For several months, the nation has been wracked by the widespread perception that black churches across the South were under widescale attack by racist arsonists. President Clinton dutifully visited a victimized South Carolina congregation, and Congress speedily voted increased prison terms for church burners. Groups from across the political spectrum, from the Ford Foundation on the left to the Christian Coalition on the right, expressed outrage and pledged money for church reconstruction.
Kudos to all who are helping rebuild the black churches. Their generosity has been a bright light in an otherwise dim and tawdry story. For we now know that there was never any evidence that black churches were burning measurably more frequently than white churches, much less that a white supremacist conspiracy was afoot to destroy black houses of worship. So why the media hype?
First, the facts. According to a USA Today survey, over the last 18 months there have been (as of July 1) 66 black churches burned under suspicious circumstances in the South. But the National Fire Protection Association reports that about 600 churches (out of the nation’s 365,000 churches) suffer arson fires every year. This figure represents just a tiny fraction of the 500,000 cases of arson reported annually. Like arsons overall, church arsons have declined dramatically in recent years, from a figure of over 1,400 in 1980.
“That’s the real story,” black civil rights leader Roy Innis of Houston told Reuters as he, nearly alone among major religious and civil rights leaders, noticed that church burnings have actually declined in number. “For the American people to think this is some one-sided racial thing where black churches are being burned—and not white churches—is a mistake.”
Although white church burnings outnumber black church arsons in the South (45 to 27 in 1995), on the surface black churches do seem to suffer more in proportion to blacks’ share of the population (one of every four persons in the South is black). But USA Today pointed out that black churches in the South are smaller and, proportionate to population, more numerous. The black churches are also more likely to be remotely located, constructed of wood, older, and situated in economically troubled neighborhoods. All of these factors make them more vulnerable to arsonists of all races.
An Associated Press survey found that in only 20 cases of arson involving black churches was racism the clear motivation for the crime. (Contrast this figure with the claim made on CBS ‘This Morning, on June 10, by the Reverend Mac Jones of the left-leaning National Council of Churches, that “99 percent of these fires are . . . racially motivated.”) The same survey found that arsons were up slightly among both black and white churches. Like USA Today, the Associated Press found no evidence of a conspiracy or climate of racial hatred behind the burnings. Of 30 persons arrested so far for the assaults upon black churches, only two have links to any organized racist group (in their case, the Ku Klux Klan).
Most of the arsonists have been drunken teenagers, self-professed devil worshipers, burglars, and pyromaniacs. Twenty of the arrested persons are white, while ten are black. Fifteen are juveniles. According to the Insurance Information Institute, this year’s toll of church arsons in the nation is within the normally expected range.
These facts did not interest the creators of the church burnings story, principally the National Council of Churches and its “partners,” the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. “We haven’t looked at white church burnings because that’s out of our purview,” an NCC spokesman explained to the Orange County Register. “We can’t do everything.” The NCC and the centers preferred to exploit relatively isolated attacks upon black churches to smear conservatives, especially Christian ones, as racists, and to portray an irredeemably racist America that stands on the precipice of race war.
The Reverend Jones told the NCC’s board meeting in May that the black church burnings, which he called “domestic terrorism,” resulted from a “climate of hostility, violence, and racism sweeping the country.” As causes for the “domestic terrorism,” he cited “homophobia, the militias, presidential politics and talk of welfare reform and the crime bill,” all of which have festered up from an America “that has refused to deal with its racism.” The NCC has declared the church burnings to be a “national disaster.”
The Center for Democratic Renewal has been more specific in the blame game. “There is a slippery slide, a fine line, between conservative politics, conservative Christians and hate groups in America,” says the Reverend C.T. Vivian, who chairs the center, “They have created an atmosphere that allows them to think they can destroy black people and that it will only be winked at.” Never mind that conservative Christian groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Christian Coalition, Promise Keepers, and the National Association of Evangelicals are busily raising money for burned black churches.
Vivian’s group, which was formerly known as “Klanwatch,” describes itself as a monitor of “far-right” organizations. But according to its publicity materials, the Center for Democratic Renewal’s definition includes not only the Klan and militias but radio-talk show hosts, “homophobes,” and anyone interested in “unfunded mandates” and “10th Amendment Resolutions,” Rush Limbaugh and Bob Dole, who frequently quotes from the 10th Amendment, are therefore part of the same toxic stew as any KKK grand wizard.
The Center for Democratic Renewal has produced much of the arson data that has appeared in the national media. Ironically, its estimates of church burnings actually fall short of the figures from both USA Today and the AP. But unlike the more responsible news organizations, the Center for Democratic Renewal never bothered to compare black church burnings to church arsons in the nation overall. And although only two arrested arsonists have been linked to the Klan, the center claims to have found a “strong connection between church attacks and white supremacist groups.” To an uninformed public, the center’s out-of-context numbers appeared to confirm a dangerous upsurge in anti-black violence.
Meanwhile, the Center for Constitutional Rights is planning to file lawsuits against racist church arsonists to further spotlight the alleged church burnings phenomenon. But the chief orchestrator of most publicity surrounding the church burnings has been the NCC, an alliance of 33 mostly Protestant denominations whose combined memberships include 50 million people.
That campaign reached full throttle on June 8-10, when the NCC, CDR, and CCR brought 40 pastors of burned churches to Washington to meet with President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno, and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. That visit promulgated most of the major national media interest in the church burnings. The Republican- controlled House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Congressman Henry Hyde, did host public hearings on the topic on May 21 but generated only a smattering of newspaper articles.
Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the NCC, had little trouble gaining attention from the Clinton administration. Despite her group’s purported nonpartisanship, she has been a strong Clinton supporter and frequent White House visitor. During the first of several budget confrontations with the Republican Congress last November, she led a church delegation to the White House to bolster the President’s position.
