An Excerpt from The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity
by Thomas C. Reeves
In the chaotic period from 1965 to 1975, the mainline churches declined rapidly in several ways. For the first time in American history, the major church groups stopped growing and began to shrink. Then too, religious giving in relation to inflation fell off, and new church construction declined. Young, educated, middle-class men and women seemed especially alienated, in particular those who shared in the cultural upheavals. Intellectuals used such terms as post-Protestant, post-Puritan, postreligious, and secular city to describe this era.
A Gallup poll conducted in 1968 showed that 67 percent thought religion was losing its impact on society. A few years later, the figure had risen to 75 percent. Major reasons included the belief that the church was outdated, irrelevant, that morals were breaking down, and that people were becoming materialistic. In a 1971 Gallup survey, almost 40 percent of the Catholic and Protestant clergy under 40 years of age said they had given serious thought to leaving the ministry. Between 1966 and 1969, in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II, which “modernized” the Catholic Church, the number of nuns in America decreased by 14,000, and the number of seminarians by 30 percent. By 1976, 35,000 nuns and 10,000 priests had departed. Churchgoing dropped nine percentage points between 1958 and the early seventies.
In sharp contrast, conservative churches continued to grow. In 1967, the Southern Baptists overtook the Methodists, becoming the nation’s largest Protestant body. Data on missionary personnel reflected the change. Between 1958 and 1971, the number sent out by the Southern Baptist Convention grew from 1,186 to 2,494. The United Methodist overseas task force decreased during the same period from 1,453 to 1,175.
Many thought that the success of conservative churches was explained in part by the fact that they offered clear-cut answers to religious questions and engaged in evangelization. In 1972 Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches Are Growing pointed to the vital relationship among firm convictions, strictness, exclusivity, and growth. (“When a handful of wholly committed human beings give themselves fully to a great cause or faith, they are virtually irresistible.”) Then too, the conservative churches tended to reject the new culture of the era. Roof and McKinney state: “Careful analysis of membership trends shows that the churches hardest hit were those highest in socioeconomic status, those stressing individualism and pluralism in belief, and those most affirming of American culture.”
Roof and McKinney might well have said “liberal American culture,” for it was not the culture of the people who twice elected Richard Nixon to the presidency that excited the leadership of the mainline churches during this period. Literally thousands of examples can be cited to document the fact that liberals were caught up in the idealism, folly, and general pandemonium of the era to a far greater extent than the average person in the pews. Indeed, liberal clergy and laity often boasted of what they saw as their exceptional enlightenment and decried the inability and unwillingness of Christians in general to share in their commitment to “higher” causes.
The Higher Cause of Racial Equality
In some cases the causes were indeed higher. The mainline churches were active in the struggle for racial equality, for example, having an impact on the civil rights movement in which they may always take pride. The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, the United Presbyterian Church, and the National Council of Churches formed their own race relations commissions. Clergy and laity alike often took strong positions on the issue, and some marched and even faced violence to rid the nation of the ugliness of racial segregation. In 1963, a month before the Washington, D. C. demonstration led by Martin Luther King, Jr., several prominent religious leaders set a precedent by being arrested in a civil rights march. The list included Eugene Carson Blake, chief executive officer of the United Presbyterian Church, and Bishop Daniel Corrigan of the National Council of the Episcopal Church. It was generally acknowledged that the support of religious groups was crucial in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1963, the National Council of Churches created its Commission on Religion and Race, which became highly involved in the civil rights scene, including co-sponsorship of the March on Washington in 1964. The NCC’s Delta Ministry in Mississippi, which had a staff of 55 in 1966, was active in voter registration, citizenship education, welfare rights, and economic improvement for blacks. In 1967, the year in which Newark and Detroit went up in flames during the “long hot summer,” NCC leaders voted to invest funds in urban ghettos and ask member denominations to endorse economic boycotts of companies practicing “exploitation or discrimination.” In the early 1970s, the National Council had its first black president and was part of a mainline church effort to curtail corporate investments in South Africa.
From Equality to Militancy
As the peaceful and self-sacrificing messages of Martin Luther King, Jr. gave way to extreme militance, separatism, and violence in the late 1960s, some mainline clergy and laity were swept along with the increasingly radical tide. Often armed with little more than liberal pieties about the basic innocence and goodness of the oppressed, they were not prepared to deal effectively with those who sought more than racial equality.
In 1969, “black power” militant James Forman and some followers invaded a communion service at Manhattan’s liberal Riverside Church. Forman read a “Black Manifesto” demanding $500 million in “reparations” from the nation’s churches and synagogues in compensation for past discrimination. (He later upped the ante to $3 billion.) The preamble to Forman’s document characterized the United States government as “this racist, imperialist government that is choking the life of all the people around the world.” Calling the nation “the most barbaric country in the world,” the preamble added, “we have a chance to help bring this government down.” The document mentioned “armed struggle” if necessary.
Before long, Forman was demanding, among other things, $50 million from the Lutheran Church in America, $60 million from the American Baptist Convention, $200 million from U. S. Roman Catholics, and $60 million (plus 60 percent a year of the income from all Church assets) from the Episcopal Church. He wanted the National Council of Churches to disband and reassign all its assets to black development. Having disrupted a meeting of the NCC to make his point, he concluded: “People who believe in the Black Manifesto will forever be a plague upon the racist white churches and synagogues of America.”
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, the General Board of the Disciples of Christ, the black president of the American Baptist Convention, and several Jewish organizations rejected Forman’s demands outright. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Hines called the Manifesto “calculatedly revolutionary, Marxist, inflammatory, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian.” Others were more positive. The General Synod of the United Church of Christ invited Forman to address it, and Robert V. Moss, Jr., the denomination’s president, said that he strongly favored creating a $10 million fund. Forman, exclaimed Moss, was a “prophetic” figure.
