Future of Liberal Religion: A Counterculture Blooms?

There is a price for being prophetic. Yet, as historian David Hollinger argues in a recent interview, prophetic ecumenical voices helped change America for the better. Through their risky stances against racism, sexism, imperialism, and American exceptionalism, ecumenical Protestants prodded a reluctant nation toward greater acceptance of pluralism during the 20th century.

Today, even a growing number of evangelicals treat those positions as mainstream—but ecumenical institutions have struggled.

During 1960s-era social transformations, conservative laity withdrew money and support from organized ecumenism. Meanwhile young liberal Christians often left it behind to do social justice work within a secular environment that offered quicker, bolder action. Others comprised a growing exodus of people embracing a post-Protestant “spiritual but not religious” identity, while adults still within the fold bore fewer children than evangelicals. Many secular intellectuals pooh-poohed religion altogether, as the Democratic party excised religious values from its lingo.

The result: greying mainline denominations struggling to pay bills while facing steady membership and funding declines. Its corollary: an ecumenical movement facing even steeper financial challenges, worsened by the recession. News of a resulting restructuring effort underway in the nation’s historic flagship ecumenical organization, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), is occasionally met with the query: “You mean it’s not dead yet?”

Amid all this, some liberal observers voice a new concern, which Religion Dispatches’ editors share. Have desperate ecumenical Protestants now quieted their courageous prophetic voices in exchange for building greater unity with numerically-robust evangelical groups?

In the July 11 issue of The Christian Century, Hollinger lays out potential ramifications: “The ongoing accommodation between ecumenical and evangelical Protestants may well continue, but if it does, I fear that it will be at the cost of an opposite accommodation that deserves more attention than it has received. Perhaps,” he proposes, “…the intellectual leaders of the ecumenical seminaries and denominations should more aggressively criticize the religious ideas proclaimed by the most visible of the evangelicals in American life today.” Harry Emerson Fosdick’s noted 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” could serve as a potential model, Hollinger offers, suggesting that “the salient solidarity today may not be with the community of faith but among those who accept Enlightenment-generated standards for cognitive plausibility.”

This is attractive advice for Protestants who dream of a revitalized political, cultural, and religious left in America. Individual ministers still possess the same freedom to speak their minds as Fosdick did—and should; though ecumenical organizations with member denominations split over controversial topics must develop common ground first.

Beyond the Binary

As a historian whose own research on the National Council of Churches affirms Hollinger’s arguments about the repercussions of past ecumenical choices, I appreciate the issues he raises. Yet, there is another dynamic to consider. As I follow from afar the NCC’s current “re-envisioning” effort, marked by the July 1 launch of its “Transitional General Secretary’s” 18-month term, I see evidence of a transformation afoot within ecumenism that questions the premise of the either/or accommodational choice Hollinger mentions.

We may be misreading what is happening around those widening ecumenical tables. Second, Fosdick’s 1922 sermon might well provide inspiration to the pluralist-advancing, prophetic voice that is emerging at the youthful cutting edge of ecumenism; though it may be due to his plea for an inclusive and discursive Christianity rather than to the public, verbal-duel format through which he delivered it. Fosdick’s prescient words are still relevant:

The first element that is necessary is a spirit of tolerance and Christian liberty. When will the world learn that intolerance solves no problems? This is not a lesson which the Fundamentalists alone need to learn; the liberals also need to learn it.

Pluralism, in all its manifestations, remains the shaper and driver of ecumenism’s mission of unity—whether it’s unity among Christians, the religious, or humanity in general. Historically, American ecumenists’ encounters with pluralism made them more liberal and prophetic throughout the 20th century. For example, tense but deep discussions with Asian Christians overseas during the Vietnam War helped push the NCC toward more incisive antiwar positions. The same pattern holds true for racial justice, gender issues, and environmental stewardship.

Today, it can be argued, a different type of prophetic witness is emerging that is perhaps as radical and countercultural as those of the 1960s, given the current polarized climate. It asks people to consider how to be good global citizens amid pluralism—a pluralism that includes fundamentalists and atheists.

