The National Council of Churches (NCC) is the Hugh Hefner of the religious world: aging and not dealing well with it, trapped in the fashions of the 1960’s and 1970’s, financially troubled, still offensive but no longer shocking, blissfully unaware of obsolescence, and feebly trying to disco at a time when retirement might be in order.

Of course, Hefner’s Playboy still has three million readers, and his financial empire is still solvent, if stagnant. In contrast, the NCC is nearly bankrupt fiscally and, according to its conservative critics, spiritually bankrupt as well.

All of this was evident when the NCC recently celebrated its 50th anniversary in Cleveland. Many thousands of people braved a snowstorm to attend the NCC’s founding there in 1950. Not even a thousand bothered to celebrate its anniversary, despite the balmy weather.

Established as an outgrowth of America’s postwar optimism, the NCC once embodied the liberal mainstream. Anti-communist, pro-New Deal, anti-segregation, and pro-union, the new church council sought to unify America’s denominations behind ecumenism and social justice. The nation’s most prestigious Protestant churches were its founders, the Eastern Orthodox joined in order not to be left behind, and the NCC hoped the Roman Catholic Church would soon follow. Conservative evangelicals were seen as too irrelevant to consider.

Five decades later, Roman Catholics still see no need to join. Mainline Protestant churches arc now entering their fourth consecutive decade of membership decline. And evangelical churches are thriving, with the conservative Southern Baptist Convention (never an NCC member) having long since surpassed the liberal-dominated United Methodist Church as America’s largest Protestant communion.

Fewer than one in three American church members now belong to an NCC denomination. But with 35 denominations and 55 million church members still in the NCC, the gray old lady ought to wield a heavy stick. Instead, the NCC is unpopular with most of its own constituency. Its image never fully recovered from the Sixty Minutes and Reader’s Digest stories of the early 1980’s that exposed the NCC’S close ties to Marxist movements.

Federal dollars (mostly for refugee resettlement) now exceed denominational gifts as a source of NCC income. To make up its huge deficit, the NCC sent an appeal for help in September to its traditional pillars: the United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and United Church of Christ denominations. These “seven sisters” account for 90 percent of the NCC’s denominational funding.

Instead of a bailout, the United Methodist Church responded by withholding over $300,000 in payments, demanding fiscal reforms in exchange for renewed funding. The Christian Century, the flagship publication of liberal Protestantism, published a cover story urging the “orderly, intentional dissolution of the NCC.” The author was the Reformed Church in America’s general secretary, who is also an NCC board member.

By raiding the coffers of its international relief agency, Church World Service, the NCC is striving to make up its deficit. The NCC has also enlisted a new leadership team. Former Pennsylvania congressman Bob Edgar is its new general secretary, while former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador Andrew Young is its president. Both arc reputed to be good fundraisers.

Both are also liberal Democratic politicians who share the NCC’s view that genuine Christian faith is inextricably tied with left-wing politics. The collapse of Marxist “liberation” movements around the world left the NCC and its sister group, the World Council of Churches, somewhat perplexed about their future direction. In the years since, the NCC has tried to tame its political radicalism somewhat, aligning itself closely with the pragmatic Clinton administration. (After the Republican victory in 1994, an NCC delegation visited the Oval Office and prayed against the “unholy” legislation of the GOP Congress.)

That does not mean the NCC is making any apologies for its controversial Cold War role. For years it praised communist regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, Angola, and China, while condemning U.S. military actions in Grenada, Libya, Panama, and Iraq. In Cleveland, the head of the World Council of Churches, Konrad Raiser, congratulated his NCC colleagues for their “prophetic cultural witness” during the Cold War, when they “built bridges to Eastern Europe and challenged McCarthyism.” Raiser especially thanked the NCC for “exposing the complicity of the United States Government in dictatorship and repression” around the world, for “mobilizing against the Contras” in Nicaragua, fighting sanctions against Cuba, advocating Korean reunification, and resisting the “arms race” (i.e., U.S. military readiness).

A film to commemorate the NCC’s 50 years claimed that the NCC’s “dialogue” with the Russian Orthodox Church had precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall. The accusations of collaboration with communist regimes were dismissed scornfully. As vindication, the film included a clip from a recent Charlie Rose interview with Sixty Minutes producer Don Hewitt. Hewitt laughingly recalled that he had been proud of his 1983 exposé of the NCC’s Marxist ties until he started receiving congratulatory letters from “every redneck bishop” in America. (How many redneck bishops are there?)

