Lecturer David Little: The ‘heyday’ of Protestant Ecumenicals and O. Frederick Nolde

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Lecturer David Little underscores the ‘heyday’ of Protestant Ecumenicals and the global contributions of Professor O. Frederick Nolde

Dr. David LittleFirst, this year’s Nolde Lecturer Dr. W. David Little took his audience back in time to a period of American history many or most had not experienced — a time in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s when Ecumenical Protestants as part of mainline churches were in their heyday and savoring a window of clout, not merely on the church scene, but also in social and political realms. (Little reminded that most of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Cabinet was comprised of Presbyterians, like Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.)

Then Little, a career educator, peace and human rights advocate, gave a special 150th anniversary gift to The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia audience to whom he spoke October 1 — a scrupulously researched and remarkable glimpse at the school’s late Graduate School Dean and Christian Education Professor, O. Frederick Nolde, who was a resident of Wyndmoor, Montgomery County. Nolde mixed classroom teaching with profound leadership as a global diplomat during the period, either directly or behind the scenes in places like Paris (Vietnam Peace Talks), Seoul (conversations with Syngman Rhee (a Methodist layman) encouraging Rhee not to invade North Korea in an attempt to unify the Koreas (1953), during the Suez Crisis often not recalled today, and writing the Freedom of Religion segment (Article 18) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Little’s lecture was entitled “The Legacy of Ecumenical Protestantism: Nolde’s Contribution.”

“This is a very propitious time for reconsidering the life and work of Fred Nolde,” Little said at the outset. “The reason is American historians and social scientists have recently displayed a strong interest in the Post World War II period, when Ecumenical Protestants, like Nolde, were a dominant influence on American religion and politics. That was before their influence and numbers began to decline during the 1960s, to be replaced by Evangelical Protestants. Historians want to know why this reversal happened.”

Little, who will celebrate his 80th birthday next month, served (1988-99) as senior scholar in religion, ethics and human rights for the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. From 1999 to 2009 he was the T.J. Dermot Dunphy Professor at the Harvard Divinity School, focusing on the practice of religion in the areas of Ethnicity and International Conflict. At the same time he was also a Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard and taught at the Kennedy School of Government there. In February he will return to teach the Nolde Seminar at LTSP. Little explained that  many of the Ecumenical Protestants seeking a new, just and peaceful world order, were often out ahead of their congregations. Some were Democrats. Others, like Nolde, were moderate Republicans. “They were devoted … to overcoming divisions within the Christian church,” he said, and forming “a new household of faith.”

Dr. David LittleOrganizations reflecting this spirit included the National Council of Churches, organized in 1950, and the World Council of Churches, founded in 1948. But Little said they were not only about removing church divisions but also about removing divisions of all kinds — between non-Christian faiths, divisions involving race, ethnicity, national identity, gender or involving economic and political life, “whether the divisions were national or international in character.” They strongly favored post-war proposals for the United Nations and for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, involved themselves intensely in policy issues and organized action committees that “enunciated the conditions of a just and durable peace, recommendations that were taken very seriously by the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations.” The Ecumenicals were also “indefatigable organization builders, both for secular political groups, like the Americans for Democratic Action, and church groups, such as the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), directed by Nolde from 1946 to 1968.” (The CCIA was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1966.)

“They were impatient with high-sounding generalities and sought to take action and achieve results,” he said. And with regard to matters of theology, ethics and social policy regarded themselves as centrists.

The key point emphasized by the “new history” of the Ecumenical movement, is that by the time the 1960s arrived, “the center could not hold,” Little explained. (Their) middle way between moral and spiritual naivete on the left and moral and spiritual callousness on the right began to decline in numbers and influence. “What followed was the increasing polarization of America, something that has lasted right up to the present.” The failed policies of Vietnam helped to give the decline momentum,” he said. Ecumenicals “also failed to understand” how much they were a product of a special, temporary set of circumstances, he continued, during which they enjoyed “disproportionate influence.” Hence, they were part of an epoch they themselves inadvertently “helped to overturn.”

