Reasons for Hope: A Dialogue on the Christian Future” featuring Barbara Wheeler and Richard J. Mouw. Jointly sponsored by The Christian Century and Christianity Today, the event brought together two respected leaders in theological education, each of whom I knew to be an articulate representative of her or his respective liberal or conservative Protestant camp. I was also aware…

"> The Categories Aren’t Working Anymore | Forum for Theological Exploration

The Categories Aren’t Working Anymore

By: Rev. Mark Williamson
October 18, 2011

As a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) in Wheaton, Illinois, a town often regarded as the intellectual capitol of American evangelicalism, the intricacies of mainline-evangelical relationships are an ever-confounding aspect of daily life.

So it was with great interest and a longing for clarity that I hopped on the train into Chicago a few weeks back to attend “Reasons for Hope: A Dialogue on the Christian Future” featuring Barbara Wheeler and Richard J. Mouw. Jointly sponsored by The Christian Century and Christianity Today, the event brought together two respected leaders in theological education, each of whom I knew to be an articulate representative of her or his respective liberal or conservative Protestant camp. I was also aware that they had been honing this dialogue for several years now, demonstrating friendship across difference within the denomination they share (PCUSA), and that the good fruits of their relationship had been reaching beyond the Presbyterian fold at least since 2004 when the Century published side-by-side articles called “Why Liberals Need Conservatives” (Wheeler) and “Why Conservatives Need Liberals” (Mouw).

The premise, of course, of the ongoing Wheeler-Mouw dialogue is that there do actually exist two definable blocks in American Protestantism called liberal Protestant and conservative evangelical, and that their views can be represented intelligibly by two institutional leaders acting something like heads of state or diplomats. I think when I read those articles back in ‘04 I was possibly too taken by their irenic tone to question this premise. I also believe the landscape has shifted significantly over the last decade, particularly among younger generations, and that perhaps the greatest “sign of hope” is that this whole paradigm is so 20th Century.

This is more or less how I felt throughout the Chicago dialogue: I struggled to buy in to the supposed neatness of the mainline-evangelical divide from the get-go. Further, I came away more convinced that we as leaders should do our best to stop reinforcing it (the news media clearly loves these categories enough; the church doesn’t need to provide an echo chamber).

No doubt the liberal mainline v. conservative evangelical paradigm still works fine for some, but it just doesn’t work for too many. Here are some reasons why:

  • A lot of those belonging to mainline denominations (like Mouw) also identify as evangelicals (state this the reverse way if you prefer). There is too much overlap. This is because evangelicalism is essentially a trans-denominational phenomenon, whereas the “mainline” specifically refers to a set of established, organized Protestant bodies. There is a problem of apples and oranges.
  • There are too many strains of Protestant Christianity that never fit the categories. Take, for example, the perennial example of African American Protestantism (unfortunately not acknowledged by the speakers until it was raised in a question) and also some of the historic peace churches or churches with an ongoing immigrant identity. Add also those now actively rejecting the categories, like the manifold expressions of the emerging church movement, also not mentioned in the lecture.
  • A lot of mainline Protestants are not particularly liberal; a lot of evangelicals are not particularly conservative. More precisely, their liberal/conservative leanings increasingly vary depending on whether one is thinking in terms of theology, economics, politics, morality, or culture.
  • Abortion and homosexuality, the two issues that over the last decades have been (as Wheeler, who made this point, described it) the “glue” that stuck the religious left and religious right together are now both understood with greater nuance and, more importantly, are shifting away from the center of most Christians’ political identity.
  • Both can be found mobilizing and taking action toward common causes like caring for creation, eradicating diseases like malaria, and defending the alien—efforts that should be high priorities and relative no-brainers from the perspective of biblical faith.
  • Both value and embody in practice a shared heritage in the Reformation more than the other thinks they do. Evangelicals too often speak of “old-liners,” as (ironically) having shallow roots, no deeper than the theological liberalism of the late 19th, early 20th Century. Mainliners too often speak of evangelicals as having no deeper roots than the publication of The Fundamentals, or, at best, the Great Awakenings in Britain and North America. Neither is accurate. Both cherish the hallmarks of the Reformation; both look back to look forward.

More points could be added. For those, however, still not much convinced that the Protestant waters are extremely muddier than reported, for those who still feel fairly comfortable with the mainline and evangelical categories and with belonging to one or the other, I would submit that, particularly in the present moment, there lies an evangelical (good news) imperative collectively to muddy those waters for the sake of those who don’t yet believe in Jesus. Because if it was somehow workable in the 20th Century to settle in more or less exclusively with either The Christian Century crowd or the Christianity Today crowd, there’s certainly no justification for such an arrangement in the 21st Century, where—as both Wheeler and Mouw acknowledged—the big story is the rapid rise of the “nones,” or “no religious affiliation.” In a context like this there’s really no excuse for maintaining the previous century’s comfortable distance. The mainline/evangelical division was a “privilege” a church in mission in North America can no longer afford.

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Photo (cc) via Flickr user vial3tt3r

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