The National Council of Churches (NCC) is the Hugh Hefner of the religious world: aging and not dealing well with it, trapped in the fashions of the 1960's and 1970's, financially troubled, still offensive but no longer shocking, blissfully unaware of obsolescence, and feebly trying to disco at a time when retirement might be in order.
Of course, Hefner's Playboy still has three million readers, and his financial empire is still solvent, if stagnant. In contrast, the NCC is nearly bankrupt fiscally and, according to its conservative critics, spiritually bankrupt as well.
All of this was evident when the NCC recently celebrated its 50th anniversary in Cleveland. Many thousands of people braved a snowstorm to attend the NCC's founding there in 1950. Not even a thousand bothered to celebrate its anniversary, despite the balmy weather.
Established as an outgrowth of America's postwar optimism, the NCC once embodied the liberal mainstream. Anti-communist, pro-New Deal, anti-segregation, and pro-union, the new church council sought to unify America's denominations behind ecumenism and social justice. The nation's most prestigious Protestant churches were its founders, the Eastern Orthodox joined in order not to be left behind, and the NCC hoped the Roman Catholic Church would soon follow. Conservative evangelicals were seen as too irrelevant to consider.