Church Fires Conspiracy: Caught Red-Handed?
by Michael Gallo
Habitat for Humanity has mobilized a volunteer labor force for the rebuilding of black churches burned down in suspected arson fires. International Paper has pledged all the necessary lumber, and other donors have pledged Bibles, hymnals, and choir robes. In just a few month’s time, churches, Sunday schools, individual Christians and non-Christians alike have donated a total of $9 million to the National Council of Churches (NCC) Burned Churches Fund. All this American generosity and compassion is to help rebuild some 40 to 60 churches destroyed by a sudden rise in racially motivated arsons of southern black churches. Who would question that a good thing is being done for fellow Christians and for racial reconciliation?
But there are some troubling facts that many donors to the NCC fund might not have heard: that the total funds available—including insurance premiums, the NCC fund, and other independent donations—is $18 million, approximately double the estimated need; that the NCC is already planning to use $3.5 million of the $9 million donated to its Burned Churches Fund to help pay for political “advocacy” programs regarding racism, “economic justice,” “gender oppression,” and “homophobia”; that administrator/spokesman for the NCC fund is Don Rojas, former information minister in Grenada under Maurice Bishop’s Communist regime, and that the whole premise of a sudden rise in racist arsonry has been seriously questioned. Because of troubling facts such as these, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) has challenged the NCC to apologize for creating a baseless hysteria and for using contributions for its own political agendas.
Has there been a recent increase in the number of racially motivated burning of black churches in southern states? Yes, but whether it’s a dramatic increase depends on who you listen to. The NCC emphasizes that perhaps 60 churches were burned since January 1, 1995. As noted by the IRD, on the other hand, this number of black churches is anything but disproportionate to the average total of 600 churches burned by arsonry every year (as recorded by the National Fire Protection Association). But the numbers may indeed show a disproportion in certain southern states during the last 20 months. Here, according to the NCC, an approximately equal number of white and black churches burned, which, they say, represents 4 times more black churches burned (20% of churches are considered to be black). They cite studies done by the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), the US Justice and Treasury Departments, and USA Today, which allegedly document a trend of increasing arsonry to black churches.
There have been some serious criticisms, however, of these studies (see “Burning Need,” Wall Street Journal, August 9; “A Church Arson Epidemic? It’s Smoke and Mirrors,” WSJ, July 8; “The Great Church-fire Hoax,” New York Post, July 29). Critics charge that some of the data cited before 1996 is inaccurate or skewed. Furthermore, because media publicity often generates copycat crimes, it seems, law enforcement officials down south consider the 1996 numbers to be unrepresentative. The Wall Street Journal (July 8) went so far as to allege that “a single activist group has taken the media and the nation on a wild ride,” and that, “By claiming there has been an epidemic of black church burnings, it appears that the CDR and the media may have actually sparked one.”
Aside from the dispute about if or how much of an increase has occurred, what about the racist element documented in many of the burnings in the last year? There are indeed, as the NCC emphasizes, fearful signs associated with some of the burnings—racist graffiti, burned crosses, prior intimidation by phone and mail, and the targeting of churches known for their civil rights advocacy. While the NCC says it has found such evidence in the majority of cases, the IRD cites the findings of the Associated Press and USA Today that only 20 out of the last 60 black church burnings were due to racism. Of the last 30 convictions, only 10 were white males, and only 2 were associated with the Ku Klux Klan.
What is certain is that NCC representatives are exaggerating the racist element in these burnings. At a press conference in Washington, DC, the current NCC racial justice officer, Rev. Mac Jones, claimed that 99% of the burnings were racially motivated. It has been reported, however, that in one third of the arsons a black was indicted.(New York Post, July 29, 1996). Furthermore, none of the studies conclusively suggest that there is a grand racist conspiracy afoot. Of the racist suspects that have been indicted, “virtually all have been ascribed to individuals or hate groups acting alone; there is no credible evidence of a coordinated widespread conspiracy by white-supremacist or other racist groups” (Wall Street Journal, July 8). But Rev. Jones cries, “You’re talking about a well-organized white-supremacist movement.”
While one might be tempted to forgive the NCC’s factual distortions for the purpose of getting our attention and eliciting our compassion, the addition of definite political rhetoric is less tolerable. Not only does Rev. Jones claim that there is a “climate of hostility, violence, and racism sweeping the country,” but he also blames this “domestic terrorism” on “homophobia, the militias, presidential politics and talk of welfare reform and the crime bill,” all festering within an America “that has refused to deal with its racism.”
But why would the NCC officials go so far to distort the facts and make such outrageous accusations?
Observers have noted how the NCC has been trying for years to get funding to run anti-racist projects. As pointed out in the Wall Street Journal (August 9), less than 2 years ago the NCC submitted 3 proposals to funding agencies, such as the Ford Foundation, seeking almost $2 million. All three were turned down. Now with a windfall of donations, it already has plans to spend $3.5 million to conduct seminars and other forums that will address racism and other matters of “economic justice” and “interlocking oppressions from gender to homophobia.” Rev. Jones has envisioned 3-day seminars in some 50 cities, overseen by an NCC “infrastructure” of newly hired staff and consultants.
The NCC justifies this allocation of funds since it made its appeal “from the beginning” for the building of churches as well as combating “the underlying causes,” as Rev. Jones put it. The full-page ads, which the NCC purchased in four major newspapers, call for donations “to restore the damaged churches and to challenge racism throughout the country,” hardly hinting at the other ambitious political projects in the NCC plans. Will the real conspirators please stand up?
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“Church Fires Conspiracy: Caught Red-Handed?” first appeared in the Summer 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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