One of the most dramatic stories of religious and cultural change in recent American history is the collapse of what was viewed as the Protestant establishment. Its main institutional embodiment was the National Council of Churches (NCC), established in 1950 as the successor to the Federal Council of Churches. The NCC, like its predecessor body established in 1908, was part of the American establishment in a way comparable to, say, the American Medical Association. Over the years, I have written about how the NCC has become barely a skeleton of its former self. By the late 1990s, it was in severe financial crisis, laying off staff, shutting down programs, and struggling to pay the phone bills.
Then it brought in as its new general-secretary the Rev. Robert Edgar, a former six-term Democratic congressman, and things began to turn around, although in curious ways. The NCC has thirty-five member denominations representing various Protestant and Orthodox traditions, and its founding definition is to be "a community of Christian communions" with the purpose of advancing Christian unity in "confessing Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, as Savior and Lord." Beginning in the 1960s, like so many establishment institutions of the time, the NCC took a sharp leftward turn, with the predictable result that it alienated many of the members of its member churches. The contributions of those churches to the NCC precipitously declined, and continue to decline. Since 2000, the decline has been from $2.9 million to $1.75 million--a drop of 40 percent in four years.So how is the NCC recovering from its financial crisis and near collapse? The answer is that Edgar turned to non-church sources of income. In 2003, he obtained a $7 million gift from an anonymous woman who did not belong to any member church but admired the NCC's politics. Income from other non-church sources has, since 2000, grown from $800,000 to $2.9 million--more than a threefold increase. Such income includes major grants from foundations such as Rockefeller, Ford, Tides, and Kellogg, as well as organizations such as the Sierra Club.
A recent publication by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), Strange Yokefellows, observes that "the council is more dependent financially upon the Ford Foundation than upon 32 of its 35 member denominations." The IRD notes that the groups that are keeping the NCC alive have several characteristics in common: They are not affiliated with any church body; they have no record of interest in Christian unity or witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ; they are overwhelmingly on the political and social left. In addition to its financial sources, the NCC under Robert Edgar is very upfront about its alliance with groups such as MoveOn.org and People for the American Way in combating the political influence of what it describes in alarmist terms as "the religious right." Mr. Edgar is indeed to be credited with the financial rescue of the NCC, but at the price of turning it into what for all the world appears to be an auxiliary of the left wing of the Democratic party.
All this is not news to some critics of the NCC. In an endorsement of Strange Yokefellows, one such critic says, "If the NCC is unable to find enough support from the very churches it supposedly represents, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by its complete capitulation to liberal politics. But it hardly represents those churches anymore. This is more than betrayal. It's prostitution." Well, not quite. The fact is that the few member bodies that do contribute to the NCC probably have no problem with the new arrangement, since their politics are pretty much the politics of the NCC. One thinks, for instance, of the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ. No "capitulation" to the NCC's new funding sources was required. As for the majority of member churches, the NCC is not important to them; their membership is largely nominal, as indicated by their declining to support it financially. Moreover, after the drastic cutbacks of the 1990s, the NCC has few programs that actually involve its member churches.
"He who pays the piper calls the tune." It is not necessarily so. At least as frequently, individuals and institutions pay the piper who is playing the tune they like. Few people willingly support programs of which they disapprove. The question of being compromised by funding sources cuts in all directions, including left and right. For instance, the IRD is regularly "accused" of receiving contributions from foundations and other sources that are conservative. That charge against the IRD is boilerplate in materials issuing from the NCC, which is obviously much concerned about the IRD. The editors of Strange Yokefellows respond to the charge with this:
The NCC is a church body, supposedly focused on achieving unity among all Christian churches and believers in the United States. The IRD is a parachurch group devoted to advancing a particular set of convictions about democracy and Christian faith.
The NCC receives very few donations directly from individual church membersmost of whom would not support its one-sided political focus. The IRD receives most of its funding from church members who know and support the IRD's theological and political positions.
The NCC lobbies for and against legislation on dozens of different issues every year. By contrast, it is rare that the IRD takes positions on specific pieces of legislation.
In its lobbying, the NCC claims to speak for "the churches." The IRD has never claimed to speak for anyone other than its own friends and supporters.
The NCC and its allies have been trying to influence the outcome of elections. The IRD avoids any activity that would imply endorsement or opposition to particular candidates or parties.
Every enterprise of any size and consequence requires financial support. Support is most likely to come from those who support the purpose of the enterprise. That seems obvious, even embarrassingly obvious. The NCC is not so much to be criticized for "selling out" to its funding sources as for abandoning the purposes for which it was established. That abandonment began long before it started receiving major grants from such as Ford and Rockefeller, and indeed was a cause of the near collapse from which such funding sources have rescued the organization, at least financially.
As I said, the astonishingly rapid decline of the Protestant religious establishment is one of the dramatic stories of our time, and it has had untold consequences for our public life. For complicated reasons, that essentially liberal establishment is not likely to be replaced in the foreseeable future by any other constellation of religious influence, whether Protestant or Catholic. And that may be just as well. Or maybe not. The National Council of Churches was established for honorable, indeed imperative, reasons. It is a fascinating "What if . . .?" of recent history to speculate about how things might have been different had it not given up on the purposes for which it was originally constituted.