THE PROBLEMS OF PARTICIPATION, COMPETENCE & THEOLOGICAL RIGOR
The Waning Credibility of the Mainline Protestant Churches’ Social Pronouncements

May 1989By R. Bruce Douglass



We are hearing a lot these days about what Martin E. Marty has called the “public” church. Many informed observers who are sensitive to the contribution Christianity has made to the public life of this nation in the past sense that today we are again badly in need of a responsible, non-triumphalist public religious witness. This view has much to commend it, not least to counter the increasingly powerful tendency in this country today to look upon religion as a purely private matter which has no legitimate place in public life.

But what, as a practical matter, is the actual capacity of the churches in question to play this role? What, in particular, is the capacity of the “mainline” Protestant churches to give the kind of leadership in this respect that Marty and others have in mind? Both Catholics and evangelicals are in their own respective ways stepping forward to meet the challenge. But what about the historic pioneers of a public religious witness in this coun­try? What about the Presbyterians and Methodists, the Lutherans and Episcopalians, etc.? Are they capable of anything like the sort of action that would make a real difference in this regard?

As an active, lifelong lay member of one of these denominations, I cannot help but react with more than a little skepticism. In principle, the need is exactly what the advocates of the public church say it is. As a scholar with a professional interest in the state of American public life, I am fully per­suaded that they are right when they talk about what is at stake in this matter. But what I experi­ence in the church — and in myself as a member — gives me pause. I see hardly any reason to think that the churches in question can even begin to meet this need effectively — not without major changes, at least, in the way they conceive of what a public witness is all about.

This is by no means for want of effort. Ever since I can remember, the church as I have known it has been deeply interested in public affairs, and conveyed the unmistakable impression that public life was an integral part of the Christian life. There has never been the slightest doubt, in any congrega­tion of which I have been a part since becoming an adult, that it was necessary for the community of faith to take an active, ongoing interest in social and political issues. Nor has it been just a sense of civic responsibility in general which has been culti­vated. There has been, too, no less unmistakably, an element of advocacy in most of what has been said and done in this vein. Not only have issues been raised for the reflection and commitment of the faithful, but more often than not we have been encouraged to think about them in a particular, partisan way. From race relations in the 1960s to the conflicts in Central America today, consistent­ly, year after year, on issue after issue, my church, like most others in the Protestant “mainstream,” has cast itself in the role of advocate.


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