In my new book (releasing Tuesday!), I mention a conversation I had years ago with an older man in ministry whom I respected. We had seen a string of what’s euphemistically called “moral failures” with pastors in our church tradition. I made some comment about their having “lost their ministries.”
But the older man corrected me. “Oh, they’ll be back,” he said. “After a scandal, blue-collar pastors become Pentecostals and white-collar pastors become Episcopalian.”
This was tongue-in-cheek, of course. This man and I could both name countless pastors in our tradition who, mid-career, had joined a Pentecostal church or sought ordination in the Episcopal church. These folks just changed their minds about liturgy or spiritual gifts or a thousand other factors.
This man also wasn’t talking about the mainstream of the Anglican Communion or of global Pentecostalism (such as the Assemblies of God). He meant, specifically, the most progressive environs of the Episcopal church in the USA and the most populist and extreme areas of prosperity-gospel Pentecostalism. Those places, he argued, were more tolerant of clerical misbehavior—though for very different reasons.
I’ve lived long enough to see that my denomination is hardly different when it comes to morally compromised people making a hasty comeback. Still, what sticks out to me is not the literal reality of this man’s statement so much as the metaphor of it all—a metaphor that explains a good bit of what’s going on in our current American social crisis.
We are not headed toward the religious “awakening” of a “moral majority” as envisioned by the previous generation’s Religious Right. We’re also not secularizing to just short of Norway the way some secular progressives predicted. Instead, we might just be hearing a secularized echo of the worst caricatures of white-collar Episcopalians and blue-collar Pentecostals.
A generation ago, Diane Knippers, leader of the more conservative evangelical wing of the Episcopal Church (USA), warned that the reason her church was “more vulnerable to ethical revisionism” than other Protestant churches was not theology but social class. “Episcopalians tend to represent the urban well-off,” she wrote. “They listen to NPR, not Fox. They go to elite universities, not community colleges. They value liturgical niceties over theological substance.”
So, Knippers argued, when “white flight” came to American cities, Episcopal congregations had three choices: “move to the suburbs, … transform themselves to include ethnic minorities, immigrants, and the poor; or reach out to the remaining well-off urbanites.” The third, she said, was the most comfortable option for them—rendering the centers of influence within American Episcopal life out of touch with the rest of America and subject to the winds of ideology most represented in elite, affluent urban centers.
And when asked about the bleeding out of members from the Episcopal church nearly 20 years ago, the then-presiding bishop of the church said it was because Episcopalians were “better educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates” than other churches.
This seems to parallel much of what is happening in the left wing of secularization in the country right now. Increasingly, progressives in this country find themselves urban and affluent, disconnected not only from the much-discussed “white working class” but from working-class African Americans and Hispanic Americans as well.
At the same time, though, the secularizing Right seems to be taking on key aspects of prosperity-gospel Pentecostalism. In the 1980s, the country was rocked by a series of scandals in this wing of evangelicalism—such as the meltdown of the PTL ministry of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, with emerging stories of shocking sexual behavior combined with accounts of lavish displays of wealth (such as an air-conditioned doghouse).
“PTL was basically a place where every day was Sunday and every night was Saturday night,” one insider said. “If you live in that kind of atmosphere, Saturday night kind of stuff is going to happen.”
Despite serving time in prison, Jim Bakker was back relatively soon—with an entire set of “prophecies” of jaw-dropping events that never seemed to happen and sales of dried food supplies for people’s bunkers in preparation. Sunday morning or Saturday night, bank receipts never stop.
In some of these sectors, the disconnect of personal character from public ministry has seemed to become not a scandal to be covered but a test of loyalty to be passed. When people attack a prosperity-gospel evangelist for flying around in a private jet or for being on her third marriage, followers might see it as a sign that this leader is making “all the right enemies.” Circling in protection around the leader then becomes a sign of who’s in and who’s out.
That’s why crazy statements aren’t necessarily a hindrance to this sort of ministry but sometimes a church-growth strategy. Suddenly the guy criticized for saying that COVID-19 was a hoax or that his opponents are part of a witch cabal is labeled a modern-day Polycarp figure, who’s standing up for Jesus despite the threat of lions or flame. The spectacle is what draws the crowd, but the drama is what keeps them there—even when the result is a “burned-over district” of cynicism after the enthusiasm has waned.
In a secularizing time, one can get all of that—the personality cults, the conspiracy theories, the “touch not mine anointed” loyalty tests, the “being a character” replacement for having character—without a church or even a ministry. The whole world can be a prosperity-gospel radio talk show: all the resentment and prophecy, without Jesus or the Bible, except when needed to distinguish “real America” from the libs.
What’s the way out of all this? Ironically enough, it might just be Anglicans and Pentecostals. By this, I don’t mean the extremes of their caricatures—and certainly not their secularized echoes—but real, genuine Anglicanism and Pentecostalism.
There’s a reason that, worldwide, both the Anglican Communion and the Pentecostal movement are growing. Anglicanism at its best conveys Christianity with a connectedness to the generations before and a reverence and awe of God in worship. Pentecostalism at its best shakes up dead, lifeless nominalism with joy and a fresh expectation of what the Spirit can do.
The church needs both of these—and a world devoid of Good News needs both too.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.