Monday, March 16, 2009

Calling All Mainline Protestants

Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan writes in The Times of London about American religion:

In many ways the most interesting dynamic is that between mega-church, politicised evangelicalism and atheism. Mega-churches have emerged in many suburban neighbourhoods in America and serve as community centres, as social-work hubs and as venues for what most outsiders would think of as stadium-style Sunday rock shows, in which religion looks like a form of fandom. Charismatic preachers – like the now disgraced Ted Haggard or the politically powerful Rick Warren – have built massive congregations.

The movement has spawned its own shadow pop music industry, coopts the popular culture as any brand-conscious franchise would and has a completely informal form of worship. Go to one of these places and it feels like a town in itself – with shops, daycare centres, conference rooms and social networking groups. The car parks feel like those in sports stadiums; and the atmosphere evokes a big match. In 20 years, the number of Americans finding identity and God in these places has soared from 200,000 to more than 8m.

This is not, one hastens to add, an intellectual form of faith. It is a highly emotional and spontaneous variety of American Protestantism and theologically a blend of self-help, biblical literalism and Republican politics.

And he concludes with this:

The days when America’s leading intellectuals contained a strong cadre of serious Christians are over. There is no Thomas Merton in our day; no Reinhold Niebuhr, Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor. In the arguments spawned by the new atheist wave, the Christian respondents have been underwhelming.

What one yearns for is a resuscitation of a via media in American religious life – the role that the established Protestant churches once played. Or at least an understanding that religion must absorb and explain the new facts of modernity: the deepening of the Darwinian consensus in the sciences, the irrefutable scriptural scholarship that makes biblical literalism intellectually contemptible, the shifting shape of family life, the new reality of openly gay people, the fact of gender equality in the secular world. It seems to me that American Christianity, despite so many resources, has ignored its intellectual responsibility.

What is fascinating is that Barack Obama represents exactly that 'via media' of Protestanism, with its sophistication, education, and nuance. As do the Clintons, although it isn't mentioned as much for some reason.

As a mainline Protestant pastor myself, I know this is possible. My churches have been places of growth, albeit slow not explosive. And I have dealt with some of the difficult issues: Islam, biblical scholarship, and evolution.

I will tell you the one issue I still avoid because of its divisive potency: homosexuality. When we are able to deal with that openly, that will be a new day.

Question: why do we have such a hard time getting our best representatives on the media? Think 'Larry King Live' here. When's the last time you saw a mainline Protestant on one of his shows? I can't think of one. Evangelicals and fundamentalists galore. Liberal Catholics always. New Age and Hindus yes. But not one mainline Protestant. To media folks like Larry King, we might as well not exist.

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