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The National Council of Churches’ collapse

Political activism at the expense of doctrine is a recipe for rapid decline

Rev. Jim Winkler of the National Council of Churches leads a protest in Washington, D.C., on April 5, 2021. Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh

The National Council of Churches’ collapse
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What happens when churches go vague on theology and detailed on politics? With the National Council of Churches (NCC), currently celebrating its 75th anniversary, we have the answer.

Have you ever heard of the NCC? If you are under age 60, likely not. But for decades it was the premier liberal voice for Protestant Christianity in America. In 1958 President Dwight Eisenhower laid the cornerstone on the new building in New York that would house the NCC and other Protestant agencies, in a tribute to their wide influence. Newspapers boasted that the new 19-story Interchurch Center, built with help from the Rockefellers, would house 37 Protestant denominations representing 40 million Americans and 144,000 congregations. Occupants included the Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed Church, and American Baptists, and a host of mainline Protestant agencies.

For decades, the NCC had hundreds of employees and large budgets, and the council commanded respect as a pillar of American civil society. It was for public religion what the American Bar Association was for lawyers. It still has 37 member denominations. But, like those denominations, it is a shell of its former self, with a small staff and budget. What remains of the NCC is nestled in a small suite in the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. What happened?

An early slogan for the ecumenical movement at the 20th century’s dawn was “doctrine divides, service unites.” The NCC’s precursor, the Federal Council of Churches, had this understanding when founded in 1908. At its start the FCC adopted a “social creed” about its expectations for society. Borrowed from the Methodists, and mostly focusing on labor rights, its goals were by today’s standards mild and unobjectionable. But it foreshadowed the ecumenical focus on social and political action at the expense of theology and evangelistic mission.

As did the FCC, the NCC has Eastern Orthodox communions as members. But its central pillars have always been the once formidable denominations of Mainline Protestantism: Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Disciples, northern Baptists. All of these movements were captured by theological modernism early in the last century. Their leaders, seminaries, and agencies minimized or rejected Christianity’s supernatural aspects in favor of social ethics.

A large portrait of 20th century modernist pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick hangs in the first-floor conference room of the Interchurch Center in New York. (Or at least it did when I was last there, before the NCC moved to its smaller offices). Famously, he called for a faith of service over doctrine in his 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick was founding pastor of Riverside Church in New York, built by the Rockefellers as a cathedral for liberal Protestantism. Riverside Church abutted modernist Union Seminary and the Interchurch Center, forming a triad of liberal theology.

Anti-war evolved into pro-Viet Cong for the religious left, as the NCC and Mainline Protestant agencies succumbed to radical Liberation Theology in the 1970s and 1980s.

For Mainline Protestant leaders at mid-century, “fundamentalism” was reactionary and passe. They, supposedly in touch with the latest in science, politics, culture, and sociology, represented the future of relevant Christianity. The NCC was the main organizing institution and public voice for modern faith in America.

In the 1950s the NCC’s politics were moderately left, and its theology was anodyne. In keeping with Mainline Protestant practice, specific rejection of Christian creedal orthodoxy was of course avoided. Vagueness over heresy! Traditionalists could pretend all was well. The Eastern Orthodox members, anxious for ties to America’s Protestant majority, could stay. And politicians could seek favor. Billy Graham collaborated with the NCC, wanting its tens of thousands of churches to participate in his crusades. The NCC, otherwise averse to “fundamentalists,” liked Graham’s celebrity.

Graham even addressed the NCC’s 1966 assembly, which elected as president a former Eisenhower cabinet member, perhaps the NCC’s last Republican official. But already the NCC was abandoning caution and shifting more openly leftward, denouncing the Vietnam War even when most church members still were supportive. Anti-war evolved into pro-Viet Cong for the religious left, as the NCC and Mainline Protestant agencies succumbed to radical Liberation Theology in the 1970s and 1980s. NCC officials visited communist capitals, urged Western disarmament, praised Third World Marxist movements like Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, and were often silent about the persecuted church behind the Iron Curtain.

NCC far-left politics exploded in controversy in 1983 when both Reader’s Digest, with a circulation of 18 million, and 60 Minutes, watched by 23 million households, did exhaustive exposes of NCC rhetorical and financial support for leftist causes. The 60 Minutes report was titled “The Gospel According to Whom?” Said one United Methodist bishop: “This is not merely a right-wing attack. These are people who believe in Christians being involved in the life of the world. They just don’t want the church to come down on the side of the Communists.”

Arguably the NCC never recovered from negative 1980s publicity as right of center Mainline Protestant churchgoers disdained the NCC. Many of them went on to leave their churches. In the 1990s the NCC began to suffer financially, continuously downsizing for years yet never relenting in its leftward politics. In 2013 the NCC quit the legendary “Vatican on the Hudson” in New York for much smaller offices in Washington, D.C.

A Religion News Service story about the NCC’s 75th anniversary celebration, launched two years early (the NCC was founded in 1950) noted the NCC now has fewer than 10 staffers and a budget of under $2 million. But there is no NCC reflection about what brought down the once influential church council, whose new president pledged: “I am adding activism to advocacy.”

But other churches can learn lessons from the NCC’s demise: Be firm on doctrine and careful on political activism.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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