Forman appeared before the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church and asked that body to pay $80 million in cash to his National Black Economic Development Conference, to liquidate its assets in South Africa and turn the money over to the Conference, to give blacks 60 percent of the Church’s annual income, and to deed church lands in the south to poor blacks and in New Mexico to Mexican-Americans. While the Presbyterians made no mention of channeling funds to Forman, they vowed to set up machinery to raise $50 million for use “in depressed areas for deprived people” and earmarked $200,000 for other minority causes. (In 1971, the General Assembly voted to grant $10,000 to the Angela Davis defense committee. Davis, a black militant and avowed Communist who had been on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list, was in prison charged with murder, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy. Davis was found not guilty in 1972.)
An international conference sponsored by the World Council of Churches, chaired by Democratic Senator George McGovern, urged church support for “guerrilla fighters” and “resistance movements, including revolutions, which are aimed at the elimination of political or economic tyranny that makes racism possible.” Sixteen black theologians meeting under the auspices of the 600-member National Committee of Black Churchmen endorsed Forman’s reparations demand, including its call for violence. Methodist Bishop Joseph A. Johnson declared, “I see no possible way to change the structures of injustice except through violence.” A Roman Catholic priest present at the meeting declared: “Deliberate, planned violence can be morally justified, and violence can play a role in effecting social change.”
A Special General Convention of the Episcopal Church yielded to intimidation by black militants and voted to give $200,000 to the National Committee of Black Churchmen. Delegates knew that the money was intended eventually to reach James Forman’s Black Economic Development Conference. The Episcopal Church thus became the first denomination to respond with cash to Black Manifesto reparation demands. (A large-scale “pocketbook rebellion” from the pews over this and other controversial grants to radicals prompted Presiding Bishop Hines to retire early.)
By mid-1971, Forman’s Black Manifesto had raised only about $300,000. But indirectly, by appealing to the idealism, guilt, and fear of the white majority in the mainline denominations, the fiery demand helped generate millions. By 1971, the United Methodist Church, for example, voted to spend $4 million on various minority community efforts, over and above pre-Manifesto efforts. The Disciples of Christ doubled the $2 million previously earmarked for a “reconciliation” project. (“I thank the Lord for the Manifesto,” said the black director of the Disciples’s program.) By 1972, the Episcopal Church had paid out some $6.5 million in grants for “minority group empowerment.” The extent to which these funds actually helped impoverished minorities remains to be studied, but skepticism seems warranted.
The War in Vietnam
Members of the mainline, like the public as a whole, were divided on the Vietnam War. The Disciples of Christ, to which Lyndon Johnson belonged, avoided a clear-cut stand on the war in 1966. The Episcopal Church was never able to come up with a formal statement that either favored or rejected the conflict. But not long after the massive American escalations by President Johnson and his Kennedy Administration advisers, voices within the mainline began to express strong concern.
As early as June 1965, the General Board of the National Council of Churches asked the government to reappraise its Vietnam policy. In 1966, the Lutheran Church in America expressed misgivings, listing six “especially troubling” aspects of the conflict that included “the steady escalation of military commitments in Vietnam and, with it, the increased danger of a full-scale war in Asia.” By 1967, both Northern and Southern Presbyterians were raising serious questions about American participation in the struggle. The United Church of Christ had similar doubts.
Critics in general argued that the United States had intervened in a civil war, that the conflict was illegal, that we were waging racial aggression against an Oriental people, that we were punishing blacks and the poor by drafting them and sending them to the front in larger proportion than their share of the population, that we were squandering billions that could be better spent at home, that we were trying to dominate the world, and so on.
By 1968, as the mood on the left became more radical and violence, at home and abroad, became almost a way of life, many mainline leaders stepped up their criticism of the war. The National Council of Churches, for example, called upon the United States Government to halt the bombing of North Vietnam and learn to think of its citizens as human beings rather than as “Congs,” “Communists,” or “guerrillas.” A year later, with half a million Americans in Vietnam, the organization voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution defending critics of the war, and urged that the United States withdraw all troops by the end of 1970. (When the NCC failed to “accept and hold in trust” a young war resister’s draft card, Episcopal priest Dick York walked along the officers’ table, splashing red paint on their papers, and shouted into a microphone, “The blood of the Vietnamese is upon you!”)
By 1970, in Sidney Ahlstrom’s words, “the nation’s sense of unity had fallen to its lowest point since 1861.” Eugene Carson Blake, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, told the General Assembly of his fellow United Presbyterians that Christians all over the globe, with very few exceptions, thought America morally wrong in Vietnam. They based their position in part, he said, on a belief that “the United States is as hypocritical and self-righteous as the U.S.S.R. and is proving itself morally bankrupt in the world scene.” The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church asked the United States government “to cease immediately and finally the bombing of the people and country of Vietnam; and to withdraw all American forces . . . by December, 1971.” The American Baptist Convention called on President Nixon “to get Americans out of the conflict in Southeast Asia,” and in mid-1971 sought withdrawal by the end of the year. (In 1972, however, the Baptists could not agree on a Vietnam resolution and remained silent.)
In early 1972, a research unit of the National Council of Churches condemned ten Protestant denominations (including all of the mainline churches) for having investments associated in any way with military production. Soon, the General Board of the NCC initiated a huge peace rally, representing Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Jews. A formal statement condemned the war and President Nixon, and called for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and the cessation of all aid to Indochinese governments.
Later that year, the United Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Convention, the National Conference of Churches, and several Catholic and Jewish organizations were expressing support for a variety of war dissenters. The General Board of the National Council of Churches, the United Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ’s Executive Council, and the United Methodists’ Board of Christian Social Concerns filed friends-of-the-court briefs in a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the war. At year’s end, the National Council of Churches asked member bodies to provide relief funds for North Vietnam as well as South Vietnam.
In 1973, the Disciples of Christ endorsed amnesty for draft evaders. The American Baptist Convention gave an award to antiwar activist William Sloane Coffin, Jr.
Of course, serious Christians could be found on both sides of the most controversial war in our history. On the right, many cheered the effort to defend allies and halt the spread of communism. That had been the basis of American foreign policy since World War II. Proponents were also convinced that dissenters prolonged the war and aided the enemy. The arguments continue.
