Buyer Beware

A common refrain among converts to Roman Catholicism is a lament about the sorry state of Protestantism, especially the mainline Protestant churches. Betsy Fox Genevose spoke for many when she described the lack of Christianity she had experienced while growing up a Protestant:

Throughout my non-churchgoing, non-believing adult years, I had always considered myself a Christian in the amorphous cultural sense of the world. Having been reared on the Bible and Protestant hymns, I was conversant with the language and basic tenets of Christianity. I had, moreover, been reared with a deep respect for the great Hebrew prophets, assorted Protestant leaders and Catholic saints, and even the unique value of Jesus Christ as the preeminent exemplar of loving self“sacrifice. Never, I am grateful to say, did I, like too many secular intellectuals, denigrate or disdain believing Christians, whom I had always been inclined to regard with respect. But for long years, I did not give much thought to joining their number.

So why is it that the communion that was supposed to elevate former Protestants and give them a better grade of faith is entering into ecumenical discussions with one of the churches, mainline Lutherans, that sent Protestants in search of witness firm on sex and the body?

Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. has approved a declaration recognizing “there are no longer church-dividing issues” on many points with the Roman Catholic church.
The “Declaration on the Way” was approved 931-9 by the 2016 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly held last week at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton called the declaration “historic” in a statement released by the denomination following the Wednesday vote.

That’s right. A female bishop welcomed the news of entering into closer relations with church that will not ever ordain women.

But some Roman Catholics are not happy (the unhappy Lutherans are already in a different synod — LCMS):

The ecumenical drive has been part of the check-list of popes before the current pontiff. The joint worship service has been described by both the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation as a “commemoration” rather than a “celebration” in order to avoid further controversy. Some Catholics, especially traditionalists, have criticized the prospect of a pope celebrating a schism. Another issue that has traditionalist Catholics and some clerics baleful is the issue of the differing theologies held by the Catholic Church and Lutherans regard the nature and the confection of the Eucharist.

On the upside, Betsy Fox Genovese, who died in 2003, will not have to witness her church’s pursuit of unity with her former church.

BenOp There, Done That

Alan Jacobs explains why Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is unobjectionable:

The Benedict Option, as I understand it, is based on three premises.

1. The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.

2. In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.

3. Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.

From these three premises proponents of the Benedict Option draw a conclusion: If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.

Jacobs doesn’t understand why anyone would dissent. I largely agree, though I have to admit I’m not willing to give up on HBO or Phil Hendrie just yet. At the same time, I understand that certain — ahem — television shows and Phil’s humor may not be appropriate for children.

The dissent is not with the specifics of Rod’s BenOp. The dissent is with Dreher’s (and Jacob’s) sense of discovery. Some Christians for a long time have thought about American society, the necessity of alternative institutions, and the problem of passing on the faith in ways that Dreher seems only now (after Obergefell) to have recognized. The dissent also includes some frustration over people like Rod ignoring those earlier forms of opting out of the cultural mainstream. For a long time, the mainline Protestant churches, which is where I believe Rod started his Christian journey, thought the fears of fundamentalists about the wider society were delusional, based on conspiratorial thinking or worse. Only once the good taste of mainline church life needed to reckon with homosexual clergy and marriage did conservatives in mainline churches begin to entertain the sort of thoughts that fundamentalists (and some ethnic Protestants) had sixty years (or more) earlier. Even at Jacobs’ former institution (Wheaton College) and probably at his current one (Baylor), fundamentalism is/was something to be avoided. Why? It was separatist, sometimes even — trigger warning — double separatist. But now, not separating is a bad thing? Hello. The train left the station.

Will naming such cultural segregation after a saint and linking it to a moral philosopher (Alasdair MacIntyre) make fundamentalism look more attractive? Probably. But I’d like Dreher to acknowledge those saints who came in between Monte Cassino and After Virtue. They were ahead of this time even if coming after Benedict.

Blame Trump on the Mainline

So argues Mark Tooley:

Neither Sanders nor Trump would have been possible or even conceivable as serious presidential candidates during the decades of Mainline Protestant hegemony in American public life.

