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Religious nuts

Charity | ACORN over the years has received strong support from mainline churches

Issue: "Save the unions," Oct. 24, 2009

A tiny ACORN has grown into a huge mess.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has received more than $54 million in federal funding since 1994. But that federal funding is likely to end following scandal, allegations of illegal activity-and an overwhelming Sept. 17 vote by both houses of Congress to defund the group: 345-75 in the House and 85-11 in the Senate.

But over the years, Congress has been only one source of money for the controversial organization. Another source has been the church. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has given at least three grants to ACORN in the past few years. Among them: $7,500 from the Presbyterian Hunger Program for "general support," $10,000 to the ACORN New Orleans office for "community organizing," and $35,000 from the PCUSA Self Development of People fund "to address the issue of security."

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In addition, organizations related to the PCUSA, including the PCUSA's foundation and the Jarvie Commonweal Service, which focuses on affordable housing in New York City, have given to ACORN. Jerry Van Martyr, director of the Presbyterian News Service, told WORLD that "the PCUSA has very little control over those organizations," and he said that he did not know if the PCUSA is currently funding ACORN's activities.

But according to the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), the General Assembly Mission Council of the PCUSA "has often allied itself with ACORN, joining lobbying efforts against the Federal Housing Reform Act, opposing funding for the No Child Left Behind program and lobbying President Bill Clinton for a variety of social issues."

And the PCUSA is not alone among the mainline churches. The National Council of Churches (NCC) has funded many ACORN programs. In 2004, the NCC's "Let Justice Roll" program coordinated with ACORN to increase voter turnout and "education," with a special emphasis on raising the minimum wage. The "Let Justice Roll" program focused on demographic groups that tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. It was, said Philip Jenkins, a spokesman for the NCC, an "ecumenical effort" that included the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Also involved were the AFL-CIO, the nonprofit group Bread For the World, and more than 50 other groups.

In 2008 the Obama campaign paid more than $880,000 to Citizen Services Incorporated, an ACORN affiliate that used many of the same resources employed by "Let Justice Roll" to organize get-out-the-vote efforts that focus on heavily Democratic precincts. Now, those efforts are under criminal investigation in at least 14 states.

The IRD's Jeff Walton told WORLD that his group is looking at other church bodies to determine the amount of participation with ACORN. He said he already knows that "the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has funded ACORN in the recent past. Additionally, there are denominational agencies (like the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society) that have partnered with ACORN on projects, if not making the direct financial contributions that the Presbyterians have."

Walton added: "One of the largest surprises for me has been that some of the grants have come from very specific agencies, but not been restricted to specific ACORN projects. For example, the grant from the Presbyterian Hunger Program wasn't for a specific hunger-related project, it was for "general support." That could be used by ACORN for anything.

IRD president Mark Tooley said that it is "scandalous" that "as Presbyterians cut overseas missionaries from their rolls . . . they still had funds for ACORN."

Indeed, getting to a final total contributed by mainline churches to ACORN may not be possible-in part because while these churches were giving money to ACORN, their own support and ministries were suffering. When WORLD asked the NCC's Jenks if the National Council of Churches is currently giving money to ACORN, he responded: "We're at significantly reduced staff levels now. Getting that information would be tough. The truth is that I just don't know."

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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