Friday, April 15, 2005

Liberal Churches Have Waning Influence in Public Life

Liberal Churches have little influence on public policy debates these days. They are present but well-nigh impotent as a social force affecting legislation for the poor. They are practically invisible when TV news stations seek the voice of religion on hot current debates.

Take the recent Terri Schiavo case. Who were the spokespersons of religion? They were hysterical fundamentalist zealots, reactionary Catholic priests, ignoramuses with heat and no light. Pat Robertson's statement that it was "judicial murder" is representative of the lack of knowledge and insight attributed to religion. There was Jesse Jackson, usually a sane voice for the down and out, right there with the rest of the irrational chorus, ignorant of or ignoring law, standard medical practice, and common sense that gives the right of patients or their proxies the right to refuse or demand cessation of life-sustaining measures.

Time Magazine recently featured the 25 most influential evangelicals. Jim Wallis, who is a voice for the poor and for justice for all, was not among them. When will we expect an issue devoted to the most influential liberal Christians? Don't hold your breath. Many of the featured evangelical do good work with projects to assist the poor and suffering around the world. This is commendable, but the public voice of the religious right, conservatives, evangelicals, whatever, is not for a higher minimum wage, a demand for universal health insurance, environmental sanity, and the like but against abortion, gay marriage, abstinence only sex education, prayer in public schools, "God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the like. The voice of Jesus on these issues is mute, but he spoke plainly about meeting the needs of the poor, healing the sick, and relieving suffering. Common sense should teach us that these goals require political,public, and social approaches as well as ministry to individuals.

Liberal churches have been caught up in internal debates that have consumed much of what energy they have left. They have argued over the role of women and whether homosexuals should be welcomed without conditions or ordained. It should have been immediately forthcoming that women and men, heterosexuals and homosexuals, are equal in every ecclesiastical and other respects and should be so treated in church and society. While these are inevitable and important, though regrettable, debates, they do absolutely nothing to help the poor and those those without health insurance. They do nothing to raise wages for the poor and working class. They do nothing to counteract the aim of the Bush Administration to redistribute income away from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy. They do nothing to combat the power of huge corporations, polluters, and others to have their selfish way in public policy.

Consequently, there is no loud and effective public voice on matters of global peace, social justice, and the suffering of the masses of people around the world.
All are welcome to refute, modify, and amend as necessary. But I am sure that the final outcome will not be far from the dismal generalizations set forth here in sorrow.

Here is a response from a pastor and a former student of mine.


Is it possible that we have bought the rhetoric of the culture that says we're all too busy and too fatigued for anything other than minding our own store? Of all the obtstacles progressive churches face, finding congregational leaders (including pastors and pastoral candidates) who give the church emphasis in their lives is the largest. I think, too, that folks are weary of controversy and incivility. In other words, perhaps liberals like it on the sidelines. __________ Signed _______

Here is my response, slghty modified for public display:

My dear friend,

I am very grateful to you for your response. I don't think it is cynical at all. I think your points are telling, perceptive, and accurate, especially about liberals on the sidelines.

I too am tired of controversy and incivility. Most of the incivility shown to me and a good part of it in public debate is from those who claim to love Jesus and live by the Bible.

I am old, tired, and impatient. Once I was young, enthusiastic, idealistic, committed. I was pastor in the deep South in 1953-55, when race was a hot topic. I bit my tongue when I heard crude racists remarks from good Christians. I put passages in my sermons on race then qualified them to keep from offending the segregationists (99.9% of the congregation), although I offended them often enough as they reminded me. I was patient trying to make a a little gain now and then. At Mercer I tempered the wind to the thin coats of the lambs sitting before me trying to bring them into the modern world by teaching moderate doctrines that their pastors should have taught them, for they were trained, many of them, in the same biblical disciplines as I was. But they kept silent to build bigger buildings, baptize more to get credit, and to move up the church ladder of success and to get a big pastorate in Atlanta. (Don't rock the boat was their motto). They knew better on race but did nothing, nothing, in most cases to disturb the peace of their congregations. The big social issue among Baptists in 1955 in my Association was protesting the teaching of square dancing in the schools. Straining at gnats, swallowing camels.

But now, _______, I am old, tired, and impatient. A college professor said to me, the first time he heard a white man call a black man brother was not in a church but in a labor union. A map of the South showing the percentage of whites and blacks in each county taught me that resistance to racial change varied with the percentage of blacks in the county and state, regardless of church membership, which was largely irrelevant. H. R. Niebuhr taught me that churches are divided not only by doctrine but by race, geography, nationality, class, etc. Liston Pope showed that the reaction of churches to strikers in Gastonia, NC, in 1929 varied by class and culture.

All these things made a deep imprint on me. Yet I stayed in the church, hoping and working. But then I find that about the same % of white Protestants vote for Republican presidential candidates now as when I began my ministry, so I despair. When Jesus confronts culture in the churches, culture wins 80% of the time. I used to find hope in the 20%, but now I am old, tired, and impatient.

I do not want to sit in a church and hear one more time what the Bible says about homosexuality (most of it is awful) or arguments why churches should affirm gay people. I don't want to make those arguments myself one more time. I do so on my web site, which is a form of church ministry for which I get grateful letters from gay people who rejoice to hear a Baptist preacher defend them. How long, O lord, how long?

Progressive churches would do well to ask why some liberals are on the sidelines. Maybe it is because some of them are old, tired, and impatient, and some of them are young and don't think the church is worth the effort.

Now you and I should sit down and talk about all this. Thanks once again for taking the time to make a thoughtful and insightful response to my latest outburst.

To one of my prized students from a teacher who admires what you are doing at __________.


One more response from a former student.

He asked if I knew what a liberal was. Woe is me! I had to admit I had violated one of my cardinal principles. In class I was a bear for careful, rigorous definition of terms with detailed attention to ambiguities, complexities, and nuances and limitations of same. What do you mean by that word, was one of my trademarks.

My aim was always to keep a proper combination of head (thought), heart (love), and gut (passion, feeling). Guts alone can forsake reason and neglect love. In class, head was the organizing principle, in the pulpit, heart, and in prayer, meditation, and in the psychiatrist's office, gut. You always need a mix of the three appropriate to the audience and occasion.

Now that I am old, tired, and impatient, I find the gut more in evidence. Thus my reference to some of my tirades as outbursts. Nearly 40 years ago a psychiatrist told me I ought to practice deliberately irritating people. Who me? Kind, gentle, non-confrontational, extremely introverted, shy, timid as a mouse ME? Well, I have amessage for that doctor. Hey, remember when you said I ought to practice deliberately annoying people, and I thought you were crazy? Well, doc, you ought to see me now, and I have never felt better in my life!

Now for liberalism. I carelessly conflated a political and a religious meaning. Politically, for me, a liberal is one biased in favor of the poor, the oppressed, the weak, and the unjustly and needlessly suffering. In religion a liberal for me is non-fundamentalist, open to science, the historical-critical approach to the Bible, open-minded, irenic in spirit, and a proponent of the social gospel. An evangelical in theology can be liberal in politics, note, CAN BE! To aggravate the confusion, sometimes I referred to churches and religion generally under the aphorism that the best clue to a person's moral, social, cultural, and political outlook is not church membership but zip code.

There was a lot of gut going in that little diatribe with offense to thought and probably to love.

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