The History of the National Council of Churches and Religious Progressivism

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 12:45 PM - 2:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: International Relations; Religion; Sexuality


The Federal Council of Churches, which later became the National Council of Churches, was the most prominent representative of liberal religion in the twentieth-century United States. While it was best known for its ecumenical work, these papers examine lesser known moments in the organization’s history that nonetheless shaped its political trajectory. Put together, the papers demonstrate that the FCC/NCC has been dedicated to a substantial expansion of its progressive interests, including internationalism, sex education, and sexual orientation. At each effort, it was successful to a degree, leading to significant impacts on American society and religion, yet its shortcomings—due to contextual challenges, miscalculations, and compromises—and unintended consequences reverberated for decades into the present. These historical ironies of progressive intentions gone awry highlight the role of the FCC/NCC in inspiring conservative backlash and shaping the polarization of American religious politics.

The first paper sets the scope of the FCC’s vision, in this case to help found the United Nations. The paper advances two inter-related arguments, each of which clarifies the role of international engagement in the fate of the Protestant mainline. On the one hand, it contends that liberal Protestant global encounters in the mid-twentieth century nurtured capacious new spiritual sensibilities that heralded the emergence of a post-Protestant “spiritual but not religious” ethos. On the other hand, the growing internationalism of ecumenical Protestantism fostered a significant backlash marked most especially by the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals.

The second paper illustrates that the FCC wanted to transform the domestic sphere as well, through the development of American public sex education. This paper argues that the FCC became the practical arm of the sex education movement in the 1920s and 30s through its partnership with the American Social Hygiene Association. As such, it played a central role in the sex education movement’s shift away from venereal disease education toward “family life education.” While its religious contributions made sex education more acceptable to a broader public, it also constrained the topic of sexuality to heterosexual Christian marriage.

The third paper details the NCC’s debates over whether to include the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a new denomination that affirmed homosexuality. The Fellowship’s application letter for Council membership, delivered in 1981, started a decade-long conversation that ended in deep disappointment on both sides. The paper analyzes four issues shaping the contour and outcome of those debates: institutional vs. lived ecumenism, tensions between “out” and “closeted” homosexual Christians, the rise of the Christian right, and the catastrophe of AIDS. This paper demonstrates that the NCC’s desire to expand its progressive interests were selective and limited in terms of religious and political adaptability.

These papers will be followed by a response from a leading scholar of the NCC. Together, they will shed light on the specific contributions of the FCC/NCC to contentious cultural discussions surrounding globalism and sexuality within the history of American religious progressivism.

Papers Presented

Early Sex Education and the Federal Council of Churches

While the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) is best known for its ecumenical work, it was also a major player in the early movement for sex education in America. This paper introduces the historical contexts that spurred liberal Protestant ministers of the FCC to speak out against venereal diseases and to work for social change through their partnership with sex educators. Their activism ultimately hinged on the discussion of sexuality within the framework of marriage and the family. As this paper will argue, the FCC became one of the practical arms of the sex education movement and played a central role in the movement’s shift toward “family life education.” The early cause of sex education gained a significant boost in 1914 when two movements came together to form the American Social Hygiene Association. The groups that merged represented the social purity movement—mainly liberal Protestant moral reformers seeking to abolish prostitution—and the social hygiene movement—mostly physicians working to raise awareness about venereal diseases. Protestant leaders from the FCC joined with social purity educators to soften the hard edges of scientific sex education by framing sexuality around God’s creation, Christian marriage, and the character training of children. The FCC also brought skills, data, and resources into the movement at a time when the hygienists had little practical experience instructing couples or children. FCC involvement ultimately shifted the movement away from warnings about venereal disease and prostitution, and toward the positive teaching of sexuality framed by marriage and the family.

