Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

Ross Douthat, a writer for the NYTimes, has a new book out called Bad Religion that gripes about how heretical American Christianity has become, and on that point he’s undoubtedly right. But what strikes me about his opening sketch of what any reader might be tempted to call his “golden years” of American Christianity — namely the post WWII years — is the magnitude of the leaders he discovers in the 1950s: Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen and Martin Luther King Jr..

If one lines up the major leaders in American Christianity today, and one uses his categories (Protestant liberalism, Evangelicalism, Catholicism, African American Christianity), who would those leaders be today and do they rival the substantive nature of those four? Who is getting to the core of American Christians and culture?

It’s easy to make the 1950s nostalgic, and I was young enough that I never got the pulse myself, and it is easy to see the family as the center of culture and the church on the corner the moral beacon — and thus idealize the time period. Douthat does his best to say he’s not idealizing, but I have my doubts that he will escape the charge, but neither will it ruin the logic or the exceptionally well-written sketches of this book of the church at that time and what it has become. For surely he’s onto something: Christianity has not only lost its moral fiber and its respect but it has also struggled to find leaders who carry respect in the church and in culture at large.

Niebuhr offered to the church a post liberal American version of Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy, in which sin was real, and he wanted a cultural vision for America that transcended the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch. Against utopian visions; he wanted a Reformation vision; rooted in historic liturgy and creeds; the saving life and death of Jesus and not just ethics; and a humility in the face of the mysteries of God. That’s more or less his sketch of neo-orthodoxy, though Niebuhr had some critics who didn’t think he was sound enough.

Billy Graham is known to most of this blog’s readers, and Douthat’s sketch is neither insightful nor penetrating (into Billy’s gospel) but does show his place in history and American religion. And Billy was very American after all. What Billy did was make evangelicalism mainstream enough to regain a measure of respect.

Fulton Sheen — a person perhaps not as well known to our readers, but he was the showman preacher on TV who dazzled and taught and held firmly to traditional Catholic ideas on all topics, yet somehow managed to make Catholicism a supremely American topic and made that faith compatible with the American democratic experiment. The Catholic church of these days was comprehensively insulated and effective.

M.L. King’s sketch is good.  King rode a wave from the African American church being both vital but marginalized to the point that it became not only vital but central to the American religious scene. He succeeded in winning over white Christians to his vision. He was in some ways an African American version of neo-orthodoxy. Many white evangelists backed away from King’s more political vision, thinking salvation was private and personal and spiritual and primary.

These are his four major figures: all composed and confident in both their theology and their politics.

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  • phil_style

    1950’s American Christianity needs to be reviewed in light of the global context at the time. The US had just emerged victorious from a war that was, quite possible, one of the only ever easily morally justifiable wars (in hindsight). The nation was running high justified patriotic pride and industrial power. The traditional seat of Christianity (Europe) was split along political lines and ravaged by the war and it’s damning consequences. The rest of the world (the south) was still 40 years away from starting its meteoric rise.

    American religious leaders had a clear new “evil” in communism which could/ had to be leveraged into theirl message. Indeed MLK might have even been written off as a communist had he not been able to clearly demonstrate the “American” nature of his ideals. This was the imperative in the 1950s – to ensure that your ideology/ theology could be branded as “american”. Those who could do this were the most influential.

    It’s too easy to claim that these leaders were exceptional, without taking the environment into context.

  • It seems like it was easier to take a stand on political matters then. Totalitarianism vs. human rights seemed a bit simpler in that era. So much now is colored by relativism. Maybe I’m wrong and I don’t always understand historical and social change, but it seems like we’re in a gray world now. Everything is wrong. Nothing is right. And everyone is shouting that their pet view is the only way, demonizing other views. We should all have a sock hop.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Yes, where are the Jeremiahs and Elijahs? Where are the Apostle Pauls? Where are the Deborahs and Pricillas today? Maybe they are in the global South where Christianity is expanding ten times faster than here? I could not believe it when I saw on the cover of ‘Christianity Today’ a story on Heidi Baker. Now there is someone who is making a profound difference in Africa.

