Institute on Religion and Democracy
November 23, 1999
The National Council of Churches (NCC) is sort of the Hugh Hefner of the religious world. Aging and not dealing well with it, trapped in the fashions of the 1960's and 1970's, financially troubled, still offensive but no longer shocking, blissfully unaware of obsolescence, and still feebly trying to disco late at night at a time when retirement might be in order.
All right, it might be unfair to compare a Christian ecumenical organization with America's most famous pornographer. Hefner's Playboy still has 3 million readers, and his financial empire is still solvent, if stagnant. In contrast, the NCC is nearly bankrupt fiscally and, according to its conservative critics, spiritually as well.
In November, the NCC tried to celebrate its 50th anniversary in Cleveland, the place of its founding. Hoping that five days of hoopla would help revive its sagging fortunes, the $750,000 event instead added tens of thousands dollars to the NCC's nearly $4 million debt.
Like the mostly aged (male) guests who now attend parties at the Playboy Mansion, most of the NCC's celebrants were older denizens of an exhausted social revolution. Thousands braved a snowstorm to attend the NCC's founding in 1950. Despite the balmy weather, not even a thousand bothered to celebrate its anniversary.
Founded as an outgrowth of America's post-war optimism, the NCC once embodied the liberal mainstream. Anti-communist, pro-New Deal, anti-segregation, and pro-Union, the new church council sought to unify America's denominations behind ecumenism and social justice. The nation's most prestigious Protestant churches were founders, the Eastern Orthodox joined so as not to be left behind, and the NCC hoped the Roman Catholic Church would soon follow. Conservative evangelicals were seen as too irrelevant to consider.
Five decades later, Roman Catholics still see no need to join. Mainline Protestants are now entering the fourth decade of consecutive membership decline. And evangelical churches are thriving, with the conservative Southern Baptist Convention (never an NCC member) having long since surpassed the liberal-dominated United Methodist Church as America's largest Protestant communion.
Fewer than one in three American church members now belong to an NCC denomination. But with 35 denominations and 55 million church members still in the NCC, the gray old lady should still be able to wield a heavy stick. Instead, the NCC is unpopular or irrelevant to most of its own constituency. The NCC's image never fully recovered from the Sixty Minutes and Reader's Digest stories of the early 1980's that exposed the church council's cozy ties with Marxist movements.
Federal dollars (mostly for refugee resettlement) now outrank denominational gifts as an NCC income source. To make up its huge deficit, the NCC in September appealed for help from its traditional pillars: the United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, American Baptist, Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ member denominations. These "seven sisters" account for 90 percent of the NCC's denominational funding.
Instead of a bail-out, the United Methodist Church responded by withholding over $300,000 in payments, demanding fiscal reforms in exchange for renewed funding. The Christian Century, the flagship publication of liberal Protestantism, published a cover story urging the "orderly, intentional dissolution of the NCC." The author was the Reformed Church in America's general secretary, who is also an NCC board member. And attendance at the Cleveland celebration was so low that it may explode the NCC's debt by another $150,000.
By raiding the coffers of its relief agency, Church World Service, the NCC is striving to make up the deficit. The NCC has also enlisted a new leadership team. Former Pennsylvania congressman Bob Edgar will be its new general secretary, while former Atlanta mayor and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young will be its president. Both are reputed to be good fundraisers.
Both are also liberal Democrats are share the NCC view that genuine Christian faith is inextricably tied with left-wing political themes. The collapse of Marxist "liberation" movements around the world left the NCC and its sister group, the World Council of Churches, somewhat perplexed about its future direction. To some extent, the NCC has since tried to tame its political radicalism, aligning itself closely with the Clinton Administration. After the Republican victory in 1994, an NCC delegation visited the Oval Office and prayed against the "unholy" legislation of the GOP Congress.
Not that the NCC has any apologies about its controversial Cold War role, when it declined to criticize the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and praised the Sandinistas, while condemning U.S. military actions in Grenada, Libya, Panama and Iraq. The head of the World Council of Churches, Konrad Raiser, congratulated his NCC colleagues in Cleveland for their "prophetic cultural witness" during the Cold War, when they "built bridges to Eastern Europe and challenged McCarthyism."
Raiser especially thanked the NCC for "exposing the complicity of the United States Government in dictatorship and repression" around the world, for "mobilizing against the Contras" in Nicaragua, fighting sanctions against Cuba, advocating Korean reunification, and resisting the "arms race" (i.e. U.S. rearmament). A visiting African prelate also saluted the NCC for its international "prophetic voice" despite "some right wing folks" having called the NCC a "fifth column of the KGB."
The day before Veterans Day, the NCC convened a press conference about an alleged massacre of Korean civilians by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War. Several Koreans told their stories of horror. With television cameras rolling, three U.S. veterans were supposedly going to offer apologies in response. But reporters discovered that only one old soldier had been actually present at No Gun Ri, where the massacre was supposed to have happened. And none of the three expressed any shame about the U.S. Army. An NCC spokesperson quickly ended the event. "Reconciliation can't be achieved in a day," she concluded.
A film to commemorate the NCC's 50 years claimed that the NCC's "dialogue" with the Russian Orthodox Church had precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall. The accusations of collaboration with communist regimes were dismissed scornfully. As vindication, the film included a clip from a recent Charlie Rose interview with Sixty Minutes producer Don Hewitt. Hewitt laughingly recalled that he had been proud of his 1983 expose of the NCC's Marxist ties until he started receiving congratulatory letters from "every red-neck bishop" in America. (How many red-neck bishops are there?)
