Fifty years ago America had no problem celebrating its civic faith.
Once headquarters to most of America’s premier Protestant denominations, the Interchurch Center on New York’s upper West Side, was recently rededicated on its 50th anniversary. Its cornerstone laid by President Eisenhower, and funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the imposing 19-story structure near Grant’s Tomb and Columbia University was envisioned as a “Protestant Vatican” symbolizing the power Mainline Protestants once wielded over the national religious culture.
Much of Mainline Protestantism has imploded since 1960, and many denominational agencies have since quit the building. The much diminished National Council of Churches (NCC), now struggling with its financial solvency, remains there as a shell of its former self, as do some United Methodist agencies. But the building, in pursuit of occupants, has become “interfaith.”
“The Interchurch Center is a richly diverse community of many faiths — Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and more,” celebrated NCC chief Michael Kinnamon at the May 26 rededication. “We are theologians, administrators, actuaries, health professionals, food preparers, building management specialists, educators, students, communicators and more. We are a community of many races, ethnicities, languages, nations. The Interchurch Center family today is almost a perfect microcosm of God’s world.”
Kinnamon admitted the building never lived up to its dream as a “Protestant Vatican” but instead became “The God Box” on Riverside Drive. “Clearly, the fact that we did not evolve into what our creators expected us to be is part of the eternal promise that God is not through with us yet, not with these bricks and mortar, and not with the human beings who work here,” Kinnamon said.
Certainly Kinnamon put the best possible gloss on the 50-year decline of his own NCC and its member Mainline Protestant denominations, which have really become more sideline. He noted that the NCC once occupied “three whole floors of The Interchurch Center.” He did not mention that the NCC is now down to a few dozen employees, compared to 700 in 1960. (This larger figure likely included the NCC’s relief arm, Church World Service, which is now semi-autonomous.) Originally the building was to house up to 3,000 church workers. Today, perhaps there are only a few hundred, with many tenants no longer tied to churches. The Presbyterians and United Church of Christ, among others, relocated their headquarters to the hinterlands years ago. Declining churches, even with the endowments that follow age and former glory, struggle with Manhattan expenses, even though the rent is subsidized at the Interchurch Center.
Of course, President Obama did not participate in this rededication, nor did apparently any prominent public officials. Contrast their absence with 1958, when Eisenhower flew in to lay as the cornerstone a piece of rock from the marketplace of ancient Corinth, where St. Paul once preached. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., himself a devout modernist Baptist, made the block size building site available, provided the Interchurch Center with a rent-free 99-year lease, and donated over $2 million towards the over $20 million construction cost. Rockefeller also funded gothic-spired Riverside Church and Union Seminary across the street, envisioning the Morningside Heights neighborhood as the hub of Mainline Protestant prestige. Also joining the 1958 cornerstone laying was David Rockefeller, representing his father, and United Nations chief Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian. Aging famed Social Gospel proponent Henry Emerson Fosdick, founder of Riverside Church, was also present. Thirty thousand spectators looked on.
Eisenhower laughed as he splashed concrete on his suit while cementing the cornerstone. He laughed again when the Methodist minister who introduced the President compared himself to the forgotten orator preceding Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Edward Everett. Eisenhower had earlier walked to the construction site from Riverside Church, along with 200 choristers, 300 religious leaders, and 37 banners representing each participating denomination, collectively representing 40 million American church members. Today, the NCC member churches still claim 40 million, though the U.S. population has doubled since 1958.
Young David Rockefeller hailed the Interchurch Center as a “bold experiment in interchurch cooperation.” Malik praised the center for seeking to “draw together the scattered sheep” of Christian churches. The center, then as now, was described as “interfaith,” which in 1958 America meant involving many Christian churches.
“The freedom of a citizen and the freedom of a religious believer are more than intimately related; they are mutually dependent,” Eisenhower declared in his speech. “Freedom is the priceless opportunity for self-discipline.” He quoted George Washington, who rejoiced “that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart.”
Eisenhower contrasted Washington’s hopes with the then recent bombing of an Atlanta synagogue. “I think we would all share in the feeling of horror that any person would want to desecrate the holy place of any religion, be it a chapel, a cathedral, a mosque, a church or a synagogue,” Ike said. “Washington believed that national morality could not be maintained without a firm foundation of religious principle.” Noting that every President since Washington had taken his oath on a Bible, Eisenhower surmised: “Clearly, civil and religious liberties are mutually reinforcing.”
“Our churches have always been sturdy defenders of the Constitutional and God-given rights of each citizen,” Eisenhower concluded. “They have sought to protect, to broaden and to sustain the historic laws of justice and truth and honor which are the foundations of our community life. May they always be so.”
Eisenhower’s celebration of civic faith embodied the once dominant Mainline Protestant ethos, an ethos those denominations have themselves largely abandoned. Presciently, in 1960, at the Interchurch Center’s dedication, a German Lutheran bishop warned against the “institutionalization” of churches, insisting a beautiful building was “of no avail without true faith.” Citing the persecution of Christians in communist East Germany, the bishop urged the building’s tenants ”not to shy away from thinking of the whole church universal.”
The NCC and its member churches infamously ignored the church universal in subsequent years when they apologized for persecuting communist regimes in the ostensible pursuit of peace. “God, grant us the wisdom, vision, generosity and devotion, that in our use of the high privilege here given us, we will not fail humankind or God,” intoned NCC chief Kinnamon at the rededication, rehashing Henry Emerson Fosdick’s prayer in 1958.
Arguably, the Interchurch Center’s tenants over the last half-century have failed both humankind and God.
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