Hey Pastor Fosdick, The Fundamentalists Did Win

First it was smoking. I grew up in a fundamentalist home where smoking was off limits. I have also related the story of how devastated I was when I first saw Richie (later Dick) Allen smoking in the Phillies’ dugout. But now the world has turned into the Hart home (of my parents). Thankfully, the missus tolerates an occasional cigar indoors. But everywhere else in “the worldly world,” I can’t smoke (at least indoors). Not even women, who have absolute sovereignty over their bodies in the pro-choice world, may light up indoors. When will that barrier to human freedom topple?

Now it is language. The worldly worldlings are as worried about speech and its power to hurt as my fundamentalist fellow believers were about four-letter words and references to sex or body parts. The desire to make the world a tolerant and liberated place has now extended to Princeton University where students are objecting both to associations between the institution and its former president, Woodrow Wilson, but also to the word — wait for it — “master.” (Will Princeton stop granting “Masters” degrees?)

The group Black Justice League occupied the office of President Christopher L. Eisgruber at Princeton and offered a series of demands: that the university “acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and how he impacted campus policy and culture,” and that all buildings and programs named for Wilson have their names changed. The students also demanded that a portrait of Wilson come down from a dining hall. Other demands include having “classes on the history of marginalized peoples” be added to distribution requirements, and that a “cultural space on campus” be “dedicated specifically to black students.”

Also on Wednesday, the masters of Princeton’s residential colleges decided to stop calling themselves masters and instead to use the term “head of the college.”

At protests at Yale University, minority students have said that the word “master” is associated with slavery in ways that make it an inappropriate title for a college official.

Princeton’s announcement of the change noted that the use of “master” in the sense of an academic leader predates American slavery and has nothing to do with it.

“Though we are aware that the term ‘master’ has a long history of use in universities (indeed since medieval times), it seems to me by now to be anachronistic and unfortunate for the positions we hold,” said a statement from Sandra Bermann, head of Whitman College, Cotsen Professor of the Humanities and professor of comparative literature. “We are glad to take on the designation as ‘head of the college’ that describes our role more aptly.”

My forebears would have put “head” in Margaret Gray’s “filth file” because of its phalic associations. But everyone knows that contemporary fundamentalists give a pass to sex.

Perhaps the oddest part of this story was the following comment:

“We owe nothing to people who are deeply flawed,” the essay says. “There is an impulsive reaction to want to ignore uncomfortable or questionable legacies. However, what does it say about our society if we continue to glorify legacies without acknowledging — and at the very least caring about — the continuous promotion of unrectified inequalities and injustices? … By not recognizing the importance of this discourse, the university is telling its marginalized community and the outside world that it values its bleached-clean version of history over the prolonged discomfort and alienation of students of color. This erasure is especially dangerous in the present context of state-sanctioned violence against black people that prolongs this genocide.”

Actually, everyone owes a debt to our deeply flawed first parents, which is what we call original sin. But today’s self-righteous never recognize their own flaws or the possibility that they may have them.

And forget about all that outrage over Islamist attacks on Charlie Hebdo for its iconoclastic and blasphemous covers. The self-righteous, whether believers or tolerantists, cannot abide sin in this world.

Wait, maybe Fosdick won after all.

If You Needed More Reasons to Resent New York City

Upstate New York is lovely. Long Island has its charms. Even New York City has appeal — until the boosters start whooping. Christian boosters are even tougher to take because of that little matter of pride. This leaves me wondering if New York exceptionalism is worse than American exceptionalism. For the history of Presbyterianism, New York wins hands down. All of American Presbyterianism’s major controversies started over New York’s excesses — Old Side-New Side (Edwards and Tennent), Old School-New School (Barnes), fundamentalist-modernist (Fosdick), Old Life-New Life (Keller).

But now we hear that New York is experiencing a spiritual renaissance:

As the 80’s came to a close, a man considered by many to be one of the most influential pastors of our time answered a call to New York City to start a church: Tim Keller planted Redeemer Presbyterian, hailed as one of the most vital congregations in New York City.

