One of the most momentous decision of the United Methodist Church’s 2016 General Conference was the overwhelming votes to end the formal affiliation of denomination-wide agencies with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC).
Since then, the D.C.-based activist group, which exists to provide a veneer of religious support for unrestricted abortion-on-demand, has continued on without us.
RCRC’s 2018 Annual Report, only released this spring, along with its IRS Form 990 for the same year help make clear that our denomination and this group do not need each other, and we were never really “better together.” And RCRC has now removed from the former claims of support from several United Methodist annual conferences, in apparent response to recent inquiries.
Amidst the UMC’s 2016 debate, one observer appeared to speak for many in the genuine “Methodist middle” when he described himself as politically “pro-choice,” on abortion, but also insisted that abortion is never “holy.” Merriam-Webster defines “holy” as “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.” That is how RCRC has repeatedly urged people to think about all elective abortions. Not necessary evils. Not morally neutral. Not the least-bad option sometimes. But “holy,” without exception.
The 2018 report touts how “For several years now, RCRC has performed blessing ceremonies at healthcare centers that provide abortion services.” The report highlights how RCRC even “held a clinic blessing” for infamous late-term abortionist Leroy Carhart. He was a lead party in defending grisly, partial-birth abortions before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 2019 BBC interview, Carhart refused to agree to any clear age at which he should no longer abort an unborn child, even as late as 38 or 39 weeks. In any case, he said “to the fetus, it makes no difference if it’s born or not born,” and “[t]he baby has no input in this as far as I’m concerned.” He also declared that he has no problem using the term “baby,” because “I think that it is a baby” that he kills.
Last month, RCRC continued this trajectory by organizing “the first national virtual blessing of abortion providers and staff.” RCRC organized this online event in partnership with its Ohio chapter, among others. Ohio RCRC’s home page prominently touts a link for finding where to get abortions. Ohio RCRC actually encourages its website viewers, “Don’t delay your appointment” to abort their babies, and urges them to hurry up and get their abortions “now!” (emphasis original).
RCRC has long been extremely political. The 2018 report highlights political rallies, RCRC’s supposedly “nonpartisan” efforts to influence the midterm elections, and how it “fought back” against pro-life public policies. Of RCRC’s ten press releases that year, fully half were about their opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, while another two were about the midterm elections and another opposed a lower-court nominee.
RCRC’s 990 report shows that its donations and grants increased dramatically, from $774,566 in 2017 to nearly nine times as much, $6,869,436 in 2018. RCRC’s 2017 Annual Report noted a much more modest increase of seven percent.
Such a dramatic change in funding from one year to another makes more sense if we understand RCRC as not much of a “religious” organization (despite its name and ostentatious touting of religious symbolism), but rather as a political organization, which by its nature is focused on and responsive to election cycles and other episodic political developments like contentious Supreme Court nominations.
That seems to be how some of RCRC’s strongest backers see it. The Packard Foundation, thanked in RCRC’s 2018 report, categorically declares that it “does not fund” any “[r]eligious organizations” while touting giving RCRC six-figure grants.
I have carefully watched RCRC for many years. It is a group primarily interested in using religion as a tool to advance a secular social agenda, of defending and entrenching abortion, without restriction or disapproval, in both politics and culture.
Other key activities highlighted in RCRC’s 2018 Annual Report included strategically increasing media attention to ministers defending abortion, and influencing a variety of “helping professionals” – including social workers, mental-health caregivers, and sex education teachers. For the former, Page 2 of RCRC’s 990 form explains further about how their “visibility” efforts involved “amplifying the voices of religious leaders” who espouse RCRC’s values, through training “a cadre of leaders” and getting their voices exaggerated in op-eds, letters to the editor, social media, and various print and broadcast media. The latter likely involves some efforts to ease the conscience misgivings some have against failing to steer mothers away from getting abortions, with RCRC bragging about secular professionals being “impressed to find members of faith communities who affirm reproductive choice.”
In its apparent zeal to impress donors, the 2018 report exaggerated RCRC’s support from America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church. Without a separate list for current member organizations, the report lists “Founding Members,” including United Methodist Women (UMW), apparently to misleadingly dodge the inconvenient fact of how two years earlier, General Conference forced UMW to end its ongoing RCRC membership. The report has a “WITH GRATITUDE” section thanking grant-making foundations, individual “major donors,” congregations, and a separate section for UMC Annual Conferences. This suggests that everyone listed gave RCRC money in 2018.
The congregations list includes a single dying New York United Methodist congregation (which did not reply to multiple requests for clarification and comment) and a mere total of five Jewish and Unitarian Universalist groups.
The UMC annual conferences listed were: California-Nevada, New England, New York, Oregon-Idaho, Pacific Northwest, and Rocky Mountain. These are the conferences which the United Methodist News Service reports passed pro-RCRC resolutions right after the 2016 General Conference.
However, in seeking confirmation from conference leaders, the responses were rather consistent:
- Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar told me, “I am not aware of any New England Conference monetary support of RCRC,” after consulting other relevant conference officials.
- Bishop Thomas Bickerton told me “we have done extensive research and can confirm that no conference funds in the New York Annual conference have been disbursed for support of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.”
- Bishop Elaine Stanovsky passed on a report from Oregon-Idaho and Pacific-Northwest conference treasurers that “no contributions were made to RCRC from the Annual Conferences or bodies for whom we provide financial services in 2016 or since” and told me that as they focused on the COVID-19 crisis, “Abortion rights are no-where on the agenda of the Conferences.”
- California-Nevada Bishop Minerva Carcaño: “After much effort I am now able to report to you that the California-Nevada Conference made no contribution to the RCRC in 2018. In fact we find no financial contribution to this organization in any year in the financial records of the Conference. We did inquire as to why we were thanked in their brochure that you sent us and found that the present RCRC leadership did not know. We have requested that our name be removed from their promotional brochures and other resources at this time.”
Charmaine Robledo, Director of Communications for the Mountain Sky Conference (successor to the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences) told me that Rocky Mountain gave RCRC a nominal $500 in December 2016, but that “No other funds have been sent to RCRC since.” Note that this donation was given after Dr. Karen Oliveto came to occupy the bishop’s office there. I asked about how conference funds were diverted to RCRC, since the 2016 pro-RCRC resolution explicitly said that it had no financial implications. I got no more response on this than being told that the “leadership who made those decisions have since retired.”
After inquiries to these annual conferences, RCRC changed the online version of its 2018 Annual Report to remove reference to them. You can still see these conferences similarly listed in an archived version of RCRC’s 2017 Annual Report.
For years, RCRC’s track record on such matters as praising all abortions as “holy” and publishing a paper by a self-described “Wiccan High Priestess” teaching that “[a]ll consensual sex is good, even when it is simply a pleasure shared between friends,” had been well documented and widely distributed to delegates of the last several UMC General Conferences. Our denomination’s “seat at the table” clearly did not moderate RCRC.
Yet there is still a core of liberal American United Methodist who strongly support RCRC, in spite or perhaps because of such things. Pro-RCRC public statements over the years from the conferences noted above and prominent leaders like Oliveto and Bishop Julius Trimble make this clear.
But the main 2016 vote to end the UMC’s denomination-wide RCRC affiliation was not close. The vote to delete Resolution #3204 was even more lopsided, with only 26 percent of delegates heeding the liberal caucus coalition’s lobbying against deleting the pro-RCRC resolution.
With its wealthy backers, RCRC will likely continue for some time. But at least its extremist activities noted above no longer officially reflect on our whole denomination.