Metropolitan Digital

The Conversation

  • Written by David Mislin, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage, Temple University

Numerous organizations demanded[1] Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court be put on hold or withdrawn, in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations against him. The most surprising one, perhaps, was from the National Council of Churches[2], which represents 38 Christian denominations[3] and typically avoids commenting on partisan issues such as court nominations.

In this case, the National Council of Churches said in a statement that Kavanaugh had “disqualified himself”[4] by revealing he had “neither the temperament nor the character” for the Supreme Court.

To some observers, this stance suggested a new vibrancy[5] on the part of the religious left. The National Council of Churches has long been the voice of progressive religion, and its decision to critique Kavanaugh could well have reminded many of the influence the organization once had in American politics.

Indeed, in the past, due to their large memberships and close connections to political power, these organizations were influential. But that’s missing today.

Coordinated Christian influence

As a historian who has written[6] on the founding of the council’s precursor organization, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, I am skeptical that the Kavanaugh statement matches the group’s earlier influence.

The Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America was set up in 1908 so that churches could better respond to social woes such as widespread child labor and rampant poverty[7].

The group’s founders believed that by combining efforts, the nation’s major Protestant denominations could, in their words, “secure a larger combined influence for the churches[8].” By working together, churches could more effectively coordinate charitable work. More importantly, they could craft a common message on political issues.

The plan worked. As historian Christopher Evans[9] has argued[10], politicians came to view the Federal Council as “the ‘voice’ of American Protestantism.”

The young organization’s influence became especially clear[11] when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. Representatives of the Federal Council met frequently with Newton Baker, the secretary of war. Baker gave the organization significant oversight in shaping the U.S. military’s policies on religion.

The new chaplaincy corps, as well as the religious policies of the Army and Navy, came to be largely guided by the Federal Council. And Federal Council leaders used their clout to imbue this new institution[12] with their moral values.

Linking religion and progressive politics

After World War I, the Federal Council grew as a force of progressive activism. The organization’s political outlook and its influence were exemplified by Francis McConnell.

Why a large church group had little impact when it opposed Kavanaugh's nomination President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks before the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in 1933. AP Photo[13]

The son of an evangelical pastor in rural Ohio, McConnell himself became a Methodist clergyman. He rejected[14] his father’s conservatism and embraced a liberal religious and political outlook. He was an outspoken advocate for workers’ rights and the primary author of an influential study[15] of the 1919 steel strike[16], which called for greater government support for laborers and their unions.

As Susan Curtis[17], a scholar of McConnell, has written[18], he viewed politics as “an avenue by which religious people could reach their goal of a just society.” This was precisely the attitude of the Federal Council’s founders.

McConnell became Federal Council president in 1928. He brought important political connections to the role[19], including to Franklin D. Roosevelt, future president, who was then governor of New York. McConnell went on to lead the state’s Social Security Administration. His commitment to social welfare programs reflected the council’s’s longstanding advocacy for the poor.

The Federal Council merged with several smaller groups to become the National Council of Churches in 1950, but its commitment to exerting a progressive religious influence in U.S. politics persisted. The organization was a major supporter[20] of civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Its leaders developed educational programs to build support for the movement among whites, and it urged members to participate in protests. The group also raised funds for Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The decline of liberal Protestantism

In the late 1960s, the mainline Protestant churches that were the backbone of the National Council entered a decades-long decline[21] in membership. The organization’s influence diminished as a result. Indeed, the National Council’s liberal activism was one of the reasons[22] it lost support. In the wake of its campaign against the Vietnam War, many churchgoers perceived[23] it as being too far to the left.

At the same time, conservative Christians established[24] competing organizations. Groups like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention represented the views of Americans who abandoned mainline churches. By the end of the 20th century, evangelical groups supplanted[25] the National Counil in exerting a religious influence in politics.

The National Council’s impact today

The reality of the National Council’s position remains unchanged in 2018. This explains why the organization’s statement on the Kavanaugh confirmation had little effect.

While the National Council encompasses many denominations, its constituent bodies represent a declining share[26] of the religious population. Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor most large evangelical denominations belong to it. More importantly, political leaders do not view it[27] as the voice of religious people as they did in the early 20th century.

Until that underlying reality changes, in my view, public statements will do little to advance the National Council or the religious left for which it speaks.


  1. ^ demanded (
  2. ^ was from the National Council of Churches (
  3. ^ 38 Christian denominations (
  4. ^ “disqualified himself” (
  5. ^ suggested a new vibrancy (
  6. ^ written (
  7. ^ widespread child labor and rampant poverty (
  8. ^ “secure a larger combined influence for the churches (
  9. ^ Christopher Evans (
  10. ^ argued (
  11. ^ became especially clear (
  12. ^ imbue this new institution (
  13. ^ AP Photo (
  14. ^ rejected (
  15. ^ influential study (
  16. ^ 1919 steel strike (
  17. ^ Susan Curtis (
  18. ^ written (
  19. ^ to the role (
  20. ^ major supporter (
  21. ^ decline (
  22. ^ one of the reasons (
  23. ^ perceived (
  24. ^ established (
  25. ^ supplanted (
  26. ^ declining share (
  27. ^ do not view it (

Authors: David Mislin, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage, Temple University

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

Phish’s 2018 Fall Tour to Conclude with Four Performances at MGM Grand Garden Arena

LAS VEGAS (May 15, 2018) – Phish, the American rock band known worldwide for its dedicated fan base, recently announced a 14-date Fall tour which will conclude in Las Vegas with four performances at...

Dave Damiani and The No Vacancy Orchestra are “Bending The Standard”

Tina Sinatra, Dave Damiani & Landau Murphy Jr. celebrate 100 years of Frank Sinatra in Los Angeles There have been stories about independent filmmakers, but how about the independent big band...

Billboard Chart-Topping Saxophonist VANDELL ANDREW Returns With New Single

From the vantage point of 30, his age and the name of his infectious, sensually grooving new full length album, Vandell continues to be fueled by the impressive roar of accolades and achievements th...

Metropolitan Business News

Marketing Impact of Having Online Product Reviews

Whether they are searching online for a service or a specific product, in many cases customers tend to look for online product reviews. They often want to make a comparison to other products or simply...



HOW TO PREPARE FOR RETIREMENT: Finding and Living Your “It”

The name of my Woburn, MA financial services firm is Summit Financial Partners for a very good reason – because the clients I work with have either reached their retirement summit (i.e. they’re ready ...

How to build a distinctive Brand Voice

Nearly four decades ago, I made a presentation that captured considerable attention in the marketing community. The subject was ‘Brand Voice.’ The concept is widely used today by branding profess...


AdRoll, the growth platform for ambitious commerce businesses, has today announced an exciting new phase in the evolution of the AdRoll brand for its 37,000 customers worldwide. Recognising its uniq...

Global Shop Solutions Customer Load King Goes Live with Manufacturing Factory of the Future

THE WOODLANDS, TX, February 22, 2018 – After nearly 9 months of preparation, Load King, a world leader in store fixture manufacturing, has successfully finished their manufacturing factory of the fu...