  • Steve

    In the realm of evangelicalism I think Harold John Ockenga is worth mentioning well. His work with the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary deeply influenced the religious landscape. Without leaders like him and others I do not think Billy Graham’s legacy would be as significant.

    I think Douthat makes an interesting point. He names leaders with amazing gifts and influence. One name that comes to mind today is Tim Keller. Having said that, as much as I respect Keller I am not sure it is an accurate comparison.

    What kind of leaders are needed for Protestant liberalism, Evangelicalism, Catholicism, African American Christianity today?

  • Alan K

    During the 1950s there was a legitimacy that the church had simply because of its social location. The energy of suspicion in the culture at large was turned elsewhere. Thus, part of the success of the above-mentioned leaders was due to the fact that the culture was more inclined to listen to them in the first place. The day of that sort of witness is gone because that sort of world is gone as well.

  • Robin

    I don’t know about Niebuhr and Sheen, but I think part of the appeal of Graham and King is that they explicitly operated outside of the church in a way. Graham wasn’t a pastor, he was a revivalist, his gifts were in communicating a soterian gospel message to the un-churched or less-churched. With the exception of maybe Matt Chandler, everyone’s pedigree at T4G or TGC (or whatever moderate-liberal equivalents exist) would have outpaced him by miles.

    King, also, might have been an established figure in the black church, but he was definitely not part of “mainstream Christianity” even in his own city. I mean, after one of his imprisonments all of the white ministers in Birmingham got together and wrote him a letter demanding he cease his activity.

    If we are looking for 2 people to fill these guys shoes, we definitely won’t find them attached to a seminary or college, and we probably need to examine ministry circles that are either despised, or at least looked down upon, by most mainstream Christians.

  • I think it is hard to come up with ‘substantive’ leaders in the sense of a person who transcends a fractured church with a Godly voice. Part of it is cultural fragmentation, and part of it is the sin that splits Christ’s body in two; but both have left us with a landscape of silos. With all due respect I think we are lacking strong ecumenical leadership that can drive positive change. I really respect folks like Hauerwas, or N.T. Wright but frankly even their influence is limited in our ‘no compromise’ culture…

  • Chip

    Sheen’s Life of Christ is a marvelous book, looking at its subject largely from the perspective of what might today be called spiritual theology. It was so rich it served as my devotional reading for about two years.

  • Steve

    One more leader today of significant influence is N.T. Wright. He does not parallel the work of the four mentioned, he certainly will be remembered as a significant figure from our time. Though obviously not an American, I think he influences thought in the United States a great deal.

    Douthat described four movements from the 50s. I wonder which movements of today will be seen as significant in 50 years.

  • Robin

    As far as communicating the gospel message to the unchurched or less-churched I think you have to give a hard look to guys like Driscoll and Chandler and Bell. Not sure about Bell, but Driscoll and Chandler preach a soterian gospel, but it is at least as much gospel as what Graham preached. Also, they have done an amazing job in reaching a huge chunk of the unchurched population on their terms, without sacrificing what they consider to be their core beliefs.

    Here in Louisville we have several Acts 29 churches that are associated somewhat with Driscoll that are reaching people other churches can’t in the poorest and most alternative neighborhoods in Louisville.

    Someone else I want to throw out there is Curtis Tanner, the founder of Campus Outreach (and I’m only mentioning him b/c Bill Bright [Campus Crusade] and Dawson Trotman [Navigators] are dead). Here is one man who, by discipling a few and sending them out to disciple a few more has established an international ministry that shows no signs of slowing down. I would be willing to bet that more people come to Christ through parachurch ministries (like Campus Outreach) now than through the local church. So while there isn’t one great “parachurch leader” I think that movement is certainly on the front lines in terms of getting the gospel to non-Christians.

