The Ecumenism of the Anti-Ecumenical

The Ecumenism of the Anti-Ecumenical October 6, 2015

Neil Young’s forthcoming We Gather Together is a pre-history of the Religious Right. It is also a history of the contested ecumenism of the anti-ecumenical churches.

The two histories go together. How did the Religious Right so rapidly put together a coalition for family and traditional values? Young shows that they didn’t create it out of thin air. In the background were several decades of interaction, specifically among those American Christians who were most suspicious of the ecumenical efforts of the early twentieth century – Mormons, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.

He writes, “While liberal believers sought ecumenism, conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons countered with internal self-examination, updated apologetics, occasional dialogue, and renewed separatism.  . . . But as the nation’s civic ethos shifted from pluralism to secularism in the 1970s, at least as far as conservative Christians saw it, antiecumenists reassessed their relationships with each other, recognizing their shared cultural positions and moral convictions.”

Catholics, Evangelicals, and Mormons found that they were separately opposing the same cultural trends: family breakdown, feminism, abortion, homosexuality, statism, erosion of liberty. They discovered despite their differences of theology they could join forces to restore America.

In short, “a general consensus emerged: that the formation and success, if limited, of the Religious Right depended on the sublimation, abandonment, and erasure of denominational distinctions, historical divisions, theological disputes, and institutional exclusivity among different and historically antagonistic religious groups in pursuit of political victory and the defense of traditional morality and the idea of a Christian nation.” This was not the first time. Protestants had long been engaged in the project of Christianizing America. It was the great home missions program of the nineteenth century.

But this coalition was not merely a pragmatic one, driven by the late twentieth century cultural crisis. Rather, “conservative Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals had been wrestling with questions of Christian unity and interfaith relationships since midcentury.” Before “Jerry Falwell and other political operatives suggested these religious groups drop their denominational divisions and theological objections to unite against political liberalism, these three faiths had been thinking deeply about each other and the very question of Christian unity.” Already in the 1950s, “skeptics of the ecumenical movement (at least, for Catholics, until after Vatican II), and major players in conservative politics, the Catholic Church, the LDS Church, and evangelicals have recognized each other as close neighbors on religious and political terrains.”

Vatican II plays a complicated role in the story. On the one hand, some Evangelical Protestants saw it as a sell-out to liberalism and ecumenism. Yet, “evangelicals acknowledged that it also brought promising reforms, particularly the council’s emphasis on the Bible in the life of lay Catholics.” That laid the basis for limited collaboration. 

Young’s book also highlights the diversity within the religious right. At least it was a coalition of Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons, and that does not account for the varieties of Protestantism that lent their weight to the movement. It was “a diverse and intricate network that contained, endured, and suffered internal tensions, denominational divisions, and often competing agendas.” A cord of three strands is not easily broken, but “ their union more closely resembled a loose braid than the indestructible cord: separate threads brought together in tension, they overlapped in some places and rested closely but independently beside each other in others.”

By examining a longer sweep of American history, and by paying close attention to the theological diversity, Young’s book makes a significant contribution to the often-hysterical literature about the Religious Right.

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