August 30, 2013

The National Council of Churches & the March on Washington 1963

During this week’s 50th anniversary commemoration, the National Council of Churches recalled its role in the August 1963 March on Washington, most famous for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Unfortunately, the NCC news release focused more on polemical political points than on the details of the NCC’s support for the civil rights rally on the National Mall, of which it merely said:

The National Council of Churches and its member communions were integral planners and participants in the March. Among the church leaders called to the White House at the close of the March was the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, a Presbyterian, former NCC President, and general secretary of the World Council of Churches. Blake remembered President Kennedy’s greeting when the leaders were ushered into the Oval Office: “I have a dream.”

Very interesting, but surely more deserved to be said of one of the NCC’s more laudable episodes, which also arguably represented the apex of the NCC’s and Mainline Protestantism’s political and cultural influence. Methodism, the largest Mainline denomination and largest NCC member, began losing members the following year, which it has continued without interruption for 49 years, accompanied by all other Mainline denominations, which are no longer so Mainline but sideline. In 1963 the NCC organized busloads of church members for the March on Washington. It’s unlikely that the now highly diminished NCC could be a meaningful organizer for any major demonstration or political movement today.

The NCC’s support for civil rights was rooted in the Bible of course, transmitted through the early 20th century Social Gospel, perhaps also tied to the legacy of many pre-Civil War abolitionist northern churches, and arguably dating back to the New England Puritan tradition of jeremiads against social sins that threatened to provoke God’s wrath. It was the last major NCC political crusade when it still was committed to the early – mid 20th century Protestant moral consensus and understood the churches’ responsibility to safeguard the scruples of American democracy. After the Civil Rights Movement, thanks partly to the anti-Vietnam War movement of which it was zealously a member, the NCC, like the elites of its member denominations, was radicalized theologically and politically. It became indifferent to the members of its own churches, and angrily anti-American. It was no longer about reforming a beloved community but about tearing down an intrinsically wicked project.

America’s civil religion was largely invented and refined by Mainline Protestantism to morally and spiritually reform and bolster democracy. After the 1960’s, the NCC and the elites of its member churches reimagined their roles as adversarial to American democracy and, ultimately, to historic Christian theological and moral teachings. After nearly 50 years of Mainline decline, the latest NCC staff roster lists only 5 persons, a shadow of a once mighty organization that persuasively spoke for millions.

Surviving Mainline Protestant elites and many clergy of that era understandably relish their role in the Civil Rights Movement. But sometimes pride goeth before a fall, and their leadership in a righteous cause that many church members opposed instilled a subsequent arrogance and indifference to the views of common church members. I vividly recall my meeting with officials of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries in 1989, where the Treasurer, speaking to his agency’s funding for pro-Marxist revolutionary groups overseas, admitted most church members would disapprove. But he said church members had likewise opposed support for civil rights decades before, and church leaders could not bend to public opinion.

Similarly, my pastor at that time, in opposing our congregation’s cut-off of funding to agencies like the missions board because of its radical politics and theology, recalled his standing alone years before in support of civil rights, with his congregation then as now, opposing him.

Of course, the Civil Rights Movement has been vindicated as noble, while church support for Marxist regimes and causes in the 1970’s and 1980’s, which thankfully mostly ended with the Cold War, is now a cause for embarrassment, if recalled at all. The churches supporting civil rights could have pivoted from that cause to a rediscovery of historic Christian moral teachings that upheld human dignity. Instead, they were infatuated with political mobilizing and adopted an ideology that re-imagined the church’s role as revolutionary advocate for coercive social liberation rather than Gospel transformation.

Still, groups like the NCC should be remembered and honored for supporting civil rights. It was a shining moment before the fall that remains instructive for all churches and their social witness today.

5 Responses to The National Council of Churches & the March on Washington 1963

  1. John says:

    Let’s talk about what the Evangelical Protestant leadership (some of whom are still preaching) were doing the day of the March. I believe most of them were back at their home churches preaching the same messages to content white suburban middle class folks they’d been preaching for over a decade, quietly waiting for what they thought was just a temporary gust in winds of American culture to calm. Those that weren’t “waiting out” Civil Rights were busy accusing Dr. King of being a troublemaker, radical, a Marxist, and whatever else they could think of. Only a few like Graham ever expressed regret for their silence approval of segregation while others like Farwell never repented. I think it’s funny say the Civil Rights Movement has been “vindicated”. As now it’s okay for people to say they supported it. As if the idea of equality for all persons, universal voting rights, integregation of society, and true adherence to the Constitution were just all experiments needing some justification and acknowledgment from the powers that be, rather the self-evident principles that our country had a moral obligation to fulfill. Civil Rights has never needed your “vindication”. If it’s all the same I’ll stick with “radicals” and “liberals” thank you very much.

    • Greg Paley says:

      Two things:

      1. Who is Farwell?

      2. By all means, stick with the left-wing church. Different types of people, different churches, that’s America. You would not be happy in a conservative church that focuses on faith instead of political activism.

      3. Not sure what you mean by
      universal voting rights.” I gather that includes criminals (immigrants who are here illegally). Would “universal” also include convicted felons? Children? People in other nations? When you try to do “universal,” things can get pretty goofy.

  2. Kelly Kullberg says:

    Thank you for this analysis that educates and encourages all us to return to orthodox biblical faith and truth — our anchor of hope. To paraphrase Chesterton, there are many angles at which one falls, and only one at which one stands — orthodoxy. Again, thank you for the gentle correction and vision.

  3. Marco Bell says:

    There is nothing wrong with the Church being revolutionary, and I hardly think that it was coercive to radical change that didn’t need to happen. Afterall, the Vietnam War was wrong, and every church should have opposed it. Just like every War since then. Who would Jesus bomb?
    I agree with John.
    During that period, there weren’t nearly enough people in the streets to show support for the Civil Rights movement. They were either too timid or dimwitted to the plight of our fellow (black) Americans.

  4. campus cleric says:

    It’s a shame that Mark Tooley can’t report on a signal event in our nation like the 1963 March on Washington without demeaning those leading it. That seems to be the modus operendi — to bring up a social justice call and then pick it apart. Sad.

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