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From the October, 2006 issue of Touchstone

 

Blue Songs & Red Cowboys by Mark Tooley

Blue Songs & Red Cowboys

What Presbyterians, Baptists & Episcopalians Did over Summer Vacation

by Mark Tooley

The hues and shades of red-state and blue-state religion were in full contrast in June as the governing conventions for the Southern Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) all convened. Together, the assemblies claim about 22 million members (16 million of them Southern Baptists).

Meeting in Columbus, Ohio, the Episcopalians talked about sex, of course. (Their General Convention meets once every three years and includes two houses, one of bishops and the other of clergy and lay deputies.)

They refused to back down from their 2003 election of their first openly “gay” bishop, Gene Robinson, which has divided them from much of the rest of the Anglican Communion. Going a step further, they became the first Anglican body to elect a female bishop as presiding officer. Katharine Jefferts Schori favors the church’s de facto affirmation of the “gift” of different sexual preferences (as she put it on Larry King’s show) and in a sermon spoke of “our mother Jesus” who “gives birth to a new creation—and you and I are His children.”

The Presbyterians, meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, also talked about sex, but more shyly. (Their General Assembly meets every two years with representatives from every presbytery in the country.)

They approved a new “interpretation” of the church’s constitution that would allow local presbyteries, in effect, to ignore the expectation of chaste clergy and ordain actively homosexual pastors. They also declined to endorse but did “receive” a theological committee’s report providing new terms for the Holy Trinity that would include “Mother, Child, and Womb,” “Lover, Beloved, Love,” “Creator, Savior, Sanctifier,” and “Rock, Redeemer, Friend” in place of the traditional “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

They did, however, overwhelmingly vote to accept the recommendations of conservative presbyteries and Jewish groups to revoke their official policy of divesting from firms doing business with Israel. The divestment decision, made by the last assembly two years ago, had become a public relations disaster.

Separate Baptists

In a seemingly separate universe, the Southern Baptists steamed ahead in Greensboro, North Carolina. (The 12,000 “messengers” or delegates represent every church in the convention.)

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was the featured speaker, and she brought the Baptists to their feet seven times as she defended America’s special mission of defending democracy in the world. “If not for America, who would rally freedom-loving nations to defend liberty and democracy in our world?” Rice asked the enthusiastic Baptists.

The Baptists approved a resolution thanking President Bush and the US armed forces for their liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq. And they affirmed “strict constructionist judges” for the federal judiciary, opposed extreme environmentalism, supported the Marriage Protection Amendment, and urged the federal government to “enforce all immigration laws.” President Bush addressed the Baptists in a video message, thanking them for their prayers.

However, the messengers spent the vast majority of their time discussing traditional church issues, not politics. They hosted an evangelistic “Cowboy Stampede” at the local Triad Livestock Arena to share the gospel with local North Carolinians. “Hey folks. Are y’all ready to rumble?” asked the hosting cowboy in the center of the arena, according to Baptist Press. After the Wild West performance, the cowboy grabbed his Bible and began to preach.

Though many commentators claimed that the election of the convention’s new president Frank Page, pastor of a large church in South Carolina, marked the end of the “Conservative Takeover,” Page assured reporters that he would continue the church’s conservative direction. “I do not believe the convention elected me to somehow undo the conservative resurgence. That is not who I am, not what they’ve asked for, not what they want,” he said.

“I want to state clearly my belief in the inerrancy of God’s Word,” he said. “I was an inerrantist before I knew what that meant.” According to the Baptist Press, he specified his belief in the historicity of the first eleven chapters of Genesis “without any equivocation at all.”

Eco-Thoughts

While the Southern Baptists were rumbling in a livestock arena with horses and a preaching cowboy, the Episcopalians attended a “U2charist” to support the United Nations’ goals of increasing Western foreign aid and “environmental sustainability.” The partiers trumpeted the “One Campaign,” which aims for every Western nation to give the Third World at least one percent of its GNP.

Excited about the prospect of international debt forgiveness, a female priest from Maine invited the worshipers to “let the Holy Spirit move their bodies to the music and move their lives,” according to the Episcopal News Service report. Nearly 700 Episcopalians danced and clapped to the opening hymn, the U2 song “Mysterious Ways,” which declares, “To touch is to heal/ To hurt is to steal/ If you want to kiss the sky/ Better learn how to kneel.”

Meanwhile, the Presbyterians were celebrating the environment in their own way. At a special event for “Restoring Creation,” outgoing Presbyterian Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase shared that “eco-theology helped me to see a new way.” He regretted that most Christians have been taught a theology of “dominion over all creation.” The consequences have been disastrous for the earth, he lamented.

“We are called to re-imagine who we are in relationship with the rocks, the trees, the sun, the moon,” Ufford-Chase insisted. “Let us make eco-theology the central issue of our lives.”

The Southern Baptists had very different eco-thoughts. Their resolution on the environment called Baptists to “resist alliances with extreme environmental groups whose positions contradict biblical principles and [to] oppose solutions based on questionable science, which bar access to natural resources and unnecessarily restrict economic development, resulting in less economic opportunity for our poorest citizens.”

Warily, the Baptists observed that “some in our culture have completely rejected God the Father in favor of deifying ‘Mother Earth,’ made environmentalism into a neo-pagan religion, and elevated animal and plant life to the place of equal-or-greater-value with human life.”

Irreconcilable

Former UN Ambassador and US Senator John Danforth, an Episcopal priest, lamented to the General Convention that “the common ground has been cut out because the most active and articulate people representing the political parties are on the fringes.”

He urged the Episcopalians to spend less time on sexual issues, saying that they had “a special calling to the ministry of reconciliation.” The Episcopal Church has always represented the middle way, he said, “where all sorts of people can come together around the altar . . . and have all sorts of different views.”

“Reconciliation” was the ostensible purpose of the Presbyterians approving a new “local option” policy that would allow liberal Presbyteries to ordain actively homosexual ministers, in defiance of the church’s law that clergy be monogamous in marriage and celibate if single. The church’s former moderator, John Buchanan, called the vote a “great and beautiful moment of hope,” but conservative leaders called it “a profound deviation from biblical requirements, and we cannot accept, support or tolerate this decision.”

The Episcopalians also tried to sound conciliatory on sex issues. After the Episcopal Church approved Robinson three years ago, the Anglican Communion asked the church to “effect a moratorium on the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate who is living in a same-gender union until some new consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges.”

The convention first refused to change the church’s policy and practices, but in a deal brokered at the end of the meeting urged the church to “exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.”

The new presiding bishop interpreted the vote as a temporary measure, telling the convention that she could only support the resolution “if we understand that it’s not slamming the door. It has to leave the door open for further conversation and consideration in the very near future.” She is, she declared, “fully committed to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in this church.”

Red Future

Which of the church conventions represents the future of American religion? Forty years ago, the Presbyterians and Episcopalians together had a membership of about 8 million, nearly equal to the Southern Baptist Convention’s. Today, the Southern Baptists have 16.4 million, while the Presbyterians and Episcopalians collectively have 5 million (and informed observers of the latter estimate that only half of those members attend church with any regularity).

Last year, the Presbyterians and Episcopalians each lost over 40,000 members. This year, the Presbyterians expect to lose another 85,000.

Blue-state religion may seem to dominate America’s popular culture. But red-state religion seems to be winning the demographic race.


Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.

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