Understanding the Fundamentalists’ Retreat
CAUGHT UP IN CONFUSIONS THEY'RE UNABLE TO RESOLVE
During the height of public interest in the recent PTL scandal, with fresh rumors and allegations surfacing in each day’s news, I received a call from a reporter who was looking for some new comment on the sordid affair. “How do you as a [theologically] conservative evangelical ethicist view the situation?” she asked. “Say something profound and quotable!” “That’s easy,” I replied. “The whole thing is a farce. Jim Bakker has been set up by the Roman Catholic bishops, who have staged this scandal in order to take the spotlight off their own problems.”
That comment was, to be sure, neither profound nor quotable. But there is something to be said for the instinctive direction that my warped sense of humor took in that situation. If the Roman Catholic bishops had been inclined to stage a scandal for someone else, in order to divert attention away from their own much publicized skirmishes, conservative Protestantism would be a likely target. In its search for interesting religious news in North America, the public spotlight seems to be spending a lot of time these days scanning the doings of both the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the leadership of conservative evangelicalism. And the spotlight does not merely focus on sexual teachings and practices. The same two groups get considerable attention when the larger issues of religion and public policy are being discussed.
This kind of thing was not supposed to happen – certainly not according to the views expressed by the intelligentsia of two decades ago. When John F. Kennedy gave his famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, it was widely believed that longstanding worries about possible ecclesiastical pressures on Roman Catholic politicians had finally been laid to rest. And as for any significant influence that Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists might exert in the public arena – well, hadn’t the “monkey trials” shown once and for all that those fanatics are at best museum pieces? According to the best informed secularist judgments, the future of religion lay with Protestant liberalism.
But here we are in the 1980s, and now no one seems to be paying much attention to the political perspectives of liberal Protestants. When I recently read Richard Fox’s widely acclaimed biography of Reinhold Niebuhr, I was surprised by the public visibility Niebuhr had as a political thinker in the 1940s and 1950s. But they don’t seem to be making Protestant liberals like Niebuhr anymore. Given the current trends, a young religionist hoping to exert influence on public-policy debates would be better advised to build a Pentecostal prayer-tower or join a Trappist monastery than to pore over ethics books at some liberal Protestant divinity school.
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