March 13, 2006
Protestantism and Power
-- Martin E. Marty
"Lessons of the old mainline for the new mainline" headlines the guest column in the conservative-to-moderate Christianity Today (March 2006). Speaking up for the "old" is Jason Byassee, a youngish editor of the moderate-to-liberal Christian Century. He begins with elegy: "We mainliners had our day in the sun." In the era of Prohibition and, I'd surmise, through the 1950s, "we did then what you do now. We imposed our way on a divided populace by sheer force of electoral muscle and religious rhetoric. Our effort to take America for Christ is now a peculiar cultural artifact." "This is not to denigrate monuments from a more triumphant age of mainline Protestantism—many such places still do fine ministry." Amen.
After history comes theology from Byassee: "But church influence on politics is fickle. Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's"; and "the last people who want to be caught dead pledging allegiance to the wrong Lord ought to be evangelicals"—but then he documents the way many are now doing just that.
Next, a bit of twitting: "I know you are used to being a persecuted minority, but isn't it time to drop the inferiority complex, rule graciously, and love your enemies, even if they are liberal?" Byassee continues: "Do you really want to be allied with foul-mouthed know-it-alls on AM radio or with politicians who don't care a lick about Jesus?" He quotes C. S. Lewis's Screwtape advising young devil Wormwood: "Once you have made the world an end and faith a means ..." (you can guess the rest). Back to mainliners: "We're so far out of political power now that we're remembering the first task of the church is to be the church, not to play chaplain to a political party or nation ... [or] to trade fidelity for influence." Advice: "Enjoy your time at the top," for "political power is a good deal more transient than the things we both hold most dear." Your moment will pass; how are you acting?
Let me supplement Byassee's history and theology lesson with a longer look. To review: Gone are European Christendom ("dom" = domain); the Holy Roman Empire; the American colonial establishment, a Congregational-Presbyterian-Episcopalian nexus; the Enlightenment religion, the Deist friendly-to-Christianity faith of the "fathers and founders" in the time of the Declaration and the Constitution -- they were almost instantly replaced by revivalists who helped bring in what I called the "Righteous Empire," which lasted almost to the era about which Byassee writes. Also insert recall of a period when American Catholics "ran" most northern cities. These are mostly gone, all of them generally overlooked by the media.
A few words in Byassee's editorial deserve notice. The "monuments"—he does not mean buildings and tombstones—"from a more triumphant age" are "places that still do fine ministry." Could it be that, disencumbered of the imperial-dominion burdens that some Protestant conservatives now seek, mainline members are more free to remember that "the first task of the church is to be the church," while many in the religious right coalition that now owns the religious rights to the three branches of government and a good deal of the market are less free?
Byassee offers this: "When the powers that be are done with you, we mainline liberals will have a rocking chair for you at the retirement home of the formerly religiously important," ready to sit and be brothers and sisters. I hope they don't only rock!
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.