“The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity” By Thomas C. Reeves (Free Press, 276 pages, $25)
For many Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants, these are difficult days.
Having provided much of the spiritual bedrock on which the United States was founded, their denominations are now in upheaval. Rent by internal battles between liberals and conservatives, weakened by steep declines in membership and donations, the mainline denominations have lost a great deal of their clout.
The ascent of the religious right is but one example. Some doomsayers even predict that these denominations are going the way of the dinosaurs.
This gloomy picture is forcefully presented in “The Empty Church,” Thomas C. Reeves’ provocative and disturbing book. In his pessimistic and highly critical view, the mainline denominations are rapidly becoming spectators of America’s religious life.
And the mainliners - which also includes the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ - have only themselves to blame, Reeves argues.
They have abandoned orthodox Christianity in favor of a flaccid theology that yields scriptural authority to the caprices and grievances of various liberal interest groups - feminists, gay and lesbian activists and environmentalists.
Instead of standing above and even shunning a contemporary culture sorely lacking in values, mainline denominations have become hostage to Western culture, with its emphasis on individual freedom no matter the impact on the common good, Reeves argues.
Mainliners have adopted a “believe and let believe” attitude that has trivialized, dumbed-down and even jettisoned fundamental Christian tradition, much the way they have countenanced rewriting the Bible to remove any references to a male God.
It is not surprising, then, that a mainline Protestant minister will spend more time lamenting the plight of the whales than preaching the word of Jesus Christ.
It is important and relevant to note that Reeves himself is an Episcopalian who has been involved in campaigns to make that progressive denomination more orthodox. While Reeves’ identification with a particular religious background does not make his arguments or his criticisms of mainline denominations any less compelling, it does perhaps make them more predictable.
The Enlightenment and its intellectual offspring - including secular humanism, modern science and communism - have all contributed to the eroding of orthodox Christianity, Reeves asserts, and the mainline denominations have done little to reverse the tide.
“Christianity in modern America is, in large part, innocuous,” Reeves writes. “It tends to be easy, upbeat, convenient and compatible. It does not require self-sacrifice, discipline, humility, an otherworldly outlook, a zeal for souls, a fear as well as love of God. There is little guilt and no punishment, and the payoff in heaven is virtually certain.”
Reeves’ conservative bias is obvious as he bemoans the takeover of modern mainstream Protestantism by liberal leaders more interested in progressive political causes than in theology. Those denominations are doing a dismal job of feeding the spiritual hunger palpable in America, he says: “Great numbers of people stay away from churches simply because they do not see them as relevant to their lives.”
“Weigh the benefits: Sunday with the family at the beach or in church listening to a sermon on AIDS,” he writes. “Studying for exams or hearing that the consolations and promises of the Bible are not ‘really’ or ‘literally’ true; … reading the newspaper or being harangued about racism and sexism.”
What Reeves omits from his survey, of course, is that the orthodox Christian theology he argues the mainliners have abandoned can be just as alienating. There are plenty of conservative Christians, after all, who use Scripture to justify their abhorrence of homosexuality, their intolerance for women in the ministry and their belief that all those who fail to accept Jesus as their personal savior (such as Jews, just to begin with) are unblessed.
For all their faults, mainline denominations still lend an important moral voice to a nation that seems to have become more mean-spirited toward the poor, minorities, immigrants and gays.
This moral dimension of “liberal Christianity” is one Reeves fails to address.