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When Churches Head Left

October 10, 2004

America’s mainline Protestant churches are in trouble. One sign is shrinking membership. Another is the turning of their political policymaking over to fringe leftists whose deepest instinct is to blame America and pummel Israel whenever possible.

The latest disgrace is the Presbyterian Church’s plan for selective divestment in Israel, ending the church’s investment in multinational companies that the church believes bear particular responsibility for the sufferings of the Palestinian people. For example, the Presbyterians say they may divest themselves of Caterpillar stock, because bulldozers made by that company are used to level Palestinian homes in Israel’s anti-terrorism campaign. Of course, these bulldozers can also be used to move debris after Palestinian suicide bombers have finished blowing up another round of women, children and other civilian bystanders in Israel.

How do the Presbyterians go about adopting stances like this? Apparently they cast a stern moral glance around the world, look for possible abuses in China, North Korea and Iran, and seeing nothing disturbing there, decide to focus once again on Israel.

The conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) released a measured and devastating report on the human-rights efforts of mainline churches and groups: the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), plus the reliably leftist National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. The report, covering the years 2000 to 2003, found that of 197 human-rights criticisms by mainline churches and groups, 37 percent were aimed at Israel and 32 percent at the United States. Only 19 percent of these criticisms were directed at nations listed as “unfree” in Freedom House’s respected annual listing of free, partly free, and unfree nations.

So Israel was twice as likely to be hammered by the mainliners as all the unfree authoritarian nations put together. The fixation on Israel left little time and inclination for these churches to notice the most dangerous violations of human rights around the world. Not one nation bordering Israel was criticized by a single mainline church or group, the IRD report says. No criticisms at all were leveled at China, Libya, Syria or North Korea.

Human-rights groups are normally accorded great respect for the work they do. But the rights work of the mainline churches is basically a one-sided expression of ideology. America is essentially viewed as a malignant force in the world, while Israel is seen as nothing more than a dangerous colonial implant of the West. The IRD report says the mainliners’ “pervasive anti-Americanism is demonstrated time and again in their public-policy advocacy, and one need not investigate far to find it.” Later, the report says, “When U.S. policy cannot be blamed, the mainline denominations seem less interested in speaking up for the victims.”

Anti-Americanism is an old story in the mainline church bureaucracies. During the 1970s and 1980s, these churches generally ignored human-rights abuses in the Soviet Union and focused instead on the United States as the primary source of abuse. One result was to scorn dissident movements, such as Solidarity in Poland, which were pressing Moscow for more freedom.

The persistent folly of the World Council of Churches on this issue made news in July when its former president, Konrad Raiser, apologized for not supporting freedom movements during the Cold War. At this rate, a future president of the World Council might decide he’s finally ready to apologize for ignoring severe abuses in today’s vicious dictatorships, oh, sometime maybe around 2030.

The Presbyterian divestment plan seems to be an obvious effort to get an anti-Israel bandwagon rolling among the churches. The Episcopalians quickly obliged, letting it be known that divestment in companies doing business with Israel is now up for discussion. A high-level group from the church recently toured the Middle East, meeting with Yasser Arafat but not with any Israeli officials. Par for the course.

The divestment movement is a pretty big issue on some college campuses, supported by Muslim students and aging professors committed to blaming the West for all the world’s evils. As part of this effort, Israel is routinely equated with the apartheid regime in South Africa and, by implication, with the Nazi regime in Germany. Despite all the inflammatory and one-sided rhetoric, no university has ever come close to supporting divestment.

Many Jews see the divestment movement as an instrument of anti-Semitism. Maybe it is, but the efforts of the woeful mainline churches are better seen as classic knee-jerk leftism, an expression of hard-core loathing for the United States and the West, with Israel as a stand-in for America. The mainline churches believe they still stand for high moral purpose in politics. They don’t. They can no longer be taken seriously on politics or human rights.

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