Institute on Religion and Democracy
December 12, 2000
It was one of the biggest stories of 1996: black churches were burning all across the South, the seeming victims of a nationwide upsurge in racial hatred. Tens of thousands of horrified Americans rushed to contribute money towards the reconstruction of black churches.
We now know there never was any firm evidence of a black church arson epidemic and no evidence of a racist conspiracy aimed at black churches. And now we also know that a significant chunk of millions of dollars raised for church reconstruction never actually went for bricks and mortar.
It appears that the church arson story, whose primary promoter was the National Council of Churches (NCC), was used, at least in part, as a fundraising tool to forestall the NCC’s impending financial collapse.
At the time of the church arson story’s debut, the insurance industry estimated that 490 churches typically burn in an average year. Since an estimated 20 percent of all churches are predominantly black, it would be expected that close to 100 black churches would burn annually. Nobody then, or ever since, has ever claimed that anywhere near 100 black churches have burned in any single year.
This discrepancy did not deter the NCC, which successfully touted the church arson story to the media in 1996. The NCC quickly established the Burned Churches Fund as the most successful fundraising effort for burned churches. The Fund included not only the NCC’s over 30 Protestant denominations but also the U.S. Catholic Conference and Jewish groups.
Over $9.1 million in cash was raised by the NCC, along with nearly $3.4 million more in in-kind assistance. But of the $9.1 million, only $6.4. million can be accounted for in grants for church construction. The NCC has not explained what happened to the remaining $2.7 million in cash.
Last year, when the Burned Churches Fund was shut down, the NCC’s own auditor questioned the NCC’s transfer of the Fund’s final remaining $330,000 to the NCC’s general administration. The NCC has been wracked by deficit spending for years. In 1997 the NCC suffered a $1.6 deficit and in 1998 it endured a $1.5 loss. Last year, when the Burned Churches Fund’s fundraising had virtually come to a halt, the NCC fell short nearly $4 million, precipitating a major crisis and reorganization for America’s oldest and largest ecumenical organization. In just a few years, NCC’s reserves of once $15 million have been spent down to a now untouchable $3 million in designated funds.
The NCC had originally claimed that 15 percent of the Burned Churches Fund would go towards administration and programs to combat the “root causes’ of racism. This provision set off fears by conservative critics of the NCC that church reconstruction money would fund left-wing political activities. Some did. But in the end, most of the re-routed money seems to have gone towards a far more banal activity: propping up the NCC’s failing administrative infrastructure.
Counting in-kind assistance, mostly construction materials, the Fund raised about $12.5 million, 15 percent of which would be $1.9 million. Of course, 15 percent of the $9.1 million raised in cash would only be $1.36 million. This contrasts with the $2.6 million that appears to have been spent on non-construction purposes, which is about 28 percent of the cash raised for burned churches by the NCC.
Last year, NCC General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell, who had been the Burned Churches Fund’s chief cheerleader, retired under a cloud amid growing deficits and financial upheaval for the NCC. The NCC’s largest member, the United Methodist Church, even briefly cut off its funding in an effort to compel the NCC to repair its tattered finances and conduct better bookkeeping. Over the last year, several of the largest member denominations have been asked to help with the NCC’s multi-million dollar bail-out.
Still trying to repair the damage, NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar is now cutting 17 positions from its staff of 64. And he has proposed dissolving the NCC in favor of a larger ecumenical umbrella that would include Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Some NCC insiders have privately raised the possibility that the NCC will collapse in the next year or two. That collapse may have happened several years ago absent the intervention of the Burned Churches Fund.
Although money from the Burned Churches Fund not spent on church construction was to have been spent on both administration and anti-racism programs, the former appears to have received the bulk of the money. The NCC had promised a series of anti-racism conferences around the country. In fact, only a few were held, drawing small crowds. The NCC has refused to conduct an audit of the Burned Churches Fund. A final budget report on the fund was given to the NCC’s General Assembly last year, but it accounted only for $6.4 million in grants for church reconstruction. It made no mention of the $3.4 million of in-kind gifts, nor of the $2.6 million apparently spent on overhead and political action.
Meanwhile, the NCC’s often incendiary claims about black church arsons continue to be undermined by more responsible documentation. In its annual report for the year 2000, the National Church Arson Task Force found that most churches suffering arson are white, not black. And only 10 percent or fewer of persons arrested for arson have shown enough evidence of racial motivation to merit prosecution for hate crimes.
