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.