“They like you,” according to Christianity Today‘s latest cover story (August 2011), by Bradley R. E. Wright, a University of Connecticut sociologist. Wright challenges the alarmist rhetoric of some in recent years who have created the impression that our fellow Americans hate us and we need a public relations makeover. Taking issue with George Barna among others, he argues that we have a persecution complex-or at least an almost pathological need to be loved. Actually, when asked to register their feeling in terms of warm or cold, the weather report for evangelicals is “generally sunny and mild”-somewhere between Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants at one end and Muslims, Buddhist, and Mormons at the other.
Admittedly, this could be the worst news of all. It’s like the anxious teenager who asks a group of peers, “What do you think of me?”, only to hear a nearly unanimous reply, “We don’t, actually.” As they say, no publicity is worse than bad publicity.
Introducing this issue, CT managing editor Mark Galli said he hoped that Wright’s article might help us to move on from self-obsession (“Inside CT,” page 7): “A movement that casts anxious glances to see how it’s doing in the eyes of others is in either childhood or adolesence…It’s time for evangelicals to put away childish things….The fact is that in the end, people don’t care if we are cool. They don’t think it an improvement to call ourselves ‘Jesus followers’ instead of ‘Christians,’ let alone ‘evangelicals.’”
There’s a long history of American Protestants wanting the approval of their neighbors. For a good part of our nation’s history, respectable denominations with roots in the Reformation surrendered their confessional peculiarities for a generic evangelical witness. A lot of this had to do with evangelism: wanting to reach the population of declining practicioners of the faith. Churches, with their distinct catechism, forms of worship, and government, were eager to reach nominal members as well as Native Americans and Africans, slave and free. Yet a lot of it had to do with cultural hegemony. Having fought off the Leviathan of Rome, the new Christendom would come only with the stripping away of doctrinal distinctives that divide activistic Protestantism. Especially after the Second Great Awakening, “deeds, not creeds” became the mantra.
Well, we know where this has led. The mainline churches are really sideline bodies. In numerical terms alone, they are a shadow of their former selves: each coalition partner reduced by at least half over the last 30 years. Still, it takes a while to get used to one’s marginal status. As a quip attributed to veteran sociologist Peter Berger has it, “Puerto Ricans, Jews, and Episcopalians each form around 2 percent of the American population. Guess which group does not think of itself as a minority.”
In “The Death of Protestant America” (First Things, Aug/Sep 2008), editor Joseph Bottum offers insightful analysis of the obsession of mainline Protestantism with cultural clout and respectability. Bottum relates that the United Church of Christ website celebrates its cultural influence, beginning with John Winthrop’s vision of “the shining city upon a hill” to the adoption of the first non-patriarchal (read: non-trinitarian) hymnal. “That’s a curious admission for a major American denomination,” notes Bottum.
By its own account, the church’s intellectual life has come to an end. And as its numbers catastrophically decline, the ordinary practice of its members has ceased to influence the culture. The United Church of Christ is left little except its putatively prophetic voice-and a strikingly unoriginal voice, at that. All the issues on which the church opines, and all the positions it takes, track the usual run of liberal American politics. The key, however, is not the mostly uninteresting politics of the church bureaucracy but the astonishing lack of influence those political statements have. With no deposits into the account of its prestige by accommodating the other props of the nation-and no influence on the culture from the everyday practices of its congregants-the prophetic demands of the United Church of Christ cash out to nothing. No one listens, no one minds, no one cares.
As Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas quipped, “God is killing mainline Protestantism in America, and we @#% well deserve it.” Global evangelicalism has enormous strengths, especially when compared to other head-line capturing Christian movements. Yet is its preoccupation with itself and with worldly approval the harbinger of a similar death wish?
Something like this question was asked just yesterday in the Guardian, a leading UK newspaper. Here’s an excerpt:
It’s obviously full of people who call themselves Christians; and certainly full of religious believers in a way difficult for many Europeans to understand or to accept. But is what modern Americans believe actually Christianity at all? When the mainstream churches went into an apparently irreversible decline towards the end of the 20th century, this was interpreted as a decline of liberal Christianity, and its replacement by fundamentalism. But is the church of Rick Warren anything more than vaguely therapeutic moralistic deism?
The question is hardly a new one. It was raised as least as long ago as the late 19th century by Henry Adams, who wondered whether the American faith in progress and in self-improvement was really the same thing as traditional Christianity. But it’s still an interesting one. Has the evangelical movement turned itself into an entirely new religion, unrecognisable to “orthodox” European Christianity: a reinterpretation of the Christian myths almost as strange as Mormonism? Consider the Youtube video video of a NASCAR chaplain praying for all the sponsors of the event, from Toyota to Sunoco, and then thanking God for his “hot wife” before finishing with the doxology “Boogity boogity boogity. Amen”. Is this really anything that traditional theologians could recognise as Christian? Or is it just a wrapper round some mixture of superstition and advertising?
Whatever the “media elites” (a perennial bogeyman) say otherwise, evangelicalism is probably more politically and culturally powerful than so-called “mainline” Protestantism. Yet already evangelicalism suffers from the same desire to be loved as the mainline denominations that are now irrelevant. Both are obsessed with cultural clout and approval, although mainliners crave the attention of “high culture” (art, science, education, etc.) while evangelicals court popular culture. Think symposia vs. rallies, NPR or The New York Times vs. FOX and USA Today, opera vs. Christian pop concerts. In either case, we’re sure that we are having a cultural impact, when it’s mostly we who have moved. [See W. Robert Godfrey's article, "The Myth of Influence," in the Sept/Oct 1998 Modern Reformation]
As Joseph Bottum points out, churches that retained their confessional identity-Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, and Mennonite-actually had a disproportionate influence on culture in ways that were not even calculated. Strong Christian families, churches, and schools have been enormously successful in passing the faith on from generation to generation. Of course, the danger in these groups was its own kind of cultural hegemonies. They weren’t thinking about how to be successful, relevant, or attractive. That has been its strength and its weakness. In fact, oblivious to a fault, they did not even realize when they were being gradually reshaped by the forces of modernity. For a while, the Christian Reformed Church stared American Protestantism in the face, declaring, “In isolation is our strength.” It’s no wonder that eventually you have a generation that finds the environment more of a stifling hot-house rather than a flourishing arboretum.
Both tendencies-isolationism and accommodationism-are driven mostly by fear: fear of being absorbed, and fear of being left out. There has to be something in the middle here, driven by something from God (the gospel) rather than something from ourselves (either conservative or progressive instincts).
Enough about us, already. Either the church is a witness to the Triune God, revealed consummately in the incarnate Son, clothed in his gospel; or it has no right to exist, whatever its impact, usefulness or relevance on other points. On the horizon of mass movements at least, evangelicalism still has considerable strengths. Nevertheless, we do well to ponder the line from Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward in 1993: “The mainline denominations may be dying because they lost their theological integrity. The only thing worse, perhaps, would be the rise of a new Protestant establishment that succeeds because it never had any.”