The debate intensifies between mainline religious leaders and their critics.

There is widespread agreement that believers should help safeguard religious liberties. But there is far less of a consensus about how that should be accomplished.

During a two-day conference at the U.S. State Department, a number of groups that advocate international religious freedom discussed ways to coordinate their efforts more effectively. Domestic church politics kept surfacing, however, threatening to distance mainline ecumenical groups even further from critics in the evangelical community.

The conference was sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, in cooperation with the U.S. State Department and the Jacques Maritain Center of the University of Notre Dame. The National Council of Churches (NCC), the World Council of Churches, and the U.S. Catholic Conference were not officially represented, and their absence provoked considerable discussion at the conference.

Richard John Neuhaus, a conference speaker and an IRD board member, said the NCC was “begged and implored” to participate. But Dwain C. Epps, director of international affairs for the NCC’s Division of Church and Society, said the council “had not been approached at any stage with regard to planning, sponsorship, or setting an agenda for such a meeting.” For that reason, among others, the NCC did not send representatives and declined invitations to speak.

In a letter to Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary for human rights at the U.S. State Department, NCC general secretary Arie Brouwer cited a schedule conflict that prevented him from ...

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