arab nations received scant criticism or none at all, especially the nations surrounding Israel. In fact, the only Arab nations criticized were on the periphery of the Muslim world (Turkey, Sudan, Pakistan).
Despite the confession of the NCC’s moral failings during the Cold War, mainstream efforts did not improve after the fall of communism. In the countries of the former Soviet Union, countries rated not free received no attention for continuous human rights abuses (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). Partly free countries received only one criticism (Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine).
Iraq received an unusually high 11 criticisms, “nearly all of which were coupled with criticism of the United States.”
“One is left to question,” the authors respond, “whether the Saddam Hussein regime would have received any mention without the United Nations sanctions and the threat of war by the United States.”
Also revealing was the silence about not free countries that have sizeable Christian populations (Syria, Egypt, Palestine). Over nine million Coptic Christians reside in Egypt (two million according to government figures), and are routinely persecuted despite Egypt’s reputation as a “moderate” Muslim nation. The same is true of partly free nations who also have a Christian population (Nigeria, Uganda Lebanon). The report notes “this neglect is particularly disappointing because in those nations Christians are able – in ways not possible in not free nations – to participate in the political process.”
Also telling was the tone of the criticisms. In criticisms of free nations, the prose was hard-hitting and direct. The more authoritarian a regime however, the milder the criticism became. Toward totalitarian regimes like Cuba, appeasement replaced criticism. For example, in a response to the imprisonment of Cuban dissidents in a private letter Castro in 2003, NCC president Dr. Robert Edgar pleads with Castro “…to reduce the dissidents’ sentences greatly or free them ‘as sign of good will and desire to work towards reconciliation.’ Castro, unsurprisingly, did not respond…and declined to meet with the NCC concerning the issue.”
Palestinian Authority and Israel
The most egregious bias is evident in the criticisms of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel. While Israel received the lion’s share of criticism, the PA received none. The NCC in particular is unsparing in its criticism of Israel (and in dispensing foreign policy advice):
The delegation finds that the following are critical components of a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:…the establishment of an international peace-keeping force…The end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza…the cessation of the building of new Israel settlements…abandonment, dismantling, or other disposition of settlements that negate the geographic integrity of a viable Palestinian state…the sharing of Jerusalem…the commitment by Israel to address the issue of the right of return….
(NCC, “By My Spirit: What Will Make for Peace in the Middle East,” April 2002)
No mention was made of the internal corruption of the PA, suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians, PA intimidation of Palestinians suspected of sympathy to Israel, or the murders of Arab Christians by Arab Muslims.
An incipient anti-Semitism?
Israel received over one-third of human rights criticism from mainline Protestant denominations and over one-half when criticisms toward the United States are factored out. Yet Freedom House (and every other human rights group) blames Israel for a “very small proportion of world human rights abuses – and hardly the worst of those.” Does this suggest some kind of animus against the Jewish people?
While careful to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from the charge of anti-Semitism, the report notes that the political rhetoric between historically anti-Semitic groups and the Protestant mainstream is converging.
In Europe, there are concrete alliances between leftist Christians and anti-Semitic organizations. The World Council of Churches (a European counterpart to the NCC) is led by leftist European elites who support antiwar and anti-globalization movements where “anti-Semitism is often the key subtext.” These movements serve as “an incubator for rising anti-Semitism,” according to scholar Gabriel Schoenfeld (The Return of Anti-Semitism, p.86).
Such alliances don’t formally exist in America – yet – but the evidence of sympathy between “mainstream” Protestants and anti-Semites is growing. In a February 2004 speech on the war in Iraq, Jim Winkler, the general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, said:
The only possible way [Operation Iraqi Freedom] could be sold to the American people was to allege that Saddam’s regime represented an imminent threat to the United States. We now know that plans to invade Iraq were afoot more than a decade ago by a far-right band of Washington insiders known as neoconservatives. Their plans were not to remake the Middle East into a bunch of democracies – they really have no objection to several of the royal autocracies and dictatorships in the region – but to ensure Israel could continue to act with impunity against the Palestinian people.
The report concludes that while this statement is not overtly anti-Semitic, the use of term “neoconservative” as a code word for “Jews,” the charges of secrecy and loyalty to Israel, and the one sided criticism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fits popular anti-Semitic rhetoric. Winkler made no effort to distinguish his ideas from that rhetoric.
In August 2004, the website of the Witherspoon Society, an association of Presbyterian liberals, posted a letter describing Israeli Jews as “a colonial implant of religious zealots – the guests from Hell who have remained on as the sole owners of Hell.” Despite protests, the letter remained on the site.
The disproportionate criticism of Israel along with the susceptibility of the Christian Left to anti-Semitic thinking, requires conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox to be vigilant towards mainstream activism and unsparing in their criticism of mainstream polemics when it drifts toward anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews violates the Christian moral tradition. Any attempt to reconcile one with the other should be soundly repudiated.
Some possible explanations
Why does this bias among Protestant mainstreamers exist? One plausible explanation is that moral and cultural relativism has infected mainstream denominational thinking. Mainstream leaders are particularly sensitive to the charge that criticism of human rights violations by western authorities is tantamount to cultural imperialism. They believe:
…that all values are relative and all cultures morally equivalent. Their instinctive revulsion at gross human rights abuses can be snuffed out – or at least damped down – by doubts about the legitimacy of judging faults in another culture…(and they) may not be intellectually equipped to counter the self-serving arguments of dictators. By contrast, they feel more confident in criticizing the United States and Israel because those two nations share a common liberal democratic culture that values human rights, and therefore can be subject to criticism under the standards of that culture.
It’s an old trick that was used with great effectiveness by the former Soviet Union (note Campbell’s apology above). Charges of cultural imperialism are particularly effective against leaders who have lost confidence in their moral and cultural traditions. Their relativism renders them powerless to face strong enemies so that pleasing the tyrant becomes more important than defending the victims of the tyrant’s brutality. These churchmen exemplify the lack of courage that Solzhenitsyn said was the scourge of modern liberalism in the West.
Onward “Christian” Marxists
Mainstream bias predates the bureaucratic ascendancy of mainstream leaders. In the 1960s and ‘70s peace movement ideology was imported into the Christian mainstream under the guise of “Liberation Theology.” Liberation Theology cloaked Marxist philosophical precepts in the vocabulary of the Christian lexicon, lending moral gravity to constructs alien to the Christian moral tradition.
Many leaders are old-timers who came of age during the Vietnam War and still cling to the discredited ideas of that period. These leaders still believe they are chosen to bring the masses to the threshold of the new age. They resemble other utopian movements that periodically appear in Protestant history, albeit with a political rather than agrarian twist. When communism fell, Liberation Theology was swept into the dustbin of history along with Marx, but these leaders have yet to confront their intellectual and moral bankruptcy apart from some minor but necessary admissions, like Campbell’s above.
Mainline Protestant activists are failing in the defense of human rights abuses around the world. Despite their self-professed role as guardians of the oppressed, their actions differ little from their secular counterpart on the progressive left. They no longer represent the enduring moral tradition of Christianity and cannot be trusted to represent it with honesty, clarity, or courage.