By that time, the abortion rate in New York City had skyrocketed. Through the planting of Redeemer, a need for a crisis pregnancy center was identified. Subsequently, Midtown Pregnancy Support Center was founded. Other Redeemer members saw the need for a classical Christian school in New York City. So, the Geneva School was formed. That brought families into the city that wanted their children to attend that school.

As the year 2000 neared, New Yorkers saw more than the turn of a new century; they found ways to intellectually examine faith.

The King’s College opened its doors in a 34,000 square foot space the Empire State Building—after a short period of closure—in 1999 (the school is now located in the financial district). This placed the next generation of Christian thinkers in the hub of New York—and American—culture. Because of the placement of The King’s College, hundreds of young people are flooding the churches in the Big Apple.

In 2000, Metaxas started Socrates In the City, a monthly forum that facilitates discussion around “the bigger questions in life.” This event has seen growth over the 13 years in existence, and consistently attracts what Metaxas calls “The cultural elite.” Topics covered at these forums include: the existence of evil, the implications of science in faith, and the role of suffering.

In 2001, New Yorkers saw the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. “These events focused hearts on New York City,” said Metaxas. “This caused a lot of people to move to the city and start churches and other ministries.”

A post-September 11 New York City would see the emergence of many new churches, such as Journey in 2002, Trinity Grace in 2006, and Hillsong NYC in 2011—representing a wide variety of theological and worship styles. More parachurch organizations, like Q, have popped up. Founded by Gabe Lyons in 2007, Q exists to help church and cultural leaders engage the Gospel in public life.

“Now, there are so many churches in town, I don’t know the names of all of them. I know that the Lord is in all of this,” said Metaxas. “I am convinced we are on the verge of some kind of faith renaissance in New York City that will blow a lot of minds.”

A curious feature of this story is that the writer is Joy Allmond, “a web writer for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and a freelance writer. She lives in Charlotte, N.C., with her husband, two teenage stepsons and two dogs.”

No offense to Ms. Allmond, but I’d take her piece a little more seriously (though mainstream journalists usually put religion stories in the features sections where tough questions seldom go) if she actually lived and breathed in New York. On the ground in the Big Apple, the story is not Christianity but the new mayor, the Democrat, Bill deBlasio, and there the story even has a religious dimension, though Keller, Metaxas, and Thornbury are nowhere to be found. (Parenthetically, World magazine did report on the Republican loser, Joe Lohta, and his meeting with Tim Keller in September.)

First the numbers:

Protestants were the largest religious segment of voters in the Democratic primary, making up 31% of the voters. Because evangelicals make up the great majority of Protestants in the city, most likely the large majority of the Protestant Democratic voters are evangelical Protestants. Over two-thirds of evangelical Protestants are African American or Hispanic. Over one-third of evangelical Protestants reside in Brooklyn.

Catholic voters were the next largest religious segment of voters in the Democratic primary, making up 25% of the voters. The Catholic voters were less likely to vote in the primary elections. Most surveys have found that Catholics make up around 40-44% of the city’s population. Catholic charismatics, who were endorsed by Pope Paul II, are similar to Pentecostal Protestants in their values and voting behavior.

Jews were the third largest segment. Although Jews make up perhaps 10% of NYC’s population, 19% of the Democratic primary voters identified themselves as Jewish. The proportion of Jews who vote is significantly higher than that for the other main religious groups.

Was it a decisive turn to the left?

So de Blasio did not win the votes of unprecedented number of New Yorkers. And many of those who did vote for him also supported Bloomberg. That doesn’t mean that they like everything Bloomberg did. But there’s no evidence here of a progressive tsunami.

