The End of Roe May Have Something Important to Tell Us About the Decline of Mainline Protestant Churches

Still from "A Look At Life Prior To Landmark Roe v. Wade Abortion Rights Law"/

As we gnaw on the paws of our grief and foreboding regarding the Supreme Court and Roe, RD’s editor-in-chief reminded me of the beautiful Tom Davis tribute to the Rev. Howard Moody that this magazine published following Mr. Moody’s death ten years ago. 

This in turn got me thinking about what my Protestant tradition calls the “prophetic office” of the clergy, in which a responsibility to resist unjust power is supposed to join the “teaching office” (i.e., faithful preaching and religious education) and the “priestly office” (administration of the sacraments and pastoral counseling) as one of three core ministerial responsibilities. 

In the mainline churches that prophetic office seems to be all but extinguished. Instead, fired-up prophets are far more likely to be found in youth-led grassroots movements that are, for the most part, contemptuous of organized religion’s easy accommodation of both Mammon and Moloch (i.e. greed and violence).  

Howard Moody was a prophetic preacher of the highest order, but in the case of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS), which he created along with his colleagues Arlene Carmen and Art Levin, he let prophetic action do the preaching as he and his co-workers developed a network of 1,400 ministers and rabbis all across the country who (as Davis writes) “opened the lives of women” to a large cohort of mostly male clergypersons at a time when abortion was illegal in every state. 

These were clergy who accepted significant personal risk in order to help women and girls obtain safe abortions. Even among themselves, they declined to dress their work in high-sounding religious rhetoric; they simply did what they considered to be their moral duty. They left the sanctimony and the professions of piety to the other side: primarily to the Roman Catholic bishops and the many politicians beholden to the bishops in those days. 

Where did their courage and commitment come from? In every discussion of CCS or of Clergy & Laity Concerned—the contemporary clergy-led movement to protest the Vietnam War, in which Mr. Moody was also very active—one usually hears the refrain, “But that was the Sixties!” Meaning, I guess, that there was something in the water that 1960s clergy were drinking. 

In this refrain one also usually hears how those outspoken radicals ruined the mainline Protestant churches, turning off the people in the pews and driving out the moderates and generally setting the stage for the very sharp decline in mainline Protestant power and prestige that continues to this day. According to this narrative it follows that today’s tongue-tied mainline clergy do well to go slow, or even stay entirely silent, on issues considered potentially “divisive.” 

But this is where conventional wisdom crosses over into conventional ignorance. 

I have a different theory about the fadeout of mainline Protestant prophetic energy. I believe those mid-century prophets didn’t “lose,” so much as a deeply-entrenched patriarchy won. 

Writing about Alito’s draft in the Times, Jamelle Bouie suggests we pay more attention to the end goals of hardcore movement conservatism:

Which brings us to the logic of the political movement that brought us to this point. Those of us outside the conservative movement and the religious right tend to think of them in terms of what they’re against, but it is helpful here to think in terms of what they want. Judging from their priorities, as well as their leaders and intellectuals, these movements want a hierarchical society of traditional morality and patriarchal family structure, where male-led households are disciplined by an unrestrained free market.

To be sure, white male Christian supremacy doesn’t win every battle. But it wins most, its force is unyielding, and it continues to prevail in the long war for what Joe Biden is pleased to call “the soul of America.” 

You want to talk about tenacity and resilience? Just look at how the values of the European men who “settled” the Western Hemisphere continue to dominate our politics and culture in 2022. North America’s hyper-aggressive Protestant colonists borrowed the Doctrine of Discovery from their Catholic brethren and ran with it, all the way to creating the American Empire that Martin King accurately described as the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence” in all of human history. 

As King and others of his generation were beginning to understand, the maintenance of American economic hegemony necessarily also entails a domestic regime of violence against people of color, violence against women, and violence against not-rich people in general. It’s a regime that thoroughly subjugates internally colonized peoples and manufactures consent.  

As the spiritual descendants of violent European settlers, today’s American overclass applies an intersectional approach to maintaining power that the Left is only beginning to understand and counter. Which is to say, they deploy a hijacked version of the Constitution along with their national myth, their civic religion, and (of course) their enormous economic power to beat down any serious interference with the essentials of white male rule. 

On the hard Right they wage an unending series of culture wars, and they always play to win. Whereas our neoliberal patriarchs and matriarchs on the soft “Left” are totally okay with almost all diversity and representation projects—even supplying the funds for these projects to a significant degree—provided that the diversity schemes never seriously challenge the prerogatives of wealth. 

You might think that relentless class war from above, along with race war from above and gender war from above, would command the attention of at least a righteous remnant of our mainline Protestant clergy. But most surrendered long ago. They surrendered even before they took their ordination vows. They agreed to play by the rules of the deeply patriarchal culture that permeates the congregations they serve. 

It’s obvious that many have been struck dumb by the rise of a white evangelical movement that openly celebrates male domination and violence as a way of life—and that openly conspires with the Catholic hierarchy to keep women and LGBTQ people in their place. And I do find it hard to sit in judgment of ministers whose contracts are regularly up for review by lay leaders who secretly retain a soft spot for the preachments of Tucker Carlson. But I can’t help feeling that there’s also a theological root to the culture of surrender and silence among leaders who ought to know better. 

In attempting to reckon with the entire legacy of 500 years of Protestantism—which also happens to correspond to the era of European colonization in this hemisphere—a wise friend has concluded that Protestants “never really meant it” in regard to making a full separation from the core patriarchy within Catholic teaching. My friend suggests that semper reformanda—the principle that the church must be constantly reforming—was never more than a slogan; that the Reformation of Luther and Calvin was really more of a “we can do it better” adaptation; and that European Christianity’s embrace of imperial Rome’s violently masculinist ethos was never seriously challenged until Liberation Theology came along and enjoyed its brief moment in the sun. 

I believe my friend has a point.