Recently one of the great networks proposed a television play about an adulterous Protestant minister. Prompt protest from Dr. George A. Heimrich of NCC’s Broadcasting and Film Commission upset the plans, but no one doubts that the hydra-head will soon reappear. Since the call for a sex drama involving a Roman Catholic priest or a Jewish rabbi never seems to come, the question forces itself: what has happened to the image of the minister in the twentieth century?

Recent revivals of Maugham’s Rain and Lewis’ Elmer Gantry are only one phase of the issue. Gabriel Marcel, the French Roman Catholic existentialist, wrote a play not long ago about a (Protestant) minister who lost all personal faith in God, but kept up a pretense for the sake of his parishioners. Peter de Vries, an alumnus of Calvin College, hit the best-seller lists with a devastating caricature of a liberal minister, The Mackeral Plaza. In the current New York play, J.B., which poet Archibald MacLeish built on the book of Job, the most fatuous of the three modern “comforters” is a (Protestant) clergyman, the other two being a psychologist and a Marxist.

On and on run the examples. The minister is presented to the American people as a hypocrite, as a cad, as a heel, as a deadbeat, as a charlatan, as an extortioner, as an incompetent. Or if by some mixup he turns out to be a “David Crane” hero, then he is impaled on the altar of truth and integrity by his sniveling “flock”, and the onus passes from pastor to congregation. Drug addicts, homosexuals, rapists, pimps, and vagabonds are on their way to being canonized by our society, while the pastor—thanks to the mass media—seems to be sinking to the class of those who are not so much tolerated as pitied: somewhere between the traumatized mental case and the beloved alcoholic.

But why? Is it because humanity has dropped its scale of values? Is it because the role of the minister is an impossible one for mere flesh and blood? Or are we witnessing here an effort by the powers of darkness to destroy the Church by discrediting its leadership?

Sociologists and historians generally agree that in the late nineteenth century the minister still occupied a position of influence in the community. Most college and university presidents were ministers, among them Harper at the University of Chicago and Durant at the University of California. It was a minister who advised John D. Rockefeller, Sr., how to give away his money—a task now performed by the Rockefeller Foundation. The early editions of Who’s Who were crowded with ministers. In the typical American town the minister ranked with the mayor, the judge, and the banker as a community force. He was not free from attack any more than they, but he supplied much of the dynamism as well as conscience of the expanding nation for nearly three centuries.

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In the early nineteen hundreds, however, the torch of influence seems to have passed to the schoolmaster. Following upon the work of such men as Elbert Hubbard and Horace Mann, the philosopher John Dewey developed an educational methodology which, he felt, accommodated itself to the growing interest in practical science. The transmission of tradition and culture (symbolized by McGuffey’s readers) was held to be questionable since it dumped “the errors and mistakes of the past” on the present generation. The proper path of education was to be development through experimentation. Education, said Dewey, is the continuous purposeful reconstruction of experience. Since the religionist was by such definition an “unscientific traditionalist,” he was no longer considered useful to society. Thus the minister and his church were relegated by the influential “Chicago School” to the periphery of life.

Two bloody wars and unbelievable suffering jettisoned Dewey’s upward-spiraling philosophy in the years that followed. Post-war America outgrew the leadership of progressive education and sought a new dynamism, not in education nor in Christianity but, as William H. Whyte has suggested, in the “organization.” This characteristic unit of mid-twentieth-century society proved its ability to capitalize on the prosperity of our times—whether it be an industrial, mercantile or suburban empire, or a giant labor union.

How insignificant seems the voice of the individual minister when the power blocs and mass pressures are deciding the great issues of life! He comes in to pronounce the benediction, while for his own protection he joins a ministerial association. Actually the minister is now two steps removed from the center of the community life he once helped to mold, and lacks any great organization (such as the Roman church) to keep his prestige from shrinking further. It is not that he escapes organizational living; his denomination—no matter how small—is picking up staff and demanding that he implement its expanding program in his church.

The bureaucratization of the denominations is one of the chief causes of the clergy’s declining prestige, since it tends to brand him as one of the herd rather than as God’s spokesman. He is linked with pronouncements from headquarters on social issues which may have been the work of a vocal minority whose interests are not those of biblical ethics nor the body politic. If he gives silent assent to them, he is a kept man; if he speaks out, he is regarded by his colleagues as a “maverick.” Meanwhile, the Bible-reading layman is puzzled as to what all the denominational and inter-denominational furor has to do with the preaching of the grace of God to a race of lost men.

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The minister still has a Sunday morning message to deliver, and since his people normally arrive fairly frazzled after a week of “organizational” living, he feels that he must somehow bring the “be not anxious” theme into his preaching. But as he studies the mirror before stepping from his study to the pulpit, what does he see? Not the staunch pillar of society that his grave minister-grandfather was. Squinting back at him he is more apt to see a triple image: (1) the mouthpiece of a national religious establishment that is getting more “big-brotherish” every year; (2) the overworked operator of a church that has become a sociable option of suburban living; and (3) the beatific son of encouragement, who dispenses psychologized Bible stories to people whose mothers believed in going to church.