Presented By
Kristy L. Slominski, University of Arizona

Deciding Not to Decide: The Metropolitan Community Church, the National Council of Churches, and Competing Visions of Liberal Christianity

In 1981 the National Council of Churches received a letter that some of its leaders welcomed and others dreaded: in the letter the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a new denomination of 176 congregations that affirmed homosexuality and welcomed homosexuals, applied for council membership. The letter both intensified an ongoing conversation about homosexuality in the National Council of Churches and started a decade-long conversation with the fellowship that ended in deep disappointment on both sides. By the end of that conversation in 1992, the council not only decided to “postpone indefinitely” its decision on the fellowship’s formal membership it also denied them informal observer status and even abolished observer status itself in wake of the controversy. Recent scholarly work on the National Council of Churches has focused on the mid-20th century, when the organization was at the height of its sociocultural influence and its decline only visible at the horizon. This paper examines a critical case from the 1980s and 1990s, the period of overt decline, to understand internal and external forces that contributed to it. Using archival sources, media sources and interview data, it explores the two most significant moments in these debates: the 1983 controversy over membership status and the 1992 controversy over observer status. This analysis will attend to factors internal to the parties (institutional versus lived ecumenism; public identification as gay or lesbian) as well as larger social factors (the rise of evangelicalism and AIDS) that shaped the shift in tone and content between these two moments.

Presented By
Lynne Gerber, Independent Scholar

American Ecumenicals and the UN

This paper examines the role of American ecumenical Protestantism, especially in the form of the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) and National Council of Churches, in the creation of the United Nations and in building grassroots political support for it in the United States. The paper advances two interrelated arguments, each of which deals with the role of international engagement in the fate of the Protestant mainline. On the one hand, I contend that liberal Protestant global encounters in the mid-twentieth century nurtured capacious new spiritual sensibilities that heralded the emergence of a post-Protestant “spiritual but not religious” ethos. On the other hand, the growing internationalism of ecumenical Protestantism fostered a significant backlash marked most especially by the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals (1942), conceived as a direct institutional counterpoint to the FCC. I argue that the emergent neo-evangelicalism of this period was a fundamentally nationalist movement born in opposition to the growing internationalism of the FCC and the dominant Protestant mainline. Too often American religious historiography matches the polarization of American religion itself, yet in this paper I aim to weave together accounts of conservative and liberal religious and political actors. My research examines these shifts through a detailed examination of the religious history of the United Nations, a microcosm of the large-scale religious dynamics of the age. The book in progress from which my paper draws is called “The Religion of Humanity: Spirituality, Politics, and the United Nations.”

Presented By
Matthew S. Hedstrom, University of Virginia

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Jill Kristine Gill, Boise State University
Jill K. Gill is Professor of History and Director of the Marilyn Shuler Human Rights Initiative at Boise State University. She received her B.A. in American Studies from Whitworth College (1986) and her M.A. (1988) and Ph.D. (1996) in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania. As a historian with an interdisciplinary background and approach, she integrates anthropology, political science and religion into her study and teaching of America’s past.

After a year-long post-doctoral research position with the Center for Social and Religious Research at Hartford Seminary, Gill taught for two years at the University of Findlay in Ohio before returning to her roots in the Pacific Northwest, joining the Boise State faculty as an assistant professor in 2000. She specializes in 20th century American social, cultural, political, and religious history with a research focus on the 1960s. Her book, Embattled Ecumenism: the National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War and the Trials of the Protestant Left (Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), explores the anti-Vietnam War efforts of ecumenical Protestants and helps explain the Protestant left’s decline in cultural and political influence. Currently, she is focusing on the history of race in Idaho, emphasizing black/white dynamics. Her published articles have appeared in Peace and Change, Religion and American Culture, the Journal of Presbyterian History, Methodist History, and the Pacific Northwest Quarterly.

Along with American survey courses, Gill teaches courses on the 1960s, the Vietnam War, the History of Multicultural America, American Religious History, Sexualities and American Society, Global Human Rights, and Civil Rights Movements in America.

