A historically influential Christian umbrella group has come out against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
The National Council of Churches (NCC), an umbrella organization that represents dozens of Christian churches, published a statement Wednesday demanding that Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of several instances of sexual assault occurring while he was in high school and college, be removed from consideration for a position on the Supreme Court.
The coalition, made up of congregations in the mainline Protestant as well as Eastern Orthodox traditions, as well as some smaller churches, criticized Kavanaugh’s aggressive demeanor when presenting testimony at last week’s Senate judiciary committee hearing regarding sexual assault accusations from Christine Blasey Ford.
“Judge Kavanaugh exhibited extreme partisan bias and disrespect towards certain members of the committee and thereby demonstrated that he possesses neither the temperament nor the character essential for a member of the highest court in our nation,” the Council said.
In addition to the original statement, the Council also demanded an “unhindered investigation into allegations of sexual assault.” The FBI concluded a brief investigation into the allegations against Kavanaugh early Thursday morning, the results of which have not been made public. Critics have argued that the FBI investigation is too limited in scope and ignored the testimony of valuable witnesses.
While the rebuke to Kavanaugh — who has highlighted his Catholic faith and religious education as an example of his integrity — is a striking one, it’s important not to over-estimate the significance of the NCC’s statement.
While the NCC does, indeed, formally represent a number of significant faith groups, it does not directly speak for them, nor does it necessarily reflect the stance of parishioners on the ground. Likewise, it’s important to recognize that the groups the NCC represents, such as the Episcopal Church and the Methodist Church, and historically black churches like the African Methodist Episcopal Church are already historically progressive organizations. The Council does not represent, say, white evangelicals (81 percent of whom voted for Donald Trump) or Catholics, who supported Trump over Hilary Clinton by 52 to 45.
The NCC’s statement, therefore, should not be read as a sign that Christians, as a whole, are turning on Kavanaugh. Rather, it points to the potential resurgence in political and social life of a robust progressive Christian movement, one that has long defined itself in opposition to the political and social conservatism of white evangelicals.
The NCC’s strong stance on this issue may point to a wider trend. Mainline Protestants may become increasingly influential as they become the only “swing voters” in the American religious landscape. After all, mainline Protestants are the only religious demographic in America to have changed their views on Trump since his inauguration, with a nine percent drop in favorability.
The NCC represents a historic strain of Christian progressivism in America
The NCC’s history is one of institutional progressivism.
Founded in 1950 as an heir to an earlier ecumenical body, Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, the NCC became known for its fervent involvement in social and political causes. Closely affiliated with the “social gospel” movement, which saw activism and a commitment to ending wealth inequality as integral to spreading the Christian message, the NCC was involved in a number of social and political movements of the time, including including the civil rights movement, and the call for an end to military action in Vietnam.
In 1958, when the NCC’s founders built New York’s Interchurch Center as its de facto headquarters, they called it “the nearest thing to a Protestant-Orthodox ‘Vatican’ that the modern world would ever see.” And, for much of the middle of the 20th century, the NCC did function as a kind of “Vatican” for a set of religious ideas — deeply rooted in mainline Protestantism — that were hugely socially and politically influential.
As Jacob Lupfer wrote in 2014 for the Religion News Service, “In its 1950s heyday, the NCC embodied the confident spirit of educated, mainstream religious elites in what was still largely a Protestant nation.” Prominent mainline Protestant theologians, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, who was deeply associated with the NCC’s brand of liberal Protestantism, were regular guests at the White House, and trusted advisers to generations of presidents.
In recent decades, though, the influence of the NCC — and of mainline Protestantism as a whole — has waned, as more conservative-leaning evangelical groups and organizations (from Jim Dobson’s Focus on the Family to Tony Perkins’s Family Research Council to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University) have taken a more visible and explicitly political role in public life.
Meanwhile, attendance in mainline Protestant churches more broadly has declined in recent decades. In 2013, the Interchurch Center was shut down amid downsizing, with the remnants of the NCC’s staff relocating to Washington, DC.
The NCC’s statement suggests a revival of the religious left in politics
Within this context, the NCC’s decision to speak out so publicly against Kavanaugh is particularly notable. While one could read the NCC’s statement as fundamentally irrelevant — the words of a cultural relic — it’s also possible to see in the NCC’s vocal opposition to Kavanaugh as the resurgence of a politically engaged, religious left.
In a sharply polarized religious culture, in which racial and religious identity all but determine voting patterns, the coalition NCC represents — between mainline white Protestants, members of historic black churches, and the Christian Orthodox — may yet emerge as a vocal rival to the behemoth of conservative white evangelicalism.
After all, the religious left may be making a much wider resurgence in the age of #resistance. Just this week, the Reverend William Barber, the civil rights activist and pastor behind the revival of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, received a MacArthur “genius” Award for his social work.
Under influences like the NCC and Barber, the mainline swing vote may yet be swung.