Not with a bang but a whimper

I once had a professor who was scholar in the field of religion (and especially Protestantism) in America,  and he said something once that really intrigued me. Referring to Liberal Protestantism’s Social Gospel movement in the early to mid-20th century, that found its crescendo in the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he said (and here I condense my notes): “20th century Liberal Protestantism was successful in promoting an increasingly secularized vision of social justice that was able to have great impact on Western society. But it was a victim of its own success. Social Gospel protestant theologians, for example, disavowed Christianity’s doctrinal distinctiveness to better assimilate into its increasingly secularized social context for the sake of promoting its unique vision of justice in society…In their view, doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, miracles, or the redemptive death of Jesus simply prevented Christianity from influencing the State without violating the separation of Church-State.  The more the Church is like the secular State, the better the chances for influence. They effected great change, but eventually the churches that embraced this approach simply disappeared into society at large.”

I was reminded of this point when I read this “open letter” written by Herbert W. Chilstrom, former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to Catholic Archbishop John Nienstadt. I know nothing about Chilstrom, but one thing is clear — his strategy includes rendering his church after the model of a liberal democratic institution and deeming the distinctively theological character of Christian morality (i.e. its doctrinal distinctiveness) to be an imposition of Church on State. While the Catholic tradition would view the social gospel to be deeply rooted in its rich theological heritage, with the doctrine of the Trinity grounding our understanding of solidarity or the doctrine of the Incarnation grounding our love for the poor, it would also be desirous to argue that these same ethical truths are founded on a rational basis in natural law (see here an example) and so do not require an imposition of our distinctive theological tradition on the State.

See what you think…

Dear John:

Having served as a Lutheran bishop in Minnesota and then as the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), I write as one who stands on level ground with you. Like you, I have a deep sense of call to the ministry of the Gospel. Read more…

Post Script: after writing this post, I happened on another article that makes this same point in a different way:

You can call them “unaffiliated,” as in a recent Pew poll, or “nones”—or even just “not very religious.” A brand new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute divides this group further (and somewhat counterintuitively) into “unattached,” “atheists/agnostics,” and “seculars.” But whatever you call them, this ever-growing cohort of unchurched Americans makes up, at 23 percent, the single largest segment of Barack Obama’s “religious coalition” (compared to the 37 percent of white evangelicals who support Mitt Romney).  Read more…

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