  • Joe Canner

    While Billy Graham played an important role in Evangelicalism, it doesn’t stand to reason that there should be a single person who should be carrying out that role today. Instead of having one person who gathers tens of thousands of people at occasional events, we have evangelical pastors who preach the gospel every week to thousands of congregants and many more via radio, TV, internet, and print. In the 50s we had Billy Graham; now we have Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Tim Keller, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Rob Bell, Francis Chan, etc. etc. A motley bunch, to be sure, but capable of taking the gospel to a much more widely varied audience than Billy Graham could have ever dreamed.

    Not to mention Graham’s son Franklin, who recognizes (whatever other faults he may have) that meeting physical needs is a necessary and integral part of the gospel. Samaritan’s Purse, along with hundreds of other similar organizations, have brought a new a welcomed dimension to the evangelical gospel since the 50s.

  • phil_style

    @ CGC May 10, 2012 at 7:01 am

    Just read the Baker story on CT. yikes.
    Not sure how to react to it (disturbed? hopeful? terrified?). My incredulous mind is having a fight with itself after that.

  • John

    This is such an odd question – especially when one realizes the immense limits of the “great” leaders Douthat champions. Of course, these chaps stand out, because everyone else was so lackluster.

    But, did these leaders rally the nation against racial discrimination long before the problems were so bad that a revolution had to erupt? Did these leaders rally the nation for a truly effective body of international law and institutions which could have prevented some of the disastrous wars of the past 60 years? In short, these “leaders” were not what Douthat makes them out to be.

    Where are the leaders today? All over the place – Chistian Community Development Association, with its hq in Chicago * http://www.ccda.org/ * is just one group where one would look for leaders “on the ground”, in communities scattered across America and the world.

    Or look for the people learning and living the principles of organizations like The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. * http://www.greenleaf.org/aboutus/history.html *
    Founded by Robert Greenleaf in 1964, after he retired from AT&T, Greenleaf sought to establish a center where the idea of “servant leadership”, an idea that grew out of his experience in the business world, could be nurtured and promoted.

    The New Testament speaks of the “priesthood of all believers”, i.e., of the responsibility of all believers to be leaders, to be knowledgeable of and invoved with Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom. I have listed only two organizations of a multitude that could be found, where leaders today can be found. It would help, immensely, if we indulged much less nostalgia, and paid much more attention to the realities of our day.

    In short, I am not impressed by Douthat’s book. In fact, I believe he has only muddied the already troubled waters, and sent us looking in the wrong direction.

  • Joe Canner makes some great points above in seeing that there is as much good coming out of the differences between now and in the 1950s as anything that is lacking.

    I wonder if media has given us some false impressions here. The leaders of previous generations certainly had the medias attention but today all the media out there is insane. There are so many voices, so many blogs, and so many perspectives it makes it hard to single out the trail blazers because you have so many voices that it is almost like theological noise in our ears at times. 50 years ago there were far fewer voices that you had opportunity to hear/learn from their perspective through far fewer venues. There was a time when there was only 1 channel on TV and a handful of extremely popular radio programs. Not so today! So they had more opportunity to stand out if they were dynamic because there were fewer of them and fewer media outlets, which made the names that much bigger due to lack of competition. Today, people are just happy to be in the top 200 on some lists in the media, whether it is top 200 churches, blogs, etc. Media has skewed our view on this.

    There are some tremendous leaders we will never hear from because they haven’t pursued media attention, blogging, etc in order to increase the size of their platform and yet they are faithfully week in and week out leading congregations, innovating, and discipling people.

    On a side note to CGS’s point about where are the Paul’s today I have wondered why we don’t have more ministries roles/positions out there similar to what Paul was doing. It may be that there is somewhat of a selfishness among some churches that once you land someone who is talented you don’t want to send him out. It would be great if we had guys like Paul out there taking the gospel with them, praying for guidance and going where they felt they needed to go. I am sure they are out there you just don’t hear about that often. Maybe they don’t have time to blog about what they are doing (I say that as a poke at myself first and foremost).

