Institutions Politics

The rise and fall and rise of the National Council of Churches (COMMENTARY)

Jim Winkler, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, speaks to journalists during the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association conference in Decatur, Ga., on Sept. 19, 2014. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

WASHINGTON (RNS) Like many mainline Protestant institutions, the National Council of Churches has had a rough couple of years. Once the public face of American Protestantism, the NCC is now just another face in the crowd. Yet with new leadership and a retooled mission, the NCC is poised to rebound from its low ebb of influence and carries a great deal of promise into the future.

In its 1950s heyday, the NCC embodied the confident spirit of educated, mainstream religious elites in what was still largely a Protestant nation. The NCC regularly brought bishops and denominational leaders to the White House and boasted significant influence over members of Congress. Mainline theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr were renowned public intellectuals, practically household names.

It was an ecumenical age as well as denominations were merging, not splintering. The baby boom and sustained economic prosperity enabled the historic denominations’ demographic strength. Beautiful churches sprang up along suburban commuter corridors such as Philadelphia’s Main Line (from which the term “mainline” arises). Fundamentalist and other literal-Bible traditions, comprised largely of uneducated pastors and downscale laity, operated beneath the notice of elite media and were still presumed to be in a post-Scopes cultural withdrawal.

For a few mid-century decades, the American norm of partisan political polarization softened. There were progressive Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress, and the NCC lobbied them all. Before ideology, party, and theology became so strongly correlated (especially for Protestants), the NCC claimed to speak for a broad swath of American society.

What happened?

All religious interest groups experience tension between “speaking to” and “speaking for” their constituencies. On an array of issues, from civil rights to Vietnam to sympathy for liberationist movements in Central America, the NCC by most accounts got too far ahead of the center-right laity in mainline pews and perhaps even the center-left men and women in mainline pulpits.

By the 1990s, the NCC was widely seen as a religious arm of the Democratic Party, just as the religious right was little more than the Republican Party at prayer.

Many congressmen had long ago realized that the liberal NCC was not speaking for churchgoers in their districts, and the NCC’s political influence plummeted. Its constituent denominations and communions — mainline, black Protestant, historic peace traditions, and Eastern Orthodox –- faced their own institutional and financial challenges and, of course, unprecedented membership decline.

In recent years, an NCC Task Force on Re-envisioning and Restructuring made several difficult but necessary decisions that would not only enable the council’s survival, but also position it for vital engagement and ministry in the future. The NCC retained and retooled its historic focus on advocacy and ecumenical dialogue, but it significantly reduced staff and expenses. The NCC moved its headquarters from a Manhattan office building known as the “God Box” to a suite of offices on Capitol Hill.

Jim Winkler, General Secretary of National Council of Churches, speaks to journalists during the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association conference in Decatur, Ga. on Sept. 19, 2014. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Jim Winkler, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, speaks to journalists during the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association conference in Decatur, Ga., on Sept. 19, 2014. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Last year, the NCC elected Jim Winkler, a veteran United Methodist D.C. lobbyist, as general secretary. The council’s top-heavy institutional structure has been pared down to four “convening tables” with two issue emphases: promoting peace and ending mass incarceration.

Winkler has been busy leading the newly restructured organization and re-engaging leaders from NCC member communions in the council’s work.

Even the NCC’s critics have been quiet. The Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, founded in the early 1980s to combat the left-leaning politics that prevailed among many mainline church elites, criticized Winkler relentlessly in his previous position. Yet the IRD, a fierce NCC critic for three decades, seems to be taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Winkler and the NCC face several key challenges and opportunities moving forward.

The NCC’s unity is sometimes fragile and made more so by some member communions’ acceptance of gay clergy and same-sex marriage. Though officially silent on issues that divide its constituent denominations, the NCC will struggle to maintain unity as Christians decide how vigorously to oppose the excesses of the sexual revolution, if not the revolution itself.

Activists who came of age during the Vietnam era have led mainline institutions for several decades, but the dominance of aging white liberals is nearing an end. Whereas white evangelicals have deliberately cultivated young leadership and have many people under 35 in key positions, mainliners lag badly in this area.