Leftist groups such as the NCC miss the Cold War struggles almost as much as right-wingers, neither side having found an equally energizing replacement crusade. For the NCC, environmentalism is the most promising vehicle for promoting a newly repackaged global socialism. Jay Lintner of the NCC’s Washington office cited the need for an “international environmental authority” to enact “global regulation of the environment.” Lintner also listed universal health care, gun control, and campaign finance reform as key issues for the NCC.

But none of these is likely to re-ignite the NCC’s activist flames or refill its depleted coffers. The NCC’s non-relief spending last year totaled about $16 million, which supported 122 employees in New York. The anniversary event added another $150,000 to the almost four million dollar deficit; to erase it, the NCC wants an additional two million dollars from its member churches and $1.45 million from its relief agency, the more popular and better funded Church World Service. As many as 34 positions at the NCC might be eliminated.

Outgoing NCC General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell tried to justify her deficit spending, arguing that the NCC’s heart is “too empathetic” not to be in debt:

You are right that I value courage and imagination more than caution and efficiency . . . Our deficit is not in dollars but in our failure to see in one another the moral force that ends poverty as we know it and that challenges racism.

Challenging racism was to have been the NCC’s chief post-Cold War crusade. An NCC initiative in 1995 to compel the United Nations to investigate “human rights” abuses in the United States based on racism flopped when only China and Sudan gave their support. Far more successful was the NCC campaign that claimed an epidemic of racist-inspired arsons of black churches.

There was never any firm evidence that black churches were more vulnerable to arson than other churches, and we now know that only a small number of fires at black churches were the work of white supremacists. But burning churches seduced the nation’s imagination during the 1996 presidential election year, and the NCC raised over $9.1 million in cash for its Burned Churches Fund. Of that amount, the NCC spent only $6.4 million on actual church reconstruction, with the rest going to overhead and programs aimed at the “root causes” of racism.

In Cleveland, the NCC’s fiery rhetoric about racism sometimes implied that America in the 1990’s is little different from America in the 1890’s. Recollections of the NCC’s role in the civil-rights movement provided the rare moments of genuine celebration there. At a special NCC service in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Jesse Jackson made a surprise appearance. “We are winners,” he cried as he recalled earlier civil-rights rallies in Cleveland. Fresh from a vigil at Decatur, Illinois, Jackson likened that school board’s expulsion of seven brawling highschool students to lynching.

Enlivened by Jackson’s oratory, a cavalcade of colorfully festooned clergy marched out of the cathedral singing “We’re marching in the light of God.” They processed to a banquet at the nearby Renaissance Hotel, where an encouraging message from Dwayne Andreas of Archer Daniels Midland awaited them. He is contributing $100,000 to the NCC. Applause, followed by a few amens. The money would at least help pay for the dinner.

As I write, the Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran churches are considering helping with the bailout, while the Methodists have reluctantly renewed their funding. Bob Edgar, the NCC’s new general secretary, had called the Methodist cutoff a “sledgehammer.” He is a former United Methodist minister who, after 12 years in Congress, led a Methodist seminary out of difficult financial straits. Calling himself a “salvager,” he hopes the NCC will develop closer ties with Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and evangelicals. Andrew Young also hopes to win the Church of Cod in Christ, a black Pentecostal denomination with over five million members, as the NCC’s next member.

Both seem unlikely. Edgar and Young offered words of support at a breakfast for the Interfaith Assembly of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucuses and Affirming Organizations. The caucuses have been demanding that the NCC accept the predominantly homosexual Metropolitan Community Fellowship of Churches. That acceptance would precipitate a walkout by the Eastern Orthodox communions and possibly others. But there is no doubt with whom the NCC’s staff sides. Many wore rainbow buttons of solidarity, and the NCC already protects “sexual orientation” in its hiring practices and offers domestic partner benefits for its employees.

Besides a multitude of other controversies —fiscal, political, and theological—the issue of homosexuality is probably sufficient to keep evangelicals. Catholics, and Pentecostals from joining. In an NCC panel discussion with representatives of these groups, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals was nearly alone in spelling out the problem. “We can’t have unity at all costs,” said the NAE’s Kevin Mannoia. “We can’t have a theology of the lowest common denominator. It leads to relativistic mush. There are absolutes.”

“We’re like an aging city with a crumbling infrastructure,” Joan Brown Campbell admitted in her farewell remarks in Cleveland. “The infrastructure is sadly in need of repair, and it is not cheap to repair it.” When mainline churches catch a cold, the NCC gets pneumonia, she explained.

Yet despite their shrinking membership, mainline churches are flush with funds, thanks to their centuries of prominence and prestige. Will they resuscitate the ailing NCC? They may not resort to euthanasia, but neither will they administer life support forever.