By Alan Bean
In the 1950s and 60s, the unofficial public theology of America was dominated by theologians associated with what we now call “the Protestant Mainline”. A public theology makes biblical teaching relevant to the pressing political, economic and social issues of the day; it gives the Church a public voice.
There was nothing particularly radical about the old public theology, but it gave voice to the “Christian realism” then in vogue. Management and labor should work out their differences amicably. The solution to the “race problem” was understanding and forbearance on all sides. Families and governments should live within their means. That kind of thing.
Those days are gone. America has a new public theology.
Theologians and judicatory officials associated with “the old mainline” denominations are still making the occasional moral pronouncement, but nobody is listening, least of all the folks in Washington. The new public theology is a product of the Religious Right and its central tenets are so well-publicized that there is hardly any need to lay them out. Free markets are God’s way of solving social problems and nothing else works. Ever. The role of government is to protect the nation from its enemies and protecting the free functioning of markets from excessive regulation. Because corporate America creates jobs and leads innovation, labor must bend to the will of management. The new American meritocracy places everyone on a level playing field so accusations of racism and sexism are just whining.
The new public theology begins with economics, moves to politics and ends with religion.
I could elaborate, but you get the idea.
The partial shutdown of the US government is largely a consequence of our new public theology. Obamacare isn’t dismissed as bad public policy; it’s heresy. The free market provides the best of all possible health care systems and anyone who thinks government can make things better has rejected the revealed will of God. When doctrinal purity is at issue, compromise is impossible.
I know what you’re thinking. The new public theology I have described is a minority report that fails to speak for the majority of religious Americans. True enough.
But just ask your average twenty-five year-old what “Christians” think about economics, social policy and the Bible. I suspect you will get something very close to the public theology I have described. Young people might not buy this perspective, and they might even see it as inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus, but it is viewed as the standard Christian view.
Let me get personal. I have two sons who are convinced that most Christians, at least those in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, embrace the new public theology I have described. Moreover, they see my take on Christianity (more on that below) as an odd anomaly. “Dad, nobody else thinks like you,” they tell me.
I submit that this conclusion is common, even standard, among young adults.
This problem is particularly acute for Baptists. “Moderate” Baptists can’t reveal the name of their congregation without appending a long list of disclaimers. “I’m a Baptist,” we say, “but not that kind of Baptist.”
The new public theology is viewed as the normative Christian position by default. Churches that identify with the Religious Right proclaim their public theology with vigor and without apology. Everyone else in the American Christian community is strangely silent. Sure, our well-educated preachers have nice things to say about theological abstractions like justice, love, peace and reconciliation, but they rarely tell us how these virtues impact the economic, political and social life of the nation we live in.
Silence is considered the wise, nuanced approach. “I’m not paid to tell my people how to vote, or how to think on policy issues,” preachers tell one another, “I tell them what the Bible says, and it’s up to them to make the application.”
But “making the application” is what theology is all about. The Religious Right has the ear of the nation because they know what they believe and they spell it out for us. They make the application.
Churches that limp along without a public theology become practically and morally irrelevant to the larger society. They have nothing of substance to say to young adults who are eager (for a brief season) to devote their lives to a larger purpose.
Again, the problem is particularly acute for Baptists. If you’re not that kind of Baptist, then what kind of Baptist are you?
Why have we lost our prophetic voice?
First, there is the problem of the “messy middle”. Most congregations reflect the full ideological spectrum of American life. A pastor preaching to a mix of conservatives, moderates, liberals (and a growing number of libertarians) can’t address social, political or economic issues in a substantive way without enraging and alienating somebody.
Members of messy middle congregations easily assume that “most people in my church think like me”. But let real people start talking about real issues and this perception fades quickly. Why force church members to focus on the ideological divisions within the body, pastors ask.
Having been a pastor, I fully understand the concern. Job security is a valid issue.
Embarrassing theological questions emerge when we are forced to reckon with our diversity. If we are all taking our cue from the same Bible and we’re drawing such different conclusions, who’s got it right and who’s wrong?
More likely, we conclude that the Bible doesn’t have much practical guidance to offer, so we’re all free to make up our own minds. Diversity is hailed as the cardinal virtue.
But our loss of prophetic voice is only partially explained by the messy middle problem. Here’s the deeper truth: we know what Jesus says about money and it doesn’t take a seminary degree to grasp the economic, political and social implications.
We can take refuge in complexity, of course. The Bible is a very big book featuring a long list of authors responding to a crazy quilt of different circumstances. There’s some stuff in Leviticus, Joshua, and Nehemiah that’s hard to square with the Sermon on the Mount. Right?
Right. But if we start with Jesus and the broad biblical tradition that shaped his message, the broad outline of a clear, prophetic theology is clearly discernible.
Our problem isn’t that the message is fuzzy; our problem is that the message is frightening.
If we take our cue from the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer and the Mary’s Magnificat where would that leave us? Outside the camp, on the margins, numbered with the sick, the sinners, the poor and the desperate. We’d have to ask where all these hurting people came from. We’d have to move from charity to advocacy.
Worse still, our churches would be transformed from mainstream bastions of respectability to counterculture communities living on the fringe.
We might gain a prophetic voice, but we would lose almost everything else.
Hence our silence.
But the question won’t go away: if we’re not that kind of Baptists, what kind of Baptists are we?