Excluding JFK, all presidents (including Unitarians) have had ties to Mainline Protestants, who shaped America’s political ethos for most of four centuries. Mainline Protestantism helped create American civil religion, a broad vaguely Protestant view of God that permitted all religious groups, including Catholics and Jews, to fully participate in public life without having to minimize their own religious convictions.

American democracy consequently remained very religious but also non-theocratic, tolerant and diverse, with all sects invested in America’s affirmation of religious liberty.

Through the mid-20th century, Mainline Protestantism provided the political language and ethical tools for governance and accommodation, especially for the great reform movements that expanded human equality. The Civil Rights Movement was perhaps Mainline Protestantism’s last great moral crusade, redeeming its earlier failures to address slavery and segregation.

But the great Mainline Protestant membership and wider cultural collapse began in the early 1960s. Then, one of six Americans belonged to the seven largest Mainline denominations. Today, fewer than one of 16 do.

Tooley fails to ask whether that political hegemony came with the price of theological modernism? After all, to maintain your place in the establishment, you can’t be vigorous about the particulars of your religious communion.

Tooley goes on to observe a certain tackiness among evangelicals:

Evangelicalism, lacking that magisterial heritage, is less self-confident, often uncomfortable with political power, is prone to extremes and often highly individualistic, impatient with human institutions.

These same handicaps plague even more the world of the religiously unaffiliated, who often lack the traditions, formal human communities, ethical tools and moral vocabulary for governance. They are especially vulnerable to the impulse of the moment.

So, if the the downfall of the mainline paved the way for Trump, how much more the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church which paved the way for magisterial reformers?

Did the Mainline Win or Did 'Merica?

John Fea has an interview with Peggy Bendroth about her new book, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (The University of North Carolina Press, 2015). This exchange stood out:

JF: Why do we need to read The Last Puritans?

PB: Here’s one practical reason: since the 1980s, if we use George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture as the benchmark, historians of American religion have been working overtime to understand evangelicals. It has worked well, really well. The old stereotypes have been demolished and we now have a richly textured picture of evangelicalism in all of its aspects, from fundamentalist to Pentecostal.

We also have an assumption that there was no spiritual curiosity or zeal anywhere else, and that mainliners in particular were boring and feckless bureaucrats presiding over their own demise. Very few of us have actually worked through primary sources, however, and we know surprisingly little about what happened in mainline denominations for most of the twentieth century. That means that we cannot explain, as David Hollinger and others now argue, how mainline liberal values—tolerance and cooperation—have quietly come to define so much of mainstream American culture today. I’m thinking especially of Amazing Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, a picture of American religiosity far different from the usual stereotypes of the culture wars. Mainline denominations may be disappearing, but this is, I think, more of an organizational problem than a failure of their ideals.

I’ve seen references like this to David Hollinger’s argument a lot of late. It is the perfect way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The mainline churches didn’t lose. Instead, America became like the mainline. Mainline Protestants favored tolerance and cooperation and when America embraced those same ideals they were actually coming to Jesus even though they didn’t know it.


Another way to think of this same process is Americanization. Consider Al Smith’s creed which he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1927 on the eve of his nomination as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States:

I believe in the worship of God according to the faith and practice of the Roman Catholic Church.
I recognize no power in the institutions of my Church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the law of the land.
I believe in absolute freedom of conscience for all men and in equality of all churches, all sects, and all beliefs before the law as a matter of right and not as a matter of favor.
I believe in the absolute separation of Church and State and in the strict enforcement of the provisions of the Constitution that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
I believe that no tribunal of any church has any power to make any decree of any force in the law of the land, other than to establish the status of its own communicants within its own church.
I believe in the support of the public school as one of the cornerstones of American liberty.
I believe in the right of every parent to choose whether his child shall be educated in the public school or in a religious school supported by those of his own faith.
I believe in the principled noninterference by this country in the internal affairs of other nations and that we should stand steadfastly against any such interference by whomsoever it may be urged.
And I believe in the common brotherhood of man under the common fatherhood of God.

Using Hollinger and Bendroth’s logic, does that mean that when the United States came to embrace the separation of church and state along with freedom of conscience the nation was actually channeling the Vatican?