“Women’s Rights” & Ordination
The struggles in this period over women’s rights were also highly divisive, perhaps especially among the most thoughtful Christians. In much quoted Galatians 3:28, St. Paul had declared men and women equal in baptism. But elsewhere in the Bible, in particular the writings of St. Paul, women were declared and assumed to be subordinate to men. (See 1 Corinthians 11:3–16; 14:33–37; Ephesians 5:22–24; 1 Timothy 2:8–15; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Peter 3:1–6.) Christianity, like Judaism, was patriarchal.
In Scripture, God chose to reveal Himself in the form of a male. Jesus called God his Father and said he was the Son of God. While he showed considerable sensitivity toward women, he chose male disciples. From the beginning, Christians had practiced their faith under male leadership.
The steady advance of democracy in the nineteenth century, however, began to alter this view slightly. Women spoke up at revival meetings, Free Will Baptists had female preachers, and in 1853 the Congregationalists ordained a woman. Women played major roles in the temperance and abolition movements, and proved themselves effective in leading the women’s suffrage campaign. Women served as foreign missionaries after the Civil War, attended Bible institutes, and worked in churches in many capacities.
In the twentieth century, evidence mounted, especially during wartime, that women could handle any intellectual challenge and responsibility. When permitted, many excelled in theological studies. So why should they be excluded from the clergy?
In the civil rights climate of the 1960s, it was increasingly difficult to limit the role of women in churches—at least liberal Protestant churches. Mainline seminaries had tended for many decades to see the Bible, certainly selected portions of it, as a product of its time and place. That was St. Paul speaking harshly about women, professors said, not God. (St. Paul exclaimed at one point that his teaching on the subject came directly from God. [1 Corinthians 14:37]) And as for the 2,000 years of Church tradition—well, look how long slavery had been sanctioned by Scripture. Besides, Protestants rejoiced in their freedom, often thinking themselves liberated from the past. Truth evolved, many liberals believed; the Holy Spirit was constantly guiding discerning Christians—i.e., themselves—into new and better avenues of understanding.
The issue was complicated because the women themselves were divided about their goals. There were nonfeminists, more or less content to live in a traditional way; moderate feminists, who wanted fairness and equality of opportunity; and radical feminists, who sought power above all, and often made little effort to disguise their contempt for traditional institutions and moral values. The historic Christian faith was among the radicals’ prime targets. In the heat of the Age of Aquarius, many mainline Protestants failed to distinguish one group of women from another. Those furthest to the left and making the most noise (and thus receiving the most attention in academia and the media) were assumed to speak for all women.
Theological arguments for and against the ordination of women were plentiful, if often opaque. Some, like the Roman Catholic hierarchy, preferred not to debate at all, contending that the issue had long been settled. The Orthodox and many Protestant fundamentalists tended to agree.
In practice, pro-ordination arguments centered largely around the currently popular issue of equal rights. Sooner or later, in one way or another, proponents would ask a trenchant question: Are you or are you not in favor of discriminating against women? It could cause even the most formidable conservatives to sputter, change the subject, or lapse into embarrassed silence. Very few reasonable men wished to be seen as persecutors of women. Discrimination of all sorts was against the law in the secular world. The professional schools were filling up with women; even the military academies were admitting them. And no one wanted to be written off as a “male chauvinist pig.”
Name-calling proved to be a powerful device for achieving victory. To be in favor of a male-only clergy caused one to be branded a sexist, a fundamentalist, a reactionary. The best label traditionalists could pin on their opponents was “trendy,” pretty weak stuff in the war of words. And when reason and rhetoric proved inadequate, feminists used demonstrations, boycotts, tantrums, and tears to get their way. (I have personally observed all of these tactics and can vouch for their effectiveness. In England, women seeking ordination chained themselves to church doors.)
After Women’s Ordination
By 1971 the only mainline body to hold out was the Episcopal Church—some of whose members believed in the Catholic and Orthodox concept of episcopacy and the priesthood. But after vigorous feminist campaigning, illegal ordinations, a suit for sex discrimination, and prodding by liberal bishops, the Episcopalians opened the priesthood to women in 1976. All resistance soon faded. Without a Bible or a Church tradition to provide, in their judgment, dependable spiritual or ethical authority, most liberal Protestants went along with the flow of events in the secular world. (Only the Roman Catholic magisterium kept that largest Christian church from female priests. In America, 63 percent of Catholics polled in 1993 favored the ordination of women. Of those under 30 polled, 76 percent favored women priests.)
In 1977, New York City’s liberal Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore ordained the denomination’s first openly committed homosexual priest of either sex. The Reverend Ellen Barrett said that her relationship with her lesbian lover “is what feeds the strength and compassion I bring to the ministry.”
The National Council of Churches elected its first woman president, Cynthia Wedel, in 1969. Two years later the American Baptist Convention and the United Presbyterians chose women leaders. (Women of the American Baptist Convention, which had long had female clergy, threatened a floor fight at the annual meeting if a woman was not elected president.) Episcopalians elected their first woman bishop in 1988, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America took the same step in 1992.
In 1978, a study showed that the enrollment of women in seminaries in the United States and Canada increased 118.9 percent since 1972. While women comprised only 4 percent of all ordained Protestant clergy, they made up 20 to 50 percent of the enrollment in some major American divinity schools.
Not surprisingly, liberal Protestant churches tended to side with radical feminists on the most volatile issues of the day. Before 1973, for example, the United Methodists, United Presbyterians, American Baptists, and the United Church of Christ were pro-choice on abortion. After Roe v. Wade, they were joined by the Disciples of Christ, and the Episcopal Church.
When an amendment was introduced in Congress in mid-1973 to restrict the availability of abortions, the American Baptist Churches, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization of Women, and the National Women’s Political Caucus in opposition. By year’s end 16 Christian and Jewish religious organizations had formed the National Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. The list included the American Baptists, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the United Presbyterian Church (USA).
