Mainline Protestantism a Shambles? Tell Us Something We Haven’t Heard

I say the following with great affection for the tradition that formed me. Listen, Rick Santorum. If you’re saying something that makes liberal Protestants go, This again? Isn’t this getting a little… boring? then you might need some new material.

Which is just to say: Yes, we are familiar with the criticism. Think of the sixth-grader who says, You guys! What if the red I see isnt the same red you see? Or the business consultant who titles a presentation “Thinking Outside the Box.” Or a motivational speaker who tells you with glinty-eyed seriousness about the Chinese character for “crisis” being “danger” plus “opportunity.” Or a scolding aunt who hisses at you not to lift heavy things because it will hurt your female parts.

Like them, you are saying things which cause your hearers to stifle a pained sigh, look probingly at the wall clock, and begin mentally planning dinner. We have heard this before. So much that we, the demographic most likely to invest tremendous emotional energy in the sanctuary carpet staying in the same color family it has always been, are becoming inured.

Yes, yes, woe is the mainline! Somehow, through feats of ecclesial failure so masterful that they defy logic, we have managed to be:

—A narcissistic liberal echo chamber that tolerates no dissent.

—A bunch of please-everyone spineless wimps who stand for nothing except vague and gooey middle-class niceness.

—Clueless 19th-century rationalist holdovers who still believe it’s possible to look at things objectively because, I don’t know, our schooling was so full of Moustache Grooming 101, practicums in The Care of Tweed Frock Coats, and private lessons in Somber Intonation that we simply never got around to critiques of modernity, or something.

Pretty impressive, no? An outside observer might remark that those three criticisms appear to conflict with each other. How can one manage to be all at once a tepid puddle of politeness, and a rigid politically-correct squadron battering down the doors of hapless churches in the heartland and setting fire to any hymnal with the word mankind in it, and a bunch of chin-stroking tweed-clad fogeys unaware of anything after the Enlightenment?

Eh, who knows? But allegedly we’ve managed it, as our critics are wont to remind us, to the point that we’ve now heard this criticism slightly more times than we’ve heard “O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing.” But you know what, fellow liberal Protestants? I’m not even sure it’s worth our trying to argue the facts anymore. Smart people have already pointed out that it’s a lot more complicated than that. (There’s the fact that in the U.S., mainline Protestant denominations built big expensive churches in neighborhoods that subsequent generations of mainline Protestants then moved away from, for example.) That information is out there to be had, for anyone who’s actually interested in getting to the truth of the matter.

What I would rather point out is the rhetorical sleight-of-hand that refuses to let liberal Christian convictions stand as actual convictions. For either we are meant to be knee-jerk PC speech cops, you see, or we don’t stand for anything. Imagine that! Only conservatives, evidently, can have deeply-held, tradition-formed shared religious principles; principles which they carry with them into the public square, and which force tricky negotiations between public good, religious freedom, and conscience.

Here’s the thing, though: Just like conservative Christians, we too have convictions we are unwilling to toss out just to be more popular. Yes, even in the face of our oft-reported decline. Goodness, one might even call this integrity! For example, we are convinced that Christians have got to drop everything and pay attention when they hear someone say, “You are hurting me. No, I mean, YOU. INSTITUTIONAL CHRISTIANITY. ARE HURTING. ME.” (In fact many of us think that’s generally good advice: If someone tells you you’re hurting them, stop, listen, resist for five seconds the urge to offer a rebuttal, and consider that they might know something about the situation that you don’t.)

We’re also convinced that one should at least try and make one’s theological claims cohere with—or, failing that, not conflict with—other available data about reality. Oh, we get that the alternative is tempting. (Look at that! We even believe in temptation!) The alternative is to whisper to your powers of reason, Go this far but no further, because you might uncover something that will cause you to lose friends, control, meaning, and the consolations that make life bearable. Listen to others this much, but no more, because they might tell you something that your religious beliefs cannot contend with.

But to give into that temptation, we think, carries awful consequences. For if I am being intellectually dishonest, and deep down I know it, then I must be always on my guard. Everyone I meet becomes a potential refutation, and hence a threat. Those people down the street happily doing that thing I don’t approve of, who have not bothered me one whit? Why, their happiness might threaten my worldview if something is not done!

No longer neighbors, no longer even really people, they grow fangs and claws and emit menacing background music wherever they go. This, I submit, is not loving one’s neighbor. This is giving an account of one’s neighbor—and a needy and unkind one at that. That’s different. Of course, privileged people of all political and religious pieties succumb to this temptation. You do it, we do it. We just tend to think that, as temptations go, this one’s a bigger deal than using contraception or not kissing dating goodbye.

You say you don’t agree? You wouldn’t worship in one of our big, expensive-to-heat, inconveniently-located churches if someone paid you? Well, okay. That’s your prerogative. Goodbye, then, and go in peace! If you would, please be sure to shut the door firmly on the way out, since it’s February and our boiler is 80 years old.

I mean, really. Did you critics expect we would grasp your slender hands in ours, pull you close, look deep in your eyes and beg you to stay, promise to work it out, say we didn’t really mean it, ask you what we need to do to get you to like us, and point to all the good things we’ve done? Wasn’t it you who sniped that we were far too eager to please in the first place? Then take comfort in knowing that there are in fact SOME people we are not working to please—beginning with those who can’t see our religious convictions as convictions. Because that’s not disagreement. It’s dishonest.

Incidentally, it’s also dishonest to act like our convictions have nothing whatever to do with Jesus or the Bible. Yes, gee, however could we connect the dots between Jesus of Nazareth and a principled critiques of the capacity for religions to collude with political power brokers in ways that abuse the most vulnerable? Well, I simply can’t imagine! Give me a minute, though. It will come to me. I remember them covering that, in that class I had after Moustache Grooming.

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