Bad Company

by Ken Briggs

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Full disclosure. I'm one of those liberal Protestants whose tradition has become a virtual whipping boy for Catholics and evangelicals who fear our bad example may lead them down the primrose path.

Synod documents warn that following our example will spell utter disaster. With some exceptions, we've accepted women and gays as ordained clergy, allowed divorce, tolerated premarital sex, artificial birth contol and masturbation and approved same-sex marriage. That's enough to prove that we've strayed from the true faith and sold out to daemonic, worldly ways. Like drug peddlers, we've become the. "wrong crowd" our critics urge their followers to steer clear of. And what has this sell-out got us? A sharp drop in membership. That cinches it. What more proof of disobedience do you need in a society whose bellwether is the national growth rate? Bottom line: stick to your ways, veritable orthodox ones, lest you incur a similar fate, sans your regular immigrant supplement.

I also confess to being partial to a large dose of rationality with my theology. We're accused ot being stuck in a frozen past where our feelings and experiences, where true religion was believed to emerge, played second fiddle to pat formulas to which we gave mindless agreement. Experience did need airing but reason in many instances became nearly excluded except in many of our seminaries and among lots of our clergy and lay people. We were told we were wrong to complain about that, to get back to the primary job of releasing our inner selves. I erroneously thought Catholics, with their thick strain of logical thought, would have liked us for that, but it doesn't appear that way. We're the ones who took all the fun and creativity out religion by insisting it remain a "head game." Sorry.

Even, those who like us on principle slam us either for being too timid about voicing our faith or too enamored of "head" religion that relies too much on reason at the expense of inner revelation.

We have absorbed much that doesn't seem to belong to anyone's idea of authentic Christianity. We tend to go along with rapacious free enterprise, extremes of profit motive, war, consumer violence and the rational for racial and economic inequality. Our shamers probably escape these snares but I know we haven't.

Fifty years ago or so we were the flagship of Protestantism --  emblems of the establishment. Then many of us consorted with civil rights, the women's movement and the cause of sexual equality and began that precipitous slide toward an emerging culture whose values seemed compatible with where the church should have been all along. Then flew the accusations of cultural conformity and godlessness and membership dropped, partly over the shift in our ethical standards and also because of the gathering secular wave.

This may sound like a weak defense against a clear case against us, but it does occur to me that the openness to women, gays and variegated concepts of marriage might be the Holy Spirit speaking to the churches through that very world we so often condemn as the devil's playground. As I recall, perhaps incorrectly, the Spirit vows to speak through the entire creation inside and outside the churches. If I'm not mistaken, both racial justice and equality of women were movements that came principally from outside organized Christianity.

Our critics link our numbers drop to our grudging acceptance of new moral landscapes, implying divine judgment against us. Maybe so. While I acknowledge that we set a poor example on how to achieve worldly success, there may be more here than meets the eyes of our detractors.

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