Mainline Protestant Churches

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Which countries come to mind when one considers the world’s worst human-rights violators? China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea are some of the usual suspects when listing places where religious persecution and denial of basic liberty are rampant. Why, then, have four of the most prominent mainline Protestant denominations (and two ecumenical bodies) repeatedly cited both the United States and Israel as the worst perpetrators of human rights? A new report, released in September by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), probes into the discrepancy.

The United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church U.S.A., the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the National Council of Churches, and the World Council of Churches were all extensively surveyed in the IRD report, Human Rights Advocacy in the Mainline Protestant Churches (2000-2003). Researchers at IRD tracked the criticisms made by each body, and compared them to Freedom House’s 2004 human-rights assessments, made on a three-tier system “free,” “partly free” and “not free.”

Of the 197 criticisms made during the four-year survey, the bodies directed 37 percent at Israel and 32 percent at the United States, over two-thirds of all criticisms. The remaining 31 percent were distributed among 20 other nations. In addition, they made three out of four criticisms against nations described as “free” by Freedom House, and condemned only five of the 15 world’s worst human-rights offenders.

Dr. Janice Crouse, senior fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank for Concerned Women for America, said, “Thank God for the Institute on Religion and Democracy and other organizations working for human rights and religious liberty around the world. We are honored to work with them. They shine a spotlight of truth and provide information that counters such erroneous, politically motivated and ideologically driven statements as that expressed by these mainline protestant churches and ecumenical groups.”

One nation very much overlooked was the Sudan, receiving only six total criticisms. The 2003 Annual Review of the World Council of Churches (WCC), for example, declared Sudan as the country of focus for the year, in its Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV), lasting until 2010. WCC, however, did not even mention the horrific human-rights abuses perpetrated by the Khartoum government and the Jinjaweid militia, but instead pledged to “contribut[e] to the reconstruction of the devastated fabric of the country, especially in the areas of education and health care.”(1)

IRD also noted that the bodies most ignored the Middle East and Central Asia, volatile hot spots in the world today with a vast number of “not free” countries. They also paid gross inattention to “partly free” nations like Nigeria and Uganda, where the churches have the greatest chance of influencing society.

Another striking fact is that with so much criticism directed at Israel, not once in four years did any of the six bodies criticize the Palestinian Authority.

Faith McDonnell, director of the Religious Liberty Program at IRD and the Church Alliance for a New Sudan, commented: “Perhaps anti-Semitism, not a traditional one, but at least an anti-Israel sentiment, fuels a large part of the criticisms. Churches are so aligned with the Palestinian movement that they cannot see clearly.” She worries that Jews may interpret these bodies’ criticisms as “the way all Christian groups feel.”(2)

Others believe mainline churches simply lean left on many issues. John Leo, in an article published on, says, “The [human] 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.”

Dr. Crouse added, “When reports are politically slanted on international human rights and religious freedom issues, it is not just an egregious and blatant example of ideological distortion. More importantly, it endangers the lives of people who suffer horrific abuse under brutal regimes and ends up providing cover for those who cause widespread death and destruction.”

IRD’s recommendations for the six bodies include a broadening of human rights advocacy, because much progress can be made in areas untouched thus far. Intervention in “partly free” nations is an imminent need as well; it is there that the churches can do the most good. Finally, the mainline churches must confront violators of human rights, because it is more important to help the oppressed than to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes.

Mainline churches must do some significant introspection and reassess their justifications for their actions. It is important that we fight the battle of religious liberty where it needs to be fought, instead of claiming gross human rights violations here at home and with our closest ally based on political ideology.

We must not limit our concerns about human rights to annual corporate prayer on the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. We must pray daily for those whose human rights are routinely abused, remember those tragically caught in the battle for liberty and pray for awareness and action on the part of those with the most influence: the churches.

Eva Arlia is an intern with CWA’s Ronald Reagan Memorial Internship Program.


1) World Council of Churches, Annual Review: 2003, Geneva, Switzerland, 2003.

2) John Leo, “When churches head left,”, 11 October 2004, as seen at

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