The National Council of Churches — From Mainstream to Extreme

Religious groups have played a profoundly important role in shaping the contours of our political and cultural life.

For the most part, these groups have exercised a positive and purposeful influence on our national public life. Because of this influence in shaping public policy, it is distressing to see any group take positions so extreme the group renders itself irrelevant to its own membership and to society as a whole.

The National Council of Churches can be accurately described as the most influential spokesman for mainline Protestant churches in America. As such, it wields considerable economic, political, and intellectual influence when it comes to shaping and implementing public policy. NCC officials frequently testify before Congress on a variety of issues, including raising the minimum wage, welfare reform, defense spending, and affirmative action. However, over the past twenty-five years, from the late ’60s to the present, the NCC has moved from mainstream liberalism to a cranky, reactionary, often infantile leftism that has not only cost it intellectual credibility, but has also resulted in a massive loss of members from its affiliated churches, many of whom have fled from the mainline congregations to evangelical churches that more closely reflect their values and commitments.

The NCC has always been liberal; from its founding in 1950 it has gathered a broad spectrum of mainline churches, encompassing over forty million members who sought common ground in dealing with the religious and cultural challenges of the postwar world. As the group sought interfaith dialogue with other religious groups in areas of common concern in the early ’50s, its liberalism, particularly in the realm of social welfare and foreign policy, was well within the political and intellectual mainstream.

Now, however, the NCC takes hardcore leftist positions on social welfare, foreign policy, and a host of controversial issues that have left it mired in the unpalatable vision of ’60s political orthodoxy.

Temperate Liberalism

From 1950 until 1967, the liberalism of the NCC was, for the most part, within the political and intellectual consensus established by the New Deal and reaffirmed by President Truman and the leadership of the Democratic party after Roosevelt’s death.

This consensus meant support for the rudiments of the modern welfare state such as social security, unemployment insurance, the regulation of business, the minimum wage, maximum hour laws, and protection of the right of workers to unionize. This consensus also included support for dependent children, civil rights, and a strong anti-Communist foreign policy.

The policy statements issued by the NCC during this period tended to reflect this strong and seemingly immutable consensus on critical public issues.

In 1951, the NCC supported the Korean war and the NATO treaty, according to K. L. Billingsley, the most recent chronicler of the NCC whose monograph From Mainline to Sideline offers valuable insight into the organization’s metamorphosis from mainstream liberalism into leftism. Billingsley combs through the NCC’s policy statements of the last five decades to show how its original moderation tilted leftward under the influence of the ’60s counterculture movement.

An example of progressive yet mainstream liberalism, a statement on racial discrimination issued in January of 1951 urged legislation “to protect all people from segregation and discrimination based on race, creed, or national origin.” In 1953, the NCC offered a resolution that argued “public [schools have] a responsibility to teach respect for the religious foundations of our culture, that the nation subsists under the governance of God and is not morally autonomous.” In June of 1960 the council expressed gratification “that nuclear energy was increasingly important in vital industrial, agricultural, and other activities in the nation.”

The council deemed it a Christian responsibility to “develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes to benefit all of mankind.” On the issue of crime, in 1951 the council said “that the essential step toward ending crime was to change the morality which ignores, condones, and accepts crime.”

These statements show a sober, sensible liberalism that was respectful of traditional standards of morality and personal responsibility, and was cognizant of the religious sentiments of most Americans. They reflect what Arthur Schlesinger once called “the vital center” of the political universe, a center that avoided extremes and was based on pragmatism and experience as well as necessity.

Radical Pronouncements: The ’60s to the ’90s

By the mid ’60s, the NCC was fully caught up in the intellectual zeitgeist of the era. It began to enthusiastically support such liberal causes as feminism, the student movement, and the antiwar movement.

In 1968, it sponsored a resolution condemning the use of force against violent student demonstrators, claiming that “student protests are due to the depersonalization of our scientific culture. Some students felt the adult world wasn’t taking them seriously.” The next year it aligned itself with anti-war demonstrators who marched on Washington demanding total and immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. Its statement lamented “the tragic waste of money and lives that could be better used to fight poverty and injustice at home.” Nothing in the statement addressed the suffering the North Vietnamese were inflicting on their own people.

Its pronouncements on other domestic issues were equally disquieting. In 1978 it repudiated its long-standing belief in a colorblind society, issuing a statement supporting affirmative action and criticizing those who opposed it “as fostering a myth of reverse discrimination.” In 1978 the council emerged as a forceful proponent of forced busing as “a just and necessary means to achieve quality education for our children.” They persisted in this stance even in the face of massive evidence that busing led to white flight to the suburbs and the resegregation of many already beleaguered inner city schools.