In 1972, the United Methodist Women (UMW) gave $10,000 to eight women’s liberation action groups and proclaimed that its purpose was to “bridge gaps between church women and the women’s movement.” The UMW’s Response magazine soon published such radical feminists as Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Reuther. It was the beginning of a long and continuing relationship between the powerful and well-funded (giving totalled $37,926,300 in 1992) Methodist group and a wide variety of radicals. At a 1982 UMW assembly, Dr. Hazel Henderson invoked Gaia, Greek earth goddess, who, before human beings came along, “managed the biosphere very well by herself.”
New Language, New Gods
There was also much support among mainline leaders for the Equal Rights Amendment and “unisex” language. In 1980, the National Council of Churches, which often worked closely with the National Organization of Women and other feminist groups, sponsored an “inclusive language” translation of the Bible. Some radical feminists disapproved because the translators had not gone far enough: Jesus continued to be called “the Son of God.”
A year later, at a meeting of feminists sponsored by the NCC, God was addressed as “Mother” in the prayers and the liturgy. Dr. Elizabeth Bettenhausen of Boston University’s School of Theology questioned whether “the whole of Christianity has been a religion to reinforce male dominance.”
In 1983, the NCC released a lectionary that showed how powerful the radicals in the women’s movement had become in a short time. God was now the “Father [and Mother]” or “[Mother and] Father.” The Deity was addressed as “Sovereign One” but never as “Lord.” Instead of the “Son of Man,” Jesus was called “Child of God.” The aversion to the masculine pronoun “himself” was such that one verse read: “Christ humbled self.” The strongly profeminist committee that made the translation, headed by a Lutheran (whose own denomination, the Lutheran Church in America, rejected the book), complained that old Bible language about God the Father “has been used to support the excessive authority of earthly fathers.”
In the Episcopal Church, there was considerable sympathy among theologians, Church leaders, and liberal interest groups for such efforts. The new Book of Common Prayer released in 1979 contained several examples of “inclusive language” and contained a daily lectionary that omitted Scriptural references to the subordination of women (as well as to sexual immorality and sodomy). A 1982 hymnal altered the language of most of its contents in deference to feminist demands. “Good Christian men, rejoice,” in the popular Christmas carol, became “Good Christian friends, rejoice.” During this period most Episcopalians favored the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and had not cried out for changes in their hymns. The innovations were imposed by Church leaders with the approval of the General Convention.
In 1984, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City displayed a four-foot bronze statue of the Crucifixion featuring a Christa, not the Christus, complete with undraped breasts and rounded hips. Conservative writer Florence King later declared that the Episcopal Church, to which she belonged, became “a non-church the moment it committed this blasphemy. . . .”
At the 1994 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, a service was held opposing sexism. It included a litany celebrating numerous women that omitted mention of the Virgin Mary. Forgiveness was asked “especially for our prejudices against women who have disabilities or whose racial identity or sexual orientation is different from our own.” At one point in the service, the Bishop of Western North Carolina apologized for having offended women by calling God “Father.”
The Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ, revised in 1977 and 1981, uses inclusive language. The United Methodist Book of Worship, approved in 1992, contains rites using nonsexist language such as “God, our Father and Mother.” A revision committee headed by Bishop Susan Morrison made several efforts to display God’s motherly aspects, including a reference to God as “like a Bakerwoman” and “our grove, our lover, our well.” The Presbyterian Church’s Book of Common Worship, released in 1994, scrupulously avoids the use of the masculine pronoun in references to God and, in some cases, to the Son of God.
Welcoming the Gay Agenda
The homosexual rights movement of the 1960s also made a strong impact on the mainline churches. To be opposed to the equal treatment of gays and lesbians in all areas of life, the argument went, was to be a bigot, a “homophobe.” The issue, proponents said, was about fairness, equality, and love. They also employed tactics, such as the disruption of religious services, used by civil rights advocates and radical feminists.
But unlike the drive for the equal rights of women, this crusade failed to convince the majority of clergy and laity in the mainline churches. Scripture was unequivocal in its condemnation of sodomy, and Church tradition had from the beginning been at least officially hostile. Early Church writers were unanimously agreed that sexual activity was to be limited to that between husband and wife. Even more important was the lack of sympathy the general public revealed toward homosexuals (who were probably between 2 and 2.5 percent of the population). The average American might well be tolerant of homosexual orientation, which some thought genetically based, but homosexual activity usually found defenders only on the extreme left. In the mainline churches, such support often proved significant.
In 1972, the United Church of Christ ordained William Reagan Johnson of San Francisco, the first professed homosexual to be so honored by any mainline church. (At the time, there was no formal church policy on the question, ordinations being under the supervision of local associations of churches.) When asked if he could be a good minister without a wife, Johnson replied, “I don’t really feel I need a wife. I hope some day to share a deep love relationship with another man.”
The following year, a gay liberation lobby was at work attempting to win acceptance of homosexuality from the National Council of Churches. In 1975, the NCC, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Church, and many local Quaker chapters passed civil rights planks that defended the rights of homosexuals, without addressing the question of whether homosexuality was a sin.
Two years later, as we have seen, self-declared lesbian Ellen Barrett was ordained in the Episcopal Church. William Johnson, who had been traveling across the country since his ordination talking about sexuality and homosexuality, was pleased. “We are two,” he said. “That’s progress.” Johnson added, “I see women’s liberation and gay liberation as movements of the Holy Spirit. I really believe God is trying to break through again to teach us something we missed before.”
In 1977 the new president of the United Church of Christ, The Reverend Dr. Avery Denison Post, pledged to support homosexual demands. “When scripture is used to fuel a mission against people or to build a case for the denial of human rights or civil liberties to those people, then scripture is in my opinion being misused.” Six years later, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ formally endorsed the ordination of homosexuals.
A Final Step Away?
Still, no mainline church has officially endorsed homosexual behavior. When a gay church, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, applied for membership in the National Council of Churches, successful objections were raised by American Baptists and the Lutheran Church in America, among others. When the effort was altered years later to include only “observer” status, as many as 12 churches were allegedly ready to leave the National Council, causing the request to be denied.
And yet, as we have seen, homosexual conduct has many defenders in the mainline leadership. Many less prominent clergy and laity are also sympathetic, especially among the radical feminists. The Women’s Ministry Unit of the Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, gave financial grants to Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, the National Organization for Women, and the Religious Coalition on Abortion Rights in 1990.
