Institute on Religion and Democracy
January 24, 2000
After nearly a decade of leading America's most famous (or infamous) ecumenical coalition, Joan Brown Campbell has finally called it quits at the National Council of Churches. But she is not leaving without a splash. Although her term as secretary general ended December 31, 1999, Campbell has since immersed herself in a new round of publicity.
Evidently acknowledging Campbell's strong ties with Fidel Castro, her successor appointed her to spearhead the NCC campaign to return little Elian Gonzalez to communist Cuba. In a flurry of activity, Campbell has traveled to Cuba to meet Elian's father (and with Cuban officials, of course), offered herself for a host of media interviews, convened press conferences, returned to Cuba personally to fetch Elian's grandmothers in a chartered flight, organized another round of publicity events, met with Attorney General Janet Reno, met with sympathetic members of Congress who support Elian's return, and condemned the bad, old right-wing congressmen who wanted to keep little Elian away from his father.
Meanwhile, Campbell has criticized Elian's mother for risking his life in a dangerous escape from Cuba by sea and assured everybody who is willing to listen that all of Elian's relatives in Cuba want him back with them. That Elian's mother and many others are dead because Castro will not let his people travel freely seems not to have occurred to Campbell. And that Elian 's family in Cuba might be reluctant to speak frankly either to the media or a left-wing church leader from the U.S. also seems not to be a possibility to her.
It's been the richest gush of publicity for the NCC since the great church arson story of 1996. And it's an appropriate final chapter for Campbell's reign, in which high-profile political causes further gained the fore, while the NCC's slide into irrelevance among its own church constituency accelerated.
Since taking the helm at the NCC nine years ago, Campbell has been defending Castro and the world's dwindling number of other communist despots, creating dangerous myths about racial violence, lobbying for socialized medicine, fighting for gun control, touting "gay" and abortion rights, supporting campaign finance "reform," opposing the U.S. military and economic measures against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, condemning organized school prayer, defending President Clinton even the wake of sexual scandal, and ignoring the plight of persecuted Christians around the world.
Meanwhile, the NCC at the end of Campbell's tenure has been crippled by huge deficits and staff reductions. And even some leaders within the NCC's own member denominations are now openly calling for the NCC's closure (at least in its current form).
Under Campbell's leadership, the NCC's 35 member denominations with over 50 million church members served as props to support the NCC's claim to speak politically for one third of America's church goers. But for the typical local church, the NCC is irrelevant or embarrassing. Mainline denominations struggling against membership drainage do not expect help from the NCC.
Created in 1950, the NCC was supposed to represent the future of American Christian unity. When recently attempting to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, the NCC found itself floundering amid budget shortfalls and internecine strife. Campbell had no apologies.
Arguing that the NCC's heart is "too empathetic" not to be in debt, Campbell defiantly declared: "You are right that I value courage and imagination more than caution and efficiency.Our deficit is not in dollars but in our failure to see in one another the moral force that ends poverty as we know it and that challenges racism."
Thanks in part to Campbell's cavalier approach to budgets, the NCC's celebration was overshadowed by its special pleas to its leading member denominations for millions of extra dollars. The NCC also had to further milk its relief and social service arm, Church World Service for more "overhead" funds. And the NCC's Burned Churches Fund likewise seems to have been sucked dry. Although the NCC raised over $9.1 million in cash for the fund, it was revealed without comment that only $6.4 million was spent on actual church reconstruction, with the rest going to overhead and programs aimed at the "root causes" of racism.
At a special 50th anniversary celebration for the NCC at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Cleveland, Jesse Jackson praised Campbell's tenure at the NCC. He and Campbell had jointly traveled to Serbia last year to free captured U.S. airmen. "We are winners," he enthused as he hoisted Joan Campbell's hand high in the air, convention-style.
Most of the NCC celebrants responded with only polite applause to Campbell, who acknowledged the somber mood without accepting her own part in creating it. "We're like an aging city with a crumbling infrastructure," Joan Campbell admitted in her farewell remarks to the NCC. "The infrastructure is sadly in need of repair, and it is not cheap to repair it." When mainline churches catch a cold, the NCC gets pneumonia, she explained, foisting the blame on others.
Campbell's tenure began with some reason for optimism. She was a liberal 1960's-era activist, to be sure. But she did not seem to be a doctrinaire left-winger who would continue the NCC's historic dalliances with totalitarians abroad and extremists at home. She even admitted the NCC's mistakes in getting too cozy with the old Soviet bloc.
"We did not understand the depth of the suffering of Christians under communism," she confessed in 1993. "And we failed to really cry out against the communist oppression. I do give credit to people who called for that and did not get a response, at least from us."