In 1985, the NCC’s executive board lent support to an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city of Pittsburgh for sponsoring nativity scenes on public property. The NCC was deeply hostile to the Reagan presidency. In 1981, it issued a resolution bitterly critical of proposed changes in welfare policy, stating: “The administration’s proposals threaten the vision of America as the model and embodiment of a just and humane society.” The NCC has only solidified its opposition to any revision of the welfare state since the Reagan era. In November of 1995 leaders of the NCC met with President Clinton and “prayed he would be strong enough to resist the budget of the Republican Congress.” They denounced “unholy legislation [that] our national government, as the bearer of our covenant as Americans, should resist.”

If the NCC’s pronouncements on domestic issues show a mindset woefully out of touch with reality, its consistent support for Marxist regimes abroad and its indifference to suffering under these same governments are lamentable.

In 1985, the NCC sponsored a speech at its Manhattan headquarters by Daniel Ortega, the then Marxist leader of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. The speech was a passionate anti-American diatribe that was greeted with a standing ovation. The Grenada invasion in 1983 was condemned by the council “as an unnecessary action against a benign powerless government.”

The council was also critical of President Reagan’s “star wars” proposals and “his stubborn refusal to appreciate Gorbachev’s sincerity to reduce the threat of nuclear war at their meeting in Rekjyavik in 1986.” The NCC never condemned the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Afghanistan in 1979. Nor has it ever spoken out against the brutality of Communist regimes in Albania, China, or Cuba.

When NCC leaders visited Communist countries they refused to meet with such illustrious dissidents as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakahrov, Lech Walesa, or Hubert Matos in Cuba. The NCC is quick to condemn human rights abuses (as it should) in South Africa, Argentina, Chile, and other non-Communist regimes, but its failure to be consistent in this regard compromises the NCC’s credibility and evinces a very selective definition of human rights, serving the causes of neither religious witness or social justice.

Church Burnings and Fundraising Opportunities

The NCC received much publicity in 1996 when it launched a national campaign to raise funds to help rebuild the churches in the South that were destroyed by arsonist attacks.

Contrary to what the NCC wanted the public to believe, black and white churches were equally subject to attack. Yet the NCC believes that most of the attacks on the black churches were racially motivated.

I spoke with the Reverend Albert Pennybacker, the NCC’s associate general secretary for public policy. He identified 124 churches that have been victimized for integrating their congregations and personally knows of a white teenager who told a black pastor he was responsible for burning the latter’s church.

The boy allegedly videotaped his confession, but the pastor refuses to prosecute for fear of reprisal. This particular locality is controlled by individuals considered hostile to black citizens. The reverend would neither tell me the town or state this incident occurred in.

Reverend Pennybacker believes that “about 70% of the attacks on black churches are racially motivated,” although he concedes that individual prejudice rather than an organized conspiracy is responsible for the burnings. “Racism and bigotry are very much a part of the church burnings,” said Rev. Pennybacker. “Racism is alive and well in America.”

There is no disputing that racial animosity has played a role in the burnings of some of the black churches. Further, it is reasonable to believe that in a few small towns there exists a climate of fear and denial that makes the pursuit and punishment of injustice a difficult and sometimes dangerous task. However, there is no reason to believe that this is a frequent occurrence. Nor is there any reason to believe that 70% of these tragic acts are the result of racist feelings: Neither the press or law enforcement officials have uncovered any evidence of a racist conspiracy.

Many of these burnings are the result of disturbed persons, copycat burnings, delinquent teenagers, and pyromaniacs. Michael Fumento, in a good summary of the burnings in the November 1996 issue of The American Spectator, puts the issue in perspective. Among Fumento’s observations: There have been 780 church burnings in America since 1994, but only 144 of them occurred in the South. USA Today, the source of some of Fumento’s information, points out that of these 144 fires, eighty occurred in white churches while sixty-four took place in black churches.

More significantly, of the sixty-four black church fires only four were shown to be racially motivated. Of the thirty people arrested in connection with these fires, ten were black.

The Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), a leftwing group that focuses on civil rights issues, was very active in promoting the idea of a racial conspiracy behind the church burnings. To do so, the group ignored fires set by blacks and labeled some fires as arson when they were clearly not in an effort to distort the truth about the cause and extent of these incidents.

There are roughly 300,000 churches in the United States. About 600 fires occur in these churches every year, many as the result of age, neglect, and poor maintenance. Others are the result of arson, storms, or factors unrelated to human malice. Very few are caused by racial hatred. USA Today, in its July 2, 1996 edition, reported that insurance companies do not classify property damage to churches on the basis of the racial makeup of their congregations, making it impossible to know how many of the black churches were the victim of arson. Nor does the FBI or any other federal agency keep statistics on church burnings. But these facts did not deter the NCC or CDR from fostering an atmosphere of paranoia and deception.

