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The Suicide of the Liberal Church

Posted on Jan 24, 2016

By Chris Hedges

  The chapel of The General Theological Seminary in New York City. The seminary, founded in 1817, sold much of its property to developers in recent years. (Julie Jacobson / AP)

Paul Tillich wrote that all institutions, including the church, are inherently demonic. Reinhold Niebuhr asserted that no institution could ever achieve the morality of the individual. Institutions, he warned, to extend their lives when confronted with collapse, will swiftly betray the stances that ostensibly define them. Only individual men and women have the strength to hold fast to virtue when faced with the threat of death. And decaying institutions, including the church, when consumed by fear, swiftly push those endowed with this moral courage and radicalism from their ranks, rendering themselves obsolete.

The wisdom of Tillich and Niebuhr has been borne out in the precipitous decline of the liberal church and the seminaries and divinity schools that train religious scholars and clergy. Faced with shrinking or nonexistent endowments, mounting debts, dwindling memberships, a lack of employment for their graduates and growing irrelevancy in a society that has little use for tepid church piety and the smug arrogance that comes with it, these institutions have fallen into physical and moral decay.

The number of adults in the mainline Protestant churches—Presbyterian, Unitarian-Universalist, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Congregationalist—decreased from about 41 million in 2007 to 36 million in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. And the average age of the congregant is 52. The Catholic Church also is being decimated; its decline has been exacerbated by its decades-long protection of sexual predators within the priesthood and the Vatican’s relentless campaign, especially under John Paul II, to force out of the church priests, nuns and lay leaders who focused their ministries on the poor and the oppressed. The Catholic Church, which has lost 3 million members over the last decade, has seen its hold on the U.S. population fall to 21 percent from 24.

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Mainline seminaries and divinity schools have been merging or closing, and enrollment at such schools has declined by 24 percent in the last decade. Andover Newton, founded in 1807, plans to reduce its operations and relocate or merge with another institution. Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pa., and Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia plan to merge. Union Theological Seminary, where black liberation, feminist, womanist and queer theologies have their roots, appears to be on the verge of selling “air space” to a developer to construct a luxury 35-to-40-story condominium building on its campus. General Theological Seminary in New York City, a school founded in 1817, has sold much of its property to developers, and it ended tenure for its faculty after the professors went out on strike to demand the removal of Dean and President Kurt Dunkle. Dunkle, who epitomizes the infusion of corporatism into the church, worked for many years as a lawyer doing commercial litigation before being ordained.

“What doomed General Seminary was not just financial mismanagement, but unethical leadership,” Rob Stephens, a third-year student for the ministry at Union and part of a student movement fighting Union’s building project, said when I spoke with him by phone. “That is what made the faculty walk out. The Union administration, board of trustees and all of us need to learn this lesson and put a halt to the project. The Union administration has said that Union, by building this luxury condominium, was being as bold as the original founders. This is one thing I can agree on. The original founders envisioned a place for privileged, white men. The original founders called abolitionism ‘fanaticism.’ The founders’ values won’t get us through this storm. Union is bigger than the administration and board. Union should be for all God’s people. If built, this luxury condominium would be a middle finger to Harlem. It would be a middle finger to faith-based social movements.

“This seminary has turned Black Lives Matter into a commodity,” he went on. “They sell this campus as being allied with Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements. But if we are readers of the Bible, we know that saying one thing and doing another leads to internal combustion. Inconsistency of values and actions can only lead to failure. As a seminary community, how can we have more faith in an unstable housing market than in the Gospel? You can’t reconcile luxury condominiums built by an anti-union contractor and no affordable housing with the Gospel of Jesus. This is another example of mainline Christianity casting their lot with capitalism instead of community. When will we learn?”

The self-identified religious institutions that thrive preach the perverted “prosperity gospel,” the message that magic Jesus will make you rich, respected and powerful if you believe in him. Jesus, they claim, is an American capitalist, bigot and ardent imperialist. These sects selectively lift passages from the Bible to justify the unjustifiable, including homophobia, war, racism against Muslims, and the death penalty. Yet there are more students—2,067—at the evangelical Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary alone than at the divinity schools and seminaries of Yale, Harvard, Union, Vanderbilt and Chicago, whose combined enrollment is 1,537.

The doctrine these sects preach is Christian heresy. The Christian faith—as in the 1930s under Germany’s pro-Nazi Christian church—is being distorted to sanctify nationalism, unregulated capitalism and militarism. The mainstream church, which refuses to denounce these heretics as heretics, a decision made in the name of tolerance, tacitly gives these sects credibility and squanders the prophetic voice of the church.

Kevin Kruse in his book “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America” details how industrialists in the 1930s and 1940s poured money and resources into an effort to silence the social witness of the mainstream church, which was home to many radicals, socialists and proponents of the New Deal. These corporatists promoted and funded a brand of Christianity—which is today dominant—that conflates faith with free enterprise and American exceptionalism. The rich are rich, this creed goes, not because they are greedy or privileged, not because they use their power to their own advantage, not because they oppress the poor and the vulnerable, but because they are blessed. And if we have enough faith, this heretical form of Christianity claims, God will bless the rest of us too. It is an inversion of the central message of the Gospel. You don’t need to spend three years at Harvard Divinity School as I did to figure that out.


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