Particularly given its emphasis on peace, the NCC will need to deeply and critically plumb the Christian ethical tradition for insight about how to promote peace with justice in a hostile world. The de facto pacifism that permeates much of liberal Protestantism may prove too idealistic to influence defense and counterterrorism policy.

The NCC also needs effective symbolic and substantive advocacy efforts. Issuing press releases about clergy being arrested in protests may have grabbed attention in the 1960s, but that kind of witness is ineffective today.

As the NCC declined, Catholic and evangelical organizations became more sophisticated, professionalized and influential. They bring a great deal of energy and creativity to ecumenical Christian engagement. The NCC must thoughtfully and strategically discern when to support existing ecumenical and interfaith efforts and when to forge new ones.

(Jacob Lupfer is a Contributing Editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website iswww.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

Perhaps the NCC’s influence was overinflated a half-century ago, but it is a mistake to ignore the National Council of Churches. Its 37 Protestant and Orthodox communions encompass 45 million members. Though imperfect, the NCC has been a faithful, prophetic witness for poor, vulnerable, and dispossessed people, boldly standing for justice when too many others were silent. We should commend the NCC for its corrective actions and wish the council well in its vital mission.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf.)

KRE/AMB END LUPFER

About the author

Jacob Lupfer

A contributing editor at RNS, Jacob Lupfer is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.

29 Comments

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  • The church needs to focus on every issue and right now specific sin really
    needs to be confronted. So many people got so focused on gay marriage
    and abortion they forget about sins like gambling,pride,gossip,getting drunk,
    sex outside of marriage,being mean/sharp tongues,coveting/greed/jealousy
    and lying. Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk and also 1 Corinthians 6:10
    says all drunkards go to hell including people who still get drunk with wine
    cause the wine Jesus made was diluted plus the Bible says don’t get drunk
    on strong wine! People today seem to forget that Jesus said you are one of
    Mine only if you follow Me! Luke 13 the whole chapter talks about how we
    must bear good fruit and that fruit is the fruit of Repentance not good works
    because many non-believers do good works. 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 the whole
    chapters need to be preached more because Jesus said many will say to Me
    Lord,Lord and not enter heaven! If you say you love Jesus and then don’t
    follow the Bible/religion no Truth is in you! We must Repent then follow!

  • The NCC is a “house divided” over the gay marriage issue. It is “a house built on sand” which neither Christians nor politicians take seriously.
    This dinosaur needs to recognize its own fossil status in America’s post-christian, Secular Humanist society.

  • What happened? Suggest that organs like the NCC attract people with an interest in (or career in) religion who lack the patience for parish ministry. When the intramural culture of the denominations grows sufficiently denatured, you’re getting the worst of the bunch. So, it decayed into a position paper manufactory which had little to do with any sort of Christian witness and mission. The only excuse for it was as a corporate shell for Church World Service. I believe Church World Service is now a separate agency, so NCC has no serious purpose. Kill it.

  • NCC was founded as a Soviet front and it’s still a Soviet front. The only difference is that Sovietism was headquartered in Russia at the time when NCC was founded. After 1989, Sovietism is centered in America and Russia is a Christian nation.

  • NCC political activity in the 1980’s, was certainly liberal, and often prophetic, but I don’t think that equates to supporting the Democratic Party, as Democrats were often too timid to accept NCC positions, especially on foreign policy.

    An argument could be made that it is even more true today.

  • In short, the NCC forgot about the moral teachings of Jesus Christ and embraced the political left teachings of secularists. When it embraced things like abortion and homosexual ‘marriage’ it lost all moral authority to teach anything. Currently, the NCC is nothing more than the DNC pretending to pray.

  • Around here the NCC is referred to as the “National Council of Churches No One Goes To Any More.”

  • This reads like a press release from the NCC, not a real article. But it fails even as a press release, because it doesn’t say anything. It announces a renewed NCC but provides not a shred of evidence for change.

    The NCC is as irrelevant as ever and not even the cultural radicalization of the black and Hispanic communities, a relatively recent phenomenon, is going to help it because it’s still run by a bunch of aging white hippies who have nothing in common with black or Latinos besides politics.

  • There has been no recent “rise” of the NCC, so the headline is misleading. The last time the NCC was on the rise, Dwight Eisenhower was president. And even then, it was beginning to rot out at its core.

  • A bunch of 70-year-olds wearing nose rings……that’s the NCC…..trying pitifully to be relevant but failing every time.

  • NCC’s problem goes way beyond the technical aspects of bureaucratic function and management. It has painted itself into an impossible ideological corner. On the one hand, its radical positions on both religion and politics have turned off most serious Christians of any stripe. On the other hand, the kinds of people who like its positions are not churchgoers and in many cases, not even Christians.

  • Karla you make some decent points, but I don’t blame anyone for focusing more against the surreal redefining of marriage than drunkenness. America has always been a society with lots of drunks. It’s a legacy from the British Isles. But neither America nor any other society in history has ever supported turning marriage into a zoo.

  • Jack-All sin is bad. Read 1 Corinthians 6:9-12. It lists drunkards,slanderers,
    swindlers,coveters/the greedy,thieves,all the sexually immoral and also all
    idolaters right along with the homosexuals as sins that send people to hell
    so yes gay marriage and abortion are both wrong but all sin is wrong and
    we all need to Repent! Thank you for all of the feedback, God bless.

  • During the Cold War the NCC was often accused of being a communist sympathizer, if not actually infiltrated and co-opted by the USSR.

  • The idea that Mainline Protestantism came from Philadelphia’s Main Line is somewhat apocryphal. It seems likelier that the term is meant to refer to the “main stream” of Protestant Christianity, though, just as Philly’s Main Line is a reference to the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

  • I think you’ve confused the World Council of Churches (with which NCC was affiliated) with the World Peace Council. The World Peace Council was a Soviet front. The World Council of Churches may have been infiltrated, but was not. It just manifested the prejudices of the word merchant class educated in Europe but resident various places (and was a functional mouthpiece of the Soviet foreign ministry, rather like the ‘Conference of Non-Aligned Nations’).

  • Take a deep breath,Karla; you’re sounding a little like a raving fanatic right now. While I don’t disagree with your assessment of 21st century culture (2nd Timothy 3:1-5 pretty well covers it.), the ol’flamethrower approach simply doesn’t work.(Besides, that’s NOT how Jesus minstered to the lost; He only brought the fire to the obstinate, hard-hearted, stiff-necked”religious”leaders.) At any rate, we hear you, O.K? Just dial it back a notch!

  • Laurence-Just giving someone a pat on the back is not Biblical and you
    need to read all of the Bible not just part of it. Luke 13 the whole chapter
    is a great start. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no
    more! He told her to change the behavior so preaching the Truth is very
    needed today cause so many of these “preachers” don’t have a backbone.
    Jesus said that many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven so
    somebody needs to start preaching the Truth or people will end up goin
    to hell. Thank you for all of the feedback. God bless.

  • NCC and its member denominations have long since abandoned the truth of the Bible and cast their lot in with leftist politics. And most will disagree with every point in the Nicene Creed. To their detriment, they have become Icabod — the glory has departed. Remember, the Kingdom of God is forever. Politics is not.

  • In short, the NCC forgot about the moral teachings of Jesus Christ and embraced the political left teachings of secularists. When it embraced things like abortion and homosexual ‘marriage’ it lost all moral authority to teach anything. Currently, the NCC is nothing more than the DNC pretending to pray.

  • I would like to briefly mention and recommend a prolific author / preacher who supports the following fundamental ideas in his writings, ideas “out of style” in many UMC and NCC churches today:

    1. A real Adam and Eve whose disobediance affected the entire human race.

    2. The sinfulness of all people.

    3. A real hell as the consequence of being lost without God.

    4. Christ’s literal death, burial and resurrection as an atonement for sin.

    5. The Christian’s ongoing, spiritual battle with a real devil and real demons.

    6. The need for sanctification through
    the power of the Holy Spirit.

    7. Upholding the Bible as God’s authoritative word.

    8. Support for marriage as God, not secular academics and courts, define it in scripture.

    Oh, by the way, in case you are stumped, this author’s name is John Wesley.

    His writings are still accessible….a needed corrective to the modernist fundamentalism that reigns in many UMC churches today.

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