Or, was it the case that Al Smith was simply doing what lots of Americanist bishops before had done — and the Vatican had mildly condemned — adapting Roman Catholicism to American realities?

Typically, when immigrant churches adapt to the host culture of the United States, we call that Americanization or assimilation. So why can’t we do that with mainline Protestants? If we did, we would conclude that mainline Protestantism and Americanist Roman Catholicism both share a willingness to let the aspirations and expectations of American society shape the teaching and practice of the church. That sounds modernist. It did to Piux X.

The Death of Christian America

Peter Leithart gives a clue. It has to do with ways of relating churches to the culture, coming along side it to use the vernacular of the Vatican, that would wind up devastating the Protestant mainline:

The growth that swelled the mainline during the 1950s was fueled by people looking for “a more relaxed, less legalistic, less dogmatic version of the faith.” Despite numerical growth, the mainline churches didn’t grow “stronger” during the 1950s; their grown “concealed an ongoing weakness that a few years later produced an unprecedently steep decline in membership” (194).

The authors see the drift in the mainline as an accommodation to cultural trends: “The American cultural climate has shifted during the twentieth century in the direction of greater relativism and skepticism in matters of religion, and toward greater degrees of individualism. Acceptance of diversity in belief, lifestyle, and ethnic and racial background has broadened markedly.” Initially promoted by elites, the shift became popular, and “the leadership of the mainline Protestant churches accommodated the shift within their own ranks.” When the Sixties hit, the mainline Protestant churches were already sailing with the same wind that carried the sexual revolution and the challenge to settled authority: “The mainline Protestant churches did not initiate the new shift, but they were unable and unwilling to resist it” (198).

Not surprisingly, Presbyterians lost the next generation: “The children have asked over and over what is distinctive about Presbyterianism – or even about Protestantism – and why they should believe it or cherish it. The answers have apparently not been very clear. Today Presbyterians should not bemoan the lack of faith and church commitment exhibited by their youth, since they have no one to blame but themselves. No outside power forcibly pulled their children away from the faith”

And what happened to the mainline in the 1960s, happened to Roman Catholics in the 1970s once the bishops at Vatican II opened the windows to modern society and hoped for a more relaxed church. (By the way, it could happen to all the folks inspired by TKNY. Some think it already has.)

Once again, it’s the progressives who pave the way for “progress” among Roman Catholics.

Why is it that the more you try to make Christianity relevant, the less Christianity you have left?

Celebrity Fades

Thanks to one of our Iowa correspondents for bringing to our attention Ross Douthat’s column yesterday on Pope Francis. Douthat believes that the pope is trying to find a middle route between the mainstream culture and the church:

You can hew to a traditional faith in late modernity, it has seemed, only to the extent that you separate yourself from the American and Western mainstream. There is no middle ground, no center that holds for long, and the attempt to find one quickly leads to accommodation, drift and dissolution.

And this is where Pope Francis comes in, because so much of the excitement around his pontificate is a response to his obvious desire to reject these alternatives — self-segregation or surrender — in favor of an almost-frantic engagement with the lapsed-Catholic, post-Catholic and non-Catholic world.

The idea of such engagement — of a “new evangelization,” a “new springtime” for Christianity — is hardly a novel one for the Vatican. But Francis’s style and substance are pitched much more aggressively to a world that often tuned out his predecessors. His deliberate demystification of the papacy, his digressive interviews with outlets secular and religious, his calls for experimentation within the church and his softer tone on the issues — abortion, gay marriage — where traditional religion and the culture are in sharpest conflict: these are not doctrinal changes, but they are clear strategic shifts.

John Allen Jr., one of the keenest observers of the Vatican, has called Francis a “pope for the Catholic middle,” positioned somewhere between the church’s rigorists and the progressives who pine to Episcopalianize the faith.

But the significance of this positioning goes beyond Catholicism. In words and gestures, Francis seems to be determined to recreate, or regain, the kind of center that has failed to hold in every major Western faith.

