The National Council of Churches, an umbrella organization representing dozens of Protestant denominations, usually steers clear of Supreme Court nominations.
When Republican senators refused to hold a vote on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, the NCC did not say a word. When President Trump nominated Neil M. Gorsuch and the Senate confirmed him, the NCC stayed silent.
But on Wednesday, the NCC broke its silence on Brett M. Kavanaugh, Trump’s latest nominee whose confirmation process is causing a deep rift across the nation and in many of the churches the NCC includes.
“We believe he has disqualified himself from this lifetime appointment and must step aside immediately,” the group, which represents about 30 million U.S. parishioners, wrote in a statement. “During his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Kavanaugh exhibited extreme partisan bias and disrespect toward certain members of the committee and thereby demonstrated that he possesses neither the temperament nor the character essential for a member of the highest court in our nation. We are deeply disturbed by the multiple allegations of sexual assault and call for a full and unhindered investigation of these accusations. In addition, his testimony before the Judiciary Committee included several misstatements and some outright falsehoods.”
Jim Winkler, the president and general secretary of the NCC who authorized the statement, said Thursday he hopes and believes members of Congress will take notice, as they prepare to vote on the nominee. “Many have told me, ‘We definitely pay attention to what the faith community says,’" Winkler said.
The NCC does not speak for all Christians. A consortium of denominations, it includes mainline Protestants as well as Orthodox, historically African American and other churches.
It does not include the Catholic church, the largest religious affiliation in America; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not made a statement about Kavanaugh, though the Jesuit magazine “America” initially endorsed the judge and then pulled its endorsement after the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that included testimony by Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school.
The NCC does not include the Mormon Church; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also has not offered an official position but a Mormon group claiming 6,000 members has urged Congress to vote no on Kavanaugh.
And significantly, the NCC does not include any large evangelical Protestant denomination, the religious group most central to Trump’s core constituency. Political advocacy groups based in the evangelical community have been vociferous supporters of Kavanaugh. The Family Research Council, which says it advocates for family values in national policymaking, has issued numerous statements on Kavanaugh’s behalf in recent days.
“There are just too many inconsistencies in the story -- and in the Democrats’ handling of it -- to suggest that Kavanaugh was the one responsible” for assaulting Blasey Ford, wrote Tony Perkins, the Family Research Council’s president. “How far back do we go? Junior high? Elementary school? Daycare? At what point do we realize that people grow up, make mistakes, and move forward? As far as Brett Kavanaugh is concerned, there’s been nothing to suggest in his past confirmation hearings that he’s ever mistreated women.”
Perkins argued instead that Democrats want to “smear” Kavanaugh to prevent another conservative justice on the Supreme Court from ruling on issues including same-sex marriage, abortion and what Perkins referred to as “open borders.”
The promise of additional conservative justices on the Supreme Court, particularly because of the prospect of restricting legal abortion access, was the driving factor for many evangelicals to vote for Trump and to continue to support him.
Winkler said the board of the NCC previously granted the president and board chairman the authority to issue a statement like the one published on Wednesday, about a Supreme Court nominee or a similar nomination such as a Cabinet appointment. Although he uses that authority rarely, he did not have to consult the dozens of denominations represented by the NCC before he published an opinion on behalf of the group.
Two denominational leaders called him on Thursday, he said, asking what they should tell their members, who were calling and emailing to say their views of the Kavanaugh nomination do not match up with the organization that claims to represent them.
But Winkler believes most church leaders agree with the statement, even if many in the pews represented by the NCC do not agree.
“The Bible isn’t written to please the majority,” Winkler said. “The Bible has some hard truths that make it difficult sometimes for people to hear, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaving the church.”
Across the country, ministers in mainline Protestant denominations and other denominations that participate in the NCC have expressed a range of views on Kavanaugh. For example, Robert Long, a preacher in the United Methodist Church -- the often liberal mainline tradition that counts Hillary Clinton as a member -- prompted controversy over a sermon in Oklahoma City on Sunday that focused on the damage done by false allegations. In the Orthodox tradition, the Rev. Costa Pavlakos in Falls Church, Va., used his Sunday sermon to condemn Blasey Ford for drinking a beer when she was 15 years old.
But in those denominations and many others in the NCC, pastors and priests devoted their sermons to the importance of believing and supporting sexual assault survivors. Winkler said he saw it as a pressing question of national morality.
“We felt this has really risen to, frankly, a moment of national crisis,” he said. “We don’t take it lightly when we speak on a Supreme Court nominee.”
Soon after the NCC published its statement, its website crashed. Winkler said staff members are trying to determine whether the failure was a result of increased visitors to the site or a malicious attack.