I’ve long thought that one of the most important stories of modern times is the precipitous decline of so-called mainline Protestant denominations. It wasn’t long ago that mainline denominations such as the Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) were titans in the American religious landscape. Now, many of them are declining so fast that they’re in danger of disappearing entirely. Books and essays have been written analyzing the decline, and the point of this post isn’t to rehash every explanation. However, central to the analysis is that fact that each of these churches compromised on core tenets of biblical Christianity. In fundamental ways, they secularized. They responded to social pressure by conforming to (mainly) secular progressive moral norms. They merged with the ambient culture to the extent that the distinct meaning and purpose of the church was lost.
The loss of the mainline and the corresponding rise of the Evangelical church has changed American culture and transformed American politics. And each step of the way, Evangelicals looked at their brothers and sisters across the theological aisle and told them that church is purposeless when it merges with NPR.
I’m haunted by the costs of compromise when I think of Evangelicals’ ongoing embrace of Donald Trump. Like their mainline brethren, they responded to a felt urgent need. Like their mainline brethren, they ended up conforming to the wishes of their secular political and cultural allies. And like their mainline brethren, the end result is that they made the church more like the world. It’s not quite the case that the church has merged with Fox News, but the alliance between the network and white Evangelicals is uncomfortably close.
If you don’t think Evangelicals are compromising when they continue to stand by their (political) man, I want to bring your attention to the Southern Baptist Convention’s sterling 1998 Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials. It’s worth quoting at length, so that we can see the true extent of the Evangelical transformation. Here’s the preamble:
WHEREAS, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34 NAS); and
WHEREAS, Serious allegations continue to be made about moral and legal misconduct by certain public officials; and
WHEREAS, Scripture further teaches, “Whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (Romans 13:2); and
WHEREAS, Governing authorities are not themselves exempt from the rule of law and must submit to the nation’s statutes, rather than mocking them (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:14; Proverbs 19:28-29; 2 Samuel 12:7; Mark 6:17-18); and
WHEREAS, Some journalists report that many Americans are willing to excuse or overlook immoral or illegal conduct by unrepentant public officials so long as economic prosperity prevails; and
WHEREAS, Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment (1 Kings 16:30; Isaiah 5:18-25); and
WHEREAS, Many public officials and candidates deserve our gratitude and support for their consistent moral character and their uncompromising commitment to biblical principles of right and wrong, resulting in blessing upon their people.
Note the observation that there are spiritual laws at work. The fate of nations isn’t determined by merely weighing one set of policies against another. The conduct of public officials has a cultural impact, an impact that will “surely” result in God’s judgment. White Evangelicals used to understand these truths, and they used to be the segment of the American population most concerned with the personal morality of political leaders. By late 2016, they were least concerned. The eternal principles articulated in the Baptist resolution hadn’t changed, but the temporary worldly pressures had.
Now, let’s look at the actual Baptist resolutions:
Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we, the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 9-11, 1998, in Salt Lake City, Utah, affirm that moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we implore our government leaders to live by the highest standards of morality both in their private actions and in their public duties, and thereby serve as models of moral excellence and character; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we urge all citizens, including those who serve in public office, to submit themselves respectfully to governing authorities and to the rule of law; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we urge Southern Baptists and other Christians to fulfill their spiritual duty to pray regularly for the leaders of our nation (1 Timothy 2:1-4); and
Be it finally RESOLVED, That we urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.
Sadly, this is not the path of all too many Evangelicals. They’ve instead chosen to rationalize and excuse conduct they’d once deemed indefensible and inexcusable. This is a compromise, and it’s a compromise that implicitly rejects the notion that God imposes a cost for disobedience. It’s a compromise that places the emphasis on the secular needs of the moment rather than on the religious demands of an eternal faith. It’s the right-wing version of left-wing, watered-down Christianity. It’s a right-wing version of the left-wing declaration that we have more faith in our own judgments than in the promises of scripture. It’s the recipe for decline.
Evangelicals would do well to look again at the mainline, this time not in judgment but in understanding. When secular pressures build, even conservative religious people have proven that they too can and will yield, and the costs to their churches may well be the same.