Southern Baptist blogger Jonathan Merritt has a pretty good article about his denomination as it deals with a decline that is not unfamiliar to mainline Protestants. He offers a few ideas on how to stem the decline and the one that gets the most attention is where the he faults the SBC for mixing religion and politics or more specifically, conservative politics:
Tony Campolo once said that mixing the church with government is “like mixing ice cream with horse manure: You will not ruin the horse manure, but it will ruin the ice cream.” I’ll let you determine which one is the ice cream in his analogy.
During the last 25 years, the Southern Baptist Convention has rushed headlong into conservative politics, often parroting Republican talking points and baptizing the GOP’s agenda. Just last year, Richard Land, former head of the SBC’s political arm, broke tradition and publicly endorsed Mitt Romney for President.
Of the 117 resolutions passed by the denomination at their annual meeting since 2000, a breathtaking 70 of them have been political. This includes a 2003 resolution endorsing President Bush’s war in Iraq, a 2008 resolution taking a position in the so-called “War on Christmas,” and a 2009 resolution titled “On President Barack Hussein Obama.” I keep waiting for a resolution naming Sean Hannity as an honorary fourth member of the Trinity.
American evangelicalism is becoming more politically diverse and nuanced than it once was, particularly among young people. If the denomination continues to operate like a Republican lapdog, it can expect to be seen as a polarizing political institution. If they can learn to speak truth to power on both sides of the aisle, the SBC stands a chance of restoring its image. Americans want a Church that is prophetic, not partisan.
Having been raised in an evangelical background, I can agree with Merritt that there conservative Christianity has basically gotten in bed with conservative politics. That was part of the reason that I left the evangelicalism of my youth and joined mainline Protestantism. I was leaving the partisan in favor of a church that wasn’t in the thrall of the Republicans.
And the mainline church isn’t carrying the water for the Republicans, no sir.
They are carrying water for the Democrats.
Merritt is probably right that the SBC’s willingness to align itself with the GOP has turned off potential members. They seem to waste a lot of time passing resolutions on whatever conservative cause du jour. But having been a part of mainline/progressive Christianity for two decades, I would posit that the left-wing agenda of mainline churches has also turned off potential members. I’ve heard enough “sermons” from pastors that are basically Democratic speeches with “God” tossed in a few times to know that the mainline is playing the same game conservatives churches are doing.
Back in 2010, Walter Russell Mead, who is Episcopalian, wrote a modern-day jeremiad against the mainline churches for their willingness to basically be petty prophets for what he calls the “Blue social model,” the operating model of governing starting at the middle of the 20th century. He accuses mainline churches of confusing the Kingdom of God with the Blue Social Model:
The problem is that the contemporary mainline churches have confused the Blue social model with the Kingdom of God. I’ve written about this model before — what the Blue model is and why it is breaking down, why the breakdown has impaled contemporary liberal politics on the horns of an impossible dilemma, and how the Blue Beast is sucking the life out of the mainline churches today. Historically this is not surprising; the blue social model was in large part formed by thinkers from the mainline churches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Somehow the mainline churches came through the violence and the upheavals of the twentieth century with their faith in liberal progress largely intact. Neither Stalin nor Hitler nor Reinhold Niebuhr could convince us of the power of original sin; neither Hiroshima nor the Holocaust shook our faith in the ability of good government programs to remake mankind.
To mistake an ideology or a social model for the transcendent and always surprising (and irritating!) Kingdom of God is, technically speaking, the sin of idolatry. It is to worship the work of our own hands. What makes it worse is that to some degree in the mainline churches we have replaced faith in the scripturally based and historically rooted doctrines and values of the Christian heritage with faith in progressive social thought.
Instead of proclaiming a gospel of salvation that still brings lost sinners streaming through the doors (ask the Pentecostals and evangelicals who have continued to grow even as we shrink) we issue statements urging the federal government to fulfill its contributions to the Millennium Development Goals and to raise the minimum wage. They preach and plant churches; we have professional development workshops for diocesan employees.
It’s hard for me to not to look at Merritt’s suggestion with a bit of suspicion. It’s not that he’s wrong; I think he’s spot on. What makes me skeptical is that I fear he is asking people to give up one idol and fall for another one.
I wasn’t expecting him to also call out the mainline church. But I do wish that those who look at the sin of conservatives in walking too close to the ways of the world, are willing to look at their own heart and actions .
I end this with a quote from Methodist blogger Alan Bevere:
I must confess as a mainline Protestant who has come out of evangelicalism, I find it almost tragically humorous when the religious left accuses the religious right of wanting to institute a theocracy in America when they have their own theocratic vision they are working to bring to fruition. It reveals the truth of the statement that when you point your finger at someone there are three pointing back at you. The way around the errors of both, of course, is for the church to recover its primary work of embodying the gospel in its corporate life and bearing witness to the ways of God in the world. That is the central way the church is to be political in the world. As I continue to say, the church is where the politics of the kingdom resides and comes to fruition, not in the halls of nation state power.