Anthony Bradley wonders (again) what has happened to Presbyterians and why they lost their momentum. First it was as popular voices among evangelicals, now it’s as dispensers of wisdom about the world:
I am wondering, then, for those who are raising their children in the Presbyterian tradition what resources exists for forming Presbyterian identity in terms of an understanding marriage & family (i.e., the relationship between covenant marriage & covenant baptism in America’s marriage debate), issues related to social & political power & federal political theory (which is derivative of federal theology), divorce and remarriage, war and social conflict, apologetics, and so on? How does a covenantal world-and-life view, and Presbyterian understandings of power structures, unlock the implications for a theology of work & economics when applied to international third world development, and so on?
By extension, I am also wondering what happened to Presbyterians as known and normative leaders of culturally leveraged institutions in American society and culture? Mark Twain and William Faulkner were Presbyterian. More Vice-Presidents of the United States have been Presbyterian more than any other denomination (Presbyterians rank 2nd for the US Presidency). Presbyterians rank 2nd in terms of placement on the Supreme Court in US History. I could go on. . . .
An initial thought is to wonder why Presbyterians need to go to another Presbyterian for instruction on the federal government. Isn’t reading the Federalists and Anti-Federalists (Presbyterian or not?) good enough?
Another wonder is whether Presbyterians have ever been all that influential as Bradley’s post assumes. To meet his criteria — “what Presbyterians are speaking to these issues or leading institutions that are (like think tanks or colleges and universities” — at least three sets of circumstances need to be in play. First, a person needs to be Presbyterian (what kind — Old Side, New Life, Neo-Calvinist — is another question)? Second, such a person needs to be writing on a vast number of public policy type subjects. So far Tim and David Bayly suffice. But then, third, and this is the kicker, the person needs to be sufficiently well known for folks in the pew to consult him or her (sorry, Tim and David). As it stands, lots of Presbyterians have lots of thoughts on all sorts of subjects and publish them (on the interweb). But no one of them stands out with Francis Schaeffer notoriety.
The problem, then, may have less to do with Presbyterian decline than with the diversification of communication technology and the formation of diverse pockets of affinity.
At the same time, Presbyterians need not feel so bad, at least if misery loves company. Bradley’s question applies just as much to Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, and — boy does it ever — to Congregationalists (nee Puritans). Among Western Christians, Rome stands out as distinctly different in this regard since Roman Catholics have an endless supply of public intellectuals who are doing their best imitations of popes, who speak constantly to a host of issues below their pay grade. This may explain much of Rome’s contemporary appeal to converts. If you want a church with all the answers to life’s pressing questions — don’t go to Guy Noir but to the Vatican. But if you believe in the spirituality of the church and the sufficiency of Scripture, you don’t need a Presbyterian pontiff to tell you how to live. You go to church, say your prayers, work dutifully at your callings, and take your lumps.
One last thought about Anthony’s question comes from a period I know relatively well. During the first half of the twentieth century we did have Presbyterians who spoke on any number of issues, were well known and so had pretty large followings. These were William Jennings Bryan, Billy Sunday, J. Gresham Machen, and Carl McIntire. Maybe 1 in 4 isn’t bad. But if that’s going to be the percentage of Presbyterians we should heed when they start to pontificate about all of life, I’ll take my chances with guys who write for American Conservative.