The Task Force, founded by the Clinton Administration in 1996 in response to the church arson story, has investigated 945 church arsons committed since 1995. In 1999, it found 140 church arsons. In contrast, in 1996 it identified 297 arsons. Since there is no federal or state requirement to report a church arson, the Task Force’s numbers cannot be called complete.
The Task Force, in its report, explains its existence dates to a troubling rise in black church arsons. But neither the Task Force nor any other reliable reporting source has been able to document that alleged increase.
In probably a more comprehensive report on overall numbers, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates that church arsons increased from 450 in 1995 to 570 in 1996. However, the NFPA does not analyze the racial composition of burned churches. And the increase took place within an overall decrease in church arsons over the last 20 years. The number for 1996 is in fact identical to the 570 church arsons estimated to have occurred in 1993. And arsons for all of 12 years previous to that were even higher, decreasing from a high of 1,320 both in 1980 and 1981. In 1997, the last year for which an estimate has been made, the NFPA believes there were 390 arsons, which represents a continuation of the downward trend.
The advocates of the church arson story claim the upswing in attacks on black churches began in the early 1990’s, a claim that the NFPA’s report of overall church arsons would seem to refute. The only annual increase over the last 20 years in overall church arsons occurred in 1996, when the media hype over church arson began. It is not a stretch to speculate that copycat crimes could be the explanation.
The federal Task Force, along with some media outlets, has reported that the most prolific church arsonist over the last 5 years has not been a racist but a practicing Satanist. Jay Scott Ballinger pleaded guilty in July of this year to torching 26 churches between 1994 and 1999 in at least 8 states. He and his accomplice girlfriend have claimed responsibility for attacks on 50 church arsons. So far, there is no word from the NCC or other church groups about initiating any programs against the followers of Satan, who apparently is not a concern to them.
The Task Force claims to have participated in the conviction of 305 defendants connected to 224 arsons or bombings. This arrest rate of 36.2 percent is more than twice the national average for arson cases, the Task Force points out in a news release. About one-third of the 948 arsons tracked by the Task Force since 1995 have been black churches. This contrasts with the 20 percent of churches overall that are black.
But the Task Force does not profess to have a complete list of church arsons. It is very likely that churches suspecting a racist motivation are more prone to report their losses to the Task Force than ones that detect more mundane vandalism. So the Task Force has not provided any comprehensive numbers that show that black churches were ever in recent years more vulnerable to arson than non-black churches.
Even in the South, there is no evidence form the Task Force that black churches were more vulnerable than white churches. According to the Task Force’s data, among church arsons in the south, 44 percent were at black churches and 56 percent were at white churches. But it is estimated that 40 percent of southern churches are predominantly black. During the height of church arson reporting in 1996-97, it was also noted that black churches, especially in the South, are disproportionately located in remote rural locations, making them potentially more vulnerable to arson, but for geographic and not racial reasons.
In 1998 the Task Force reported that it found “no evidence of a national conspiracy” based on anti-religious or racial motives, according to Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights. But clusters of church attacks in some cases indicated “local coordination” among arsonists, he said.
Of 431 persons arrested for church arsons, the Task Force reported that 350 were white, 65 were black, 13 were Hispanic and three were Asian. Of the 136 persons arrested for arsons at black churches, 85 persons were white, 50 were black and one was Hispanic. Of the 431 arrested persons, 37 were white people who were charged with hate crimes because they evidenced a racial motivation for their attack upon black churches. Only six of those 37 persons evidenced ties to an organized hate group. The majority of church arsonists of all races seem to have been motivated by pyromania, vandalism, burglary or insurance fraud.
It’s hard to call the church arson story of 1996 a complete fraud. Yes, black churches were burned and continue to burn. And yes, some arsonists have been motivated by racial hatred. But there was not then nor is there now compelling evidence to show that black churches were ever over the last decade more vulnerable to attack than non-black churches.
The arson story was created, in part, by a failing church group trying to revive its sagging political and financial fortunes. But the NCC remains on the brink of collapse. One of its final legacies will have been the creation of a myth that needlessly incited racial fears and raised millions of dollars under largely false pretenses.