The Suicide of the Liberal Church
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.
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. The liberal church committed suicide when it severed itself from radicalism. Radical Christians led the abolitionist movement, were active in the Anti-Imperialist League, participated in the bloody labor wars, fought for women’s suffrage, formulated the Social Gospel—which included a huge effort to carry out prison reform and provide education to prisoners—and were engines in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Norman Thomas, a longtime leader of the Socialist Party of America, was a Presbyterian minister.
These radicals generally were not embraced by the church hierarchy, which served as a bulwark of the establishment, but they kept the church vital and prophetic. They made it relevant and important to the oppressed, the poor and to workingmen and -women. Radicals were and are its hope.
The loss of an array of prophetic voices on the national scene such as Phil and Daniel Berrigan, William Stringfellow, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. left the liberal church as morally bankrupt as the rest of the liberal class. James Baldwin, who grew up in the church and was briefly a preacher, said he abandoned the pulpit to preach the Gospel. The Gospel, he knew, was not heard most Sundays in Christian houses of worship. And today with most ministers wary of offending their aging and dwindling flocks—counted on to pay the clergy salary and the bills—this is even truer than when Baldwin was writing.
The church is also a victim of the disintegration of the civic associations that, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, are vital to the maintenance of a healthy democracy and the common good. Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone” chronicled the broad disengagement from political and public life. He lamented, correctly, the loss of this “social capital.” Those who no longer join parents’ organizations, gardening and historical clubs or fraternal orders, who do not show up at town hall or city council meetings, also no longer attend church. There is little, given this cultural malaise—much of it driven by the constant availability of entertainment through the Internet and electronic devices—that the church can do to blunt the public’s retreat from public space.
What remains of the church, if it is to survive as a social and cultural force, will see clergy and congregants leave sanctuaries to work in prisons, schools, labor halls and homeless and women’s shelters, form night basketball leagues and participate in grass-roots movements such as the anti-fracking struggle and the fight to raise the minimum wage. This shift will make it hard to financially maintain the massive and largely empty church edifices, and perhaps even the seminaries, but it will keep the church real and alive. I had a dinner a few months ago with fellow teachers in the prison where I work. We discovered, to our surprise, that every one of us had seminary degrees.
William Stringfellow, who worked as a lawyer in Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s, in his book “My People Is the Enemy,” wrote of the church:
The premise of most urban church work, it seems, is that in order for the Church to minister among the poor, the church has to be rich, that is, to have specially trained personnel, huge funds and many facilities, rummage to distribute, and a whole battery of social services. Just the opposite is the case. The Church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor. The Church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the Gospel, except the power to apprehend and the courage to reveal the Word of God as it is already mediated in the life of the poor. When the Church has the freedom itself to be poor among the poor, it will know how to use what riches it has. When the Church has that freedom, it will be a missionary people again in all the world.
Stringfellow repeatedly warned Christians, as well as Christian institutions, not to allow the fear of death to diminish the power of Christian witness. Faith becomes real on the edge of the abyss. “In the face of death,” he wrote, “live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word. Amidst Babel, speak the truth. Confront the noise and verbiage and falsehood of death with the truth and potency and efficacy of the Word of God.”
During the rise of the American species of corporate fascism—what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism”—the liberal church, like the rest of the liberal establishment, looked the other way while the poor and workingmen and -women, especially those of color, were ruthlessly disempowered and impoverished. The church and liberals were as silent about the buildup of mass incarceration as they once were about lynching. The mainline church refused to confront and denounce the destructive force of corporate power. It placed its faith in institutions—such as the Democratic Party—that had long ceased to function as mechanisms of reform.
The church, mirroring the liberal establishment, busied itself with charity, multiculturalism and gender-identity politics at the expense of justice, especially racial and economic justice. It retreated into a narcissistic “how-is-it-with-me” spirituality. Although the mainline church paid lip service to diversity, it never welcomed significant numbers of people of color or the marginalized into their sanctuaries. The Presbyterian Church, for example, is 92 percent white. It pushed to the margins or sought to discredit liberation theology, which called out the evils of unfettered capitalism, white supremacy and imperialism. The retreat from radicalism—in essence the abandonment of the vulnerable to the predatory forces of corporate capitalism—created a spiritual void filled by protofascist movements that have usurped Christian symbols and provided a species of faith that is, at its core, a belief in magic. This Christian heresy is currently on public display at Donald Trump and Ted Cruz political rallies.
