The Future of American Protestantism

Randall Balmer

I have no such pretensions, but were I to offer a kind of state-of-the-union assessment of American Protestantism at the turn of the twenty-first century, I could not be sanguine. Mainline (generally liberal) Protestantism has been ravaged by ecumenism and suffers from an appalling lack of leadership. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have a lot of shrill voices who claim to be leaders, but they represent a narrow slice of American evangelicalism, and there are few apparent leaders in the younger generation. Finally, American Protestantism is imperiled by—and the republic itself arguably suffers from—the massive disappearance of Baptists from the American landscape.

Mainline Follies

Let us start with the numbers. By almost any index—attendance, membership, giving—the denominations that comprise what was traditionally known as mainline Protestantism have been in freefall since the mid-1960s. During this same span of time, these denominations have pursued the chimera of ecumenism, the blurring of theological and confessional differences in the interests of unity. Mainline Protestants, I believe (with only slight exaggeration and caricature), have traded the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for another trinity: peace, justice, and inclusiveness. I have argued elsewhere that the ecumenical impulse rests on a highly questionable exegesis of John 17, but the larger issue has to do with its appropriateness in the current cultural context.

Historically, the most successful religious groups in American history have been exclusive rather than inclusive; consider the Methodists or the Mormons in the nineteenth century or the Pentecostals in the twentieth century. The latest incarnation of the ecumenical movement was a cold war construct, intended to present a united front against the perils of communism. The religious landscape of the United States began to change dramatically, however, after revisions to the immigration laws in 1965 opened American borders to Asians and South Asians. If nothing else, these new immigrant groups have taught us the importance of particularity as opposed to assimilation. As I have remarked many times, I have yet to jump into a taxi in New York City and have the cabbie tell me, “Yes, I am a Hindu, but I sure have a lot to learn from those Presbyterians!”

The key to group cohesion in a multicultural context is not the elision of differences. The ecumenical movement among mainline Protestants has certainly given rise to more civility in religious discourse, and no one would dispute that that is a good thing. In terms of numbers and cultural influence, however, ecumenism has been disastrous, and the failure of mainline Protestant leaders to recognize it as such suggests a stubborn, blind pursuit of failed policies as well as a disregard for the importance of doctrine.

Nothing better illustrates the appalling absence of leadership among mainline Protestants than the controversy over the election of a gay man as bishop in the Episcopal Church. At the denomination’s general convention in August 2003, the presiding bishop declared that his vote in favor of confirming Eugene Robinson as bishop for the diocese of New Hampshire should not be construed as support for homosexuals in high ecclesiastical office. No, he insisted that his vote was merely a ratification of Robinson’s election by the Episcopalians in New Hampshire. Rather than providing leadership on the issue—or even offering a theological argument on one side of the issue or another—the presiding bishop refused to take a stand.

The Crisis of Evangelical Leadership

At a meeting of presidents of several Christian colleges some months ago, the conversation came around to the greatest fear they faced in their jobs. I expected to hear about liability suits or some faculty scandal. A vote of no-confidence from the faculty senate or the board of trustees should provoke fear in the heart of any college president, I imagined, or the inability to balance the budget.

The answer they came up with astounded me. Their biggest fear, each of them agreed, was the possibility that James Dobson of Focus on the Family would take a dislike to their schools, for one reason or another, and use his huge media empire—radio, magazines, books—to issue a condemnation. This had happened to other schools, they told me, and the consequences were devastating: Parents refused to send their children and donations dried up. For these presidents, the lesson was clear: Never mess with Dobson or, by extension, with any of the moguls of the Religious Right.

For more than half a century, Billy Graham, now in his eighties, has set the tone for American evangelicalism. Much to his credit, and unlike many of the fundamentalists who preceded him, Graham has been an irenic presence on the American religious scene. He made a self-conscious decision early in his career to break with condemnatory rhetoric and the separatist schemes of fundamentalism in favor of cooperation with other religious leaders. The so-called Modesto Manifesto, hammered out in a meeting with his associates in a hotel room in California, included the pledge never to condemn other clergy. Some fundamentalists never forgave him for cooperating with the New York City Ministerial Alliance during his 1957 crusade in Madison Square Garden, but there can be little doubt that Graham’s conciliatory demeanor has abetted the spread of the gospel and the growth of evangelicalism.

What will happen to American Protestantism after Billy Graham? We will be left with figures like Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and D. James Kennedy, none of whom possesses anywhere near the character or stature of Graham. Even Graham’s attempt to pass the mantle of leadership of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to his son Franklin is worrisome. Franklin Graham’s rhetoric suggests that, whereas his father made a decision to forsake fundamentalism in favor of evangelicalism, the son has done the opposite: Though reared in an evangelical household, he has turned away from evangelicalism in favor of fundamentalism.

Is this the next generation of evangelical leaders? If so, I shudder, especially because none of them represents anything but the hard-right politics of the Religious Right. Where is the next Tony Campolo or Ronald Sider or Jim Wallis? Who will stand up to Robertson and company? Why do even venerable evangelical publications like Christianity Today feel obligated to slobber all over George W. Bush? Are they, too, intimated by the evangelical right wing? If this crowd defines evangelicalism for the next generation, then I, for one, want no part of it.

