Institute on Religion and Democracy
CHURCH COUNCIL HAS LITTLE TO CELEBRATE
November 10, 1999
The National Council of Churches (NCC) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week here in Cleveland, the city of its birth. But the ecumenical coalition of 35 mostly Protestant denominations has little to celebrate. Now facing a financial crisis, even NCC supporters wonder if it has a future.
Some of America's most prominent religious leaders gathered in a snow storm in 1949 at Cleveland's convention center to organize what was then the premier voice of mainline Christianity in America. Today, fewer than one in three American church goers belong to an NCC-member denomination. The NCC has become more renowned for the stridency of its left-wing politics than for fostering Christian unity. Conservatives and moderates within mainline churches are unrepresented by the NCC. Since the 1960s, some of the NCC's largest member denominations have suffered severe membership losses of 30 to 40 percent.
Nor are its member churches willing any longer to provide unquestioning financial support for the council. The NCC's largest member, the 8.4 million member United Methodist Church, has suspended its payments to the NCC. Methodist leaders are demanding drastic fiscal reforms. The NCC now faces a deficit of over $3 million and has requested emergency cash infusions from its member churches.
A large part of the NCC's problem is its own unsupportive constituency. Many church members are indifferent to or resentful of a church council that so often claims to speak for them, but actually represents only a far-left, religious elite.
It was not always so for the NCC. The original founders in Cleveland had legitimate cause to think hhat their movement represented the future of American religion. After all, America's most prestigious church bodies were enthusiastically participating. At its start, the NCC was liberal but mainstream. It supported a full welfare state and desegregation, while also opposing communism and affirming traditional religious mores. The 1960s radicalized the NCC. Its admirable support for civil rights in the U.S. evolved into active support for revolutionary Marxist movements overseas. Its opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam morphed into sympathy for communist North Vietnam. The NCC's domestic agenda also shifted dramatically leftward.
It became an ally of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood. And the NCC became more outspoken against school prayer, in favor of forced busing, for gun control, and against capital punishment, for nationalized medicine, and against welfare reform. The NCC blurred any remaining distinctions between the secular left and the religious left.
The NCC harshly condemned the Reagan and Bush administrations, especially U.S. military actions against Grenada, Libya, Panama and Iraq. At the same time, the NCC was quite restrained in its occasional expressions of concern about Soviet acts of aggression and human rights violations. Other Leninist regimes - in China, Cuba, and Nicaragua - were hailed enthusiastically in NCC publications.
More recently, the NCC has attempted to bring the United States before a United Nations tribunal for human rights violations, in cooperation with governments like Cuba's and China's. Domestically, the NCC has supported the Clinton Administration, while trying to nudge it leftward, and despairing of its support for welfare reform. When the Republicans captured Congress in 1994, the NCC called the GOP's budget plans "unholy."
The NCC has no apologies for its left-wing activism, not even for its embarrassing Cold War role. Already this week at the NCC gathering, speakers have congratulated the NCC for its "solidarity" with revolutionary movements around the world and for exposing the "complicity of the U.S. Government in dictatorship and repression."
On Wednesday, the NCC focused on the U.S. Army's alleged massacre of Korean civilians during the dark days after the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950. The massacre, if true, deserves exposure. But the NCC now refuses to condemn the horrific human rights record of communist North Korea or acclaim the overall positive role of the U.S. in fostering democracy in South Korea. (Some 48 years ago, the NCC supported the U.S. involvement in Korea.)
Little of this "social witness" appeals to church members. Surveys show that mainline Protestants are mostly conservative and tend to vote Republican. But mainline church goers do not want specific political guidance from the NCC or their denominations. They want moral and spiritual guidance.
Fast growing independent churches are providing it, which explains their rapid membership growth, compared to 35 years of decline for most NCC denominations. The Roman Catholic Church and evangelical churches have long resisted joining the NCC, for which they can now be grateful. They are, by comparison, thriving. The NCC was founded five decades ago to bring American Christians together.
It has failed. A coalition of reform-minded leaders in the mainline Protestant churches is calling for the NCC's dissolution. They are right.
This would make room new ecumenical initiatives focused on faith, not a narrow political agenda.