“It is clear that racial hostility is the driving force behind a number of these incidents,” said President Clinton in his June 8 radio address, with Campbell at his side in the Oval Office. “We must come together, black and white alike, to smother the fires of hatred that fuel this violence.” After a June 19 meeting with Southern governors to discuss the burnings. Vice President Gore affirmed that “I do feel on safe ground in saying that for a large number of them (the arsons) . . . the conspiracy is racism itself.”
During his June 10 joint appearance on CBS This Morning with Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval Patrick, the Reverend Jones traced the church fires to a “climate that is a part of this nation.” Patrick, who had earlier called the burnings “an epidemic of terror,” agreed with Jones. “We are reaping what we have sown in this country.” He faulted “talk radio” and “some of the hearings . . . in the Congress.” Patrick affirmed, “We have race relations at . . . an all time low.”
Campbell’s June meetings with Clinton, Reno, and Rubin to discuss the church burnings were a major publicity coup for her ecumenical council. Once the mouthpiece for America’s foremost religious bodies, the National Council of Churches comprises the nation’s fastest declining liberal denominations. Congressman Hyde’s Judiciary Committee hearings had even declined to invite the council, which still insisted on providing written testimony.
In that written testimony, the NCC complained of indifferent law enforcement officials. “Without exception, the victims of these hate crimes said they felt intimidated by the very forces they had hoped would provide them with protection,” lamented Campbell. A report compiled jointly by the church council and its two partners in May further bemoaned that local police had refused to accept a “conspiracy or motivation based on racism.”
Faulted as well were the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. Marine Corps, and “white construction firms,” all of which were supposedly destroying evidence of the arsonists’ racist motivations. According to the report, since the media was ignoring the rampant church arsons, the NCC and the two centers plotted a “comprehensive media campaign” that started with a joint press March 27 press conference m Atlanta featuring Coretta Scott King, Mac Jones, and C.T. Vivian.
The campaign has been enormously successful. The imploding and, until recently, largely ignored National Council of Churches has gained a fresh, new gush of constant publicity. In March, the Reverend Jones had complained that “law enforcement seems to have refused to aggressively pursue not only the investigation of the bombings.” By late June, USA Today was reporting that 1,000 federal, state, and local agents were investigating the arsons. Information and claims from the NCC, CDR, and CCR were accepted, until very recently, with little questioning; rarely mentioned was the well-known left-leaning political agenda of such groups. The CCR, for example, is commonly described in media reports as merely a “civil rights group,” though it was founded by radical lawyer William Kunstler to, in his words, “bring down the system through the system.” Over the years the center has waged lawsuits on behalf of terrorists from the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, and Palestinian groups. It has also defended the homosexual rights group, ACT-UP. More recently, the center has sided with Karen Finley, the “artist” who received funds from the National Endowment of the Arts for smearing her nude body with chocolate before live audiences. The center’s director, Ron Daniels, has advocated the payment of “reparations” by the federal government to all descendants of black slaves in America.
As for the NCC itself, its interest in church burnings appears to be an extension of its ongoing investigation of “human rights abuses” in the United States that began in conjunction with the World Council of Churches in 1993. Council-sponsored hearings across the nation in 1994 discovered that the United States was on the verge of a “race war.” Advances against racism in America, according to one council official, had “only wounded the beast and made it meaner.”
In February 1995, the National and World Councils of Churches presented their testimony about American racism before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. As domestic remedies had failed, the councils wanted “international” intervention as the only recourse for America’s oppressed. In recounting evidence of United States racist intransigence, church testimony cited promotion of “English only” policies, “Mr. Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America,” California’s Proposition 187, the 1994 federal crime bill’s “three strikes and you’re out” legislation, and the November 1994 election’s “revolution of 4 million angry white men.” Whether they wanted the United Nations to overturn the election was unclear.
What the church councils did want was a special United Nations monitor of human rights abuses in the United States, a call that received support from only China, Cuba, and Sudan, whose governments are not normally known for interest in civil liberty. Afterward, Joe Ague, then a racial justice officer with the NCC and now a board member of the CDR, declared that white supremacy is “running wild” in America, whose atmosphere he likened to Nazi Germany right before the holocaust.
At the council’s June 10 press conference in Washington about the church burnings, there was similar rhetoric. “You’re going to have a war that will not stop in rural areas,” Mac Jones warned, if the “church holocaust” is not stopped. “This country will explode.” The burnings are a “strategy to frighten and intimidate black Christians so that they will not take up the call to arms when it comes very soon to have another civil rights and black revolution in this nation,” echoed Bishop John Hurt Adams at the convention of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in June.
Bishop Adams’ denomination called for a World Council of Churches investigation of the church arsons, which the bishop blamed on the “promoters of hate on the radio, the promoters of hate on television, the Contract [with] America and its high-sounding phrases working on lowdown agendas.” Sadly, neither the 1.5 million member African Methodist Episcopal Church nor any major component of the religious left alliance touting the church arson story has seriously examined racism as a spiritual, rather than a political, affiliation.
Institutional racism in this country has been outlawed for most of 30 years. The racial hatred that remains in America today exists well beyond the reach of regulation and legislation. It festers deep within human hearts, and religious groups are uniquely equipped to address such corruption of the soul. But, instead, religious leaders of the left are manipulating isolated church burnings for political purpose: to paint their ideological and theological opponents as racist sympathizers. For them, disgruntlement with the welfare state is the moral equivalent of Klan night-riding. Meanwhile, the Christian right has raised nary a complaint. We should expect and demand more from our religious leaders.