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Check Out the GOP Field: Mainline Protestantism is Failing

THE POLITICS OF RELIGION - Among the leading candidates for this year's Republican presidential nomination, not one is a member of the Protestant denominations that for so long have dominated American political culture.

Two of the potential candidates are Mormons (former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.); one is a member of an interdenominational evangelical church (former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty); two others are Catholics (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum). Rep. Michele Bachmann, who says she's considering the race, worships at an evangelical Lutheran church; if elected, she'd be the first Lutheran president.

But no matter who wins from this list, it won't be an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian or a Methodist.

But from there, I draw vastly different conclusions than Doyle McManus.

He says that the arc of the narrative of religious tolerance is long and more inclusive, and that this bizarre Republican field is a result of that. I would contend the "success" of more missionary, evangelical religions in America is a result of mainline American Protestants failing to reach their own and remain relevant over the course of a life.

The three mainline religions McManus mentions have been losing adherents for decades, but everyone who follows religious development knows that they are the religions of the truly tolerant. Time has now caught up with them. All three mainline Protestant religions actually became more ethereal, even more academic, as post-Reagan America's public education system deteriorated.

And it is no accident that the Republican Party has made vast inroads with both Catholics and Mormons as it has absorbed others fleeing mainline Protestant religions. Catholics and Mormons have the most deeply rooted missionary traditions--long standing heritages of encouraging the zealous, those bold enough to proclaim their own religious feelings to others.

Evangelical churches are much covetous of these techniques, as growth is all important to them. They are quick to learn that training the zealous to preach to anonymous others always involves tests of bravado and loyalty--and maybe a little manipulation with blood sugar too. While Catholics and Mormons may share little else with evangelicals, one thing they do share is a willingness to proselytize--and the Republican Party has been only eager to pander to proselytes of every stripe, so long as the stripes are still Christian.

Mainline Protestants, conversely, have different kinds of missionary heritages. The idea of local outreach is repugnant, in fact, it evinces cult. Missionaries, to main liners, do quiet work in far flung impoverished places.

The work is nearly as secular as the Peace Corps. They learn the world and are less inclined to answer every problem by bombing it. Their Jesus is more of a Buddha and less of a tangible presence in their lives: he may be a teacher, a shepherd, but not so much a magic tribal sorcerer responsible for every breath and outcome; that, in fact, is precisely the kind of person a mainline Protestant hopes to mission to.

McManus's observation is really the flip side of a long-standing trend in America (even dating back to, say, Andrew Jackson) that vilifies intellectual and champions the folksy.

Mainline Protestants used to have their folksy side too, but not so much anymore; now they are more likely to be absorbed with thorny questions about gay marriage and social justice and even liberation theology.

A reading group at a Lutheran church (and I would be more likely than McManus to include Lutherans in the American mainline) is more likely to be devoted to Dietrich Bonhoeffer than conduct a Bible study--which are for children and teenagers in many mainline Protestant churches.

You learn early on in evangelical sects that it's those who were undereducated in their own Christian traditions that are the lowest hanging fruit to snare. Start asking a casual, nominal Methodist about the divine nature of Jesus or the role of divinity in a life and the adherent may even become quickly stumped. The church stands for things on the periphery but the core remains a mystery to the lay practitioner.

Mainline Protestant religions, while great at building schools in Africa and baseball diamonds in Nicaragua, likely need to do a better job reaching out to their own right here in America. The first mission is always down the block.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer and an observer. He blogs at street-hassle.blogspot.com where this column was first posted.)
–cw

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CityWatch
Vol 9 Issue 45
Pub: June 7, 2011

 

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