The Magazine

Castro's American Friends

The National Council of Churches does a dictator's bidding

Feb 14, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 21 • By MARK TOOLEY
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WHAT IF THE Christian Coalition were fighting to return a little refugee boy to the right-wing military dictatorship from which he and his mother had fled -- she having lost her life in the process? Imagine the howls of protest. How odd, then, that the National Council of Churches (NCC) has received so little criticism for campaigning to return Elian Gonzalez to Fidel Castro's Communist dictatorship in Cuba.


Legitimate arguments might be made that Elian should be reunited with his father in Havana, of course. But the famously left-leaning NCC, with its rich history of fawning over Castro, is hardly the organization to make such arguments effectively, much less serve as a "neutral" mediator in the dispute. Yet there they are: NCC officials busily shuttling back and forth between Havana, Miami, New York, and Washington -- all the while huffily insisting that no legitimate arguments exist not to return the boy to the totalitarian society his mother gave her life to escape. Is the council's biased presence in the middle of this "negotiation" at all problematic? The question has been entirely overlooked by the nation's media.


Not once since they involved themselves in the Elian controversy have NCC representatives publicly acknowledged why it is that Cubans routinely risk their lives to escape the Castro regime in the first place. Nor has the NCC admitted that the boy's relatives in Cuba aren't free to tell us what they really think -- what with Castro having made them pawns in an anti-U.S. propaganda campaign. Instead, the NCC has actively participated in that campaign, chartering a plane to fly Elian's grandmothers from Cuba for a publicity and lobbying tour through New York, Washington, and Miami.


The council has been behaving like this for three decades. Ostensibly the voice of 35 denominations that include 50 million American church members, the NCC long ago abandoned formal interest in traditional Christian pursuits like evangelism and spiritual growth. Beginning in the 1960s, politics -- the more radical the better -- became the organization's focus. And radical politics has remained the council's bread and butter to this day. Most of the Latin American "liberation" movements of the 1970s and 1980s have expired and most American "progressives" no longer take Marxism seriously. But the NCC has proved singularly unable to abandon bad habits.


Council officials regularly meet with Fidel Castro, both in Cuba and in New York. A show is usually made that this cozy relationship has something to do with religion. Four years ago in New York, for example, NCC general secretary Joan Brown Campbell celebrated Castro's pastoral concern for "the poor" and announced that religious intolerance was a thing of the past in Cuba: "The churches now are able to carry out all the work of the church -- that is, the training of pastors, Sunday School teaching, evangelism, and service to the society." Castro was pleased to agree, and thanked Campbell for her discerning observations. "We see in you and your actions the expression of the best values and intentions of the American people," the dictator burbled. "We love you very specially, and always welcome you to our country. You are teaching us to be Christians."


Needless to say, that "teaching" is actually going rather badly. Religious persecution by Cuba's Communist government is less severe than ten years ago. But the island's Christians are still routinely denied permits for church repairs and new construction. Church properties are commonly subject to government seizure. Public proselytizing remains illegal. Church leaders are still monitored by the Cuban domestic security service, interrogated and threatened with arrest. House churches and parochial schools are forbidden. Bible distribution is strictly limited.


No serious American church organization could possibly judge this situation praiseworthy. And, sure enough, on close inspection, church work turns out not to be the NCC's priority where Cuba is concerned. The council's entente with Castro is an overwhelmingly political affair.


Last year the NCC sent a "fact-finding" mission to Cuba. Poverty on the island, the council's field workers "discovered," is the result of American trade sanctions, not Castro's state-managed economy.


Human rights remain a problem in U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations, the NCC's delegation concluded: American "political prisoners" continue to serve "very long" sentences, after all. The U.S. nuclear arsenal also hampers the development of friendship between Washington and Havana. And Castro's total censorship of Cuban media and ban on non-Communist political parties? Nary a word on those subjects from the NCC.