In October, I had the pleasure of attending both the lecture and subsequent seminar given for First Things by Ross Douthat on the crisis in conservative Catholicism. Not being a Roman Catholic, I was there very much as an outside observer of the discussion but it raised for me the obvious questions: Is there a parallel crisis in conservative Protestantism and, if so, in what does it consist?
Douthat’s argument—that conservative Catholics overestimated their success and influence both in the political and ecclesiastical sphere, has limited parallels in conservative Protestantism. Certainly, the cultural power of conservative Protestants has massively declined since the days when threats of a boycott by the Southern Baptist Convention could strike fear into the heart of a corporate CEO. As with their Roman Catholic counterparts, politically conservative Protestants are coming to realize that they placed too much faith in the political process. Yet, on the ecclesiastical front, Douthat’s crisis assumes the importance of a unified, institutional church. The fissiparous nature of Protestantism means that such a crisis cannot happen. We are, after all, by definition schismatics from a Roman Catholic perspective. In this sense, Roman Catholics would no doubt see Protestantism in itself as constituting a permanent crisis.
Nevertheless, setting Roman Catholic objections aside, I would suggest three areas where conservative Protestantism in the USA—at least its broadly reformed strand with which I am familiar—could be said to be, if not in crisis, then certainly moving toward such.
First, far too much power is exerted by wealthy and influential parachurch organizations. A good example of this was provided this year by events surrounding the attempted exchange about Evangelicals and Catholics Together which was commissioned by Reformation21, the e-zine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Three of us were involved: Timothy George, Thomas Guarino, and myself. The exchange was respectful, honest, friendly, but frank. My own article was scarcely a paean of praise to the ECT process.
Within hours of the first article (that of Tim) being published, a tweet and a hostile blog post by a senior representative of another Reformed parachurch group based in Florida, followed by rumored behind-the-scenes shenanigans, were enough to get the series pulled (and then thankfully picked up by First Things—kudos to Rusty Reno). Sad to say, one parachurch group had effectively closed down perfectly legitimate discussion in an unconnected forum by sheer bully-boy tactics.
An aberration? Unfortunately not. This is symptomatic of the way things are in much of the conservative Protestant world. As long as the most influential parachurches are run like businesses, money and marketing will be the overriding concerns, even as concern for ‘the gospel’ is always the gloss. Reinforced by a carrot-and-stick system of feudal patronage connected to lucrative conference gigs, publishing deals, and access to publicity, such tactics as those described will continue to be deployed. Roman Catholics might look on Protestantism from the outside and see it as theology ruled by a mob. Speaking as an insider, it often seems to me to be ruled more by the Mob.
The second problem for much of conservative Protestantism is a related one, highlighted by Roger Scruton. Scruton has rightfully stated that it is “surely impossible to flee from kitsch by taking refuge in religion, when religion itself is kitsch.” (The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, p. 92). There is indeed an unbearable, kitschy lightness to so much that passes for conservative Protestant life and thought. The theology that sells is by and large a cheap, rootless imitation of the real thing. Year after year, the same brand names churn out bland, lightweight books on whatever is the topic of the moment, with no regard to authorial competence. It is the names that sell, after all. And thus the same speakers fill the same conference rosters time after time, with the supercharged aesthetics of the platforms distracting the audience from the insipid content of the performances. So much sound and fury. So much signifying nothing.
I suspect this cannot be sustained, or at least cannot be sustained with the same audience, over an extended period of time. It is kitsch and therefore ephemeral. If we imitate the shallowness of pop culture, we can expect to replicate the life expectancy of the same. Boy bands come and boy bands go, after all. Popular fashion is indeed a cruel mistress, and a faith whose practices and idioms are really anchored in the tastes of the moment is inextricably tied to that moment.
Finally, conservative Protestantism lacks a strong tradition of social thought which might help it counter the kitsch and engage with the many challenges that are being cast its way by contemporary society. Now, I am a big believer in the church being the church. The Benedict Option offers little that is really new to me. I have always thought the church needs to be a spiritual community of sojourners in this world. But every member of my congregation has to live to some extent in the world. Every day they face questions that demand thoughtful and careful answers, whether it is as personal as the legitimacy of forms of fertility treatment or as public as how to navigate identity politics in the workplace.
Compared to Roman Catholicism, Protestantism is playing catch-up in the areas of moral theology at a point in time where this is possibly too little too late. The old ‘God, guns, and America’ approach of the Religious Right is a spent force (thankfully so) but Protestantism does not currently have much with which to replace it. The work of men like David VanDrunen on natural law is proving very helpful but we need more of our finest minds engaging with the moral issues of the day, not so much to persuade the world to change its mind but at least to give clarity of thought to our own people as they go about their daily callings.
I do not believe that Protestants need to become Roman Catholics but we do need to understand the problems which beset us from within. The big money parachurch ministries depend upon constant recreation of a market for theological kitsch, and theological kitsch drives out the kind of deep thought which really does need to be the focus of the church’s efforts and resources at this point. Therein, I suspect, lies the coming crisis of conservative Protestantism.