Mac Jones, the NCC’s director of racial justice programs, was quoted in the November 13, 1996 issue of The San Francisco Chronicle as claiming “that these are not random acts carried out by disturbed youngsters but rather a systematic campaign of intimidation carried out and directed by white supremacist groups.” Leaders of the NCC and civil rights groups met with President Clinton and Attorney General Reno. A federal investigation has yielded no evidence of any conspiracy. Still, some in the NCC and CDR continue to insist otherwise.

A less charitable view of the NCC’s motivation for exaggerating the level and cause of church burnings is offered by Alan Wisdom, vice president of a conservative religious think tank, the Institute For Religion and Democracy (IRD). Wisdom believes that the NCC is using the church burnings “to raise money to stem the loss of its revenue base.”

Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reports that “the NCC has had trouble raising funds for its traditional social service programs and saw the church burnings as an opportunity to remedy its financial problems.” Furthermore, The Presbyterian Layman in its Nov./Dec. 1996 issue quotes an IRD spokesman who says “the NCC is spending a large chunk of its Burned Churches Fund to subsidize its bureaucratic infrastructure and political action efforts for which it could not previously gain funding. Media hype surrounding the burnings has generated a fund raising bonanza for the once financially impaired NCC.”

Dwindling contributions from its member churches forced the NCC to make deep budget cuts and lay off staff. The NCC sought new funding for its racial justice program and got meager results. “We were getting no attention and no money for our efforts,” Joan Brown Campbell, the NCC’s general secretary, told The Wall Street Journal.

The Burned Churches Fund has raised nearly $12 million for the NCC. Since some of the churches have insurance that will cover at least part of the cost of rebuilding, the Journal estimates that only $4.5 million will be needed to rebuild the rest of the churches.

The question: What will the NCC do with a $7 million surplus?

Wasted Potential

The NCC has the potential to do good. Its fight for civil rights in the ’60s is entirely laudable, as, in principle, is its concern for church burnings. Religious groups continue to make vital contributions to our national life.

Religious institutions are well poised to help restore a sense of citizenship for those who have been isolated from the mainstream of American life. For example, by encouraging inner city residents to help themselves and work with others toward improving the quality of life in their respective communities, the churches may finally begin to reverse the despair, hopelessness, and suffering of areas that have been immune to the blandishments of government programs for the past generation. Such a reversal would be a welcome reaffirmation of the positive role that religious institutions can play in our public life.

It is precisely this potential that makes the NCC’s current adherence to reactionary and irrelevant leftist politics all the more appalling.

The NCC is trapped in an intellectual time warp of misguided idealism and the presumably limitless promises and benefits of government imposed social reform. This vision has remained unquestioned for over a generation despite the considerable evidence demonstrating the failure of these social initiatives.

Finally, the NCC cannot claim to speak for more than a small minority of its membership. Most of its members tend to be moderate to conservative in their politics. In 1984, over 60% of mainline Protestants voted for Ronald Reagan. A few years earlier, the NCC sponsored a study entitled Profiles in Faith that sought to gauge how its rank and file felt about political and social issues. The study revealed conservative tendencies in many areas, including capital punishment, nuclear weapons, public school prayer, affirmative action, and school busing—positions that are at odds with the NCC’s leadership. Moreover, as Billingsley points out, the council’s positions on policy issues are made by a small group of bureaucrats and social activists who only rarely consult with the rank and file. Meanwhile the mainline churches continue to lose members to the more conservative congregations, a trend that will continue until the NCC reevaluates its political premises and returns to its previous temper of moderation, humility, and a willingness to look at all sides of complex political and social issues before rendering public judgments and offering policy proposals.

Like any organization, diversity within the ranks of the NCC makes it imperative that the leadership becomes far more representative of those it claims to speak for in public debate. The group should consult more frequently and more closely with its rank and file before issuing policy statements—and issue them only when a reasonable consensus exists regarding controversial issues.

Temperateness and circumspection have characterized successful religious participation in the polity, but caution hardly characterizes the NCC’s current public face. Its defensive attitude in supporting a reactionary leftist agenda, coupled with a rigid and uncompromising attitude toward those who oppose that agenda, have called its effectiveness into question.

If the NCC is to make the long and necessary journey back to the mainstream of national debate then it must relearn and reexamine the lessons of the first years of its existence. If it proves unwilling or unable to do so it runs the risk of further erosion of its membership and increasing isolation from the rest of the religious community.

That would be a tragedy not only for the many decent people who belong to NCC affiliated churches—hut also for those who believe that religious groups have a valuable role to play in meeting the challenges that will confront American life as we enter a new century.


  • Fred Friedman

    At the time this article was written, Fred Friedman was a free-lance writer living in Washington, D.C.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...