  • Paul

    Where I live, I have a problem thinking of Christianity of the 1950’s with a nostalgia. Here in Virginia, the 1950’s for many white Christians was a time of justified racial segregation and cruelty towards others. In my own city, the public schools shut down for months rather than integrate…this was supported by many Christian congregations.

    I know that this mentality is not found in the leaders listed above, and it is not representative of what Christianity should be teaching…but it was representative of a huge part of Christianity here in the South. Why would I wish/long that a morality that justified this type of belief system should return?

  • Scott Gay

    For years I thought of the fifties as an ideal. But growing up since then has given a different perspective. James Luther Adam’s essay “Tillich’s Concept of The Protestant Era”
    largely summed up “the storms of our times” even before the fifties. His description of “these storms having created a darkness so readily visable that it is now a work of supererogation to describe it” is such a contemporary description most would not believe it was written 60+ years ago instead of yesterday. It has only been googled 150,000 times but is worth the read.
    As for a form of Christian leadership that is going on today, and that I believe will be talked about in 60 years, the Taize community exhibits the most potential to me. Most say that brother Roger was killed by a crazy person, but it’s interesting that universalizers often die at the hands of others and are considered subversive even by other religious structures.

  • CGC

    Hi Phil,
    Incredulous to the healings and miracles that are being reported? I was surprised by the story that CT even did it. They typically do not cover ministries like the Bakers when I used to subscribe to it (which I don’t receive any more, I just happened to pick up a copy and read the story at a friend’s house). The Baker’s story is a fascinating one on how it all started. They basically started an orphange in the town’s burning dump (because that is where parents threw their kids away they did not want) and the Bakers started a church there. When they worshipped, they were all the same color because of the black soot on everyone’s faces.

    Anyhow, from dangers to struggles to despair, when God did a sovereign move and work there, now there are three orphanages and ten thousand churches started after 8 years. Anyhow, I have witnessed the Baker’s work from afar and close up when they are in North America. From my perspective, it’s truly an amazing story or as a friend of mine used to say, “A God-thing!”

  • Dana Ames

    Scott Gay,
    that article on Tillich’s take is something else. I’m not sure I understood all of what Adams is saying, but wow – that first part on the bourgeois principle sounds like where we are now. ISTM that capitalism aside, much of the description of “the problem” there could be applied to biblicism.

    I wish I knew if someone in the Orthodox theological world is interacting with Tillich’s thought.

    I’m not as hopeful that the solution can be found in “the Protestant principle” – it seems like just more of the same to me.


  • phil_style

    @CGC “Incredulous to the healings and miracles that are being reported?”

    yes, essentially.

    I don’t want to be sceptical/ cynical…. I’ve just lived through too many “claims” later to be proven false to have much hope… yet hope still lingers. All is not lost…

  • CGC

    Hi Phil,
    I read the story quickly but this is what I remember (hopefully not fallibly). I remember in the story that these doctors and sociologists went and confirmed some of the miracles that were taking place in Africa with the Bakers. But it went on to say that they also went on to places in North America where there were similar claims and found them mostly false or bogus. I found that interesting 🙂

  • I would agree with Randy! Curtis Tanner deserves a lot of credit in the ministry he established years ago, and he will quickly denounce the credit and give it to to the ONE, where it belongs, Christ! One of the many reasons why Tanner has built such a great ministry with the beach visitors and others who would never dart in the door of a church. He developed a ministry to do as Christ instructed; “Go ye out to all the land”……..he took the Gospel to the people!
    Knowing this man’s heart is a motivation for us all to witness in the highways of life EVERYDAY!! Thank you, Curtis for what you do!!
    God Bless You!!