What about de Blasio’s career? The tabloid press paid a great deal of attention to de Blasio’s visits to communist Nicaragua and the Soviet Union as a young man. More recently, however, de Blasio worked as a HUD staffer under Andrew Cuomo, and as campaign manager for Hillary Clinton. De Blasio took liberal positions during his tenure on the city council, particularly on symbolic issues involving gay rights. But this is not the resume of a professional radical.

It’s true that de Blasio made “a tale of two cities” the central theme of his campaign. As many observers have pointed out, however, he lacks the authority to enact his signature proposals: a tax increase on high earners, to be used to fund universal pre-K. Nothing’s impossible, but the chances of the state legislature approving such a tax hike are slim. The same goes for several of de Blasio’s other ideas, including a city-only minimum wage higher than the state’s minimum and the issuance of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

The real issues under the de Blasio’s administration will be matters over which the mayor has some direct control. That means, above all, contracts with city workers, and policing. Will de Blasio blow the budget to satisfy public employee unions? And will he keep crime under control after eliminating stop-and-frisk ?

Where is New York City’s spiritual renaissance in all this?

For one thing, Keller focused his church plant on the city’s urban professionals, a class of people who, by definition, don’t necessarily mesh well with either the city’s dwindling stock of middle-class earners, or its increasing number of people of even lowlier social standing. If de Blasio is going to start playing class warfare, Redeemer’s target demographic may tire of being perceived as an economic liability.

For another, ministry in urban markets already struggles with the intense impermanence of career-chasing members who transition into and out of cities at the behest of job opportunities. Should de Blasio give New York’s corporate citizens a cold shoulder, there’s little keeping many companies in the city other than the recruiting edge they get from Gotham’s hedonistic urban allure. Such intangibles could become prohibitive quickly if companies are forced to re-evaluate their balance sheets.

Plus, socially liberal urban politicians are not known for embracing quality-of-life issues as much as their suburban counterparts are, or for their crime-fighting discipline, or their concern for traditional, proven educational practices in public schools. As it is, private schools in New York can cost more than $40,000 per year per pupil, demand is so great.

Indeed, you’d have to be an exceptionally devoted – and brazenly idealistic – New Yorker to not be concerned that the Big Apple’s rewards risk renewed marginalization under de Blasio’s management.

Although it’s not exactly a sin to increase taxes to pay for pre-K programs, or lawyers for renters going to Housing Court, such tactics do not represent a mindset of thrift, expediency, and personal responsibility when a city’s budget already requires astoundingly high tax rates. Such proposals by de Blasio indicate that just as Giulianni and Bloomberg might have given too much leeway to certain business leaders, a renewed emphasis on social liberalism may undermine the city’s economic vitality and endorse certain lifestyles that pose an economic liability for taxpayers.

There’s little in de Blasio’s manifesto that doesn’t presume individual citizens to be more righteous than those they may be accusing of wrongdoing. If equity is something voters thought was missing in the way Giulianni and Bloomberg governed, de Blasio is simply turning the tables towards a different sort of inequity. An inequity that likely will be much more expensive to maintain.

It’s an inequity that could also validate the suspicions that New York’s native poor have towards interloping rich whites, the type of people attending Keller’s various congregations throughout Manhattan. It’s also an inequity that banks on charity not as an opportunity for advancement, but as simply another enabler for attitudes and lifestyles that perpetuate poverty cycles instead of break them.

None of this adds up to a decisive point about urban ministry or the alleged renaissance in Gotham. It does indicate that the hype surrounding Christians in New York City is far removed from the realities of the very city for which they perform cartwheels. If they were spirituality of the church guys, then being silent about the city’s politics and economics in cheers for the revival might make sense. Even then, just as Charles Finney figured, we have natural ways of explaining what appears to be spiritual vitality. Reporters from North Carolina, however, aren’t going to help with those explanations.

