Knight’s religion crusade

Yokefellows Cover 200pxFrank Lockwood, the religion editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, did what The Washington Post‘s Alan Cooperman didn’t do last week. He did what I didn’t do last week. He actually cracked open the Institute for Religion and Democracy’s booklet analyzing the funding of the National Council of Churches (disclosure notices here, here and here). The National Council of Churches is an association of 35 mainline denominations. IRD accuses the NCC of being beholden to liberal foundations more than the denominations it represents. Last week I disagreed with the way the Post handled IRD’s charges.

Anyway, Lockwood did some old-fashioned reading and he found an interesting contribution from one of the nation’s biggest journalism foundations. It’s a big, big, big, big, big journalism foundation. The Knight Foundation — think Knight(-Ridder) newspapers — gave $250,000 to the National Council of Churches. That was the fourth biggest donation that year to the NCC.

The Knight Foundation has two missions: to seed and inspire great journalism everywhere, and to build strong communities in the cities and towns where its founders ran newspapers.

So perhaps the grant was to help with local anti-poverty programs or to fund a special religious journalism internship? Lockwood finds something different entirely. Nope, the $250,000 is for Faithful America, an NCC program. Here’s what the Knight Foundation says about its grant:

As a result of this initiative, mainstream faith leaders will be much better equipped with talking points, policy papers, intellectual support, prepared testimony, draft op-eds, sermons, study guides and church bulletins — and more able to unite around a shared policy agenda. The faith-based policy dialogue in the United States will become more balanced and nuanced, since religious spokespersons will no longer be able to propound unsupported charges and theories without fear of rebuttal. Reporters, policymakers and faith leaders will be equipped to respond to such charges within news cycles or during a policy debate. Future leaders will gain experience and establish contacts and professional support networks while contributing to substantive research and advocacy.

You can look here for a list of the issues covered by Faithful America. They include talking points and papers on the living wage, the minimum wage, debt cancellation for developing countries, socialized health care, removing FEMA from the Homeland Security Department, and how homosexuality is not a sin (from a sexologist/Unitarian Universalist minister). Needless to say, liberal voices and political views are the only ones featured.

Lockwood asks:

Question 1.) Is it a good idea for a journalism foundation to help fund talking points, sermons and draft op-ed pieces for a religious organization?

Question 2.) What are the chances that the Knight Foundation would give a similar grant to the Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, Mormon Church or the National Association of Evangelicals?

Knight Foundation board members revisited their strategic plan a few times since 2000 and directed the staff to continue to fund journalism programs and provide support in the 26 communities that anchored Knight newspapers.

Some reporter should ask them what they’re doing with the Faithful America initiative. Maybe the Knight Foundation could give them a grant to look into it.

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  • Michael

    What are the chances that the Knight Foundation would give a similar grant to the Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, Mormon Church or the National Association of Evangelicals?

    Probably as likely as the Fieldstadt Foundation–run by one of the the IRD’s largest funders and GetReligion funder, Roberta Ahmanson– which also funds journalism programs and journalists, would give money to any programs run by the Methodists, the Episcopalians, or the United Church of Christ.

    Maybe the Fieldstadt Foundation is more upfront when it admits to its goal of training “Christian” journalists, but it’s not as though there isn’t a two-way street here.

    Ultimately, the Knight Foundation and the Fieldstadt Foundation are gigantic groups which pay for lots of efforts. The NCC and IRD are large, partisan organizations doing lots of efforts. IRD has long done the bidding of conservative foundations, and now apparantly NCC is becoming a similar kind of organizations from the left.

    I know you don’t want to talk about IRD, but I think you can’t talk about one without talking about the other. We live in a time where there is a well-funded religious conservative movement bolstered by foundations and non-profits. NCC is late to the game and is trying to be a counterbalance. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but at least let’s be clear about the lay of the land.

  • http://hiveperfect.blogspot.com/ HiveRadical

    It seems that one of the factors that seperates our government from others throughout history is the fact that, rather than the government comandeering faith to further policy goals, we have a couple of parties seeking the power of government that take care of that aspect of faith usurpation and utilization for public policy ends. Seperation of church and state doesn’t seem to be keeping church and secular public policy pushers from aligning to wrangle as much as they can in terms of governmental influence.

    Something better than what generally happens. But certainly not ideal.

  • Michael

    I should have said Fieldstead, not Fieldstadt.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I dispute Michael’s assertions that the NCC “is becoming” an organization similar to the IRD and that the NCC is “late to the game”. Some facts to back up these assertions, please, Michael.

    Let’s look at the NCC “About” Web page: “Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States.” You really have to dig to find vague references to “programs of education, advocacy and service”, and even then there is no mention of the liberal political causes on which the NCC leadership focuses most of its attention.

