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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is There Life in the Mainline?

In a long-delayed response to the emergence of the Religious Right, there are stirrings of life on the Religious Left, reports the intrepid Amy Sullivan in (subscription-only) Salon. Her departure point is a press conference held last week by leaders of five mainline Protestant churches (the Protestant Episcopal Church, the United Methodists, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) denouncing George W. Bush’s proposed budget as “immoral.”While greeting this development, Sullivan goes on to indict “liberal” Protestants (the primary components, outside the African-American churches, of the “Christian Left”) for a self-marginalizing, secularized approach to political engagement in the past, complemented by a hands-off attitude towards religion by these churches’ natural allies in the Democratic Party. She also notes that mainline churches have been frequently paralyzed by internal denominational fights in recent years, exemplified by the current travails of the Episcopalians over same-sex unions.If anything, I suspect Amy’s being too nice to her fellow (and my fellow) mainline Protestants. Look at that list of denominations represented in the anti-Bush press conference again. They were once the dominant religious, cultural and political forces in America. They have been shrinking in numbers, and in influence, for decades, even as fundamentalist and pentecostal denominations grow like topsy. There are certainly demographic and sociological reasons aplenty for their decline, but you don’t have to be a conservative to understand that religious liberals have largely lost their prophetic voices somewhere between weekly worship services and the host of civic and political organizations they support with great energy and commitment.The steady secularization of mainline Protestantism over the second half of the twentieth century is an old and familiar story. But its relationship to the counter-secularization now championed by the Christian Right is less well understood. It’s fairly safe to say much of the political and social teaching being hurled at congregations across the religious spectrum is dangerously disconnected from its scriptural and theological roots. This gives religio-political conservatives an advantage, given the natural tendency of religiously minded people to value what they understand as “traditional values.” And it gives fundamentalists a crucial advantage, because they can selectively find “inerrant” scriptural support for any number of right-wing cultural and political positions.That’s why the revival of mainline Protestantism as a religious force, and as a poltical and cultural force, point in exactly the same direction: a movement to rediscover and proclaim the profoundly un-conservative message of the Law, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Church Fathers, and Church History, with a minimum reliance on modern sociology or Identity Politics.Let the Christian Right be the faction of bad physical and social science, bad economics, and distorted, selective history. Let them be the ones who dress up secular agendas in “God Talk.”Sure, the Religious Left needs to adopt better organizational methods, better communications strategies, and better tactics. But above all, “liberal” Christians need to save themselves as religious communities before they can fulfill their calling to help redeem the world for truly Christian values.

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