Pyrrhic Victory?

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The twentieth century struggle in American Protestantism was defined along the Fundamentalist/Modernist front. While the mainline reigned at mid-century, by the closing decade the conservatives had the upper hand, at least in professed believers. Some part of this growth was a Boomer phenomenon and the shift of population to the Sun Belt. One can mix in a bit of sexual anxiety that was the subtext of the 80s and90s — the prime family years of  the Boomers.

This religious growth was widely spread but it came with a catch: the growing conservative wing of Protestantism was also the wing for But something else was in the wind. Thsomething of a puritan movement had taken place.

these forces had been part of the fundamentalist community, particularly those in S California (see Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sun Belt). It was a potent stew: highly separatist adherents, a militant anti-communism, a Plain Folk distrust of elites; this was the gift of Orange County to the world.

But once you get past Reagan, what was the impact of this religious nationalism? More respectability, yes, and a new name (Religious Right) but still largely a failure argues George Hawley

(The Religious Right) was an effective fundraising tool for Republican politicians, but its lasting victories in terms of social policies are difficult to name. Stopping the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s was perhaps the movement’s sole permanent achievement. And that victory occurred before most of the major institutions of the Christian Right were even established. On abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school, and other social issues, conservative victories were typically fleeting.

But if it was a failure politically, it was worse for Christianity as a whole. The very political energy of the movement drove out the moderate  and liberals, not simply sending some to the mainline congregations, but completely out of the religious game. To the sidelines. As Hawley notes, “the finding that it expedited the decline of Christian identification and affiliation is a damning indictment.”

 

 

 

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Can the Middle Be Claimed? part 2.

Carol Howard Merritt at The Christian Century will have none of Tim Keller. Keller had been selected as the recipient of the Kuyper Award for Excellence in Reformed Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, until faculty, students and friends furiously objected.

But Keller’s position on women and LGBTQs in the church, by comparison, would silence at least half of Princeton’s student population. And that’s the issue. I have not and cannot keep Keller from preaching. A PCA church can and does restrict women from preaching.

The student body and alumni had every right to protest the award. That is free speech.

Churches (and other entities) face the double challenge of purity and hospitality. One seems to invalidate the other. Take our pick: be true, or be welcoming, which will it be? Here the Lenten theme comes to bear: sometimes inclusion means, even demands seeing (and including) the enemy. We include, not because of some sentiment like “hospitality” or “inclusion” but because of a cross. In the poisonous partisan world, this reality claims our tongue, and it should claim our welcome.

Walking Away (but keeping the memory)

 

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Matthew Loftus links to Peter Beinart’s article, “Breaking Faith” and asks

What if being secular makes you more tolerant towards things like gay marriage or pot legalization, but makes you more intolerant towards other groups? If you thought the Religious Right was bad, wait ’til you see the Post-Religious Right:

For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were.”

One is tempted to reference those who “have the form of religion…” This cultural faith, of course, is always there. And when it’s connected with one party, then the other side is likely to reject the entire apparatus — good riddance! 

On both sides, the secularists think that religious faith is primarily a matter of culture, and so a matter of politics. Yet the practice of the religious community points in another direction (as does its own moderation). Faith always lies askew of the culture, and so the church provides an alternate affirmative good of community. the shape of this community is not built on the internal values of that community (what it does in gathering), but on its appeal to the transcendent. This “otherness”, this faith gives us permission to walk away from ourselves, our natural “tribe.” Otherness gives a breadth, a counter-cultural narrative, that is not only theological, but experiential. This aching need for connectives is all around us. Old guys long for it and often die for lack of it. Likewise there was a terrific article a couple weeks ago on the Epidemic of Gay Loneliness on the Huffington Post — read subtly, there was still this longing to connect (the folks at Spiritual Friendship have it right). We thirst.

Partisanship, this divide, feeds off of a lack of inner life. When all we are left with is our externals, than it is easy to appeal to the stuff of the tribe.

On orthodoxy and community

Rod Dreher is concerned about the relationship between orthodoxy and the current emphasis on community within the church in  Christianity without Orthodoxy, in doing so he perhaps has two questions in mind.

First, there is the matter of practice,

How do you decide right from wrong on a controversial church teaching? . . . How do you determine that now is the time for you to stay when a divisive issue comes up in the church community, or when the line has been breached, and your understanding of truth requires you to leave on principle?

In his southern context, the question of race (and Jim Crow) lurk right below the surface, if that. And then there is a second, not-quite-the-same question, one certainly more global in nature:

We are so accustomed in our culture to not applying reason to religious experience, to only thinking of it in terms of emotional resonance, that to draw those lines seems somehow, well, un-Christian to many. How any religion survives the loss of a sense of the need for orthodoxy, I don’t know.

Both questions are rather protestant in nature, the former being the classic practice flowing from conviction (typically biblical). The latter one would appear to imagine the existence of a common orthodoxy, expressed across very diverse traditions. A fundamentalism, if you will (we differ but we all believe the same core truths). A more honest approach may be to acknowledge that what the Eastern church means by “orthodoxy” is not the same as what Rome means, let alone what an Evangelical may believe. This would be a functional definition of orthodoxy rather than a specifically theological one.

Of course, Dreher could be thinking of the more specific and normative meaning of orthodoxy as that practiced by the Eastern church (aka the Orthodox Church).

As to the relationship of orthodoxy and community, the relationship is surely dialectic. Orthodoxy explains what the community is about, it interprets the historical experience with God. The shape of the community  expresses some convictional norm, an orthodoxy at least of culture if not of theology/ideology. These convictions may be expressed explicitly in statements, and more often or in parallel, by narratives — the stories we tell about where we have come and how we got here.

In similar fashion, the practice of the community reflects or exegetes the convictions of the community. Hence the charges of dead orthodoxy or of hypocrisy when the practice of community appears at variance with the statements of formal orthodoxy or belief. What we state we believe exists as a hypothesis to be demonstrated in how we live. Practice and conviction walk together.

Where are they anyway?

With the Supreme Court decision, same-sex marriage is rapidly institutionalizing, at least in Blue America. The shift has not only dismayed traditional and religious conservatives, but challenged them as to how they should response, and particularly, how exemptions might be carved out.  Rachel Zoll at AP captures the current state of affairs well.

While commending her report, Terry Mattingly at Get Religion asks an interesting question,

Where are the views of religious liberals in this story? Where are the leaders of the denominations that actively favor same-sex marriage and what they view as the modernization of both ancient religious doctrines and the nation’s approach to the First Amendment? This is not, trust me, just a debate between religious people and secular people.

So the camp of the “orthodox” made it into this story. Where are the believers in the camp of the “progressives”? What are they saying about these religious-liberty cases?

Perhaps the simplest answer is that while religious liberals may have an opinion they are not speaking out. There’s little to report because there’s little actually being said. This is in contrast to the last moment in the culture war turning on the same theme of religious liberty, that of contraception. Then, leaders in the mainline did speak out.

By contrast, in the campaign for same sex marriage in New York, the religious left was not part of the reported lobbying. Where the religious community has come together to lobby for same sex marriage in Massachusetts or Illinois it has been through the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, a largely Unitarian-Universalist led group.

The silence is notable: where are they? After all from internal battles in denominations, there are certainly any number of articulate voices on the pro- side. Shouldn’t we hear their view? This would be Mattingly’s view:

Some on the religious left SUPPORT the changes and have political and doctrinal reasons for doing so. The moral left is NOT all secular.

The silence however, probably lies elsewhere, away from an uncurious reporter. Two reasons suggest themselves.

First, there is the nature of the actual political battles. Much of the recent political heat has been around the question of exemptions. As Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, expressed it

same-sex couples should not, without very good reason, be allowed to force dissenting religious organizations to recognize or facilitate their marriages.

In terms of the conflict, “facilitation” is seen as encompassing a variety of services (photography, bakery, even a bed and breakfast). Behind the conflicts is the insistence on an individual’s personal conviction.  Theologically, it is grounded in a mild Calvinist understanding of the whole of life being religious — thus, even the civic arena, especially the civic arena can become a center for conflict. This viewpoint has also led to the extension of potential religious exemptions into previously neutral settings, e.g. the notion that a for-profit corporation may have a legitimate religious viewpoint. Given the religious liberals’ more communitarian focus and their role (still) as custodians of the establishment, these themes make the religious conservatives concerns less palatable.

Of course, the frank trafficking in fear by some on the Right also serves to delegitimize  conservative concerns. But there’s more than the usual politics at work here. The conservative push bumps into a second, far more significant issue: civil rights.

Within the religious left, gay rights are generally seen as an extension of civil rights, a natural outworking flowing from the same biblical injunctions as to the treatment of the neighbor. As a moral principle, it is an application, derivative of a broader issue. That derivative nature as much as anything reduces the moral valence of the objections. The issues are not central to the identity of the religious left.

The history with the civil rights movement adds another layer of reluctance. The exemptions that are sought in the name of “religious liberty” are  the very sort of practices with accommodations that the church had fought to overturn during the civil rights era.

Finally, it would be a mistake on the Right to think that the religious left is necessarily indifferent to religious liberty. If anything, it is this centrist tendency in the mainline that offers the real hope for pragmatic accommodation, or support should the worst fears begin to be realized.

 

What do we take from the past?

Beer boxHank Ottens at the Banner pens an interesting, prophetic story about his dad, one of those immigrant souls who worked the farm but kept an active mind and prized his orthodoxy. Cleaning out his father’s estate, he comes across “the ark:” books by Bavinck and his father’s collection of sermons on the various themes of orthodoxy.

What to do?

He looks, reads, considers, then gets coffee. Church today is not much like that of his father’s post-war era (or his father’s defense of orthodoxy in retirement).

The brief coffee klatch gets us talking about the new “normal” in church life: praise teams, women clergy, seeker-friendly services, interfaith dialogue, acceptance of divorced and gay members. We put down our coffee cups and get down to business. The ark has become a beer box with relics of a bygone era.

Books and tapes are consigned to the curb. And at the end Ottens wonders about all this with more than a little ambivalence:

Are these reflections on the means of grace, the Heidelberg Catechism and pious living, no more important than a broken-down hobby horse or a six-pack of empties? Do those old sermon tapes at least deserve a respectful place in a preacher’s bookcase?

Well, theses certainly are reflections of grace, but appropriate for a preacher’s bookcase? Ah, no. The grace belongs to his family. In very human terms, these belong on his bookcase. The hand that pens the sermon title was the same hand that ran the farm and first took Otten’s small hand as he learned to walk. Our spirituality is not different from the rest of our lives. Some items we keep because of their testimony to a faithfulness then that has made a debtor now. Active remembrance can keep us.

This however, is not the only story available, that of an old immigrant orthodoxy thrown away. There is the story of faithfulness:  what does one do with one’s life? This was a retirement spent in keeping the mind alive, a retirement spent in caring for others, a retirement spent in a pursuit of godliness; it is  the shape of that fidelity as much as its content that is remarkable and worthy of marking.

Me? I would have kept the tapes if only as a reminder that there is more to life than travel and gardening.

And that’s the truth

How do we know if something is true?

One of the sources for Truth has been “the plain teaching of Scripture”  — a common term in the circle I run in. The other day, John Suk penned some thoughts on that notion (actually a rather lengthy post). the topic is actually rather slippery, since it moves from the rhetoric used in controversies, to the theological stance of the  Reformation (aka perspicuity), and from there to theology of revelation.

Oh my.

In contemporary terms, perhaps the best term is that of clarity. Couldn’t God have been more clear, wonders Suk

God, for example, could have (as Buechner once imagined in a nice sermon) rearranged the stars to say that “I exist,” or “Jesus saves.” Or used a writing style more akin to Berkof or Plantinga than Isaiah or Paul. But if scripture is the best God can do when it comes to being clear, or perspicuous, I’m disappointed.

Perhaps this clarity business is a misreading, a going off track. After all, there’s a long-standing tradition (back to Benedict) of reading/listening to Scripture to meet God. At its basic theological sense, clarity needs to be connected to kerygma : the text is validated by the encounter, by the message. That seems to be a continuing process, time-tested, if you will.

From this perspective, the plain teaching of Scripture is closely associated with the dis-intermediation of Bible reading: it does an end-run on authority. In doing so, it creates a space for a counter reading of the Tradition; from the individual side, the plain meaning of the Scriptures is subversive — one reason why the Belgic Confession speaks of  “the detestable Anabaptists.”

This aspect of the notion poses an ironic counterpoint to the theological rhetoric of the “plain meaning of Scripture”. In present-day North America the term is used generally to privilege some position, silencing debate, or otherwise asserting the authority of the speaker (who can be a bigger source than God, right?). This claim to “plain meaning” has a further traction within the Anglo-American traditions of plain speech v Latinate speech; and especially the popular icons of the plain spoken western hero as a truth teller. We give a lot of credence to those plain speakers — look at the imagery for George W Bush.

Meanwhile, the plain meaning, spoken by the Spirit to the faithful believer’s heart continues to do its subversive work, educating that reader to such goods as love, hospitality, mercy and justice.