At that time Campbell said she wanted to re-orient the NCC towards "family issues" like fighting pornography, which would unify rather than divide the NCC's constituents. "The press really has tagged us as left, liberal," she accurately observed. "When I came my determination was to speak to a broader group of people."
It was not to be. Promoting bigger government at home and socialism abroad won out over fighting smut. Campbell has justified her crusade to return Elian to Cuba by saying it is about "family values." Bu t the NCC's record on social issues is closer to Planned Parenthood or the National Organization of Women than to any recognizable pro-family group. What made Campbell consign the NCC to its path of accelerated ignoble demise?
The now 68-year old Campbell discovered the joys of liberal activism in mid-life. She was a housewife, the full-time mother of three children, and a Junior Leaguer married to a successful lawyer in a Cleveland suburb when the social revolution of the 1960's broke upon her. She volunteered for social justice causes through her local church.
But the real turning point came for her when Martin Luther King, Jr. came to town in1967 to help organize for Carl Stokes' campaign to become America's first black mayor of a major city. She joined a voter registration drive organized by the NCC. And she invited King to speak at her all white Disciples of Christ congregation.
The invitation sparked controversy, and King spoke from the church's outside steps rather than the sanctuary. For Campbell, the civil rights movement was energizing. Her home became the meeting place not only for King but also for radical lawyer William Kuenstler and anti-war activist (and parenting author) Benjamin Spock. She went on to volunteer with the anti-war Clergy and Laity Concerned and helped to organize both the Poor People's Partnership and the Welfare Rights Organization. Campbell recalls that her first "work for pay" job was for the Head Start program in the early 1970's. Shortly afterwards she went to work for the Interchurch Council of Greater Cleveland.
Campbell's marriage failed in the early 1970's. (She later would explain that her husband could not understand or support her political causes.) But her ecclesiastical career moved forward. She attended seminary classes and took a theological home study course that allowed her to become an ordained minister in both the Disciples of Christ and the American Baptist denominations. In 1979 she joined the staff of the NCC as a liaison for local church councils. She became head of the U.S. Committee of the World Council of Churches in 1985. And in 1990, she took the helm of the NCC, the first clergywoman to do so.
The NCC was in crisis. Still reeling from revelations in the early 1980's about its ties to Marxist revolutionary groups around the world, the NCC was by then thoroughly stigmatized as more political and left-wing than Christian or ecumenical. The socially conservative Greek Orthodox Church, which had helped to give the NCC a fig-leaf of respectability, was threatening to pull-out. Campbell's predecessor had abruptly resigned.
Campbell, by then an affable grandmother, exuded reassurance and moderation, although she had firmly established her liberal bona fides through her Cleveland and WCC activism. Her arrest outside the South African embassy was one example. But the Cold War was ending, and it seemed a time for the NCC to re-establish its original 1950's image as a mainstream liberal organization devoted to social justice but not political radicalism.
Perhaps Campbell tried but was coopted by the permanent Religious Left bureaucracy at the "God Box" on Riverside Drive in New York City, where the NCC and other liberal mainline Protestant groups are headquartered. She took office in the midst of the Persian Gulf War, which the NCC vociferously denounced. "No war is ever just," Campbell insisted, as she participated in protest demonstrations that demonized the U.S. while downplaying Saddam Hussein's aggression.
Campbell and the NCC advocated sanctions as a substitute for war. But in later years as U.S. sanctions continued against Iraq while Saddam continued his commitment to weapons of mass destruction, she denounced the U.S. for its ostensibly criminal sanctions that were starving the children of Iraq.
And despite her indication that the NCC would focus on "family issues," Campbell identified with the left on abortion and homosexuality, even though the NCC as a body did not adopt positions on these issues, largely thanks to the Eastern Orthodox churches. On the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall "rebellion" (i.e. riot) by homosexuals in New York city, Campbell joined other religious activists in surrounding the "God Box" in New York in a show of protest against church opposition to homosexual practice.
But Campbell's relationship with the Clinton Administration was perhaps the most important hallmark of her tenure. NCC delegations became frequent visitors to the White House, after years of disinterest by Republican administrations. Campbell was treated to flights on Air Force One and to state dinners for foreign heads of state. Most dramatically, in the wake of the Republican congressional take-over in 1994, Campbell led a solidarity delegation to the Oval Office to pray that Clinton would be "strong for the task" of resisting the new Republican Congress. Later that year, Campbell would ask church members to wear purple ribbons during Holy Week prior to Easter to symbolize opposition to the Contract with America.
