Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
August 27, 2001
The neutralizing of mainline Protestantism
"One of the most profound and sustained right-wing objectives since the Second World War," a Presbyterian study concludes, "has been to neutralize or eliminate mainline Protestant churches as socially conscious institutional forces in public life."
"Justice making Christianity may disappear from the world," says ethicist Beverly Harrison, "if we don't take our theology seriously."
"Churches, shorn of their prophetic edge, are being asked to take care of social needs. It is the use of religion as a kind of charity ethic to fill in the gaps of what once was the responsibility of the state," she explains.
The image of the diminutive Dom Helder Camara comes to mind, his arms raised to heaven: "When shall we get rid of the charity mentality and recognize that beneath every relation between rich and poor there is a question of justice?"
One also thinks of the brave Canadian Protestant pioneers who founded the United Church and then preached a social gospel that emphasized justice over charity.
You might also recall the powerful pastoral letters of the Canadian bishops in the 1970s and '80s that gave rise to a hoped-for new consciousness about social and economic policies affecting the marginalized in our society.
Mainline Protestants began to form coalitions with Catholics to speak with a common voice on justice issues as they pertained not only to Canada but also the developing world.
What happened? The last 10 or 20 years, a conservative neo-liberalism has seeped into our religious thinking.
Tony Clarke suggests in his book, Behind the Mitre, that episcopal disagreements about Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis, a pastoral letter issued in 1983, criticizing the abuses of free market economies, led to a moral leadership crisis.
The struggle between those who sought transformation and those who did not want to rock the apple cart came at a time when there were widespread reports of sexual abuse involving clergy.
The theory is that the resulting moral vacuum was filled by Preston Manning's Reform Party and the now faltering Alliance movement of Stockwell Day.
This purely Canadian phenomenon does not explain why right-wing Christianity is promoted with vigorous and expensive campaigns in almost every country and among all denominations and non-Christian faiths as well.
By whatever name, this fundamentalism seems to reject part of God's revelation in order to support the ideology of free market economies and self-centred national security.
Religion is privatized, reduced to the salvation of the soul only. Bible references to wealth and poverty are to be understood to have spiritual meaning only in this interpretation.
While the pope speaks strongly and repeatedly about solidarity with the poor and the need to support the common good, the Vatican must accept some responsibility for the swing to the right when it effectively squelched liberation theology, closed seminars and silenced theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez, Jan Sobrino and Leonardo Boff, and limited episcopal councils to Vatican scrutiny.
On the political scene it was the scramble to forge trade pacts that necessitated a right wing worldview. When competition and self-reliance are raised to a religious virtue then care for creation and compassionate justice for the poor are no longer of primary importance.
Charity and the environment are things that churches and volunteers can busy themselves with.
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