Leftist groups like the NCC miss the Cold War struggles almost as much as right wingers, neither side having found an equally energizing replacement crusade. For the NCC, environmentalism is the leading candidate. Jay Lintner of the NCC's Washington office cited the need for an "international environmental authority" to enact "global regulation of the environment." Lintner also listed universal health care, gun control and campaign finance reform as key issues for the NCC.
None of these topics are likely to re-ignite the old NCC's old activist flames or re-fill its depleted coffers. The NCC's non-relief spending this year totaled about $16 million, which supported 122 employees in New York. To help erase the almost $4 million deficit, the NCC wants an additional $2 million from its member churches and $1.45 million from its relief agency, the more popular and better funded Church World Service. As many as 34 positions at the NCC might be eliminated.
Outgoing NCC General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell tried to justify her deficit spending, arguing that the NCC's heart is "too empathetic" not to be in debt. "You are right that I value courage and imagination more than caution and efficiency...Our deficit is not in dollars but in our failure to see in one another the moral force that needs poverty as we know it and that challenges racism."
Challenging racism was to have been the NCC's chief, post-Cold War crusade. An NCC initiative in 1995 to compel the United Nations to investigate "human rights" abuses in the U.S. based on racism flopped when only China and Sudan gave their support. Far more successful was the NCC campaign that claimed an epidemic of racist-inspired arsons of black churches.
There was never any firm evidence that black churches were more vulnerable to arson than other churches. And we now know that only a small number of arsons at black churches were the work of white supremacists. But burning churches seduced the nation's imagination during the 1996 presidential election year, and the NCC raised over $9.1 million in cash for its Burned Churches Fund.
It turns out the NCC only spent $6.4 million on actual church reconstruction, with the rest going to overheard and programs aimed at the "root causes" of racism. The NCC's fiery rhetoric about racism sometimes implied that America in the 1990's is little different from America in the 1890's. But recollections of the NCC's role in the Civil Rights Movement provided the rare moments of genuine celebration in Cleveland.
At a special NCC service in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Jesse Jackson made a surprise appearance. "We are winners," he enthused as he recalled earlier civil rights rallies in Cleveland. In the pulpit, he hoisted Joan Campbell's hand high in the air, convention-style. And he saluted Andrew Young, who "helped pull down the cotton curtain. He is the glue that holds us together."
Fresh from a vigil at Decatur, Illinois, Jackson likened Decatur's expulsion of seven brawling high school students to lynching. "There were no guns, no knives, no blood," he exclaimed in their defense. "For this they were made outcasts." He compared them to the suffering children of Cuba and Iraq, where U.S. sanctions have supposedly wreaked havoc.
Enlivened by Jackson's oratory, a cavalcade of colorfully festooned clergy afterwards marched out of the cathedral singing "We're marching in the love of God." They processed to a banquet at the nearby Renaissance Hotel, where an encouraging message from Dwayne Andreas of Archers Daniel Midland awaited them. He is contributing $100,000 to the NCC. Applause, followed by a few amens. The money would at least help pay for the dinner.
The Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran churches are considering helping with the bail-out, while the Methodists are still mulling over their funding cut-off. Bob Edgar, the NCC's new general secretary, calls the Methodist action a "sledgehammer." He is himself a former United Methodist minister who, after 12 years in Congress, led a Methodist seminary out of difficult financial straits. Calling himself a "salvager," he hopes the NCC will develop closer ties with Roman Catholics, Pentecostals and Evangelicals.
Andrew Young also hopes to win the Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal denomination with over 5 million members, as the NCC's next member. It seems unlikely. Both Edgar and Young offered words of support at a breakfast for the Interfaith Assembly of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucuses and Affirming Organizations.
The Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender caucus has been demanding the NCC's acceptance of the predominantly homosexual Metropolitan Community Fellowship of Churches. That acceptance would precipitate a walk-out by the Eastern Orthodox communions and possibly by others. But there is no doubt where the NCC's staff sides. Many wore rainbow buttons of solidarity. The NCC already protects "sexual orientation" in its hiring practices and offers domestic partner benefits for its employees.
Besides a multitude of other fiscal, political and theological controversies, the issue of homosexuality is probably sufficient to keep Evangelicals, Catholics and Pentecostals from joining up. In an NCC panel discussion with representatives of these groups, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals was nearly alone is spelling out the problem.
"We can't have unity at all costs," warned Kevin Mannoia, who, besides leading Evangelicals, is also a bishop in the Free Methodist Church. "We can't have a theology of the lowest common denominator. It leads to relativistic mush. There are absolutes," Mannoia emphasized. Another panelist was David Neff, the editor of Christianity Today, who recounted that pro-life causes have fostered ecumenical cooperation between Catholics and Evangelicals. The audience of NCC activists responded to Mannoia and Neff only politely.
"We're like an aging city with a crumbling infrastructure," Joan Campbell admitted in her farewell remarks to the NCC. "The infrastructure is sadly in need of repair, and it is not cheap to repair it." When mainline churches catch a cold, the NCC gets pneumonia, she explained.
Despite their membership losses, mainline churches are still flush with funds, thanks to their centuries of prominence and prestige. Will they resuscitate the ailing NCC? They may not resort to euthanasia, but neither will they administer life support forever.