One of the publications I receive is the “United Church News: Northern California Nevada Edition.” This is a publication of the United Church of Christ. In the most recent edition (June/July 2006), the major article is entitled, “Amplifying The Mainline: How The Mainline Church Is Finding Its Voice Despite Some Well-Funded Attempts To Silence It.”
The first paragraph reads as follows: “On Easter Sunday, April 16, NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ hosted its annual installment of ‘Faith in America,’ where seven religious commentators spent an hour discussing the state of religious life in this country. Representing the ‘Christian perspective’ were a conservative Roman Catholic priest, a liberal Roman Catholic nun and a charismatic Pentecostal pastor. Not a mainline Protestant leader among them.”
Let’s face it, whenever a TV talk show, in one way or another, seeks to discuss “Christianity,” you will rarely, if ever, hear or see a mainline Protestant discussing the relevant issue. Invariably, representatives of the most conservative wing of Christianity, if it’s Christianity at all, are presented and represented as its only voices.
This article goes on to give some reasons for the disturbing phenomenon of mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches being “pounded into irrelevancy by the media machine of a false religion” (according to Rev. Michael Livingston, a Presbyterian who is serving a two year term as National Council of Churches president). He states, “… it is the job of some of us to tell the story…so that the noise we hear so persistently and loudly; the noise that divides, that blames, that ridicules, that labels-is not the only reality, is not the thing that comes to mind when one thinks of ‘church’ or ”Christian.'”
One of the most striking reasons given for this phenomenon is the fact that complex issues can’t be discussed in simplistic sound bytes. Yet, reactionary forces in Christianity, as in society in general, see the world in black and white terms and readily and confidently “discuss” issues in those terms.
Most people want a sense of surety in life, and eschew the many gray areas of life, as tolerance for ambiguity is very limited in a society that expects a quick fix, quick solutions, to problems. Short-term thinking is quite common, and mainline Christianity frequently sees the world as quite complex where one size doesn’t fit all. Therefore, people would much rather hear a Jerry Falwell, who speaks with absolute certainty, simplistic biblical exposition, from his world-view that does far more to impose meaning on the biblical passages he cites (when he cites them) than is informed by those very passages and the larger message of the Bible, Christianity, the Gospel, and Jesus Himself.
On the other hand, someone like the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a United Church of Christ minister, very well known as a deep thinking theologian and socially concerned activist, is not only very unlikely to have been invited to these TV discussions of Christianity but, tragically, far many more people have heard of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and their ilk, than the socially concerned, erudite, and articulate people like Coffin, Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Rev. John Cobb, Dr. Rosemary Radford Reuther, and others who have sought to explicate the message of Jesus as manifesting concern for, and ministry to, others, including “the least of these,” as we are obligated to do as Christians.
Reactionaries in both the “religious” and political arenas serve as “lightening rods” and, as such, are great copy! They bring in the viewers and readers! How else are we to explain the phenomenal book sales of an Ann Coulter who demonizes others, even the widows of 9/ll? The reactionaries not only appeal to many people who want simplistic answers to complex problems; who want sound bites rather than intelligent discourse; who have a very low tolerance for ambiguity; who want rhetoric that exudes confident certainty; who want simplistic biblical exegeses that justify the status quo from which they think they profit and through which they can feel superior, but also appeal to the basest natures of people, including many professing Christians.
As I’ve written before, many people have a vested interest in creating “out-groups” so that they can cement “in-group” solidarity and cohesion that enables them to feel a camaraderie with a “like kind,” and also provides a way of externalizing free floating rage (frequently born of frustration) at forces they can barely understand or confront but can “safely” be projected on to vulnerable people, particularly minorities, be they gay people, Afro-Americans, women, or immigrants. And the reactionary forces in society, particularly in the “religious” arena, give them permission to think and behave in this way.
Moreover, to be able to justify such thinking and behavior biblically, as the reactionary forces within Christianity assure them, allows all sorts of evil to be done, all the while appealing to virtue. And reactionaries provide this permission, this justification, as it is done in “the name of God,” “because it’s in the Bible.”
Christianity is paying a very heavy price for the indolence of so many in not confronting the legalistic and prejudice-driven perversions of the Gospel. We may expect to see increasing numbers of intelligent, sensitive Christians leave moribund and oppressive churches and denominations to form their own worship communities, free from unjust patriarchal and hierarchical strictures, and free from traditions that make void the Word of God.
When divisiveness and exclusion is allowed to trump Jesus’ call for unity and inclusion (see, for example, John 17:21; Matthew 7:1-5); when reactionaries are given forums denied to mainline Christian thinkers; when “Christianity” increasingly becomes a handmaiden of reactionary politicians; when “Christian leaders” align themselves with politicians who spew their divisive rhetoric against assorted minority groups in order to hustle votes; when the media features the reactionaries within “Christianity” to the virtual exclusion of mainline church thinkers and theologians; when the American public and professing Christians eschew critical thought in favor of simplistic sound bites more suited to selling products than seriously discussing important, even crucial, ideas, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the handwriting on the wall for the future of the Church as we have historically known it.
But the Church is a mere institution, whereas Jesus and His call for love, mercy, compassion, humility, and justice is eternal! I’ll put my money on Jesus!
Professor Emeritus of Sociology at California State University, Chico, Rev. Dr. Jerry S. Maneker served as an ordained priest in the Congregational Catholic Church, a division of the Independent Catholic Churches International (ICCI). For many years he published a weekly column in the Sacramento Valley Mirror titled “Christianity and Society” where he dealt with a variety of social issues from a biblical and sociological perspective. He also published a blog called “A Christian Voice for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Rights” and the website Radical Christianity.