Presenter: Lynne Gerber, Independent Scholar
Dr. Lynne Gerber’s research interests focus on religion, morality, and the body in American Christianities. She is interested in the moral construction of health and illness and the ways religious communities participate in that construction. She is also interested in how bodies and bodily desires are given moral meaning and how that moral meaning shapes social and cultural life.

Gerber’s first book, Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America (University of Chicago Press, 2011), compared efforts at containing the body and bodily desire in two evangelical parachurch organizations: a Christian weight loss program and a network of “ex-gay” ministries. She has also written on critical approaches to body size, gender in contemporary evangelicalism, religion and social class, and feminist research methods.

Her current research is focused on religious responses to the emergence of HIV/AIDS in San Francisco from 1980–2000. She is working on a book manuscript, A Church Alive: AIDS and the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, which examines how a GLBT-identified Christian congregation in San Francisco’s Castro District engaged HIV/AIDS theologically, socially and politically. It also investigates how AIDS intersected with longstanding religious and political tensions in the congregation, the city, and the country.

Gerber was a Research Associate and Visiting Scholar at the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School. Prior to that, she was an affiliate of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues and the Religion, Politics and Globalization Program at the University of California, Berkeley. She was the co-organizer of the Global Perspectives on Religion and AIDS seminar of the American Academy of Religion from 2011-2016.

Presenter: Matthew S. Hedstrom, University of Virginia
Matthew S. Hedstrom, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of Virginia, is a historian of the United States specializing in religion and culture in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His central questions probe the intersections of American modernity and Protestant and post-Protestant religious modernity in the United States. He also has longstanding and ongoing interests in the history of the book, especially as it applies to American religious history. Race, religion and psychology, the history of spirituality, mass culture, religious liberalism, cosmopolitanism and internationalism all figure into my research and teaching.

Hedstrom’s first book was The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century. This work employed novel sources in book history to tell the surprising story of religious liberalism’s cultural ascendancy in the twentieth century. The religious middlebrow culture of mid-century, he argues, brought psychological, mystical, and cosmopolitan forms of spirituality to broad swaths of the American middle class. This book was awarded the 2013 Brewer Prize from the American Society for Church History.

He is now researching and writing a book called The Religion of Humanity: Faith, Politics, and the United Nations. This book explores the deep religious history of the United Nations—the religion of the UN as much as religion in and about the UN. The project reaches back into the nineteenth century and forward to the late twentieth, but is centrally concerned with the UN and its American religious contexts, conflicts, and constituencies in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The long arc of the plot follows the intersecting histories of two great liberal dreams of the modern age—the religious vision of a “religion of humanity” and the political vision of world government—as they converged and diverged across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Presenter: Kristy L. Slominski, University of Arizona
Kristy L. Slominski, Assistant Professor of Religion, Science, and Health at the University of Arizona, specializes in the interaction of religion, science, and health in U.S. history; the history of sex education in the United States; and the impact of religion on U.S. public health discourses. She received her Ph.D. in North American Religions with a Feminist Studies Emphasis from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Her current book project, Teaching Moral Sex: An American Religious History of Sex Education (under contract with Oxford University Press), examines religious contributions to public sex education from the late nineteenth century to the present, especially around issues of sexually transmitted diseases. It argues that liberal religions—primarily Protestant—laid historical foundations for both the conservative and liberal sides of contemporary controversies between abstinence-only and comprehensive sexuality education. As important players within mainstream movements for sex education, ministers and ecumenical organizations like the Federal Council of Churches strategically combined progressive and restrictive approaches to science and sexuality, influencing major shifts and divisions in venereal disease education.

Before joining the faculty at the University of Arizona, she taught at the University of Mississippi and Georgia State University and served on the Board of Directors for the American Academy of Religion. She is currently serving on the Academic Labor and Contingent Faculty Working Group of the American Academy of Religion.