Campbell was rarely hesitant to disguise her partisan affiliation, criticizing President Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign for accepting support from religious conservatives. And more recently, she has expressed alarm over George Bush Jr. for having named Jesus Christ his most influential philosopher. No doubt frustrated by the NCC's ostensible non-partisanship, Campbell helped to found the Interfaith Alliance in 1994 to be more aggressive in counteracting religious conservatives. The alliance accepted $25,000 in start-up funds from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The relative success of religious conservatives in gathering supporters as the NCC's influence waned frustrated Campbell. Asked to contrast the NCC with the Christian Coalition, she once replied bluntly but not entirely accurately: "We're a religious organization, and it is not. They are blatantly political [and] partisan." More damningly, she claimed the religious right was seeking to "manipulate religious leaders and people of faith and good will," a charge that she evidently feels does not apply to her own brand of religious left activism.
Arguably the most successful religious left campaign of political manipulation was the 1996 focus on black church burnings, engineered by Campbell's NCC. There was not then, nor is there now, any evidence to show that black churches were ever more vulnerable to arson than non-black churches. And only a small minority of arsons at black churches was the work of racists. The most prolific arsonist, it turns out, was a practicing Satanist.
But fighting the Devil did not interest the NCC. Claims of an upsurge in racist violence were more likely to grab headlines and raise dollars. Nearly one third of the over $9 million in cash raised by the NCC's Burned Churches Fund was spent by the NCC for causes other than actual church reconstruction. The windfall helped to postpone an inevitable financial crisis for Campbell's declining organization.
Campbell obligingly defended President Clinton during the exposure of his sexual escapades, finally endorsing a Senate censure of Clinton as an acceptable alternative to impeachment. But the glamour of involvement in foreign policy has captivated Campbell the most. She cites as one of her greatest successes the delegation she joined with Jesse Jackson to free the U.S. airmen captured in Serbia.
The most shameful aspect of the NCC's foreign policy stance under Campbell has been its inability to criticize communist and Islamic regimes for persecuting Christians. The NCC first opposed and then fought to water down congressional legislation that would facilitate a cut-off of U.S. aid to governments that oppressed religious minorities. Campbell served on a U.S. State Department committee, from which vantage point she largely minimized concerns about persecuted Christians. A special focus on religious liberty (to the exclusion of economic rights) and on Christians in particular made her uncomfortable. "If you look at the Nazi regime, you can see in it the philosophy of Christian superiority," she once remarked absurdly.
Just as the NCC averted its eyes when the old Soviet Bloc persecuted religious believers, so now does the NCC remain largely silent about the restrictive religious policies of communist regimes in China, North Korea, and Cuba. Instead, the NCC faults the U.S. for Cuba's problems. Meanwhile, Campbell has commended Cuba for having made a "priority of caring for the poor."
Last year, with Castro listening attentively, Campbell apologized for U.S. policies towards Cuba before an applauding crowd of 100,000 in the infamous Plaza of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba.
"We ask you to forgive the suffering that has come to you by the actions of the United States," the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell implored. "It is on behalf of Jesus the liberator that we work against this embargo."
During Campbell's speech and the ensuing rally, Castro and several of his cabinet ministers sat in the front row. "He didn't ask to speak and didn't consider it proper," Campbell reported. "His respect was very apparent."
A banner across the stage read "Love, Peace, Unity." The event was intended to crown a month of government-sanctioned celebrations by Protestants in Cuba, where about 50 denominations are represented. But some crowd members confessed to the Associated Press that they had no specific religious belief but were pressured to attend by their communist neighborhood watch group.
"The churches [in Cuba] now are able to carry out all the work of the church, that is the training of pastors, Sunday school teaching, evangelism and service to the society," Campbell once enthused after a 1995 meeting with Castro. Of course, she grossly exaggerated.
Cuban Christians still endure obstacles to free worship. According to Open Doors International, an advocate for persecuted Christians, the Cuban government routinely denies permits for new church construction. Repairs to existing churches are heavily restricted. Church property is still vulnerable to government seizure. Public proselytization is illegal. Church leaders are still monitored, interrogated and threatened with arrest. House churches and parochial schools are forbidden. Bible distribution is limited.
When back in the U.S. from her trip to Havana last year, Joan Campbell claimed that ending U.S. trade sanctions was especially urgent now that Cuba has shown "it does allow people to express their faith freely." With such comments, who can blame Castro for commenting in a meeting with Campbell several years ago: "We see in you and your actions the expression of the best values and intentions of the American people. We love you very specially, and always welcome you to our country."
Perhaps these words are in Campbell's mind as she shuttles back in forth in her crusade to return little Elian to Cuba in a plane chartered by the NCC. Meanwhile, more than a few mainline church members are praying that Campbell 's stormy tenure at the NCC will represent the beginning of the end for a failed and betrayed experiment in Christian unity.