Hollow (read: no) Victory

Along with the last rites being administered to the GOP, students of evangelicalism are also reassessing what had looked like such a strong showing by born-again Protestants in the culture wars since 1980. It turns out, according to some, that rather than being sidelined by evangelical Protestants, the mainline churches were the real winners in late-twentieth-century American Protestantism. John Turner puts it this way:

Liberal Protestants may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle. A trenchant quote from the sociologist Christian Smith: “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.” One could turn to a host of other scholars to buttress Hedstrom’s contentions: David Hollinger and Leigh Schmidt immediately come to mind. Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas.

Turner bases this view on a book by Matthew Hedstrom, author of The Rise of Liberal Religion. According to Hedstrom, what some people call secularization is simply a change within religion itself:

Let’s look at Harry Emerson Fosdick, probably the most famous preacher in the United States from the 1920s through the 1940s. He was a star on radio, a bestselling author, and the founding preacher of the Rockefeller-backed Riverside Church in New York. As the leader of a major church, he clearly cared about church life. Yet in As I See Religion, his bestseller from 1932, he argued that the heart of religion is reverence for personality—by which he meant the sacred uniqueness of each human being as well as the divine personality—and experiences of beauty, which for him were the clearest pathway to the transcendent. These sensibilities might be cultivated in church or they might not.

Is this secularization? What Hollinger calls Christian survivalists—those who can only see religion as the perpetuation of a certain kind of Christianity—might think so. I guess I’d say that for some, liberal Protestantism is precisely what has allowed them to remain Christian. For others, it has been a halfway house to post-Protestant and post-Christian religious sensibilities. But this is transformation of religion, not secularization.

David Hollinger himself, one of the leading intellectual historians, contributed to this line of argument in an interview he did with Christian Century:

Q.What role did ecumenical Protestants play in shaping contemporary culture that are perhaps too easily forgotten today?

A. Ecumenical Protestants were way ahead of the evangelicals in accepting a role for sex beyond procreation and in supporting an expanded role for women in society. The ecumenical Protestants understood full well that the Jim Crow system could not be overturned without the application of state power, rejecting the standard line of Billy Graham and many other evangelicals that racism was an individual sin rather than a civil evil. The ecumenical Protestants developed a capacity for empathic identification with foreign peoples that led them to revise their foreign missionary project, diminishing its culturally imperialist aspects—and that led them, further, to the forefront of ethnoracially pluralist and egalitarian initiatives as carried out by white Americans. The ecumenical Protestants resoundingly renounced the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, while countless evangelical leaders continue to espouse this deeply parochial idea.

If the barometer of religious health is how a group is faring in party politics, then evangelical clout is clearly on the wane and its gambit of backing the Republicans is looking questionable. John Turner puts the current evangelical predicament this way:

. . . I tend to agree with Albert Mohler that evangelicals had better get ready for a sojourn in the political wilderness. I remember (but could not find to link) a splendid editorial by the Christian Century’s David Heim (some uncertainty about the author) from quite a few years ago (presumably before the 2008 election) wryly encouraging evangelicals to enjoy their moment in the political and cultural limelight because it would prove fleeting. In a short time, they’d be with their erstwhile liberal Protestant bedfellows in the scrapheap of political history.

True enough, but notice where that leaves the mainline — still on the scrapheap of history, now having to scoot over to make room for evangelicals. Notice also, that evangelicals of the nineteenth-century — folks like Finney no less — were responsible for teaching later mainline Protestants about equality, women, race, and the value of evangelizing non-Europeans. What is striking in the stakes between evangelicals and mainliners is that some contemporary evangelicals still read Finney and take great pride in the progressivism of the Second Pretty Good Awakening (e.g. Jerry Falwell). But does anyone in the mainline read Fosdick? Have the culturally spiritual people even heard of Fosdick? Probably not. Which makes the notion of mainline Protestants taking credit for shifts in the culture outside the churches a tad fanciful, sort of like the Sixers taking encouragement from only losing to the Heat by five points.

