Future of Evangelicalism
Are Evangelicals the New Mainline?
That directs us back to your earlier point on theological change. If one no longer believes in eternal "salvation" as that has traditionally been conceived, then there is not a whole lot of reason to go through the effort and embarrassment that is required for witnessing to the gospel or encouraging neighbors to come to church.
Do you see this long-term decline driven by theological transformations at seminaries and divinity schools?
I do. I blame it all on the liberal seminaries. Very early in my career, when I was a graduate student at Berkeley, I had contact with seminary professors as I was conducting studies. Since I was at Berkeley, a notoriously liberal institution, they were sure that I would be very sympathetic to their problem. So time and again I was told that their greatest challenge and their most important instructional duty was, and I'll quote, "to knock the Youth for Christ crud out of our seminary freshmen."
Well, they were pretty successful at it. They weren't successful at much of anything else, but they did manage to undercut the faith of a lot of their students.
This was going on even in the 1890s. Heck, by the 1820s, Harvard Divinity School was Unitarian. This is not just my own impression. Sidney Ahlstrom, a well-known, highly respected, and very liberal Protestant historian, has shown that Harvard was entirely Unitarian by around 1820.
So, the fact of the matter is, if you look at the leading lights in American Protestantism in the early 20th century, the famous people didn't believe in the divinity of Jesus. They were very shaky about the existence of God. They always talked about God, but when you got down into their books and pushed, God was some kind of social value. There wasn't a one of them who believed in a God who could hear prayers.
Well, they may be right about God. But that doesn't make for a strong church. As a matter of fact, it doesn't make for much of anything. If God doesn't hear or care, if God is not in fact an intelligent entity of some kind, if God is only an ideal, then church is an irrelevancy. Ideals are cheap. They also don't give you anything. Some of these guys bragged that atheists could embrace their conception of God. Well, that should have told you something! How ecumenical can you get?
So we've discussed what you pointed to first, the theological change that preceded or accompanied the decline in attendance. Let's turn to the second issue, the social issue. It sounds as though you're saying that, in the absence of a transcendent divinity, what became transcendent was this vision of social justice or something similar. The vision of the kingdom of God was replaced by a political vision that was the only thing really left worth getting passionate over.
If you look at the National Council of Churches, and the Federal Council before it, and look at their annual statements and resolutions, they are exceedingly Left-wing. Even in some really unexpected religious ways. For example, they're very much opposed to Christmas nativity scenes if conceivably they would be near or on public property. They're against school prayer.
I'm not saying they're wrong. I'm just saying that they are relentlessly Left, even on what might be considered traditional Christian positions. They are extremely, actively pro-abortion. They are constantly passing resolutions in favor of Cuba, and you couldn't possibly get them to condemn the Soviet Union for anything.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.