The once prestigious and now nearly bankrupt National Council of Churches is quitting its famous New York headquarters built with largesse from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and whose cornerstone was laid by President Dwight Eisenhower. Down to a handful of staffers, the NCC will consolidate into the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
“It is important that we honor this moment with reverence and respect for the Council’s history as an iconic presence in the beloved ‘God Box,’” explained NCC President Kathryn Lohre in a press release. “It is equally important that we look with hope upon this new chapter in the Council’s life.” Last year, Lohre had told her board that the NCC faced an “ecumenical winter.” Her chilly prophecy is being fulfilled.
Searching for a positive spin, another NCC official declared: “The critical NCC policy work can be coordinated from any location but to be the prophetic ‘voice of the faithful’ on the ground in the places of power, it is best served by establishing our operations in Washington.” It’s not likely that the much-diminished NCC will be making a big political splash on Capitol Hill, where it has long maintained an office in the Methodist Building.
Such demise for the NCC could not have been foreseen in 1960 when the Interchurch Center, once called the “Protestant Vatican on the Hudson,” first opened on the upper west side of Manhattan next to Grant’s Tomb and Columbia University. More specifically the “God Box,” which originally housed dozens of denominational offices, is next door to architecturally magnificent Riverside Church, also built by the Rockefellers, and Union Seminary, collectively representing the once formidable but now faded power of Mainline Protestantism.
At the Interchurch Center’s 1960 dedication, a German Lutheran bishop presciently warned against the “institutionalization” of churches, noting that a beautiful building and organization were of “no avail without true faith.” Initially the NCC occupied four floors of the 19 story, $21 million imposing midrise that overlooks the Hudson River. The Methodists, Presbyterians, American Baptists, and Reformed Church in America, among others, also based their offices there.
His father having recently died, John D. Rockefeller III was present at the dedication to honor the Interchurch Center as the fulfillment of his father’s dream of a new Christianity without denominational distinctions. Although he didn’t then specify it, the Rockefellers also dreamed of a uniformly liberal Protestantism devoted to good works instead of doctrine. The elder Rockefeller donated the land for the Interchurch Center plus over $2.6 million for costs.
Ironically, nearly all the Mainline denominations housed there would begin their nearly 50-year membership decline just a few years later. A sanitized Protestantism without doctrine or distinctions simply became too boring to sustain. In the early 1960s, about one of every six Americans belonged to the seven largest Mainline denominations. Today, it’s one out of every 15.
Likely unable to conceive of such a dramatic spiral, the NCC’s chief pronounced at the Interfaith Center’s 1960 dedication: "It is the prayer of all who worked toward its creation that this will become more than a symbol of the growing spiritual unity of Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Churches in America." Those days were heady times for the Mainline denominations, who were flush with members, money and influence. Church offices in the God Box then claimed to represent 40 million church members.
About 30,000 attended the Interchurch Center’s cornerstone ceremony in 1958 with President Eisenhower. He marched with 300 religious leaders under banners representing 37 participating denominations. David Rockefeller was present. So too was Charles Malik, the Lebanese Christian president of the United Nations. And Harry Emerson Fosdick, the dean of liberal Protestantism who built Riverside Church, was there also. In his brief speech, Ike condemned the recent bombing of a synagogue in Atlanta. Quoting George Washington, he hailed religious liberty and the importance of religion in sustaining morality.
The mainstream, Mainline Protestantism that Ike, himself a Presbyterian, embodied began its decline into radicalism in the mid 1960s, mostly in reaction to the Vietnam War. No longer moored to a firm theology, groups like the NCC were easily susceptible to take-over by radical activists. And having tied themselves to American culture and modern secularism, they were ever anxious to stay abreast of the latest social and political fad, primarily from the perspective of New York-based elites.
Over the decades, even liberal Protestants tired at least of the expense of maintaining headquarters in New York. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, and United Church of Christ eventually quit the “God Box” for new digs in the Midwest, even as they continued their decline and liberal trajectory.
The NCC, which once prided itself as the chief voice of American Protestantism, never recovered from the 1980s media revelations, led by Sixty Minutes, about its infatuation with Marxist liberation movements around the world. In the 1990s the NCC began to struggle for financial survival. It was temporarily rescued by millions of dollars raised for the Burned Churches Fund that strove to rebuild black churches devastated by arson. Later, its general secretary, former Democratic Congressman Bob Edgar, raised millions of dollars from liberal secular philanthropies to compensate for declining church support. But eventually the philanthropies mostly lost interest, realizing the NCC no longer had political cachet. The NCC’s large relief arm, Church World Service, which receives millions in federal dollars for refugee resettlement, effectively divorced the NCC, knowing it could survive even if its NCC parent could not. Two thirds of the NCC’s member denominations contribute zero or only token support.
In the Methodist Building, the NCC will operate under the shadow of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, which is even more leftist than the NCC. Thanks to its eastern Orthodox and black church members, the NCC does not advocate homosexual or abortion related issues. Built by Methodist Prohibitionists in the 1920s, the Methodist Building has been the headquarters of Religious Left lobbying in Washington, D.C. for many decades.
Again looking for a rainbow, the NCC’s president explained of their move: “This consolidation will free us from the infrastructure of a bygone era, enabling us to witness more boldly to our visible unity in Christ, and work for justice and peace in today’s rapidly changing ecclesial, ecumenical and inter-religious world.”
More likely, the NCC’s move from New York to Capitol Hill will divorce it even further from most of its church constituents and presage its eventual, quiet death. The arc of the NCC’s story showcases the rise and fall of liberal Protestantism in America. It’s a sad tale but also instructive for the more robust churches of today.
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