The last scenes of this decline are being played out at schools such as Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Tillich and Niebuhr taught at Union. America’s most important theologian, James Cone—who opposes the condominium building project on the campus—teaches there.
The president of the seminary, Serene Jones, says that unless part of the seminary’s quadrangle is handed over to the developer, the seminary will not have the funds to survive (although she and her administration have refused to make school finances public). If Jones gets her way, Union will become part of the vast gentrification project being waged against the poor, especially poor people of color, in Morningside Heights and West Harlem.
“With these development rights, we envision the creation of a beautiful, slender building that is visually in keeping with the neighborhood and that is set on the northeast end of the quad,” Jones wrote in an open letter to the Union community last December. “We want our newest building to feel like it has always been part of the current campus. We chose this location after thorough analyses showed that this was the best, and only, suitable site.”Union is working with the developer L+M Development Partners on construction plans. The firm has a history of hiring shady subcontractors—including MC&O Construction (found guilty of stealing $830,000 in 2013 from workers on a project of NYSAFAH contractor Procida Realty & Construction), RNC Industries LLC of Holtsville, N.Y. (repeatedly cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for unsafe working conditions that have led to fatalities), and Ro-Sal Plumbing (which settled a class-action complaint filed by workers over unpaid wages).
It is bad enough that Union would collaborate with companies charged with safety violations, workers’ compensation fraud and wage theft, but it is also abetting the driving of poor families, many of them of color, from their homes throughout the city. Apartment rents have risen in New York by 75 percent since 2000. The poor are being pushed out of neighborhoods around Union, in some cases into homeless shelters and the streets.
Students, and a few of Union’s faculty members, have risen up in opposition. They charge, in the words of first-year student Yazmine Nichols, whom I interviewed by phone, that “there is a lack of honesty and transparency on the part of the administration.”
“No one knows,” she told me, “how far along the plans are, whether there will be affordable housing units. All these things are question marks.
“It is hard to get the school galvanized around something they [the students and faculty] have no information about,” she added. “And this is part of the administration’s plan—divide and conquer by not providing information. People are left guessing and speculating.
“We need to ask ourselves what it means to exist as a theological institution,” Nichols continued. “Are we truly existing if we do not hold onto the core values the institution is predicated on? This is a question about what it means to be a seminary geared to social justice. What does it mean when homeless people are sleeping outside seminary dormitories? With growing income inequality and a shrinking middle class, we must begin asking the question, ‘Affordable for whom?’ What we mean by ‘affordability’ is that housing ought to be affordable for people of color who fall at or below the NYC poverty line. What does it mean to worship God and theologize in a world where people are suffering? What does it mean for an institution to thrive in the presence of that suffering? What is the purpose of Union’s existence? For Union to exist with a luxury condominium is for Union not to exist at all, at least not the Union I applied to. Union may continue to exist physically, but the soul of Union will be gone.”
Fear has driven church and seminary leaders into the hands of those the Gospel condemns as exploiters of the poor and the oppressed. They have turned their backs on Christian radicals, who alone can infuse new life into the church. The institutions believe alliances with the powerful and the wealthy will save them. They are wrong. Once they stand for nothing they become nothing.
“There is a mourning among the declining members of mainline Christianity,” Rob Stephens, the Union student, said in the interview. “I don’t share that. The mainline churches, by which we mean white denominations, are responsible for many of our greatest social ills, including white supremacy and patriarchy. If those parts of mainline Christianity need to die for renewal to take place, we need to learn how to embrace that. There is no resurrection without death.”
An earlier version of this column said Andover Newton had closed. Actually, the theology school plans to reduce its operations and relocate or merge with another institution.