Reflections on church, state, and culture in America

Some decades ago American Protestantism quietly retired from its post as acting chairman of our cultural heritage and assumed a nominal emeritus position. The circumstances of this remarkable event, as well as its exact time, remain obscured in mystery. Some have attributed it to ill health, others to mental disease. Yet by all appearances, the Church at the time of its retirement was at the height of its powers. According to its own reports and the best available statistics, it had just completed a “Great Century” and was well prepared to face the era that lay ahead. Yet when confronted with the challenges of rapidly changing social, moral, intellectual, and scientific standards, American Protestantism courteously stepped down with hardly a protest or an apology.

Today Protestants in America live with the consequences of our emeritus status. The churches we support, and even those we rebuke, are notoriously ineffective. They are, by and large, neither loved nor hated; they are merely patronized and ignored. Confronted with little but the evidence of our weakness, we may well ask, Why?

Although all must concede that a large part of the answer is found in the nearly irresistible secularizing forces in modern culture, few will exempt the Church itself from responsibility. Who or what, then, in the twentieth-century Church should be blamed?

A generation ago the answer seemed simple enough. Theological liberals and fundamentalists characteristically blamed each other. Today, however, we seem to have entered an era of reappraisal. Many of the heirs to each of these traditions now concede some weaknesses within their heritage. The vogue of terms like “neo-orthodoxy,” “neo-liberalism,” ...

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