How Did it Become So Easy to Get Out of a United Church?

In the United States, we put “the union” in USA. We are as much a republic as France, though we are still in our first iteration (some say Lincoln started our second republic) and the French are up to five. But in a few weeks, POTUS will deliver not “The State of the Republic” but “The State of the Union.” Union matters in part because the Civil War was so traumatic (and deadly). To consider separating from the U.S. is tantamount to the sin of schism. And yet Scotland can hold a referendum on leaving the UK or Britain can do the same to vote on leaving the European UNION! and no one fights a war to protect such unions, maybe because no one like an Abraham Lincoln was around to call these political arrangements “perpetual.”

The effects of political union on Christianity in the United States has been huge. Soon after the Civil War the Old and New School Presbyterian churches in the north reunited, with a large part of the rationale coming from imitating the Union. That merger launched a wave of ecumenical affiliations and networks that resulted in the Federal Council of Churches (1908) and a proposal to unite all Protestant communions in one United Church of the United States (comparable to the United Church of Canada). “United” has been a common part of Protestant church names, Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Presbyterian Church in the United States, United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the United Churches of Christ, the United Reformed Churches, and the United Methodist Church.

Now comes word that the Methodists are about to break apart into two denominations, one traditionalist (at least about marriage and sex) and one progressive (at least about marriage and sex). All it takes these days is a vote. No theological battles, no warring pamphlets. No one has even mentioned the s-word of schism. Although, Episcopalians still do not look favorably on leaving the Anglican communion.

If J. Gresham Machen had tried that back in the 1920s, he would (and did) have faced charges of disloyalty, unfaithfulness, and disobedience. In fact, when he called for a separation of conservatives and liberals, it was as if he had suggested Social Security should be privatized:

whether or not liberals are Christians, it is at any rate perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity. And that being the case, it is highly undesirable that liberalism and Christianity should continue to be propagated within the bounds of the same organization. A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour.

Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin.

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. (Christianity and Liberalism)

Something is changing out there. The old liberal internationalist order is breaking up. The election of Donald Trump was one sign, Brexit was another. The change also is having effects on the ecclesiastical world.

1776 and 1861

Brexit is more or less hardwired into the American outlook. But somehow we fought a war that cost close to 700,000 lives to preserve not a federation but a union, not a republic but a nation. That’s what makes America great (many suppose).

But H. L. Mencken thought otherwise. He saw that the Brexit of 1776 also implied the Secexit of 1861:

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i. e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege. H. L. Mencken, “Five Men at Random” 1922

Sacrilege? If you think the U.S. is holy. If it’s just one more liberal society, on the order of Canada or Switzerland, you might agree with Mencken.

Thanks for Nothing, Confederates

If you guys had merely held a referendum on secession instead of shooting guns, we might find Christian support for a U Sexit strategy comparable to British believers’ support for Brexit (via Chris Gerhz):

Practising Christians are the most likely among faith communities in England to support the Eurosceptic ‘Brexit’ position.

Muslims, meanwile, are the most Europhile of all the religious groups, a new survey has found.

The findings came in the new Populus Hope Not Hate survey which throws light for the first time on what different religious groups feel about the EU referendum in June.

“All the questions suggest that professing Christians are currently more likely than average to take up Eurosceptic positions, with Muslims the most Europhile,” reports religious researcher Clive Field.

Terry Teachout explains why U Sexit may be necessary (thanks to Rod):

In a totally polarized political environment, persuasion is no longer possible: we believe what we believe, and nothing matters but class and power. We are well on the way to becoming a land of jerking knees.

Never before have I felt so strongly that Americans are talking past instead of to one another. It is, I fear, our future and our fate—which is why I have come to believe that I will live to see Red and Blue America negotiate a “soft disunion.” No, there won’t be a second civil war. I can’t imagine the citizens of Blue America waging a shooting war over much of anything, least of all continued union with people whom they disdain. (Red America is a different story.) But the gap that separates the two Americas has grown so deep and wide that I find it increasingly difficult to imagine their caring to function as a single nation for very much longer. If I’m right, then I expect that they will ultimately find a more or less polite way to stop doing so.

