Why a large church group had little impact when it opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination

Numerous organizations demanded Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court be put on hold or withdrawn, in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations against him.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, which represents 38 Christian denominations 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” by revealing he had “neither the temperament nor the character” for the Supreme Court.

To some observers, this stance suggested a new vibrancy 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 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.

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.” 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 has argued, politicians came to view the Federal Council as “the ‘voice’ of American Protestantism.”

The young organization’s influence became especially clear 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 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.