"Embattled Ecumenism" By Jill K. Gill

Aug 20, 2012

In modern America, religious interests and national politics are often intertwined.

But many might not realize that before Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority helped fuel the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Christian influence on American politics was almost entirely the realm of liberals and progressives cloaked in the robes of ecumenism — a philosophy that emphasized unity and interdependence among not only Christians, but all of humanity.

In her recent book, historian Jill K. Gill describes how the National Council of Churches, a once-powerful alliance of Christian denominations that shared the ecumenical vision, was largely broken up by the turbulence and cultural cross-currents of the Vietnam War era.

Gill is a history professor at Boise State University and the author of “Embattled Ecumenism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War, and the Trials of the Protestant Left.” Her book details the rapid decline of this well-organized and well-financed group that for generations wielded an extraordinary liberal influence over American politics and opinion, including the policies of FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society and the Civil Rights movement.

At its height, in 1965, the NCC represented more than 30 Protestant and Orthodox denominations comprising more than 40 million congregants — and almost half of America’s voters. Because of this wide reach, politicians courted its favor. It and its predecessor, the Federal Council of Churches, enjoyed presidential audiences going back at least to FDR, Cabinet-level visits and an intimate working relationship with those in the rising liberal establishment.

But its philosophical vision extolling the unity and interdependence of Christians — and even all of humanity — left the NCC woefully unprepared for the divisive vitriol of the Vietnam War era, ultimately exposing its own internal, and nearly fatal, weaknesses as well as revealing strengths found lacking on the right. Its decline in influence led to what Gill calls “40 years in the wilderness for the Protestant left in America.”

Gill’s book is a strikingly readable work of scholarship that resounds with relevance in today’s America, where the evangelical Christian right has tremendous influence in politics and culture. Readers with an interest in American religious history, the Vietnam era, or the Johnson and Nixon presidencies would find “Embattled Ecumenism” worthy of their time.