The Magazine

God's Left Hand

Preaching to the choir in the 'Mainline' churches.

Nov 13, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 09 • By MARK TOOLEY
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Christianity for the Rest of Us

How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith

by Diana Butler Bass

HarperSanFrancisco, 336 pp., $23.95

All of the mainline denominations guided by liberal theology in the 20th century have been in decline since the early 1960s. Mainline Protestant church members once numbered one out of every six Americans. Now they are one out of every thirty. Meanwhile, Roman Catholicism has retained its market share of the U.S. population, and evangelicals have be come the largest religious demographic in America. Seemingly, the hour of liberal Protestantism has come and gone.

But Diana Butler Bass challenges the conventional wisdom; she insists that her fellow liberal Protestants are more vibrant than commonly realized. She does not try to support her thesis with statistical evidence. She admits this book is not a "quantitative project," and her evidence is mostly anecdotal. From among six denominations she identified fifty vital mainline congregations that defined themselves as theologically moderate or liberal. But she still admits that mainline Protestant institutions, as a whole, are in "deep crisis and desperately in need of renewal."

According to Bass, "evangelical voices have grown louder and more insistent that they--and they alone--are the true Christians, the ones with true doctrine, true morals, and true politics." Their leaders, having flexed their muscles in national elections, are now trying to create a "one-party Christianity." A frequent liberal commentator and critic of religious conservatives, Bass is part of Jim Wallis's newly unveiled "Red Letter Christians," who want to steer evangelicals away from concerns about abortion and homosexuality and towards environmentalism and antiwar activism.

Wanting to channel her anger constructively, Bass set out to highlight the "quiet Christians" whom the media supposedly ignore. She warns that her book is not for churchgoers who are "closing their eyes" and are spiritually content. So, watch out! The mainline congregations on which Bass focuses are "often in tension with local fundamentalist Christians, or surprisingly, their own denominations," although she does not elaborate much.

Bass recounts having grown up in a Methodist church in Baltimore in the 1960s. The neighborhood has since decayed, and today the church is mostly empty, cannot afford a full-time pastor, and ponders merging with another congregation. Bass notes that the dwindling congregation has joined a group called the Center for Progressive Christianity and is "reaching out to gay and lesbian persons." It's a pretty typical story for an urban mainline church.

Leaving the denomination of her childhood, Bass transitioned through fundamentalism--charismatic Christianity--classical evangelicalism, and then back to mainline Protestantism, but of a decidedly liberal sort. As a teacher at an evangelical school some years ago, she worried over students influenced by evangelical history books portraying America's Founding Fathers as Protestant saints. But she admits that secularists "fail to appreciate" how Protestantism shaped, and continues to shape, the United States.

Not long ago, Bass remembers, not all Protestants were "evangelicals or fundamentalists or political extremists." She recalls fairly accurately that the mainline Protestantism of the 20th century had morphed into religious Rotary Clubs. They were spiritually unchallenging but espoused civic righteousness and generic morality. With fondness, Bass looks farther back to the "enchanting universe" of historic churches, such as Christ Church (Episcopal) in Alexandria, Virginia, where George Washington worshipped, and which remains active still. Despite the social injustices of its day, Bass looks to old Protestantism in America as offering "village" churches specializing in hospitality for spiritual pilgrims. She seems to be trying to rediscover this old, gentle Protestantism that, from a distance at least, combined beauty, transcendence, and wonder.

After leaving evangelicalism, Bass gravitated towards a liberal and vibrant Episcopal church with a homosexual priest and plenty of political activism. Most of the churches she studies in her book do not seem to be quite so far left. They are medium-sized, mostly urban, congregations of several hundred people, many of whom are either refugees from conservative churches or new to religious practice. The congregants are largely well educated, upper middle class, and eager to avoid "fundamentalism" while emphasizing "community."