In many mainline seminaries there is a great deal of support for gays and lesbians. The Episcopal Church’s General Theological Seminary (GTS), for example, endorsed a policy that permitted a lesbian professor to live in faculty housing with her female lover. Bishop Craig B. Anderson, the seminary’s dean and president, declared that GTS “has been and continues to be supportive of gay and lesbian persons.” (A major exception is the leadership of the Princeton Theological Seminary, which has actively supported the Presbyterian Church in its opposition to ordaining practicing homosexuals. Several Episcopal seminaries, including Nashotah House, Trinity, and Virginia, specifically prohibit homosexual activity.) This stance, surely in part a reflection of attitudes dominant in secular colleges and universities, may in time, of course, result in the emergence of more liberal mainline policies.
Homosexuals have also made strong inroads into the publishing world, where religious books sympathetic to their cause have become routine. In 1993, for example, HarperSan Francisco brought out Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto by gay activist and former Jesuit priest Robert Goss. The book is “A daring celebration of Jesus’ solidarity with society’s outsiders that confronts church homophobia head-on as a betrayal of Jesus’ liberating message.” The opening line on the full-page ad in the publisher’s catalogue: “Jesus is as queer as you and me.”
Theology in this period followed the leftward trend of the mainline leadership and the secular liberal elite in general. Great names departed—C. S. Lewis (1963), Paul Tillich (1965), Emil Brunner (1966), Karl Barth (1968), Reinhold Niebuhr (1969), Harry Emerson Fosdick (1969)—and no one of comparable stature replaced them. In the mid-1960s, Harvey Cox’s The Secular City and Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics attracted many liberals because of their leftist sympathies and rejection of the supernatural. Liberation theology, black theology, and feminist theology appealed to predictable interest groups. Five principal “Death of God” theologians, who meant different things by the phrase, fascinated journalists briefly.
In 1966, James McCord, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, said that he thought the growing involvement of churches in the secular world had produced a theology emphasizing “the God of the present.” Bill Coats has observed: “Theological identities were forged along political not personal lines. Sin was associated with political enemies (the capitalist class, men, whites, straights, Western imperialists) and not the self. Salvation became the equivalent of justice, the overthrow of one’s political enemies.”
By the end of the 1960s, liberal Protestants (and many liberal Roman Catholics) had virtually abandoned the idea of heresy. In 1970, The Reverend Dr. George E. Sweazey, spiritual leader of the United Presbyterian Church, reported hearing from a seminary president that “theology today is in a shambles—that’s the long and the short of it.” And to the people in the pews, Sweazey said, it seems at times that “all the certainties” are “coming loose.”
On liberal seminary campuses during these years orthodox Christianity was often not a top priority. Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago Divinity School reported in 1966, “The younger men don’t even raise the issue of the Virgin Birth or Original Sin. They’re discussing the existence of God. And if there’s no God, you don’t have to argue about any of the other doctrines.”
Moreover, the intellectual and spiritual quality of liberal seminary students appeared to have dropped. A special committee created to study the Episcopal Church’s ministerial education program found in 1967 that roughly 43 percent of Church seminary students had college averages of C+ or lower, and that more than half had come to theology after having tried some other occupation. Most students, the committee reported, found chapel so boring and irrelevant that they frequently skipped services.
A Rockefeller Foundation report of 1976 observed sharp declines in overall quality at the seminaries of the “Big Five”: the divinity schools at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Vanderbilt, and New York’s Union Theological Seminary. Training had lost much of its scholarly rigor: elective courses had proliferated and language requirements and basic courses in the Bible, church history, and doctrine had vanished. The schools provided “general education for those interested in a diffuse variety of religious studies, personal quests for the meaning of life, social activism and pastorally oriented behavioral science.” The study found that chapel attendance had declined radically and that student manners “are more relaxed, sex freer and acquaintance with drugs often more than theoretical.” Most telling, perhaps, was the finding that a surprising number of graduates dropped out of organized religion altogether.
In keeping with the times, mainline churches hosted an assortment of silly services. When Richard York was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1968, for example, he wore a psychedelic chasuble decorated with yarn balls and tinkling bells. The Berkeley, California church was decked out with gas-filled balloons and banners, and a rock group provided hymn settings. The sermon was entitled “God Is Doing His Thing.”
In 1971, 7,000 people jammed into Manhattan’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine for the “Hair Mass,” a service commemorating the third anniversary of the Broadway opening of the popular musical. The event had everything: braless women, hot pants, a rock band, balloons. One family munched on hamburgers, malts, and french fries during the service. Harvard theologian Harvey Cox gave the sermon. Over 2,500 received Communion, including several Jews.
The highly popular rock musicals “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell” were also blended with religious services at times. At New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1971, a minister smilingly baptized a baby “In the name of the Father, the Holy Ghost, and Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The first religious service of ordination ever held by a major denomination in which women assumed all the principal roles took place in 1972. The Reverend Davida Fay Crabtree, a radical feminist, became a minister in the United Church of Christ. Her stole was embroidered with wildflowers, church symbols, and peace and social action symbols.
A year later, at a meeting of the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, a communion service featured a Dixieland band, and singing, clapping, and dancing in the aisles in a mass version of an airlines commercial. The carrying on was such that few took notice when two gays, hand-in-hand, marched onto the platform to protest that their concerns had not been addressed by the convention.
Any sort of rite could turn bizarre. At St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan in 1972, an environmental theater baptism service featured photos of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, a man shaving in an open bathroom singing “We Shall Overcome,” three nude young people playing kazoos and splashing in a plastic wading pool, an actor performing a bathtub scene from a play, and incense. Worshipers received greetings of “love” and a palmful of mud upon entering. At the baptism, candidates were daubed with Magic Marker in the sign of the cross. Afterward, the congregation hoisted the three newly baptized people (one was a three-year-old) onto their shoulders and paraded around the room.
