John Spong starts his book on Eternal Life talking about funerals. In them, he notes, the services are not (or should not be) directed to members of the church. It is really for those who are gathered. And when it comes to weddings and funerals, the one thing you know is that most of the folks in attendance are not church members. They come from all walks of life, many are part of what Spong calls the “church alumni association.” To relate faith in this context means to relate to everybody.
There’s a value to this. It means, and wedding and funerals indicate this, that you have to relate to the human condition, to those shared experiences that make us human. It means you have to relate to the person, in their individuality as opposed to making them fit the rubrics of your religion. That does not mean you are not drawing from your religious tradition but it is in the service of the person and their situation.
The closest thing I can think of to this kind of work is chaplaincy. I remember how when I was in grad school I volunteered as a chaplain at the local hospital. The important thing was not your tradition, it was the needs of the patient. You met them where they were at. It’s one reason evangelicals wouldn’t participate in this program. The volunteer chaplains came mainly from mainline protestant churches.
It was because they felt comfortable setting aside their religious notions to relate to the needs of the patient, to do a referral if a specific religious rite was needed that was not in their own tradition. This happened later in seminary. The evangelical churches in town would not do funerals for those who were not church members. So the Disciples of Christ pastor I worked with as an intern performed those funerals.
It was there that I learned the public role a mainline pastor can play. There are certain theological presuppositions for that work. 1) God is the God of the whole world, not just of the church. You cannot make divisions between insiders and outsiders 2) Theology comes from the lived experience of people, not the institutional needs of the church 3) The church primarily exists for those outside of the church.
I’d suggest such a vision models the life and ministry of Jesus who always related to people across the divisions of religion and society. And I believe it finds it’s expression primarily within mainline Protestantism. So when I saw the recent Pew report on the continuing collapse of the mainline and the increased religious polarization of the country, I feel like we’re losing something important.
Al Mohler and Russel Moore, Southern Baptist leaders, cheered the report because they wants a clear line between the church and the world. With evangelical growth in numbers and an increase in nones, there is little room for those in the middle. They do not want those who are C&E Christians, folks who might remember the Lord’s prayer, those who might be drawn to the figure of Jesus, but are ambivalent about this or that feature of Christianity, to claim the word. And increasingly they are not.
They speak about being an “honest atheist”, because you are either 100% with the evangelicals, or you are 100% opposed, nice clear lines. I don’t know if that is an honesty issue though. I certainly want people with integrity to claim the label and tradition that speaks to them without social repercussions. But I’d argue that many who could relate to Christianity cannot do so because of folks like Al Mohler.
As Christianity has become identified with fundamentalism and right wing political views, especially opposition to LGBT equality, people who are liberally minded who may have experienced the divine in their lives, may be drawn to some of the resources of the Christian tradition, find it next to impossible to claim the word Christian without social cost and being lumped in with values they don’t agree with.
And as Robert Putnam notes, if you are largely an atheist or skeptical in orientation and are politically conservative, there is a lot of social pressure to identify with Christianity, whether that makes sense of your beliefs or not. That is, the social pressures still remain, but now it is that people are sorting themselves based on their political alignment. That is not a recipe for honesty.
This kind of alignment means that Christianity will increasingly be seen as something which belongs to the church, and in the US that will look like the political and evangelical right. And the possible resources of the Christian tradition will be bypassed. And I think that is a shame and even in opposition to the gift Christianity can be. And so I’m going to argue for an unlikely position as a religious liberal.
I’m going to argue that there is something right about the state churches of Scandinavia. There, the lack of belief in God which approaches eighty percent is mixed in with church membership that also approaches eighty percent. This is because the churches there belong to the whole of society. It is not a voluntary society of like minds, it is a public good which belongs to everybody.
It is the place where you get married, buried, where you are confirmed and baptized. It is where you celebrate the holidays and the ongoing calendar of life. It is the place that helps a nation mourn when tragedy strikes. It is the church that provides hospital chaplains, like the one who helped my foster brother in Norway and his wife struggle with the loss of their child. And none of it is dependent on having the right beliefs. It is based on connecting to the needs of people.
Now I’m not seriously proposing a state church in the US. It wouldn’t be possible. No one religious group can perform that function. But I think Scandinavia is better off for theirs. And historically mainline Protestantism used to play that function in their communities. In many ways, we still do. So the loss of the mainline has real bearing on whether our respective religious traditions can be accessible to the rest of us or not.
This is to say that when religion is an indicator of your political tribe, when it defines who is in and who is out, when it is defined by “true beliefs” it ceases to perform the role of what binds us together as human beings. It becomes another interest group which one must rally behind or rally against. That way may produce interest and numbers. I question whether it is good news though.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma