Christian Right, Christian Left in a time of moral crisis

Friday, December 9, 2005

One of the most disturbing things about Christianity in America today is the failure of the traditional Protestant denominations and the so-called Christian Right to be in conversation with one another. Everywhere I go, mainline clergy are hanging out with other mainline clergy, indifferent to the point of obliviousness to what is going on at the nondenominational Bible church down the road. I speak as a mainliner who frequently attends evangelical churches, both to worship and to see what is going on. In many cases, the young families who are attending these churches in droves would have been going to a mainline church in the 1950s. Yet the mainlines don’t show any sense of urgency or crisis.

Many of the people who attend these more “conservative” (not really the right word) churches say that they are there because they are looking for a “Bible-based, Christ-centered” church. But why have the mainlines ceded this description to the off-beat churches? Why not be just as “Bible-based and Christ-centered” as they are, though in a more traditional way? In the two congregations that I served in the second half of my ministry, we attracted many people from fundamentalist backgrounds who were eagerly looking for a liturgical church with evangelical preaching.

A manifestation of the malaise of the mainlines is the refusal of the clergy to spend time getting to know, and perhaps finding something in common with, some of the evangelical clergy in the new, burgeoning congregations. My experience of the scene is that some clergy in established churches are not even aware that the congregation meeting in the local high school or community center is draining off many of the young families from their own day schools!

If the clergy and lay leaders of the “liberal” churches could reach out more to their counterparts in “conservative” churches, perhaps we could help each other. My husband and I have recently been in contact with some of the leaders in several of these nondenominational congregations. Our goal is to share love of Scripture and praise of Christ with them on the basis of shared faith and gratitude while, at the same time, bearing witness to a larger view of Christian responsibility which includes issues such as the death penalty and torture.

We have a serious situation here. The Christian Right is up in arms about nativity scenes on public property and President Bush’s “happy holiday” card. They studiously ignore the fact that the nation is in the throes of an intense debate about Tookie Williams’ pending execution and the CIA’s secret prisons. But the mainlines are not going to have any effect on this situation if we just continue to look on with scorn from a disdainful distance.

It’s not as if the mainlines have anything to brag about with regard to these issues anyway. A number of Methodist bishops have just issued a statement of contrition for their silence during the buildup to the Iraq war (see previous Rumination). I still don’t hear prayers for our enemies in any of the churches that I visit. There has been precious little said or done about Darfur. Most of the news in the Episcopal Church is about dissension concerning homosexuality, so there is little energy left to tackle the great national and world issues. The leadership in the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches seems to be focused on injustice done to the Palestinians, while remaining silent about administration-sponsored torture, “renditions,” and secret detentions by our very own government. Surely it is scandalous that Christians cannot get together to protest these things. But how can we have a concerted protest if we in the mainlines continue to act as if more than half of the American churches don’t exist except for us to ridicule and feel superior to?

It is true that quite a few moderates have been expelled from conservative seminaries and congregations. I have felt the sting of this myself, though it is far worse in some of the more extreme circles (ask a moderate Southern Baptist). The fault is not all on the side of the Left. Yet over and over I have found that where there is genuine shared faith in the context of the confession of Christ as Lord, the Spirit will build bridges across the divide. May it be so.

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