But the real difficulty with this interpretation of the mainline’s ongoing influence and relevance is that we generally do not permit such moral victories in other realms of historical understanding. Was Protestantism simply the transformation of Roman Catholicism or did the Reformers break with Rome? Was Ronald Reagan simply the transformation of the Democratic Party or was he a Republican? Did removing prayer and Bible reading from public schools represent another form of prayer and Bible reading or were the Supreme Court’s decisions the signal of post-Protestant America’s arrival?

Mind you, I am no fan of trying to pump more antibiotics into the diseased-ridden evangelical body political. But it does seem to me naive if not dishonest to highlight evangelicalism’s poor health by declaring the Protestant corpse in the adjacent bed to be alive.

What's the Difference between a Modernist and a Fundamentalist?

For those with stomachs to read, a revealing discussion is going on over at the Gospel Coalition and at Mere Orthodoxy about the debate between Al Mohler and Jim Wallis over social justice. What is striking in the original post which summarizes the debate, and in reactions from people who would appear to be evangelical, is how many born-again Protestants refer to social justice with a straight face. One reason someone might say “social justice” with a raised eyebrow is that critics of the Enlightenment, like Alisdair MacIntyre in Whose Justice, Which Rationality, suggested long ago that ideas like justice are a lot more complicated and owe a lot more to social settings like Enlightened Europe than the are abstract truths that everyone knows for sure and can readily implement.

An additional wrinkle in this discussion is how some evangelicals bend and twist in order to attach works to faith, sanctification to justification, word to deed, in order to add social justice to the proclamation of the gospel. Not to sound like Glenn Beck, but social justice is not only threatening the United States, but it’s also doing a number on evangelical Protestantism (and so many thought born-again Protestants were conservative; have I got a book for them?)

So to add a little clarity (as our mid-western correspondent reminded me this morning), I bring to mind the views of the modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick and the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan on the task of the church (and the problem of doctrinal divisions) in alleviating social problems. Important to see is that both sides want a relevant faith and castigate denominational or theological differences. I don’t know how born-again infatuation with social justice will work out any differently for evangelicals than it did for their grandparents in mainline Protestantism. Another bad ending to a religious story.

Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” (1922)

The second element which is needed if we are to reach a happy solution of this problem is a clear insight into the main issues of modern Christianity and a sense of penitent shame that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs. If, during the war, when the nations were wrestling upon the very brink of hell and at times all seemed lost, you chanced to hear two men in an altercation about some minor matter of sectarian denominationalism, could you restrain your indignation? You said, “What can you do with folks like this who, in the face of colossal issues, play with the tiddledywinks and peccadillos of religion?” So, now, when from the terrific questions of this generation one is called away by the noise of this Fundamentalist controversy, he thinks it almost unforgivable that men should tithe mint and anise and cummin, and quarrel over them, when the world is perishing for the lack of the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith. . . .

The present world situation smells to heaven! And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration. What immeasurable folly!

William Jennings Bryan, “Freedom of Religion and the Ku Klux Klan” (1924)

The world is coming out of the war, the bloodiest ever known. Thirty millions of human lives were lost, three hundred billions of property was destroyed, and the debts of the world are more than six times as greate as they were when the first fun was fired.

My friends, how are you going to stop war? . . . There is only one thing that can bring peace to the world, and that is the Prince of Peace. That is, my friends, the One who, when He came upon the earth, the angels said, “On earth, good will toward men. . . . Is it possible that now, when Jesus is more needed, I say the hope of the world — is it possible that at this time, in this great land, we are to have a religious discussion and a religious warfare? Are you going my friends, to start a blaze that may cause you innumerable lives, sacrificed on the altar of religious liberty? I cannot believe it.

(P.S. Bryan’s speech was to the Democratic National Convention and in response to a report that proposed to exclude the KKK. The double irony is that the Democratic Party was a place where Christian appeals prevailed, and that such a faith as Bryan’s “conservative Presbyterianism” could embrace white supremacists for the sake of a civil religion that sought to apply Christ to social problems. In which case, it’s another proof of the errors both religious and secular that follow when you mix faith and politics — you get social gospel.)