No Balm in Gilead

At a time when this nation is suffering a nervous breakdown, its churches are in no condition to offer a hopeful alternative. With very few exceptions, they are mired in crises of identity and survival, having lost confidence that their message can do much much more than stand by and drift with the status quo.

The preoccupation with membership and attendance loss has been building for some time. Mainline Protestants and Catholics have lost the most, but evangelicals most recently show the same trend. Somehow nobody's version of Christianity is having much luck in the general market and with that attrition, churches doubt themselves. Conflicts over accepting gays as equals, particularly as clergy, and reproductive rights have roiled this stormy climate and, even more importantly, underscored the lack of self-assurance needed to overcome strife and believe in their own futures. Church groups are faltering for reasons beyond anyone's ability to fully grasp. Their preaching isn't connecting with larger portions of the culture. It isn't a matter of fixing particular strategies or preaching louder. Something isn't working and it isn't entirely clear to either church people or outsiders what went wrong.

From America's beginnings, churches have been moral compasses and elucidators of vision. Their grew by the engine of evangelism, persuading the unwashed that the gospel afforded them safe harbor and everlasting life. That was the missionary drive that extended itself all over the world with notable success. For periods of time, momentum simply perpetuated church going. It was expected as a mark of good citizenship in many sectors, eliminating the need for that kind of salesmanship. Think of the 1950s when churches grew and prospered without much effort. It was the thing to do. Churches exerted themselves in the public square, both creating the establishment (think John Foster Dulles) and bolstering it, but within a short time generating staunch protest against its racial and economic practices. Without internal strength and optimism that growth would continue, it's doubtful those forays into social justice would have been possible. Those causes eventually split many churches and, some say, paved the way for the inner turmoil that led them to lose their way.

For many years now, nobody on the spectrum of Christian traditions can honestly say they know what to do to stanch the bleeding. America admires "growth" and equates it to success. Perhaps it's inevitable that churches have adopted that standard. In the early church, tiny churches widely separated, accepted smallness as their lot, though they never missed an opportunity to spread the Word. But in recent centuries, Christianity has gradually mirrored the growth language and practice of capitalism. Various leaders, including recent popes, have advised their followers to detach from that standard, proclaiming that "smaller" can indeed be "better" if it results in more compact communities who display the distinct attributes of Christian authenticity in a world that doesn't understand it.

That is not what's happened in American churches, however. They may be getting smaller but in general don't reflect Christian "difference" or espouse a set of purposes that challenge prevailing secular values. They are mostly out of the discussion because they have so thoroughly absorbed the incentives and goals of the society around them that there remains nothing distinctive. As the nation goes, therefore, so goes its religion. How is this not a missed opportunity, unless you believe that religious convictions and society's values are, by nature, co-terminus? Otherwise, we see a fraught country in which churches can arouse no real debate.

I'm aware that many churches in decline belong to the religious right, and they seem to be in the midst of the political rumble. Many of them seek a very limited agenda but have no wider vision for a healthier nation. For some, elimination of abortion, special rights for religious people like themselves and a push-back against progress by homosexuals substitute for engagement in national soul searching. That wing doesn't have much reflective Christianity to offer a struggling nation either. Their members backed Trump to gain advantages and to settle scores but not to advance a more humane, equitable America.

Meanwhile, moderates and liberals are so hamstrung that they seem unable to mount any significant opposition to the most egregious threats to poor people. Depriving them (24 million) of health insurance, school funding and social services, to name just three. Religious voices have been among those who protest these proposals, but churches themselves are at the margins. Pope Francis is second to none in appealing for action on behalf of the poor, but his church in America hasn't dramatically thrown itself into that cause. Catholic agencies, relief groups and individuals continue to do exemplary work in these areas, but the national face of the church has been largely removed from such advocacy. Where is the follow-through and why doesn't the pope's deep priority seem to matter to the bishops on anything like a broad, challenging scale. 

Perhaps there is too much defensiveness and uncertainty to expect that to happen. The Catholic church, like the others, is on the skids and that precarious state may hamper everything.

There are such credible reasons for inaction, from shock to the paralysis of being co-opted by cultural forces, but the fact remains that there is next to no religious response to a deeply troubling bout of anomie and fear rising in this country. Identifiable Christians are nowhere in the secular rankings of leadership. Theoretically that could indicate that the world rejects those whose perspective threatens their basic assumptions of the "truth" but nothing indicates that kind of animus. Inadequate as such rankings are, except for Francis, whose is granted a place in the leadership circle in large measure because one is reserved for popes, no other top leader picked by Time or Forbes this year exhibits a religious character.

Ironically, the latest buzz, a book called "The Benedict Option" by Rod Dreher suggests that Christians pull back from the world into their own enclaves to escape the world's corruption and hold tight to their Christian convictions. Hundreds of experiments particularly in post-Reformation Protestant utopian communities shows that such plans are unworkable on a number of fronts. Becoming ingrown and blind to the valid critiques from the outside benefits neither persons nor communities but does foster errant self-righteousness. Churches seem called upon at this juncture of history to rediscover what they are and what they believe but within the throes of the wider community. Otherwise they will never learn how to express a Christianity that can stand up for itself as distinct and honor outsiders who speak truth to it. 

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here