Young ecumenists appear to be leading the way. They’ve grown up in a world where moving between denominational or faith identities is uneventful, where races mix easily in school, where both women and men lead businesses as well as diaper babies, and where the internet connects kids globally to fads, music, and social revolutions. Ecumenism attracts them because it fits their life experience. They don’t respect the sharply-defined “in” and “out” groups so prominent over the last 60 years, and often move more fluidly between groups than older Christians.

Yes, they have been nurtured within a hyper-polarized nation, but they also witness its paralysis and the futility of us/them dynamics: politicians who can’t speak to one another across the aisle, dueling news channels that propagandize rather than inform, cycles of revenge for historical injuries that keep global neighbors in perpetual war.

To young ecumenists, any shutting down of dialogue seems like more of the same.

Repairing the Fractured Human State

What’s radical to them today? Expanding the ecumenical table by including evangelicals and Pentecostals if they’re willing, those of other faiths, and the “spiritual, but not religious” crowd. Young ecumenists aren’t waiting on their elders to do this. Like their countercultural forebears of the 1960s, they are simply living life as they think it should be lived.

Take the New Fire network as an example. This consortium of groups of young adult ecumenists energetically rejects the liberal/conservative war even as they commit their lives to fostering peace with justice. As one New Fire participant and member of the Church of the Brethren states,

We live in a world that is broken, hurting, and calling out for the children of God to be revealed. And if we, as the church, can’t demonstrate what it means to live together in love, we are going to have a hard time convincing the rest of the world to do so.

Another insists that

ecumenism matters now because the fractured human state is costing lives. Ecumenism matters because creation is already a life giving system of mutual flourishing, yet we’re living out a system of death, pain, injustice, and separation. Ecumenism is about people loving one another hard enough, deep enough, to sit and be together in amidst tremendous confusion and pain.

A young Episcopal chaplain concurs:

I find myself believing it to be very important to bring more Orthodox Christian and evangelical voices to our conversation for better balance. We need each other; we need everyone at this table. We especially need those who we find make it harder for us to find common ground and, generally, we need to keep at it especially when it is difficult. I don’t know how else for us to engage… but to engage.

Some of their ecumenically-minded elders are taking the same approach, even as others remain reluctant. At the Christian Unity Summit in January 2012, 27 leaders from various Christian bodies, including the NCC, Christian Churches Together (CCT), the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the Catholic and Orthodox churches, historic black denominations, and Pentecostals, all met to discuss the future of ecumenical relations as well as cooperation in addressing global crises and injustices.

NCC Gives Women the Reins

Just as pluralist dialogue has made American ecumenists historically more open-minded, so the NCC’s new president noticed similar stirrings at this event. At age 35, Kathryn Lohre is the second-youngest in NCC history. She, along with Peg Birk (transitional general secretary) and Clare Chapman (deputy general secretary), comprise the first all-female and lay leadership team in the Council’s 62-year history. Given the still male-dominated nature of mainline Protestantism and past complaints that the NCC ignores laity, this alone seems momentous.

Lohre, who co-chairs the NCC’s re-envisioning and restructuring task force, offered remarks on behalf of the NCC at the January summit. There, she told me, among some Christians not used to female religious leadership (nor favorable toward the liberal NCC) she received private comments that demonstrated minds receptive to reassessment. 

Again, within a polarized American climate, events like these may not signal accommodation to evangelicals or stifling of prophetic voice; behind conference doors, deep listening and tough dialogue occurs. Outside those meetings, ecumenists remain as engaged as ever on issues that advance justice and peace, often collaborating with secular liberal organizations, albeit with far fewer resources.

Rather, encounters with evangelicals could be a different type of prophetic witness, one that empowers pluralism to do anew what it has always done around ecumenical and interfaith tables: debunk stereotypes, foster fresh faith understandings, and generate compassionate action on behalf of humans who differ from ourselves. In doing so, ecumenists believe they highlight human interdependence as an unavoidable reality, a divine creation, and the key to planetary well-being.

Collaboration with only one end of the religio-political spectrum at the cost of frank dialogue and relationship building with the other is simply not a premise today’s younger ecumenists seem to accept. Rather, the goal of fostering a diverse beloved community amid extreme polarization still inspires counter-cultural ecumenical risk-taking in the name of faith.

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