Thank You, Ross Douthat

Now, there’s a string of words that I never thought I would type, let alone choose as a title for a blog post. But, in an Easter surprise, I find myself in complete agreement with Mr. Douthat, conservative columnist for the New York Times.

If you didn’t see it, Mr. Douthat wrote a column (as he does most Sundays) on Easter Sunday entitled, “Save the Mainline.” [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/15/opinion/sunday/save-the-mainline.html  In the column, Douthat—not only a conservative but also a Roman Catholic—argued, “For the sake of their country, their culture and their very selves, liberal post-Protestants should find a mainline congregation and starting attending every week.”

I couldn’t agree more!

Douthat’s column goes on to say, “The wider experience of American politics suggests that as liberalism de-churches it struggles to find a nontransactional organizing principle, a persuasive language of the common good.” Or, as I might put it, liberalism begins to lose its sense of common humanity. Away from church, liberalism, in its seemingly unquestioned claim to be “inclusive,” actually displays the tendency to build a wall around its “inclusivity,” denying the basic and essential humanity of those with whom it disagrees.

I experienced one tiny example of this sort of trend last week, during a tour of colleges with my son, who is a high school junior. At most of the colleges we visited I asked, of an admissions counselor or tour guide, about free speech on campus, and whether or not the college we were visiting had engaged in any organized discussion of what recently took place at Middlebury College, where a talk by Charles Murray (a conservative fellow at the American Enterprise Institute) was shut down by violent student protestors.

In response to my question, I got an array of answers, with at least a couple of college representatives having no idea what I was talking about. At one college, though, the tour guide was indeed knowledgeable about the incident and reported that on that particular campus vigorous conversation had taken place. He assured me that the college of which he is part is truly committed to free speech, and a diversity of views and perspectives. As an example, he pointed to an upcoming presentation from one of the founders of “Black Lives Matter.” While such a presentation certainly seemed worthwhile to me, I went on to say that it seemed unlikely that there would be any sort of organized protest for such an event on that campus. But, what if a conservative speaker, like Charles Murray, were to be invited? What might happen? The student looked at me in complete and utter bafflement, his face displaying a sort of shocked lack of understanding, as if to say, “Why would we do that?”

This little incident is just one tiny example, I realize, but I experienced similar exchanges on the various college campuses we toured, mostly northeastern liberal arts colleges. For almost every campus we visited, the decline of liberal Protestantism is on full display, with at best, limited understanding of what a “liberal Protestant” even is. More often, the simple raising of the subject of Christianity in general is to conjure images of closed-minded enemies to the mission of a good liberal education.

The young people I met voiced their commitment to “inclusion” and “community,” with great and impassioned enthusiasm. Yet, it was clear that “inclusion” was limited, and anything outside of their particular view (and those of their professors) was not simply a different, if wayward, view. It was to be actively protested, shut down, and denied. Common humanity, it turns out, has its limits.

Religion, while certainly not without its own issues and problems, often offers just the antidote to the idea that “inclusion” is only “inclusive” so long as the parties within agree with each other. Protestant Christianity, in particular, preaches many of the very same goals of those liberals and progressives in places like college campuses. But, it also offers a critical and vital difference: the recognition of our common humanity, even for those whose views and solutions to the ills of society are different.

The simple notion, grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures, and highlighted by Jesus, known as the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do to you), is actually very important to our ability to share this planet, as well as our communities. Somehow, liberalism without religion has lost this ethical anchor.

Good old Mainline Protestantism offers a relatively easy path back to some of what liberalism needs. But, it isn’t going to be available much longer, if people continue to stay away.

As Douthat notes, entry into the Mainline shouldn’t be too difficult: “You say you’re spiritual but not religious because you associate ‘religion’ with hierarchies and dogmas and strict rules about sex. But the Protestant mainline has gone well out of its way to accommodate you on all these points.”

Very true.

In the small, aging church I serve, we seek to be welcoming, inclusive and accommodating—we even have a couple of people who really don’t consider themselves Christian at all. At Old South, we seek to be a community of faith, supporting and encouraging each other in this journey of life. We (most of us anyway) identify as Christian, and seek to follow the teachings of Jesus, yet we also—though I know this might sound shocking—struggle with certain theological concepts like resurrection. We do our best to welcome strangers and to share the love of God that we experience. And, we also try very hard to live out the Golden Rule. This isn’t always easy. Old South is a community of different kinds of people, including people with differing political views. Without our faith at the core, it would be relatively easy for one to dismiss another, when disagreements arise. But, that doesn’t happen. While it can be a challenge, we recognize the significance of our common humanity.

We do something, often without ever even thinking about it, that those students at Middlebury College were not willing to do—we listen to each other; we recognize that not one of us is perfect nor has the perfect solution to a problem. We do unto others as we would have them do to us—even when we think they are wrong.

Mainline Protestant churches have a lot to offer, for individuals, families and communities—and for the country. But, we aren’t going to be around forever, just because we have something worthwhile. We need you. And, may I be so bold to suggest, that you need us as well.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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