Weddings were conducted in parks, on beaches, and on mountaintops. One Methodist minister in California enjoyed sitting and chatting with couples about their lives, concluding by casually telling them that they were now married. “We’re married?” asked one happy pair. “You’ve blown our minds.” Not to be bested by the mainline, a minister from the Universal Life Church conducted a service in 1969 in which he and the couple before him were nude. The proceedings concluded with the solemn declaration: “You’re married as long as you dig it.”
The Roman Catholic Church had more than its share of such frolic, all sorts of experiments being made in churches often stripped of their visible ties to the past. A “Hippie Mass” in Davenport, Iowa in 1969, for example, featured a priest, Father James Grubb, who “pauses as he says the Mass, cocks his head, and smiles approvingly at the ear-piercing, modern sounds that pour from the gyrating rock-musical group beside him at the altar.” At another Mass, the Offertory and Our Father were “performed” by a female dancer. One “liturgical” song—the Beatles’ “I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends”—bothered a Monsignor because it referred to drug use. Father Grubb wore gaily decorated burlap vestments, taught feminism and encouraged rebellious nuns, reveled in media attention, and began experimenting in drink, drugs, and sex to show parishioners that he was “with it.” (He later repented so completely that he returned to the Latin Mass.)
Underground & Counter Movements
In the late 1960s, a leftist, interdenominational “underground church” began to appear throughout the country, touted by the likes of Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd, an author (Are You Running With Me, Jesus?) and nightclub performer, and Milwaukee civil rights agitator Father James Groppi. This movement wanted to drastically reform organized religion, divesting it of rigid structure, authoritarianism, ritual, and dogma. Advocates took strong and predictable positions on race, sex, poverty, and war.
The Reverend John Pairman Brown, an underground proponent and professor at Berkeley’s Episcopal Church Divinity School, exclaimed: “we intend to surface as a nucleus of Church union and renewal, in the hope that what we represent will melt the denominations from the bottom up.” Boyd told a National Council of Churches meeting in 1967: “There’s a new Christian movement springing up in this country when many are saying that the church is believed to be dying. And this revolution is taking place largely unknown to official church leadership.”
Of greater significance was the “Jesus Movement” of the early 1970s. While adopting countercultural lifestyles and commitments to peace and “social justice” causes, adherents seemed more interested in supernatural religion than radical politics. This movement involved tens of thousands of mostly young people who joined an assortment of small, interdenominational, and often highly evangelical churches, organizations, and communes—from The Way Word coffeehouse in Greenwich Village to the Christian Surfers in Encinitas, California. (One convert to the latter said he sought Christ after he found the perfect wave in Hawaii and did not experience happiness.)
A “Sweet Jesus Rock Concert” at Stanford University in 1971 drew 8,000. The Jesus People sponsors almost had rebellion on their hands when one evangelist told the crowd to “abstain from sexual immorality, and that means abstain except in marriage.” The evangelist reported, “We’re finding this is the last area people want to give up.”
Jesus shirts (Jesus is my Lord), bumper stickers (Smile, God Loves You), posters, buttons, Jesus wristwatches, records, clothes, even a “Jesus cheer”—“Give me a J, give me an E . . .”—were all part of the excitement. Various show business personalities got involved, often producing best-selling records and books. Few were more zealous than singer-actor Pat Boone, who baptized more than 200 converts in his own swimming pool in a single year.
Maureen Orth in the Whole Earth Catalog shed light on the origins of this fervid movement. “The first thing I realized was how different it is to go to high school today. Acid trips in the seventh grade, sex in the eighth, the Viet Nam War a daily serial on TV since you were nine, parents and school worse than ‘irrelevant’—meaningless. No wonder Jesus is making a great comeback.” Bishop James Pike’s youngest son Christopher told a similar story, describing how he was converted by a college campus evangelist after a life devoted to drugs, television, and Eastern religion.
Of course, many sophisticated people thought the entire Jesus phenomenon absurd. But there were prominent Christians who thought otherwise. Billy Graham said in 1971, “If it is a fad, I welcome it.” Episcopal priest Robert Terwilliger of New York City’s Trinity Institute commented: “There is a revival of religion everywhere—except in the church.”
In fact, there were charismatic and “Neo-Pentecostal” movements within the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches in the early 1970s. There were probably more than 200,000 Roman Catholic charismatics in this country. But these Christians were a distinct minority, and in the mainline churches they lacked virtually any impact on denominational leaders and decision-making bodies.
The “Jesus freaks” and the underground church soon went the way of long sideburns, peace signs, and bell-bottom pants. The cults, sects, and Eastern religions that were fashionable in some circles, and never statistically significant, received very little attention once the Vietnam War became history.
Trend to the Right
By the late 1970s, the country was moving to the right. This caused much frustration among liberals, who condemned the “age of greed” and thought they were witnessing unprecedented corruption. Historian Christopher Lasch growled, “Self-preservation has replaced self-improvement as the goal of earthly existence…the happy hooker stands in place of Horatio Alger as the prototype of personal success.”
The shift in the public mood increased as people became increasingly concerned about the decline in the nation’s moral and cultural standards. Evangelicals were responsive to the trend, linking Christian orthodoxy with conservative politics. They had dropped their inhibitions about engaging in politics when they gained media respect and attention with “born-again” Jimmy Carter in the White House.
In late 1979, sociologist Wade Clark Roof noted that religious liberals were falling behind the times. “Those who are affirmative and walking with confidence are the conservatives.” Harry Siefert, a retired professor of religion at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, looked at plummeting membership in the mainline churches and wrote, “There is little evidence that liberal churches are looking forward or offering specific programs appropriate for present and future generations.”
By the 1980s evangelicals were a major force in the Republican Party, and in the 1990s they seemed more powerful than ever. In 1995, neoconservative leader Irving Kristol predicted that the movement would conquer the GOP, likening it to the powerful religious awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteeth centuries.
