Burned Churches, Fiery Politics: Top Religion Stories of 1996

Article excerpt

A rash of Arson attacks on black churches in the southern U. S. raised the specter of a resurgent white racism targeting the religious and social heart of black communities. The National Council of Churches and the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal called attention to the rising number of fires at black churches - 75 in 18 months, the claimed, more than double the number in the previous five years - and President Clinton appointed a Justice Department task force to investigate the incidents.

Politicians of all stripes condemned the arsons, as did religious groups across the ideological spectrum. The NCC spearheaded a fund-raising effort that by fall garnered $5.2 million to help rebuild the burned churches and to support programs combating racism. (Another $4 million in materials was donated to the cause.)

Yet the issue turned out to be somewhat more complicated. About half of all the churches burned since 1995 were white churches, and only about half the cases involving predominantly black churches could be traced to racist motivations, according to federal sources. Some observers suggested that the rush by high-profile politicians and civil rights activists to condemn the burnings as racist was moral grandstanding, longtime critics of the NCC said the council was emphasizing the theme of racism to spur its efforts to raise funds, some of which would sponsor NCC programs. Nevertheless, the NCC maintained that black churches were being burned in disproportionate numbers, and that a pattern of racist motivation was evident in many cases.

The Political clout of the Religious Right was much analyzed during this presidential election year, especially after leaders of the Christian Coalition adopted a pragmatic stance during the Republican primaries. Though not formally endorsing in an candidate, the coalition lent tacit support to the moderate candidate, Bob Dole, over conservative Pat Buchnan. The coalition's support in the decisive South Carolina primary helped secure the nomination for Dole.

The coalitions executive director, Ralph Reed, determinedly "surfed the mainstream," to use his term, by suggesting that the GOP should not press for a constitutional ban on abortion, but instead should seek incremental legal steps to change abortion policies.

Congressional candidates endorsed by the Religious Right met with mixed results, and a parental rights initiative in Colorado strongly backed by conservative Christians went down to defeat. Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission sued the Christian Coalition, charging that it had consulted with and endorsed GOP candidates in violation of its tax-free status as an "educational" organization.

Restructuring has been a way of life for ecumenical organizations, and it appeared that the World Council of Churches was due for another significant round. Declining income, losses on investments and high exchange rates forced the WCC to plan further cuts in a staff that has already been reduced by a third since 1991.

Some basic organizational principles of the council also were under scrutiny, including its commitment to ensuring a balance of representation among women and men, clergy and laity, and different geographic regions. General Secretary Konrad Raiser said the WCC had reached the "end of a road" in terms of its institutional structure in Geneva.

Ecumenical efforts moved forward on other fronts, however. In Europe, Anglican churches of Britain and Ireland signed an agreement with Lutheran churches in Nordic and Baltic countries, providing for an interchange of ministers and a sharing of the Eucharist.

Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, who died of cancer November 14, evinced strong Christian leadership at a time in which compelling leadership is in short supply. He was among his church's, and our nations, most respected moral leaders, speaking clearly and forcefully about his consistent ethic of life - against abortion and capital punishment, in support of economic justice and nuclear disarmament - and communicating in a manner that enhanced rather than subverted the church's ability to address the public realm. …