The National Council of Churches (NCC), which once represented America's premier churches, sort of celebrated its 100th anniversary recently. Although the NCC was not created until 1950, in a flurry of post-war enthusiasm, its predecessor, the Federal Council of Churches, was founded in 1908.
Meeting in Denver just after the Obama win, the NCC's General Assembly was notably excited about a new administration more akin to its own century-long liberalism. The pastor of Obama's former Chicago church, the Rev. Otis Moss, successor to the infamous Jeremiah Wright, keynoted the NCC gathering and was received fulsomely, of course.
But the NCC fête also included more serious self-reflection than is customary. Both in 1908 and in 1950, the NCC and its predecessor represented the prestige denominations of American religion: primarily the Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Congregationalists, northern Baptists, and Disciples. All of those denominations are now facing their fifth decades of membership decline and cultural marginalization.
About 30 denominations were present at the start and, remarkably, the NCC is only a few denominations larger a century later. Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, not to mention Pentecostals, were never persuaded. Most of the Eastern Orthodox, viewing the church councils as the pathway to America's religious mainstream, gladly did join, though remaining parsimonious in their contributions. About 40 million American church members, or about 25 percent of the estimated total American church membership, today belong to NCC denominations.
The old Federal Council of Churches was founded in the heart of the Progressive era amid vast cultural optimism. Its churches were America's oldest and wealthiest, and its members included most of America's political and economic elites. Having accepted doctrinaire Darwinism and Germanic critical attitudes towards the Bible, the council was theologically and politically liberal from the start. Anxious for consensus, it fudged about theology, claiming to locate Christian unity instead in charity and progressive political reforms. The NCC's predecessor was the old Social Gospel's chief promoter and legitimizer.
Reminding the NCC crowd in Denver about some of this history appropriately was Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Following a trajectory like the NCC, and now a shadow of its former self, Union Seminary was once the premier school of ascendant liberal Protestants in America. Niebuhr, of course, was the premier American Protestant ethicist of the mid-20th century. At first a leftist critic of the NCC's predecessor and its Social Gospel, he later espoused Christian realism, which was still liberal, but rejected utopianism.
Sadly, Dorrien repeated many left-wing buzz phrases that are customary for the NCC, and which would probably have irritated Niebuhr. "If those of us who are Caucasian fail to interrogate white supremacism and its privileges, we will resist any recognition of our own racism," Dorrien inclusively implored. "If those of us who are male fail to interrogate our complicity in sexism, we will perpetuate it. If those of us who are Christian fail to repudiate anti-Semitism and Christian supercessionism, we will perpetuate the evils that come with them. If those of us who are heterosexual fail to stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians, we will have an oppressive church. If we sign up for militarism and empire, we will betray the way of Christ. We need a wider community of the divine good."
Dorrien did not identify the ostensible Christian promoters of "militarism and empire," but fortunately his other comments were more thoughtful. He recalled that the 19th century religious revivals included crusades for temperance, anti-slavery, and anti-war causes. In the early 1880s, the Social Gospel began to congeal. No longer entirely believing in the Bible as historical truth, the Social Gospelers thought that "modern scholarship had rediscovered the social meaning of Christianity in the kingdom-centered religion of Jesus." The social gospel movement was "sentimental, moralistic, idealistic, and politically naïve," preaching "cultural optimism and a Jesus of middle-class idealism," Dorrien admitted. It sometimes baptized "U.S. American imperialism," built schools for blacks but rarely demanded wider justice for them; supported women's suffrage but did not press for other women's rights, opposed World War I until the U.S. intervened, and then after the war "overreacted by reducing the social gospel to pacifist idealism."
Later promoters of more radical Liberation Theology would condemn the Social Gospel as "too middle-class, white, male-dominated, nationalistic, and socially privileged to be agents of liberation," Dorrien recalled. But the Social Gospel movement, across 60 years, produced a "greater progressive religious legacy than any generation before or after it," he claimed, probably accurately. Its platform was embodied in the 1908 "social creed" of the NCC's predecessor, which advocated "equal rights and complete justice" for all people, the abolition of child labor; a "living wage as a minimum in every industry," social security, an equitable distribution of income and wealth, and the "abatement of poverty." Operating through the church council, and other organs of Mainline Protestantism, the Social Gospel was progressive but not radical. It defended democracy against Bolshevism and fascism, and largely rejected socialism in favor of regulated private property.
Dorrien hoped that the new era under Obama will help the true believers within the old liberal ecumenical movement revive their old passions for social justice, dormant too long since the Civil Rights era. And he touted the NCC's new update of its old 1908 social creed, which now calls for "full civil, political and economic rights for women and men of all races," full employment and a "family-sustaining living wage," equal pay for "comparable work," abolishing the death penalty, universal healthcare and progressive tax policies, environmentalism, liberalized immigration laws, nuclear disarmament and reduced military spending. Dorrien admitted that the new creed is "more verbose" than the old one but still "superb."
Perhaps the expanded social creed excited the mostly gray heads who filled the NCC assembly and who predominate in most of the NCC's member denominations. But the mass movements behind civil rights and other Social Gospel causes still relied on traditional Christianity's moral legacy. That legacy ultimately depends more on the Nicene Creed than any social creed. The old ecumenical approach of fudging theology in favor of generic do-goodism could only work for so long. If serious about having a future, the NCC might consider espousing creeds that predate even 1908.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.