So far, he has at least gained the world’s attention. The question is whether that attention will translate into real interest in the pope’s underlying religious message or whether the culture will simply claim him for its own — finally, a pope who doesn’t harsh our buzz! — without being inspired to actually consider Christianity anew.

I wonder if Pope Francis suffers from a version of Roman Catholic exceptionalism since mainline Protestants tried this about a century ago and their communions have not recovered (despite the efforts of David Hollinger to improve our understanding of the liberal Protestantism’s consequences).

But I also wonder why Douthat doesn’t think that John Paul already accomplished what Francis may be attempting. After all, John Paul II was at the center of resistance to Communism and right there with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher inside the ranks of world changers. Today’s mainstream media may not find such a group of “conservatives” very appealing, but is hard to think of a pope more mainstream in world developments than John Paul II, a man who took a very different posture regarding drift within the church from Francis.

Could it be that Douthat’s column is an indication that John Paul II’s shelf life has expired? If so it would be ironic that just at the moment when he is about to be canonized, John Paul II no longer functions as the model for a successful papacy.

But we residents of planet earth are a forgetful lot. Billy Graham has also faded from memory at the very moment when historians are assessing his legacy. Ken Garfield wondered how many young people, “younger than 60” are listening to the historians:

As Duke Divinity School’s Grant Wacker told the Wheaton College gathering dominated by graying heads, during a recent lecture at Trinity College just one student knew the name Billy Graham. And that student thought Billy Graham was a professional wrestler.

“His story,” Wacker said, speaking of modern Christendom’s most famous figure, “is rapidly receding into the mists of history.”

Mainline Celebrity Blues

The word for mainline Protestants these days, apparently, is progressive. I guess this is what happens when you are no longer mainline. This isn’t gloating. How could an Orthodox Presbyterian ridicule progressives for joining the sideline? For a while (maybe 1890 to 1970) they were the mainline. The OPC (and the rest of NAPARC, TKNY’s presence notwithstanding) never was mainline.

Still, Carol Howard Merrit’s reflections on celebrity culture at various Protestant conferences do an injustice to what the mainline was.

In Progressive Protestant circles, David Heim makes the case that we don’t really have celebrities. We’re uncomfortable with them. We assume that if they have glitz then they must be shallow. And if they have an audience then they must be dumbing things down.

The post in question from the Century’s editor, David Heim, makes a similar point:

Occasionally the Century editors sit down to talk with experts in magazine marketing. They sometimes tells us that we need to do more with celebrities–feature a celebrity on the cover of the magazine, for example.

No, they’re not pressing us to feature Brad Pitt or Lindsay Lohan. What they have in mind is featuring the celebrities of our world, that is, the celebrities of the mainline Protestant world.

We usually respond: “But mainline Protestants don’t really have celebrities.” When the experts look doubtful, the editors look at one another. “Well, we might come up with a few living semi-celebrities–but that would take care of only two months worth of covers.”

The absence of a celebrity culture seems like one of the healthy things about the mainline Protestant world, even if it limits marketing opportunities. We tend to get uneasy when a person’s charisma or accomplishment is the focus of attention. Adulation seems not only naïve and credulous but also ignorant of the mysterious and paradoxical ways God chooses to work.

Nothing wrong about this, but I wonder if the editors of the Century were concerned about the health of the mainline churches when the likes of Henry Sloane Coffin (1926), Reinhold Nieburh (1948), Henry Pitney Van Dusen (1946), Karl Barth (1962), and Eugene Carson Blake (1961) adorned the covers of Time magazine. Once upon a time the mainline did have celebrities and those celebrities were responsible for giving the mainline coherence and brand loyalty. And you can chart the decline of the mainline by Time’s covers. Jerry Falwell made it in 1985, Billy Graham in 1993, 1996, and 2007.

To be sure, that kind of dependence can be damaging to the spiritual health of the church. So the change at the Century is a welcome development. But is revisionist history to say that the mainline has no celebrities or that progressive Protestants have always understood healthy churches this way (though it is indicative of how difficult it is to maintain celebrity status in the former mainline when those former celebrities don’t measure up to today’s progressive standards and so are dispensed in the dustbin of dead white European men).