Turning to Nolde’s singular contributions in this climate, Little referenced:

In heading the CCIA for many years, a vehicle engaged in the Christian search for “earthly peace, justice and freedom for everyone everywhere,” Nolde achieved results that were “rather impressive,” Little said, “especially given the political divisions within the WCC at the time.” The CCIA adopted controversial positions “that were paid attention to on matters like nuclear disarmament and nuclear testing, consideration of the admission of the People’s Republic of China to the UN, and the internationalization of Jerusalem. It offered proposals — often quite unpopular in some U.S. circles — for making national and international markets more just and equitable. It devised an idea for an early form of UN peacekeeping adopted in Korea and elsewhere …” Often unrecognized in the “new history,” he said, is the CCIA’s, and particularly Nolde’s, “relentless effort to promote human rights as critical to the cause of peace.” (That story is told by previous Nolde lecturer John S. Nurser in his book, For All Peoples and Nations: The Ecumenical Church and Human Rights.)

“The key point to make here is how perceptive, how prescient Nolde was in in grasping, so tenaciously, the deep connection between human rights and peace, and with special acuity, the decisive role of religious freedom.” Empirical data, Little said, supports that the orderly development …of robust, liberal political and economic institutions, including protection of the rule of law and equal rights, is “a critical condition of national and international peace, while illiberal or ethnically exclusivist institutions increase the probability of violence,” he said.

Little said that while Nolde’s foundational thinking was built on Christianity, he believed the struggle for human rights “needed a much broader base than that offered by Protestant Christianity, or, even by some inclusive religious perspective. “It demanded an explicitly secular foundation, by which he evidently meant a common, religiously  impartial moral space accessible to and obligatory upon all people.” No religion or set of religions becomes privileged with regard to protecting  conscience, but rather the freedom of conscience of everyone, religious or not, gets honored. In this  regard, Nolde was radically anti-parochial,” Little said. But religious voices were still welcome in the public square.

Little also singled out for lasting influence Nolde’s dogged work in crafting Chapter 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, during which time he had frequent exchanges and was on social terms with Eleanor Roosevelt (1948).

In summary, Little mused a bit about the lasting influence and legacy of Ecumenical Protestants: “Whether, after all that has happened to them, those Ecumenicals who are left and still respect their legacy, can help to reclaim the lost center of American religious and political life…remains to be seen.”

Little’s presentation was followed by remarks by a student panel whose seminary experience included field work and study at the United Nations underwritten by the Nolde family. Present for the lecture were Nolde’s widow, Nancy, his daughter, Freddie Berger, and Freddie’s husband, Bruce, and son, Conrad, and many friends of the Nolde initiative. 

Dustin WrightStudent panel moderator Dustin Wright described his internship with the Lutheran Office of World Community at the UN as “the best year of my life.” He described his work as conveying important information from one place to another — where it was needed. He helped the Mexico mission to the UN get a clearer grasp of overall food hunger policy through the information he conveyed, he said. He mentioned the UN has been successful  in achieving key goals in connection with its 2015 Millennium Agenda. One goal has been cutting in half since 1990 the number of people in extreme poverty — earning $1.25 or less per day.

Carrie HayesCarrie Hayes, a Master of Arts in Public Leadership seminarian, said her work in connection with the Nolde Seminar and relating to the Commission for Social Development at the UN had at first disappointed her because she felt a lack of connection between persons from a wide variety of settings globally. But over time she had come to appreciate a Nolde value — “the importance of creating and preserving global community via safeguarding human rights for all.”

Carl RabbeCarl Rabbe, a recent MDiv graduate with a concentration in Metropolitan Urban Ministry, said he had noticed that in a discussion of issues involving young, elderly and chronically disabled “those groups were not in the room and thus did not appear to have a voice.” He said Fred Nolde would  have been concerned about that. He thanked the Nolde family for having the vision to “send us all to the UN to continue to support his vision for a different kind of world” and said he had learned “that conversations in the most unlikely and darkest places are where God shows up to make all things new.”

Rosemarie DoucetteMDiv graduate Rosemary Doucette spoke about her work with the Commission on Women at the UN and noted the Nolde Seminar had enabled her to hear dynamic and influential speakers like Linda Hartke of  Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and John Nunes, former president of Lutheran World Relief. She told of her relationship with an outcast Kenyan woman who had been marginalized by being albino. “You can apply that story to our own context in the LGBTQ community,” Doucette said. She said despite learning of many injustices she had found through sharing and story-telling “much beauty and faith. You can see God’s promises coming through. I want to thank the Nolde family for what I have learned, enabling me to better share the Gospel in my ministry throughout the world.”

View a slide show from the Nolde Lecture


Watch the video of the 2013 Nolde Lecture

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