This year is going to be an ugly time for American Christian churches. Tensions within the Catholic church show no signs of abating. After the Catholic church the second largest denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention, which is in a social-justice train wreck. Next in size comes the United Methodist Church, which is on course to split into two denominations by the spring.
But the denominational problems are not the deeper problem. The deeper problem is that Christians are only now awaking from one of the longest slumbers they’ve had in US history. Since the inception of the republic, the United States had one of the most comfortable and kindest environments for Christians. Even groups like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite deep doctrinal conflicts with mainstream Protestant belief systems, found communities in which to survive and eventually thrive. Despite the myriad differences among various Christian churches in the United States, for centuries we avoided the kind of bloody strife that tore apart Europe during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.
But the comfort level has come to erode Christianity from within. Every major denomination I can think of now faces the same terrible problem. William F. Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale in the 1950s to call attention to the problem of unbelief in America’s elite university. Through the publication he founded, National Review, and the large conservative publishing sphere orbiting around it, Buckley conservatives developed a compelling narrative about the challenges facing Christians in the United States. The challenge, according to this narrative, came from outside the religions, in the form of atheists, pagans, and corrupted agnostics. To the extent that Christians could claim a victim narrative, it had usually to do with being scolded for saying “Merry Christmas,” with failing biology classes taught by evolutionist die-hards, and with being told they could not pray in school, etc. Christians pictured a battle between people who believed the Bible and a range of leftists screaming at them–leftists who did not believe the Bible.
Perhaps an entire cottage industry of conservatism sprang from the victim narrative of the late twentieth century. In the confusing 1980s, Christians saw landslides for Ronald Reagan at the same time that MTV drew viewers into a spiral of confusion with heavy metal singers wearing makeup, bisexual chic, and Madonna prancing around in glorified underwear. At that time it might have looked as if the conservative position, which carried the day in Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s stellar victories, would forever dominate. But the anti-conservative position of Billy Idol, Madonna, and Black Sabbath was working its magic on the culture, especially through cultural and educational institutions.
When Harold Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, he opened a new theater of intellectual war. He described a frightening scenario on elite college campuses, where the students and even faculty were beginning to embody the cultural chaos of MTV in the jargon-heavy philosophies of their own disciplines. Postmodernism, Freudian sexual analysis, and radical multiculturalism all presaged a movement toward a time when conservatives would no longer find any safe harbor in institutions because the decadence of pop culture would mirror the decadence of things taught in hallowed halls of learning.
Bloom focused on the colleges. After he published his book wave after wave of conservative contrarians kept discussing the intellectual rot in college campuses due to liberal bias. Sadly, they neither stopped nor slowed the complete exile of conservatives from college faculties. Dinesh D’Souza and numerous others in the 1990s talked about the problem of illiberalism in the liberal arts, making a point to show that “liberals” were betraying their own heritage by excluding viewpoints they did not like.
In David Horowitz came a different brand of conservative activism, more aggressive. Horowitz tended to spotlight extreme statements and beliefs by liberal professors. The campaigns to bring down Ward Churchill and Norman Finkelstein in the 2000s exemplified the scorched-earth approach of conservatives reacting against liberalism. Unfortunately this resembled the “cancel culture” that would become the left wing’s calling card in the following decade. But Horowitz changed the discussion style a lot, paving the way for people like Ben Shapiro and a host of campus speakers to roar into the higher education debate in the 2010s.
From Bloom to Shapiro, these waves of conservative activism put “conservative” at the forefront and cited “Christian” worries usually when they dovetailed neatly into the conservative narrative. The focus was overwhelmingly on colleges, with many conservative colleges like Hillsdale getting a pass from criticism. Things happening in the churches and seminaries did not attract the same kind of energetic scrutiny.
And therein lies the problem.
Think of Adams and Jefferson as two key components of America’s republican culture. Both worried that in a self-governing republic, citizens needed good character to make informed choices. Adams stressed the role of morality and faith. Jefferson envisioned free public education (initially in very small doses) as an important antidote to an ignorant and self-damaging electorate.
Adams and Jefferson bring up important questions about citizens’ character, which compel us to think about churches and schools as integral units of a republic like ours. Christians became entangled with the “conservative” movement, which spent a lot of time worrying about schools.
In the meantime, Christians lost their churches. Look at the Catholic and Methodist churches. The Catholic church, similar to the Southern Baptist Convention, claims publicly that it will not change its doctrine on sexuality. But then the ecclesiastical decisions in the Catholic church all point to the opposite reality. Pope Francis keeps promoting and supporting priests who push the Church toward more gay acceptance. Strongly orthodox Catholics who object find themselves increasingly marginalized in their parishes and shunned by the higher-ups in the Church. As the staffing from top to bottom comes to abound in people whose sympathies lie somewhere other than orthodoxy, it is a matter of time before the Church will finally change its doctrine.
The Methodists are already there. If anything it should surprise us all that the denomination stayed together under a common book of discipline for as long as it did. The entire denomination has so many openly homosexual clerics and congregations that celebrate homosexuality, the official doctrine of the church became more a forgotten formality on paper. If not for the influence of Asian and African conservatives in the Methodist conference in 2019, the whole denomination would have long ago voted to affirm homosexuality. As it stands in 2020, the wealthy and powerful American conference has already made up its mind to shift the doctrine so it matches the faces of people who work in the church. The personnel decisions of decades past made this moment inexorable. So clear in the reports about the Methodists’ split is the dominant power held by liberals within the denomination, for they have brokered an agreement that allows the liberals to control the main denomination and merely permits conservatives to leave and start their own congregations. If the experience with the Episcopal Church taught us anything, we know the liberals will end up getting the real estate, the seminaries, and the money. That’s all they really need or want.
The Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists are the three largest Christian denominations and they all stand at precipices in 2020. Their common origins in the Bible have not prevented them from experiencing the same institutional drift that the colleges experienced since Buckley’s day. But the situation with the churches is far worse. First, conservatives have not developed any effective means of combating the liberal takeover of churches. While conservatives have failed miserably at counteracting the liberal drift on college campuses, at least they have an infrastructure to engage what’s happening there.
Many of the worst compromises in the church world have come through moderate conservatives or even openly professing conservatives who publicly claim to stand firm against liberalism while their personnel and bureaucratic decisions pave the way for the fall of true Christianity within their denominations. This is part of why combating the church problems is so hard. So many of the biggest obstacles to a revival or reformation are famous and respected Christian leaders with reputations for being on our side.
The Christians who stand up for their faith in 2020 will face a lonely and painful battle. I should know. As I write this I have lost my career in academia and a large percentage of my friends. You don’t know what betrayal feels like until you’ve been stabbed in the back by a fellow Christian. Many believers will learn what this feels like in 2020. It will hurt.
But I think the most important thing to remember is, do not blame God. The United States was a fertile crescent for Christian churches for a long time. Christians grew fat and comfortable. They lost their self-awareness. Their vision of Jesus Christ became skewed to match their own desire to feel peaceful and prosperous. In the process they forgot that Jesus Christ’s ministry played out without institutional backing and in conflict with institutions. Many Christian churches today are now community centers and have little to do with the Bible.
The body of Christ flourishes under persecution, as we have often heard. And now we can say in 2020 that we are persecuted. But we aren’t persecuted by the people we have been told to fear: unbelievers, pagans, atheists. We are persecuted most of all by our own churches, especially by those that claim to be fighting for and protecting us.