Isn’t polarization what happens when we place personal over national identity? But just try issuing yourself a passport that will get you past customs. Not even calling the church an embassy will work:

Leeman descends from global height in his Preface to mountain-top height in his Introduction. And here, one gets a sense of his concerns. “A fundamental assumption of…many democratic Westerners, is that local churches are one more voluntary organization.” (21) In contrast, claims Leeman, “The church is a kind of embassy, only it represents a kingdom of even greater political consequence to the nations and their governors. And this embassy represents a kingdom not from across geographic space but from across eschatological time.” (22)

Isn’t that treasonous?

If the South Had Called a Referendum

Instead of firing on Fort Sumter, would the Confederate States have had a better chance of declaring their independence (like Jefferson did in 1776) if they had followed the lead of the Scots and simply voted. I understand that elections are not always decisive as the imbroglio between Russia and Ukraine attests. But a peaceful vote to leave a union may have worked. After all, if the Scots can do it after over three centuries of being governed by London, why couldn’t the South have departed after a mere seven decades of “more perfect” union?

I write this from Edinburgh in a postage stamp of a hotel room that is smack dab in the middle of a city that is amazingly beautiful (and even boasts a statue of Thomas Chalmers). If Scotland secedes, will Edinburgh become less beautiful? And what will happen to all the royal bits of Edinburgh? You can’t walk fifty meters (however long that is) and not see something that was opened by British royalty or land owned or granted by a prince, queen or king. I hear that if Scotland secedes, the Prince of Wales will become the King of Scotland. That sounds like a put down for the Scots, as if a mere prince among the Welsh is the equivalent of a monarch in Scotland. Then again, if it means that the Stuarts don’t return to the thrown, I am for Prince Charles.

David Robertson, a Free Church of Scotland pastor, thinks that ministers — in good 2k fashion — should not preach about secession, nor should the church adopt a stance:

. . . the Free Church does not ,and will not take a stance either for or against independence. Why? Because the Bible says nothing about it and we are here to teach the bible. In applying Gods word to our current society there is nothing in it that would tell us we should vote yes or we should vote no. Each has to be persuaded in their own mind. The Church should not make pronouncements on issues for which it has no scriptural warrant. These are my personal opinions and I hope I would never proclaim them from the pulpit as though they had the authority of Gods Word.

That’s an encouraging word from a man normally inclined to follow Tim Keller on holy urbanism. It shows how sensible 2k is. The church only says that the Bible says — and even then, you need to read the entire Bible in the entire perspective of God’s plan of redemption. So while monarchy was (not so) great for the Israelites and while emperors were honorable for (even while torturing) the apostles, the rest of Christian history leaves believers to make it up as they go.

But after jumping out with such a promising start, Pastor Robertson can’t help himself. He believes — seriously — that nationalism can be redeemed:

I am somewhat bemused by people who warn about the evils of nationalism when it is Scottish, but seem to think it is ok when it is British. As the Mangalwadi quote at the start of this article states, nationalism when yoked to the reforming power of the Bible, can become a powerful redemptive force. At the end of the day – that is what I will work for, whether in an independent Scotland or a dependent Britain.

It is hard to know where to begin or end with this opinion. But for the sake of blogging’s brevity, I’ll keep it short. First, what does Pastor Robertson make of all the nationalism in twentieth-century Europe and the wars of global proportions it unleashed? It’s one thing to be patriotic (a form of loyalty to the land of one’s fathers), but another to wrap up a people’s identity along national lines. What would become of non-Scots in an independent Scotland? That is not an impolite question given Europe’s history.

Second, why does adding the Bible or salvation to something that has such a dubious record — nationalism, urbanism, theater, mathematics (plumbing is fine) — make it better? The record of mixing religion and nationalism is a narrative of the gross excesses of civil religion. And civil religion is a betrayal of the gospel because Jesus did not rise again to save the members of the Church of England or the Church of Scotland or even the Free Church of Scotland. Churches having to negotiate national boundaries is part of the business of Christian ministry in this age. But turning national boundaries and jurisdictions into redemptive purposes is an example of every-square-inch naivete.

The Colonies’ Secession was Smart, the South’s Was Dumb

Maybe it is poor form at the national holiday to bring it up, but has anyone noticed the resemblance between 1776 and 1861? Sure, you can say that the Civil War involved more than preserving the union. Many Americans think the fight between North and South was to abolish slavery and preserve the union. But 1776 saw a similar dynamic – a group of slaveholders asserting their independence from a sovereign nation. So what am I missing?

One important difference could be intelligence. I remember being struck by the stupidity of southerners about twenty years ago during Independence Day festivities. (Mind you, I’m bi-regional so I can get away with speaking about my people this way.) I was surfing cable television on a Sunday evening – back when we had cable (and stupid enough to pay for television) and when Sabbatarian convictions were not where they should have been – and I came across the Independence Day worship service where Charles Stanley’s congregation in Atlanta was waxing patriotic by singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Not only did this manifest a dumb reading of history since this particular hymn was written for a war fought almost a century after the Revolutionary War. It was also stupid because these residents of greater Atlanta were singing a song that the North had concocted to whoop up support for – among other military matters – General Sherman’s raid on central Georgia. To borrow Fosdick’s line, what incredible folly!

Now I see, thanks to one of our southern correspondents, that southern Protestants are still very patriotic and still lacking intelligence about which hymns go with which American wars. Greg Garrison of the Birmingham News writes the following:

Every summer on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, a vast array of churches breaks out the red, white and blue bunting and patriotic songs like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with salutes to the military and civil servants.

He goes on to report on the activities of various local congregations.

More Than Conquerors Faith Church will have its “Freedom Celebration” on Sunday at 10 a.m. with patriotic music and a procession of flags.

Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church will have its “Can America Still Trust in God?” worship service with patriotic music at 10:30 a.m. Lunch follows on the church picnic grounds.

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church will have patriotic music by Bobby Horton, Bill Bugg and others starting at 5 p.m., followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence at 6:15 p.m. Sunday. . . .

It’s the most dramatic Fourth of July celebration ever for the church, said the Rev. Barry Vaughn, the rector.

“It will be the most patriotic thing we’ve done and people seem to be pretty excited about it,” Vaughn said. . . .

Briarwood Presbyterian Church will have its “Christianity in America” service on Sunday at 6 p.m., with patriotic music and a salute to the armed forces.

It will feature a musical tribute to America by the Alabama Philharmonic Orchestra, and arrangement of armed forces songs.

“It’s a tribute to those who served,” said the Rev. Clay Campbell, minister of music and worship pastor at Briarwood Presbyterian Church. “They enjoy putting on their uniforms and coming and being recognized.”

Campbell said that in the past, some have raised concerns that patriotic worship services are idolatrous and constitute worshipping the state.

“We’re not worshipping America,” he said. “We’re giving thanks to God for the blessing he’s placed on America.”

That may not be the way that some see it if Dinesh D’Souza is going to be your guest preacher tomorrow.

Dinesh D’Souza, author of “What’s So Great About Christianity,” will speak in the “Celebrate America” patriotic service at Valleydale Church on Sunday at 9:30 a.m.

D’Souza, a native of India who came to America at age 16 and became well-known as a political commentator and author of best-selling books on social issues, will talk about his love for his adopted country.

“Patriotism is entirely appropriate on this day,” D’Souza said in a phone interview. “The Christian foundation of America is that the root ideas of America are based on Christian influence and assumptions. You hear people talk about did Thomas Jefferson go to church regularly or did Ben Franklin believe in the Trinity. I don’t care if Jefferson believed in miracles. He sat down and asked where do rights come from. He could think of only one source, the Creator. That’s in the Declaration of Independence.”

Of course, there is an easy way for southerners to be smart about all this – it is the spirituality of the church option of psalm singing. Especially when Sunday coincides with July 4th, Psalm 146 is fitting:

1 Praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD, O my soul.

2 I will praise the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortal men, who cannot save.

4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.

5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God,

6 the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
the LORD, who remains faithful forever.

7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets prisoners free,

8 the LORD gives sight to the blind,
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down,
the LORD loves the righteous.

9 The LORD watches over the alien
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

10 The LORD reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD.