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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The TV Test of Religious Relevance

In the midst of the shared ecumenical solemnity of Pope John Paul II’s funeral, it’s inevitable that the occasional ax-grinders have introduced a sour note of triumphalism. Here’s an example I happened upon at National Review’s group blog, The Corner, yesterday in the form of an email posted by my friend and occasional antagonist Ramesh Ponnuru:

WHAT A DIFFERENCE 27 YEARS MAKE. An email I got several days ago: “In watching the coverage, I’ve noticed something that you are too young to know about and no one else (to my knowledge) has commented on. When Pope Paul VI died (followed shortly after by the death of Pope John Paul I) commentary was sought, of course, from Protestant theologians and church officials. With one exception (Billy Graham), the Protestants invited to comment were associated with the mainline churches. They were National Council of Churches types. . . . In the past two days, I haven’t seen a single such commentator (of course, it is possible that I’ve missed one or more). Instead, the Protestant voices that are being presented–Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Richard Land, etc.–are all Evangelicals. This seems to be true, by the way, not simply on Fox, but on CNN, MSNBC, and the networks. This, I believe, is telling. For all intents and purposes, mainline Protestantism has become irrelevant in this country. It is more marginal today than evangelicalism was when John Paul II became the Vicar of Christ. [My emailer is Catholic–RP.] Even the secular liberal media types seem implicitly to recognize that the Protestantism that matters in this country now is evangelical. This is a real transformation.”

I cite this post because it reflects an observation that I hear very often from conservatives, especially those who aren’t themselves Protestants, or in many case, even Christians or believers in any creed: “liberal” mainline Protestants are headed for the dustbin of history, mainly because they don’t embrace a militant agenda of cultural conservatism, which is, of course, what Christianity is all about, right?The idea that mainline Protestantism is so “irrelevant” that even the “secular liberal” media have acknowledged it is an especially disingenuous argument. For decades, the news media ignored conservative evangelicals and pentecostal/charismatic Christians on the few occasions that they were forced to delve into religious issues. The same clueless producers (or their heirs) have now bought into the equally flawed proposition that people like Pat Robertson are exemplars of American Protestantism.For one thing, the line between “evangelical” and “mainline” Protestants is notoriously slippery. How do you classify the evangelical and mainline American Baptists and Disciples of Christ, or for that matter, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America? Are they simultaneously “irrelevant” and “the Protestantism that matters?”So let’s take the other distinction Ramesh’s correspondent used, and examine the statistical relevance of those Protestants affiliated with that great target of conservative abuse, the National Council of Churches. Hmmm. Seems the NCC is down to 36 denominations with just 45 million members.No wonder they can’t get any of their leaders on television.

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