Many mainline leaders and theologians, along with liberals in general, reacted angrily to the conservative tide. Some returned to biblical criticism as a vehicle for attacking the transcendent faith of their foes in the Culture Wars. In Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time, for example, Marcus Borg portrayed Jesus as a feminine, multicultural figure, stripped of the supernaturalism some scholars were now saying had been invented by later followers. Jesus now fit the needs of the left in its struggles against “reactionaries.” As one reader put it, “Since Jesus confronted the conventional wisdom of his day, he can be employed in our contemporary struggle against hierarchy, exclusivity, patriarchy, imperialism, consumerism, meritocracy and individualism.”
Liberation theology, black theology, and especially feminist theology remained popular in the mainline seminaries, continuing to transform the study and practice of the faith into the polemics of socialist revolution, lesbian emancipation, ethnic and racial distinctiveness, radical environmentalism, and the like. Process theology, which began to attract attention after World War II and was important by this time, appealed to some interested in dense philosophical thought and eager to challenge orthodox Christianity. Postmodernism, a gospel of moral and cultural relativism popular in academia, was implicit if not explicit in much contemporary theology. By the mid-1990s, winds from the far left had blown powerfully in the liberal Protestant denominations for at least three decades.
In political and cultural matters, mainline leaders largely preferred to remain happily locked into the ideology of the Vietnam War years. Now closely linked to the Democratic Party, which had itself been overtaken by the far left in 1972, they tended, for example, to attack anti-Communist American foreign policy, to defend the welfare state, and back anything supported by leftist blacks, radical feminists, homosexual activists, and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union that were actively attempting to keep religion (especially the “right wing” variety) and biblical moral standards out of American public life.
Thus the charge that mainline liberals are “trendy” does not hold up. “Stuck in the Sixties” is a more accurate epithet. Liberals are fond of saying that the only permanent thing in modern life is change, and they often portray themselves as pragmatists. In fact, they have absorbed an ideology that essentially remains the same. Not public opinion, not even election results, can shake the left’s commitment. Congressman Richard Armey devised a relevant epigram: “Conservatives believe it when they see it. Liberals see it when they believe it.”
The penchant for “stuckness,” as theologians would be tempted to call it, was illustrated when Bishop Edmond Browning became the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. With this selection, the bishops (who choose the PB) presented a map for the Church to follow with roads that ran in only one direction.
During the John Hines years, 1965–1974, a great many Episcopalians were less than pleased by the Church’s endorsement and financial support of various social causes. Membership, perhaps coincidentally, dropped from 3,616,000 in 1965 to 3,445,000 in 1971. It seemed, moreover, that the Church was falling apart. Church school enrollment declined 24 percent, confirmations were down 26 percent, infant baptisms 21 percent, and adult baptisms 44 percent. Hines called himself “the worst administrator of any Episcopal Presiding Bishop in history” and, as we have seen, stepped down before his twelve-year term expired.
His successor was Bishop John M. Allin of Mississippi, the most conservative of the candidates. The election marked what Time magazine called an “Episcopalian Backlash.” But Allin’s tenure was generally unhappy. The Church continued to move leftward and Allin, a gentle man, could do little about it.
In 1985, the bishops selected Bishop Edmond Lee Browning to be the next Presiding Bishop. Browning, who had once held a post in the Church headquarters in New York, was a solid citizen in the left wing of the Church. He had adamantly favored women as priests and bishops, sought use of the National Council of Church’s unisex lectionary, argued for the ordination of practicing homosexuals (“I would hope we are not frozen in any kind of set belief about homosexuality”), and actively opposed the nuclear arms race. On other social and political issues, his outlook was entirely predictable. “Peace and justice causes,” he said, “will be a high part of my agenda.”
At the same time, Gallup pollsters reported a wide gap between the people in the pews and Episcopal Church leadership. Among the laity, 78 percent did not think it the church’s place “to be an agent of political change in the United States”; and 76 percent thought the church should concentrate on “worship and spiritual matters” more than on political issues.
Browning soon showed that he lacked any interest in what the pollsters found, or even in what the General Convention of the Church decided; his “agenda” was paramount. Under the Presiding Bishop’s guidance, the Church lurched further to the left. Two revealing Browning appointees: The Reverend Canon Linda Strohmier, a gay and lesbian activist (who has spoken of God as “the god” and “it”) as the Church’s evangelism officer, and Thomas K. Chu, a member of the gay and lesbian lobby group Integrity, as the National Staff Officer for Young Adult and Higher Education Ministries.
Browning’s zeal, as we have seen, was not unusual among mainline leaders. In his circle of mainline peers he stood out in no particular way. The activities of the National Council of Churches in recent years perhaps best illustrate the penchant of liberal Protestants to follow an ideological line engraved in stone in the days of Ringo Starr and George McGovern.
In 1981, the NCC began to call itself “a community of Christian communions which, in response to the gospel revealed in the Scriptures, confess Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, as Savior and Lord.” At the same time, however, the NCC leadership showed itself as interested in left-wing political and social positions as it was anything else.
In midyear, the NCC Governing Board publicly expressed total opposition to the new Reagan Administration’s policies, the first time the Board had taken such a step since the Council’s founding in 1950. “In [the Reagan] vision of America the fittest survive and prosper, and there is little room for public purpose since it interferes with private gain. Compassion is a weakness in the competitive struggle of each against all.” The Board also went on record favoring permanent-residence status for illegal immigrants who had been in the United States for a “reasonable period of time,” opposing military aid to El Salvador, and requesting an immediate “nuclear freeze” with the Soviet Union.
Later that year, Methodist Bishop James Armstrong of Indiana was elected president of the National Council of Churches. His record included participation in campaigns for civil rights, peace in Vietnam, disarmament, hunger relief, and abolition of the death penalty. He vigorously opposed the right-wing Moral Majority, and in particular The Reverend Jerry Falwell. “One, he is not Biblical. Two, his sexism and rigid legalism dehumanize the very persons for whom Christ lived and died.”
That November, a reporter for the liberal Christian Century noted the NCC’s intolerance of the prolife position and its “predictability, its lethargy, its penchant for passing too many peace-and-justice resolutions of doubtful efficacy . . .” She also observed the organization’s nervousness about its public image, citing a new $90,000 a year budget item for an “interpretation department” to help explain the NCC’s work to its own member churches and the general public.
