- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000

Was the great church arson story of 1996 largely a scheme to prevent the financial collapse of the National Council of Churches (NCC)? There is evidence pointing in that direction.

In 1996, the NCC persuaded the media that black churches were burning all across the South, the apparent victims of a nationwide upsurge in racial hatred. The NCC's Burned Churches Fund collected millions of dollars ostensibly for church reconstruction.

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.

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 documented that anywhere near 100 black churches have burned in any single year.

This discrepancy did not deter the NCC, which raised over $9.1 million in cash, 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 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 million deficit and in 1998 it endured a $1.5 million loss. Last year, when the Burned Churches Fund's fund-raising 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 $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 of 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 multimillion dollar bailout.

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.

But few people are examining the validity of the great church arson story's original exaggerated claims. The only consolation for those who believe in accurate history is this: The success of the Burned Churches Fund merely postponed what is probably inevitable the complete or near-collapse of the NCC.

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

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