In the May 2015 issue of the Atlantic, Ross Douthat asked “will Pope Francis break the Church?” By this he meant, will the current Pope’s activities push conservative out of Roman Catholicism or cause deep controversy. Douthat asked many important questions, but his analysis breaks down within the North American context. Though very informative on papal politics and it’s relation to progressivism, Douthat misses that, within this context, conservativism often leads to denominational de-evolution. A proper amount of progressive utopianism is needed to keep any religion alive.
A common talking point of more conservative minded individuals is that the “creeping liberalism” of mainline Protestant denominations is a source of evangelical revival and mainline diminishment; thereforethe remedy to the decline of membership within mainline protestant denominations is for them to increase their political conservativism, for example regarding issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and homosexuality.There is some truth to this, mainline denominations are indeed losing large portions of their membership to conservative evangelical churches, but it does beg deeper examination. This analysis forgets to include the opposite variable into the equation. Namely, the influence of political conservativism on denominations.
Why is it relatively easy for many conservative non-denominationalists to change their home church in the blink of an eye? Many denominations have lost their doctrinal specifics in favor of appealing to the evangelical subculture, canonizing the Benham Brothers and Tim Tebow as examples of true Christian character and upholding the Duggar family as the ideal Christian household. Effectively, when many individuals leave their old mainline denomination for an overwhelmingly Republican evangelical congregation they have already been de-denominationalized. The novel doctrines of their old faith have already been put onto the backburners and conservative political culture has already been made the vehicle by which faith is expressed.
Consider the Holiness-Wesleyan tradition. Despite having a history well entrenched into the Midwestern landscape, the Methodist context of the Holiness-Wesleyan tradition is slowly eroding. A 2012 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate that revealed that Holiness-Wesleyans have some of the lowest retention rates in the entire country rang alarms at my mother’s church; to the point that the pastor preached about it on Sunday. He was concerned that other Christian faiths, according to the study, were more successful in sustaining their existence, so he chastised the entire congregation for not reciting the Nicene Creed enough during services.
From personal experience, one of the leading causes of this are that many are de-denominationalized by their own denomination’s culture; then they jump ship and join evangelical churches dominated by conservative politics. Functionally speaking, there is already little difference between the two; most Wesleyans treat novel doctrines such as Entire Sanctification with a passing glance and there is no hope of reconstructing the Methodist-Episcopal approach to faith. In aesthetic, theology, and daily life, the shared culture of the Religious Right allows individuals to chuck the Holiness-Wesleyan tradition and other Christian traditions for the seemingly more ecumenical evangelical churches that attract members from multiple denominational backgrounds, including that of the Catholic Church. When denominational specifics are disregarded, often the Religious Right replace what is missing.
We must realize that the North American Religious Right serves as an ecumenical movement between conservatives within numerous denominations. The very notion of traditionalist Roman Catholics getting along with Southern Baptists or historically black denominations with socially conservative leanings co-operating with denominations with a history of white supremacy is living proof of this. The success of individuals such as Jerry Farwell and Paul Weyrich is that they surpassed previous denominational feuds to create a new voting bloc, one centered on getting social conservatives into public offices. Weyrich, a Byzantine Catholic, Republican strategist, and founder of ALEC, was successful in helping the Republican Party appeal social conservatives across denominational lines and thereby creating a new identity; one that put the culture war in the middle of the conservative identity. To quote his 1990 speech to the University Club of DC, “our agenda will effectively polarize the political debate and expose the left-wing agenda as the product of a fringe element hostile to our culture and our civilization.”
Of course, Farwell and Weyrich drew upon many sources to construct their worldview. They merely mainlined already existing notions within Christian dominionism. Christian dominionism is the belief that God desires Christians rise to power in civil systems so that the nations will be governed by biblical law. The people who adhere to its ideas are particular groups of conservative, politically active Christians who believed in having dominion, which meant a takeover, in the social civic and governmental spheres. It starts off with emphasis of being Christians first and then live out the political implications of that. The most influential form of dominionism is Christian reconstructionism.
Christian reconstructionism arose out of conservative Presbyterianism (Reformed and Orthodox), to proposes that contemporary application of the laws of Old Testament Israel, or “Biblical Law,” is the basis for reconstructing society toward the Kingdom of God on earth. Dominionism, specifically reconstructionism, started out as a view being primarily held by small group of theologically conservative scholars and pastors, at the level of being of a sub culture. It also supports the idea of theocracy and social hierarchies. Its potent ideas about having dominion over social, civil and governmental spheres, having the Bible being the governing text for all aspects of life, and constructing a revisionist Christian and world history that explaining that history is predestined from creation until kingdom of God in on earth became very attractive to far right Christians that need a framework for their worldviews. Being a decentralized, covert movement of ideas led to a creation of networks and coalitions of churches across various denominations that are influenced by dominionism and its framework as well as various networks of Christian think tanks such as the Christian Coalition, and Operation Rescue.
What makes dominionism powerful and attractive to those Christians who are the on right was it gave some form of internal logic and narrative to how can their politics be a means to manifest Kingdom of God on Earth. It can also gave of a type of rationale and framework to justify the belief that they can control the principalities and powers to stop whatever is considered ‘evil’ or ‘ungodly’ if they are in the position of political and social leadership on their terms without examining the inherent merit of their politics. For instance, Frances Schaffer and his theological work advocated on how to do social action informed by a Christian worldview when the issue of Roe vs. Wade came about. His theological work from the 60s to the 80s was deeply influenced by Christian dominionism. His work sparked a renewed interest in political activism among various conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. In spite of Schaffer’sintelligence and cultural engagement, some of his work plays on the reinforcing the problematic dichotomy between the secular and the religious, the implicit assumption of some political views being more “Christian” than others by default without examining the merits, and very limited understanding of sociopolitical and economic thought and theory. Through Christian dominionism, the Christian right got the intellectual and theological framework to mobilize. It also indirectly catalyzes other Christians from other denominations who are distraught the changes within their denominations to participate in the culture wars.
Despite how sincere we may be, ecumenism is a two edged sword. Many join politically conservative evangelical churches precisely because they view it as a means of getting around denominational in-fighting. Douthat is right that Pope Francis is a test to the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, but let’s not forget that conservativism in the States has been breaking mainline denominations ever since the rise of the Religious Right due to its ecumenical character, cutting across worlds by creating a common conservative political discourse.
Xeres Villanueva wears many different hats between a budding entrepreneur, a comrade and a social activist for various social justice issues. She worked with InsideOut Community Arts as a mentor, an art education organization dedicated to empower middle school students. She was involved with various groups, past and present, such as Asian Pacific American Student Organization, Gay Christian Network, St. Monica Catholic Community Gay and Lesbian Outreach, Food Not Bombs and Stop the Traffik. Xeres is currently a part of network of social justice thinkers and practitioners called Asian American Pacific Islanders Christians for Social Justice and Jesus for Revolutionaries.
She also wrote an Oral Oratory speech “Living Miracle”, which won the 2005 Spirit of Hope Award. She takes delight in reading, cooking, and watching live music performances.
POLITICS Editor Nathan Lewis Lawrence is a biracial graduate student, world traveler, and jujitsu enthusiast from Lancaster, Ohio. He received his bachelor’s degree in Security studies from Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio and received a M.A. in Peace and Conflict studies at the Department of International Relations at Hacettepe University. Currently, he attends the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Check out his personal blog Taming Cynicism.
Photo description: The image is of two flags, the American flag, red/white/blue and the Christian Nation/Dominionist flag, white with a blue square, and a red cross inside of it. Photo found on Flickr.