In early 1982, Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor Richard Neuhaus and Methodist minister Dr. Ed Robb attacked the Council in a public debate for its political partisanship. Both charged that the liberal churches were less willing to criticize human rights violations in Marxist countries than they were to denounce the errors of capitalist nations. Robb cited “a long list of NCC resolutions criticizing pro-American governments in Latin America and Asia.” In response, Dr. Arie Brower, a member of the Council’s Governing Board, said that critics of the Council were “obsessed” with the threat of Marxist totalitarianism and charged that Robb was one of those conservatives who “uses Christianity” to promote political agendas.
In early 1983, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, run by Robb, produced a 100-page booklet documenting the claim that the foreign policy of the Council and other liberal Protestant bodies “often leans in some significant ways toward the Marxist-Leninist left.” The Reader’s Digest and CBS’s “60 Minutes” pursued the story. Much evidence substantiated the general claim, although the sums of money involved were relatively small. Others joined the fray, including the United Methodist Reporter, which found a clear pattern of left-wing bias in hundreds of NCC political statements over a five-year period. James Wall of the Christian Century said that Council staffers often supplied answers “filled with romantic revolutionary rhetoric.” Kenneth Woodward of Newsweek observed that the Council’s “collective voice has become as predictable as an evangelist’s altar call.”
A False Repentance
In 1985, following Reagan’s reelection and further assaults by conservative critics, the NCC declared itself willing to mend its ways. The Council now advertised its new emphasis on prayer, worship, and evangelism. General Secretary Arie R. Brouwer said that the flesh of the Council was “weak—and deeply wounded” by attacks. By the late 1980s, contributions from member churches had dropped 50 percent from 1975 (reflecting hard times in the mainline more than intellectual dissent), and the staff had been cut from 187 twenty years earlier to 61.
But in fact little changed. In 1990, the NCC Governing Board condemned celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the landing of Columbus, stating that “reflection and repentence” were appropriate. The aftermath of Columbus’s “discovery,” said the resolution, brought “invasion, genocide, slavery, ‘ecocide’ and the exploitation of the wealth of the land.” Soon, in a sharp break with national public opinion, the NCC expressed vigorous opposition to the Persian Gulf War.
In mid-1991, the Greek Orthodox Church suspended its ties to the National Council of Churches. Citing liberal positions taken on abortion and homosexuality, Archbishop Iakovos said, “We cannot play anymore with ‘Christianity’—in quotation marks. Christ is not a playboy.” In a newspaper interview, the Archbishop, an ecumenical leader and former head of the World Council of Churches, decried “the new morals and the new ideas.” But he believed that in time the tide would turn back toward a more biblically based faith. “I feel and I see some signs that Christianity will rediscover its soul.”
Even though the NCC had by this time lost much public credibility, it pursued its agenda with customary passion. In 1991, it joined the left in opposing the nomination of conservative Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court. In 1992, NCC officers joined 23 church leaders in criticizing George Bush and the Republican Party for mentioning God during the political campaign. A letter issued by the NCC said that “any partisan use of God’s name tends to breed intolerance and to divide.” The General Secretary, The Reverend Joan Brown Campbell, said in the letter: “We deplore the suggestion that to be fully franchised one must not only be Christian but espouse a particular understanding of life in Christ.”
The Inner Sanctum, At Last
In early 1993, a delegation from the National Council met with Vernon Jordan, chair of President-elect Clinton’s transition team. United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, a delegate, employed his best “libspeak” to express the group’s delight with a Democratic victory and eagerness for a voice within the Administration. “Our commitment is not to draw attention to ourselves but to address issues and concerns that impact the lives of the diverse groups and persons in this nation who have been marginalized, especially during the past 12 years.” Talbert praised “the signs of inclusiveness manifest in the cabinet appointments” and hoped that Clintonites would present “a vision for an inclusive community” to the nation and the world.
Soon a larger NCC delegation was invited to Washington to meet the new Chief Executive. Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning was on hand, as was General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell. Not in thirty years had the liberal Protestants been so warmly received in the White House. One delegate, in the words of an observer, grumbled that their previous exclusion was part of a “Reagan-Bush strategy to discredit mainline church leaders in order to remove them from the national debate and bolster the Reagan-Bush domestic and foreign policy agendas.”
Clinton dished out some platitudes and assured his visitors that they would participate in future high-level Administration meetings. James M. Wall, writing in the Christian Century, predicted a close relationship between the President and the National Council and praised the President’s “openness to this rich source of moral and spiritual wisdom.” No talk here about the separation of church and state. Wall said also he was confident that “the concerns of African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American church leaders resonate with the Clinton agenda of empowering minorities.”
The delegation left Council position papers for the White House staff to ponder, including an endorsement of universal government health care. Indeed, Council experts on health care were already at work assisting Hillary Rodham Clinton’s task force on the topic.
In 1995, 15 leaders of the National Council of Churches met with the President for 45 minutes, extolling his social policies and calling him “the guardian of the nation.” At the end of the meeting, the visitors “laid hands” on Clinton and prayed that he would be “strong for the task” of defending welfare state spending against Congressional Republicans. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas commented:
Perhaps that’s why so many of the mainline churches would be more properly labeled ‘sideline’ churches. They, and others for whom politics and government have become the way of salvation, have squandered their moral power on a lesser and weaker kingdom that eventually will pass away and is incapable of changing people’s hearts.
This article is an excerpt from Thomas C. Reeves’s upcoming book, The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity and is reprinted here with permission from the author and publisher, The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, New York, New York, © 1996.
Dr. Thomas C. Reeves is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He is author of the best-selling A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (Free Press, 1991). Professor Reeves and his wife Kathy are Episcopalians and live in Wisconsin.
Thomas C. Reeves is a retired history professor who lives with his wife Kathleen in the Wisconsin countryside. Among his numerous books are biographies of John F. Kennedy and Fulton J. Sheen. His latest book is Distinguished Service: The Life and Times of Wisconsin Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr. (Marquette University Press).
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