    Let’s do the same on the IRD Web site. In the second sentence of the president’s greeting, we read this: “This year the IRD celebrates 25 years of working to reform the social and political witness of American churches, while promoting democracy and religious freedom at home and abroad.” First sentence of the mission statement: “The Institute on Religion and Democracy is an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians working to reform their churches’ social witness, in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings, thereby contributing to the renewal of democratic society at home and abroad.”

    Which of these organization is more straightforward about its true mission and how it spends its money? Which tries to hide its true mission behind a banner of “ecumenical cooperation”?

    And you folks in the press continue to wonder why we ordinary (gullible, stupid, unimportant) Joes in Flyover Country don’t trust the press to report on anything accurately, especially matters of religion and politics.

  • Joel

    Michael, you’re missing the point of Mollie’s article. Perhaps the Fieldstead Foundation is doing something similar, but they are a personal foundation of Howard Ahmanson Jr. Thus they are directly analogous to the (Ted) Turner Foundation – rightwing kook vs. leftwing kook.

    From their website, the Knight Foundation claims it is “improving journalism worldwide.” The assets of the foundations came from the various Knight newspapers, and then with a big pile of Knight Newspapers stock (including a $200 million bequest by John Shively Knight.)

    The goals of the Knight Foundation are to serve 26 “Knight-Ridder Communities” and thus directly aligned to the business of the (former) publicly-held newspaper chain. They spend a lot of money on journalism education and new journalism initiatives. Their endowment is now $2 billion.

    Normally I’d say this is a “dog bites man story” (liberal journalists support liberal causes under the guise of “good journalism”). But the man who endowed the foundation makes it quite clear that he didn’t think newspaper editorial executives should get involved in causes, even relatively neutral ones like United Way.

  • Martha

    Yes, it does seem a bit odd: a media foundation giving money to pay for what looks like PR material that will most probably be recycled back as press releases to the papers? What with the whole El Salvador abortion law story, you remember, the one where the journalist wrote an article with the assistance of a tranlator who was an activist for a pro-choice group which then ran that same story as PR material on its website… well, you’d think that would sound a note of caution, wouldn’t you?

    Or is this something that’s being going on for ages and it’s only now we, the readers, are finding out? Going from reporting the stories to making the stories?

  • Michael

    Which of these organization is more straightforward about its true mission and how it spends its money?

    Neither, arguably.

    Which tries to hide its true mission behind a banner of “ecumenical cooperation”?

    Both, arguably.

    I think it’s fair to question the use of Knight Foundation money to assist the NCC. But we need to have some context if we are going to ask the questions. And the context includes conservative groups with ties to the IRD funding “Christian” journalism programs. If we are talking about a foundation funding religious-based efforts, you can’t talk about Knight without talking about the Ahmanson fortune since the Ahmansons have made journalism a top priority.

    If you are going to criticize Knight for giving money to mainline denominations, you need to understand the context of these organizations and the environments they operate in.

    Should Knight be giving money to the NCC? Maybe not. Should the Ahmanson Foundations–with their interest in journalism–be giving money to the IRD?

  • Scott Allen

    Mollie, great follow-up on your previous posts, and thank you for the links.

    Michael, Mollie has painstakingly pointed out the differences between the IRD and NCC in her previous posts.
    The IRD is lobbying churches to be faithful to Scripture. The NCC is lobbying the government while claiming it represents American christians. There is a difference in both the transparency of the message, and the target of that message.

    Chris and Joel further demonstrate the dishonesty of the Knight Foundation in laundering its money through the NCC in order to give its secular goals the “color” of christianity.

    The NCC is glad to cooperate. After all, these shrinking denominations need the money and since they abandoned the Bible they have a hard time agreeing on their “talking points.”

    I do have a recommendation. PCUSA, United Methodists, ELCA, Episcopal churches and their buddies should replace pew Bibles with copies of TIME magazine. The membership and leaders would then know exactly what PC trend is coming next, and ape it. Nationwide, this may even cost less than $250,000.00 (with volume discount provided by our friends at TIME)! Hey, Knight Foundation, are you listening???