How has the ministry reacted to this vision? In different ways. Some have swung to the extreme as indicated in the proverb, “If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em.” Thus the minister may even become the reactionary critic of church and clergy, and scorn his nondrinking, nonswearing brother. Instead of restoring the prestige of the ministry in this way, however, he simply pegs it one notch lower; the public is not impressed by ministers who try to ape the world and its ways. Others have gone to the other extreme, have withdrawn into their churches and confined their community activities to denunciation. They have roped and harnessed eschatology to compensate for slipping prestige in this life. The world is unimpressed here too; it likes neither the man nor his halo.

The question remains: how can the distorted features of the public image of the Protestant minister be redrawn? The issue is not simply one of status-seeking or regaining prestige. A great injustice is being done to consecrated men who not only preach but love the Lord Jesus Christ. In between the extremists, the average Protestant minister is seeking simply and honorably not only to discharge the Great Commission but to win the rightful respect of his fellow men. He asks no “benefit of clergy,” but he does ask to be judged as a man rather than as an exploited image.

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When Methodists gather in Denver for their quadrennial General Conference, April 27 to May 7, Protestant laymen will be alert for a possible bid to commit the Methodist Church in support of compulsory unionism and against “right to work” laws, a position which has divided churchmen and laity since the Board of Social and Economic Relations adopted it in June 1958.

Relying upon an element of surprise and confusion, some ecclesiastical leaders last year got through the 171st General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church a resolution so neatly worded that not a few delegates thought they were supporting a “right to work” position, only to discover later that they had voted on the other side. Some participants, besides protesting “deceptive and confusing” tactics in presentation of the “right to work” principle, have contended that the Assembly’s deference to compulsory unionism actually forsook Presbyterianism’s historic support of the freedom of the individual.

The original resolution on collective bargaining, presented to the Presbyterian Assembly by the Social Education and Action Committee, included a number of direct attacks on voluntary unionism, and mentioned the “right to work” principle by name. After floor debate, proponents of this resolution “backed down” by deleting the direct attacks on “right to work.” Many Assembly delegates held the impression that all opposition to “right to work” was being deleted, whereas two innocuous-appearing statements, left intact, in effect put the United Presbyterian Church on record against “right to work” laws.

Similar ambiguity appeared in the resolution voted by the General Board of the National Council of Churches claiming to represent 38 Protestant and Orthodox denominations. By 73 to 16, with 12 abstentions, the General Board last year approved a policy statement declaring that “union membership as a basis of continuing employment should be neither required nor forbidden by law.” The issue of the union shop, the General Board declared, “should be left to agreement by management and labor through the processes of collective bargaining.” This, of course, squarely endorses compulsory unionism since the purpose of “right to work” laws is to prohibit employers or union officials from bargaining away a worker’s right to refrain from joining a union. The AFL-CIO News (Dec. 12, 1959) publicized the real meaning of NCC’s action: “The general board of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.—executive body of the 40 million member federation—has taken a firm stand opposing so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws.”

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The rise of industry in the United States, which shaped the remarkable prosperity of the twentieth century, also posed new problems endangering the liberty of the worker. Many employers were requiring “yellow dog” contracts, stipulating that the worker must not belong to the newly-organized unions if he wished to get and keep a job. This infringed on the worker’s freedom of association, and his right to organize in the interest of proper working conditions. Many states, and ultimately Congress, rightfully outlawed these “yellow dog” contracts.

Due to legislative protection, as by the Railway Labor Act and the Wagner Act, unions grew rapidly during the 1920s and ’30s. The CIO, formed in 1938, and the AFL, organized in 1886, merged in 1955. As with the rise of Big Business, this was no unmixed blessing. For one thing, union professionals began the same infringement of the individual worker’s rights as had the employers previously. Whereas the employers had demanded nonmembership in unions, union officials now demanded union membership as a condition of employment. Such agreements requiring union membership as the condition of work are called “union shop” or “closed shop” contracts.

The Taft-Hartley Act, passed by Congress in 1947, recognized the right of states to pass and enforce right to work laws to protect the freedom of the worker to decide whether the services of a particular union are worthwhile and desirable. Such laws are now in effect in 19 states, most of them explicitly outlawing both “yellow dog” and “union shop” contracts. They thus deter both the employer and the union professional who want to deprive the worker of his right to decide whether he should join a union, and they serve to safeguard Christian conscience.