Where Have All the Baptists Gone?

Never in my life did I think I would say this, but America suffers these days from too few Baptists. Sure, there are plenty of people who call themselves Baptists, especially in the South. But are they really Baptists? I think not, and recent events in Montgomery, Alabama, bear out my point.

Much to the consternation of some, Roy’s Rock, the two-and-one-half-ton granite monument emblazoned with the Ten Commandments, was finally relocated to a storage closet in the Alabama Judicial Building. The removal, in compliance with a federal court order, prompted all manner of wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of conservatives, many of whom call themselves Baptists. This was a clear indication, they insisted, of the moral decline in American society. One hysterical screed circulated by e-mail predicted that the depiction of Moses and the Ten Commandments on the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington would soon disappear. A protester in Montgomery loudly declared that if you wanted to see the future of America—by which he meant, presumably, a future devoid of religious sentiment—consider the blank space in the lobby of the Judicial Building where Roy’s Rock once sat.

As one of the expert witnesses in the Alabama Ten Commandments case, I believe these sentiments could not be more mistaken.

The reason that the depiction of Moses and the Ten Commandments will not be chiseled from the U.S. Supreme Court building anytime soon is that, unlike the case in Alabama, the frieze in Washington portrays one of several sources for American jurisprudence—and those sources are many, including the Code of Hammurabi, Confucius, the English Common Law tradition, and so on. Judge Roy Moore, on the other hand, sought to enshrine only one source (what he calls the Judeo-Christian tradition), and he steadfastly, even belligerently, refused to honor any of the others. On that basis, Judge Thompson—reasonably, I believe—concluded that both the intent and the effect of the monument were to give the place of honor to one tradition, to the exclusion of all others. That, clearly, represents a violation of the First Amendment proscription against religious establishment.

What Judge Moore and his supporters failed to recognize, apparently, is that the First Amendment is the best friend religion ever had. The founding fathers, in their wisdom, concluded that it would be foolish to ordain one religious expression as the state religion. They decided instead to set up a free market of religion, where religious entrepreneurs (to extend the metaphor) are constantly competing with one another for popular followings. This has lent a dynamism to religion in America that is unmatched in any other western nation. In Great Britain, for instance, where Anglicanism is the state church, roughly three percent of Britons attend the Church of England on any given Sunday, and in Sweden, leaders of the state Lutheran church actually appealed to the parliament several years ago to be disestablished. We Americans are an extraordinarily religious people by almost any standard; 94 or 95 percent of us tell George Gallup that we believe in God or a Supreme Being, a figure that has remained fairly constant since World War II. Put simply, religion has thrived in this country for more than two centuries precisely because the state has, for the most part, at least, stayed out of the religion business. The examples of other western nations suggest that once you begin to dictate religious belief or behavior—as with prescribed prayer in schools or Roy’s Rock in Montgomery, Alabama—you kill it.

Although I am an evangelical Christian, I am not a Baptist, and I wonder what happened to the Baptists. As a historian of religion in America, I think I know the answer, but I raise this as a rhetorical question. Roger Williams, founder of the Baptist tradition in America, was a dissident in Puritan Massachusetts who was expelled from the colony and went to Rhode Island to form a religiously tolerant society. It is to Williams that we owe the notion of the separation of church and state. He recognized the perils of state interference in religious affairs (he wanted to protect the “garden” of the church from the “wilderness” of the world), and, as a religious minority himself, he sought also to protect the rights of religious minorities from the government. He cherished the notion of “soul liberty,” which, ostensibly, at least, is one of the cornerstones of Baptist beliefs (along with, of course, adult as opposed to infant baptism). Throughout American history, at least until the late 1970s, Baptists have been fierce guardians of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.

And yet, Roy Moore and many of his followers claim to be Baptists. How peculiar! I want to know why every Baptist in the state of Alabama did not storm the Judicial Building after Judge Moore installed his monument (under cover of darkness, by the way) and demand that it be removed immediately—not merely because the monument itself became the subject of a kind of perverse idolatry but, more basically, because it violated bedrock Baptist principles of soul liberty and freedom of individual conscience.

Quite properly, Roy’s Rock was removed from the lobby of Alabama’s Judicial Building. The First Amendment has prevailed over religious sectarianism and political chicanery. I do think it is a shame, however, that this imposing block of granite sits now in a storage room. The appropriate place for such a monument might be in one of Montgomery’s many churches or even in Judge Moore’s front yard, as an expression of his personal convictions. Let him deal with the neighbors and the zoning board rather than tampering with the Constitution and with the venerable tradition of church-state separation, one of the bedrock principles of the Baptist tradition, that has served this nation remarkably well for more than two centuries.

Where Do We Go from Here?

I opened this essay by suggesting that I was less than sanguine about Protestantism in the twenty-first century. But the gospel is all about hope; it precludes despair. We, all of us in the community of faith, must refuse to be blinded by the blandishments of the culture. Most important, Protestantism at the turn of the twenty-first century cries out for leadership, women and men willing to reconnect with the scandal of the gospel, to stand on principle, and articulate the faith amid an uncertain future.

Posted Mar 01, 2004