  • Michael

    I think both Lockwood and Mollie didn’t complete their look at the Knight foundation, because they missed another, non-journalism mission of the Knight Foundation.

    http://www.knightfdn.org/default.asp?story=national/index.asp

    The civic engagement programs are not journalism related and have been awarded to non-local groups, including the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Thus, their money to NCC has nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with civic engagement.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I’m still waiting for some facts to substantiate the assertion that the NCC has recently changed course and that the impetus for the course change is competition from organizations such as the IRD. I assert the opposite. I grew up in the liberal Lutheran church and remember the NCC promoting liberal social and political causes decades ago. The NCC wasn’t and isn’t fooling anyone by wrapping itself in the ecumenical flag, and attempts to divert attention by crying foul on the IRD are obvious and lame.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Michael,
    I followed your link and it just says that it has national programs that support the foundations fields of funding interest:

    Knight’s National and New Programs support innovative leadership, organizations and ideas addressing our fields of funding interest; integrates their contributions into our programs nationally and in the 26 Knight communities; and communicates the knowledge gained from these investments to those who influence change on the local and national level.

    I of course feel that the Knight Foundation has the right to fund whatever in the world it wants to fund. I just don’t get why in the world it’s funding a liberal political project. How does that match its stated funding interests of community development in the 26 cities that had Knight newspapers or innovative journalism.

    The AEI grant is to increase voter participation — which is even tangentially related to community development, I guess (though that also seems a bit off to me).

    But assuming that folks in Knight’s 26 communities don’t all subscribe to NCC’s political agenda (or conservative, libertarian, or neoconservative equivalents) makes it a weird donation to me.

    I see (and saw) that all of their political grants are marked under civic engagement and positive human relations — it’s just interesting that their stated funding priorities are so vastly different than their actual funding. There are some huge grants in areas that are outside their stated funding priorities. Although many within the civic engagement category are for work in the 26 communities they support.

  • Michael

    But assuming that folks in Knight’s 26 communities don’t all subscribe to NCC’s political agenda (or conservative, libertarian, or neoconservative equivalents) makes it a weird donation to me.

    Well, it appears they have a “national agenda” where they spend about $1M a year on grants not focused on those 26 communities but on the national projects. Apparantly they believe impvoing the religious public policy dialogue which has been dominated by religious conservatives is an important goal.

    It appears it’s a catch-all category, but actually if you look at the application process, you can see the kinds of programts they will fund and the kinds they won’t. In the religious area, they say

    Activities to propagate a religious faith or restricted to one religion or denomination; support of political candidates; memorials

    And among there funding priorities is

    Civic engagement/positive human relations: To encourage and enable all residents to participate effectively in the democratic process, form ties to local institutions and strengthen relationships with one another.

    Given the current political structure, where the loudest and most well-funded religious voices in the public square are religious conservatives, funidng a program makes sense.

  • Don Neuendorf

    Help me out here.

    Twice now Michael has made reference to an apparent dominance of conservative activists. He wrote,

    “We live in a time where there is a well-funded religious conservative movement bolstered by foundations and non-profits. NCC is late to the game and is trying to be a counterbalance.”

    And

    “Given the current political structure, where the loudest and most well-funded religious voices in the public square are religious conservatives…”

    But I seem to live in a very different world. I’ll fess up to having some bias of my own – but no matter how hard I try, I can’t stretch my brain far enough to see the current activist or journalistic scene as being dominated by conservatives. Religious activism? Maybe – by a hair. Yes, Focus on the Family and similar groups have a lot of grass-roots clout and a big mailing list – but the NCC being late to the game? Yikes! Liberal religious activism has been ubiquitous for decades! Who’s been doing (and is still doing) all the campaigning and political speaking from pulpits?

    It seems to me that liberal clergypersons get interviewed whenever there is a policy debate that they might prove useful for. (What would Jesus drive – etc.) And conservative clergy get interviewed whenever one of them gets caught doing drugs or committing adultery.

    That’s all pretty snarky; I know. But if there’s an optometrist in the audience, I’d sure like some help to see how two such polar opposites can be perceived out of this mess.

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  • Michael

    But I seem to live in a very different world. I’ll fess up to having some bias of my own – but no matter how hard I try, I can’t stretch my brain far enough to see the current activist or journalistic scene as being dominated by conservatives.

    Well, I think you are mixing two things. In terms of faith-based activism, I don’t think there’s any question that activism–in terms of funding, attention, and numbers–is heavily coming from the right. Beyond the world of the business lobby, there is almost no political activism on the right that doesn’t include social/religiouyus conservatives.

    On the flip side, religious liberals or even moderates have a very small role in political activism on the left, at least until recently. Self-described conservative philanthropies give millions of dollars a year to religious conservative causes but funding by self-described libereal philanthropies rarely finds its way to religious liberal causes.

    In terms of press coverage, I think there is probably more balance and one could argue there is disproportionate attention to non-Evangalical/Orthodox/Fundamentalist voices. However, mainline Protestants argue they are routinely ignored by the press while Catholics and Jews of all stripes get more attention than is justified by their numbers.


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