Evangelicals Must Resist Mainline Protestant Trajectory

Mark D. Tooley
Mark Tooley is the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).

Below are remarks from Mark Tooley's February 19 address at Perimeter Church outside Atlanta.

Recently a Nashville area church pastor who professes to be evangelical made headlines by announcing his church's acceptance of same-sex couples. There was more media for a Portland area minister whose evangelical denomination cut ties with his church after he announced his support for same sex marriage and LGBTQ affirmation.

Debates over same sex marriage and homosexuality were previously until fairly recently reserved for historically liberal Mainline Protestant denominations, who've had a 40 year conversation over Christian sexual ethics, having already liberalized theologically in the 1920s or earlier. Those debates have fueled accelerated membership loss and eventually schism for the Mainline Protestants, who have imploded from 1 of 6 Americans 50 years ago to 1 of 16 Americans today, making them no longer Mainline but more accurately oldline or even sideline.

But parts of American Evangelicalism, which has become America's largest religious demographic in the wake of Mainline collapse, accounting for perhaps one third of Americans, is now succumbing to the same theological, ethical, cultural and political patterns that marginalized Mainline Protestants. Liberal hegemony over most Mainline Protestant denominations took about a century. But for some Evangelicals, the same process is unfolding far more quickly.

My own organization was founded in 1981 in the midst of the Cold War to challenge primarily Mainline Protestant support for Marxist revolution globally under the aegis of Liberation Theology, which manifested in moral and financial backing for Marxist insurgencies like the FMLN in El Salvador, Marxist regimes like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, plus silence about human rights abuses and persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain in favor of collaboration with the Soviet Union and its proxies.

It was a long road for the Mainline Protestants, founders of American democracy and free enterprise, to active support for totalitarianism in the name of Jesus Christ. But that road began with theological compromises early in the 20th century or before, when the Bible and Christian tradition were reinterpreted into metaphors, and the redemption story for lost souls was replaced by social reform under the banner of the Social Gospel. Mainline Protestant elites by the 1930s were opposed to the "profit motive" and backing state ownership of industry. The Kingdom of God was reinterpreted as a politically and socially engineered utopia where poverty and injustice are banished by state action. In the 1960s Mainline elites further radicalized, backing an anti-imperialist narrative that demonized America and the West while sanctifying Third World Marxist revolution and its East Bloc patrons.

IRD's founders, which included evangelical theologian Carl Henry, aggressively responded to Mainline support for Marxism by declaring that the church is not primarily a political instrument, but when it speaks politically, it should side with democracy, human rights and above all religious liberty as principles in always imperfect human governance that best accommodate the Christian view of human dignity and transcendence.

The leftward drift of Mainline Protestantism, typically disguised behind vaguely phrased sermons that utilized orthodox language with often very unorthodox meanings, was largely undetected by most actual Mainline Protestant church goers, who were uninformed about the machinations of distant seminaries and church agencies operating in their name and with their financial backing.

IRD's challenge and research led to major exposes of Mainline support for Marxist revolution by "Sixty Minutes" in 1983 and by several articles by Reader's Digest in the 1980s, especially focusing on Mainline ecumenical organs like the National and World Councils of Churches. In many ways, Mainline Protestantism and especially its ecumenical expressions never fully recovered their public image for probity and as pillars of American spirituality and culture, which they had remarkably sustained for 350 years. But even more importantly, theological liberalism, which rejected or minimized the supernatural, personal redemption and the afterlife, negating the evangelistic imperative, had nullified the Mainline's ability to gain new adherents, hence a half century of continuous membership decline, for which there is no end in sight.

During this Mainline self-destruction, evangelicals quietly but steadily grew in numbers, filling the void left by Mainline retreat and elevated by Billy Graham revivals, the founding of Christianity Today, the increasing stature of evangelical colleges and seminaries, and by an explosion in entrepreneurial parachurch ministries, especially on secular college campuses, many of which were previously Mainline Protestant institutions. Evangelicals captured two generations of spiritually seeking young people, while the Mainline failed to successfully retain any generation after the World War II cohort. Evangelical denominations, including even Pentecostals, who previously were viewed as socially marginal, grew exponentially, with the Assemblies of God enjoying 500 percent growth, surpassing the once unassailable Episcopal Church, the most prestigious of Mainline denominations, and now outnumbering the Episcopalians by over 50 percent.

Evangelicals were never wholly separationist or Anabaptist and were nearly always engaged good citizens and voters, their voting patterns not very different from Mainline Protestants. But Mainline implosion facilitated the collapse of American moral consensus starting in the 1960s, creating 40 years of culture war and polarization. Evangelicals began to politically organize as the Religious Right in the late 1970s, disturbed over secularization, abortion, radical feminism, pornography, and America's receding place in the world as the Cold War seemed to incline towards the Soviet Union's favor.

Backed by a growing subculture of large suburban churches, Christian radio stations, televisions ministries, and intersecting parachurch groups that were both spiritual and political, the founders of the Religious Right, embodied by figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, helped lead formerly Democratic southern voters in Ronald Reagan's coalition in 1980. The Moral Majority was seen as its primary voice in the 1970s, succeeded by the Christian Coalition in the 1990s, sometimes supplemented by advocacy by James Dobson's Focus on the Family, among others.

This generation of Religious Right leadership was bold, unashamed, outspoken, polemical, combative, anxious for political and spiritual trench warfare, truly distressed over the country's direction and shaped by decades of their own struggle on the cultural and political margins, where conservative evangelicals were treated dismissively by an American society whose elites were liberal and to the extent they were religious, often Mainline Protestant.

Liberal critics of evangelical activism through the Religious Right in the 1980s claimed they were fueling the Reagan Administration's confrontation with the Soviet Union and perhaps even hoping to precipitate a final apocalypse that would usher in Jesus Christ's return. The Cold War's end, and Bill Clinton's victories, forestalled panicked secular and liberal reactions to conservative evangelical political advocacy. But Clinton's personal scandals and advocacy of abortion rights and gay causes further provoked evangelical indignation and political organizing, whose power continued despite the receding of both the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition.

Conservative evangelicals enthusiastically backed George W. Bush in 2000, encouraged by Bush's own Christian testimony and personal faith devotion, although Bush remained a Mainline Protestant. But it was the 2004 Bush reelection that most alarmed liberal and secular critics, who despised Bush and did not anticipate his victory, which was facilitated by nearly 80 percent support from white evangelicals, who comprised nearly a quarter of the electorate. A new dark narrative was alleged in which evangelical-Republican alliance would promulgate Christian theocracy in America, where women and gays were oppressed, along with all non-Christians, and which would pursue imperialist wars of conquest and conquest around the world, starting with Afghanistan and Iraq.

The 2004 election results motivated leftist philanthropies to take evangelicals seriously and to fund alternative evangelical initiatives that would pull evangelicals in politically more liberal directions. George Soros funding for Jim Wallis' Sojourners began at this time, as did other outreaches and creations of new liberal Evangelical groups espousing more liberal perspectives on immigration, the environment, enhanced interrogation, nuclear weapons, drones, among many other issues.

Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and is a native of Arlington, Virginia. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988, when he wrote a study about denominational funding of pro-Marxist groups for his local congregation. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Virginia. Follow Mark on Twitter @markdtooley.

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