WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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