Clergymen and laity, who so quickly sensed the injustice of “yellow dog” contracts, fail to realize that today union compulsion often endangers the worker’s freedom. In the 1930s the unions were struggling for existence, and the policy was to accord them special privileges. In 1960 unions are a powerful and established entity. The widespread corruption revealed by the McClellan Labor Rackets Committee, and the fact that Communists have infiltrated some powerful unions, help to indicate why freedom of association guaranteed by “right to work” is important to Christian workers.

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Curiously, the mounting concern evidenced in the drive for voluntary unionism holds only scattered support from Big Business, today often indifferent to the coercive power of Big Labor over the worker’s rights. Although farmers and small businessmen (and some major industries) protest compulsory unionism, Big Steel and Big Motors and other giant industries give evidence of welcoming compulsory unionism because it provides a convenient and efficient way of handling labor negotiations. But the price of exalting expedience over virtue, and of submerging individual rights in the collectivity, will ultimately prove as costly to Big Business as to Big Labor.

Alongside their dissatisfaction over NCC’s tilt toward organizational compulsion and against individual liberty, many laymen and some churchmen are indignant that the ecumenical body committed its constituency on an issue of economic debate. They find in the General Board’s policy statement another evidence of ecclesiastical readiness to speak authoritatively on highly debatable politico-economic particulars (touching which clergymen have no special competence), while blurring into generalities many of the doctrinal particulars for which the Church has a special basis in divine revelation.


The 7,602 participants at the million-dollar “White House conference” on children and youth shaped 1,600 recommendations in five days (one resolution for every four delegates). The full conference had no opportunity to vote on final recommendations of the 18 forums, and many participants grumbled that steering committee revisions, integrating the supposed conscience of the conference, no longer reflected their own commitments. Were the professionals, they asked, once again exploiting a public parley to commend their own prejudices to government and the nation?

Numerous delegates voiced disappointment because forums deteriorated easily into a propaganda sounding board for government spending. Some spokesmen, they felt, made “the dignity and worth of each individual” a cliché for implementing such programs. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Flemming lost little time in philosophically supporting certain “conference recommendations,” notably more federal aid to education. Mr. Flemming welcomed “public support” for making government a more “active partner” in meeting social wants.

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Broadly speaking, delegates fell into four groups: 1. The professionals, mainly from the social sciences and related fields; 2. Special interest groups, bent on using the findings in programs they represent; 3. Lay people without organizational affiliation appointed in their own states to governor’s committees and commissions; and 4. The young people themselves.

Because standards of American life had sagged in the past two generations, most lay leaders seemed hopeful that moral and spiritual values would prove a chief concern. Many wanted the conference to express itself in a charter or code that would recall the nation to the values it had honored in the past. This was not accomplished. One reason was that, as work group recommendations appeared, they were sent to smaller committees in which professionals with social science backgrounds were influential. Conference expressions were couched in social science jargon, and dignity was conferred on behavioristic philosophy, social science research techniques, and programs shaped by social science methodology. Conference desires were thus controlled, some complained, and representative views dissolved, while the theories of professionals were implemented under the façade of popular demand.

Despite youth protests that the suppression of religious teaching in public schools promotes ignorance of moral and spiritual realities, leaders invoked the doctrine of “church-state separation” to defeat any move toward the study of religion in public schools. In Forum 11a recommendation that religion become a part of high school study was voted down by religious people in the adult audience pleading for separation. Religious considerations were repeatedly ruled out as not germane. Social science methodologists were still depicting all values as environmental responses and therefore relative. Authoritarian standards, especially standards of morality which are biblical in nature, were dismissed.

The move toward an interfaith perspective broke down for several reasons: 1. Religious special interests persisted. The Roman Catholic drive became apparent before the conference began. 2. The inability of divergent traditions to communicate with each other, due to lack of understanding or to distrust. 3. The feeling that an eclectic view is itself a form of particularism catering especially to the humanistic theory of values. 4. Fear of dogmatism in any form (except the liberal dogma that “all dogmatism is dangerous”). 5. A diplomatic nicety that restrained delegates in the interest of “American homogeneity” from strong expression of convictions, lest this violate the canons of brotherliness.

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The Butcher Workman, a magazine circulated to the 375,000-member Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, AFL-CIO, has done a disservice to its constituency by editorially distorting the thrust of an address made by J. Howard Pew to the National Council of Presbyterian Men (see CHRISTIANITY TODAY, April 11 issue). Some Church leaders, chafing under censure, likewise are twisting lay criticism.

In this address Mr. Pew scored the corporate church making pronouncements in the realm of economics and politics. However, the Butcher Workman implies that he spoke against “the elevation of all people to a better status in life” and insinuates that he is one who would “buy” the economic views of the Church.

AFL-CIO exploitation of the partisan pronouncements of certain Church spokesmen is not mentioned.

All this highlights the Church’s grave responsibility to give our tortured society a leadership which is spiritual, and which will lead capital and labor alike to the healing stream of the Gospel.

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