Author's photo taken at the Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade, Nov., 2004.
This book review places the current breakdown of the ABBUSA in its broader cultural context...
Without a Prayer Just how "mainstream" are mainstream churches?
by Mark D. Tooley 02/13/2006, Volume 011, Issue 21
Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity by Dave Shiflett Sentinel HC, 224 pp., $23.95
AMERICANS ARE GIVING UP ON liberal-led mainline Protestant denominations! And they have been doing it for 40 years! This is hardly news. But in Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity, Dave Shiflett fleshes out the trend by examining the spiritual journeys of several pilgrims.
Himself a somewhat equivocal Presbyterian, Shiflett anecdotally relates how liberal Protestantism, once America's dominant religious force, is exhausted, spiritually, politically, and demographically. The pilgrims he traces--Weekly Standard writer and senior editor Andrew Ferguson, writer Frederica Matthewes-Green, conservative publisher Al Regnery, Southern Baptist leaders Albert Mohler and Richard Land, former Nixon aide Charles Colson, and an evangelical preacher who was present at the Columbine shootings, respectively found peace in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Baptist conservativism, and evangelicalism.
All the pilgrims, especially former Episcopalians Ferguson and Matthewes-Green, insist that mainline Protestantism is dead. Still reeling from their denomination's schism since the election of the first openly homosexual bishop two years ago, the Episcopalians are understandably adamant about this.
"There may now be twice as many lesbians in the United States as Episcopalians," Shiflett cracks, mocking what used to be America's most refined and upwardly mobile of religions. Once known as the Republican party at prayer, the Episcopal Church has devolved into a hodgepodge of vegans, sandal-wearers, and Greenpeaceniks. Or at least that's the stereotype.
Those crazy Episcopalians, along with the United Methodist, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), Evangelical Lutheran, United Church of Christ, American Baptist, and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denominations once comprised the "seven sisters" of America's religious mainline. All now are increasingly marginal, Shiflett insists, with good reason. Fewer than 15 percent of American church members now belong to these bodies.
Meanwhile, Baptists and evangelicals and Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, all of whom were once considered to be on the sideline of American society, are now bustling along at a brisk pace. According to one of Shiflett's experts, these successful churches do not strive to be reasonable, tolerant, ecumenical, or relevant. Instead, they steadfastly adhere to their own traditions and peculiar rituals, and are intentionally counter-cultural.
Frederica Matthewes-Green proudly showed Shiflett the slice of a saint's foot bone that she maintains as a relic in her unashamedly Orthodox home. Andrew Ferguson, who realized he was the only believer in God as he was studying for the ministry at a liberal seminary in Berkeley, now finds peace in "submission" to the Roman Catholic Church.
Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist church's agency for social witness, rejoices in the biblical inerrancy championed by the conservatives who took the helm of his denomination nearly 25 years ago. Albert Mohler, head of the Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, is understandably pleased that his church did not follow mainline patterns, and now counts 15,000 students in its staunchly conservative seminaries.
Bill Oudemolen, a megachurch evangelical pastor in Littleton, Colorado, was on site when two teenagers murdered their classmates at Columbine High School. His funeral sermon for one of the victims was broadcast internationally, and unapologetically faulted Satan for the murderous spree, while inviting grieving listeners to turn to Jesus. Fellow evangelical Chuck Colson turned his Watergate infamy into a vastly successful prison ministry that made him one of America's most prominent religious voices.
"People want the real thing," Colson explained about liberal Protestantism and its vapid emphasis on good works instead of supernatural truth. "They are not interested in a pale substitute, because it can never satisfy. It just doesn't answer the questions people have."
In contrast to the sunny optimism about America that mainline Protestants often exuded throughout the decades of their dominance, the conservative religious converts that Shiflett profiles, though joyful in their own faith, are often pessimists about the country.
"If the atheists conquer, they will marginalize the Christians to the extent of imprisonment and death," warns Father John McCloskey, who has led a host of prominent converts such as Judge Robert Bork and columnist Robert Novak into Roman Catholicism.
All of Shiflett's converts celebrate their faith in what much of mainline Protestantism abandoned: belief in divine revelation, miracles, an afterlife of Heaven or Hell, and unchanging notions of right and wrong. These convictions, so profoundly subversive to the spirit of the age, transform lives. Meanwhile, stodgy old mainline sermons about social justice are preached to mostly empty pews and a dwindling number of gray heads.
In a way, it is a triumph of American consumerism. The mainline churches, whose adherents largely founded America and led it for much of 300 years, became boring and irrelevant. Rather than turn their backs on religion, as has much of Europe and Canada, Americans creatively found solace in new megachurches or in robust versions of ancient churches once considered exotic.
Perhaps missing from Shiflett's overview is a great sense of sadness about the demise of the mainline, which almost singlehandedly created America's notions of civic righteousness and providential destiny. Shiflett also may be overly pessimistic. Liberal theology prevailed in the mainline churches a century ago. But surveys show that millions of mainliners still adhere to traditional Christian beliefs. And unlike their often leftist clerics, these mainliners still mostly vote Republican. Despite their demographic decline, mainliners are still disproportionately represented in Congress, in local political offices, in corporate boardrooms, and in other places of influence. Three centuries of cultural hegemony ensure that even a declining mainline will not die anytime soon.
Meanwhile, there are some limited but hopeful signs of mainline revival. The United Methodist Church, with 8 million members in the United States and the largest of the mainliners, has decidedly turned in a more conservative direction on some bellwether issues such as homosexuality. Lutherans and Presbyterians, with still numerous conservative local synods and presbyteries, have also yet to follow the Episcopalians over the cliff.
Shiflett's thesis, that liberal religion stifles churches, can be proven not just by comparing mainliners to nonmainliners, but also by looking within the mainline. There are now more United Methodists in Georgia alone than in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada combined. Georgia Methodism is conservative and growing; West Coast Methodism is liberal and collapsing. And as Shiflett notes, global Christianity, like American Christianity, is increasingly dominated by orthodox, conservative beliefs.
But instead of boding ill for mainliners, this may actually save them.
Conservative Methodists and Anglicans in Africa have become important allies for conservatives left in the American churches. The global south progeny of mainline missionaries may yet rescue at least parts of their parent churches.
Shiflett's work is helpful. Neither liberalism nor secularism is necessarily on the rise. In American religion, as in global religion, it is conservative believers who are growing in numbers and in cultural influence. Shiflett concludes by telling of former Pol Pot followers in Cambodia who are converting to evangelicalism. Communism is dead, but the old-time religion, though repackaged, is doing just fine.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist project at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
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