The amazing Republican victory in the election of 1994 has prompted many commentators to suggest that we are experiencing a populist resurgence of the first order. The Republicans have captured what Jeffrey Bell has called “the populist stream of opinion” and are possibly presiding over a political realignment. If the Republicans hold their gains in Congress and capture the Presidency in 1996 they will pull off what, in a democratic society, is the equivalent of a revolution.
In the political sphere, then, we are witnessing the people exerting their will. To employ the famous image of Peter Berger, the Indians (the many ordinary Americans who are religious) are in the process of throwing out the Swedes (the governing class who are pervasively secularist.) In our society in general we sense the growing mistrust of the headquarters of anything-government, media, church, business, or school. Indeed, the sensitivity to this mistrust is so sharp that a telephone operator at our national church headquarters corrected me when I called it “headquarters.” She suggested I call it “church-wide offices.”
But what of the churches? Shouldn’t there be signs of a “people’s movement” in the churches, especially the mainstream Protestant churches? After all, there are fascinating parallels between the practices-now being rejected-of the federal government and the practices of the mainstream Protestant denominations. Here are a few examples to ponder, examples drawn mainly from my own church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but which could apply to many mainstream churches.
First, there are the irritants and outrages of the regulatory state. The federal government has spun a thousand spiderwebs of ensnaring regulation. So has the church. The ELCA, begun in 1988, wanted so badly to be a “new church” that it produced detailed regulations imposing racial, ethnic, and gender quotas on the entire organized life of the church. These quotas are supposed to guarantee “inclusiveness.” They unfortunately include among the formerly “excluded” a menagerie of self-described “victims,” self-marginalized complainers, and self-conscious heretics-all now required by the regulatory church to be represented at every table of deliberation. The spirit of interest group liberalism pervades every nook and cranny of the church. So it is that traditional Lutheranism becomes just one of many perspectives-alongside feminism, multiculturalism, and political correctness-to be taken into account in the affairs of the regulatory church.
Sometimes the regulations are very subtle and informal. The prime example here is the move to “inclusive language.” The switch to gender-neutral or inclusive language with regard to human beings took place at least a decade ago. But now the regulations have been expanded to exclude the use of any masculine pronouns for God. (None of this has been debated or formally legislated; it has been done by “executive order.”) “Father” can be used in the trinitarian formula, the creeds, and the Lord’s-or should I say “Sovereign’s”-Prayer, but scarcely anywhere else. Church publishing houses, journals, and magazines now are thoroughly sanitized of the offending pronouns. Worship materials slavishly follow the new regulations and are visited on the unsuspecting laity without comment or debate. Seminaries give these regulations real muscle by enforcing inclusive language on all students. The “pronoun snippers” are having their way.
Another focus of the present populist resentment in politics is the suspicion that the government undermines the virtue of the people, turning them into dependent clients of the custodial state by not affirming crucial public values concerning sexual ethics, marriage and family life, work and citizenship. A corresponding suspicion is held of the mainstream Protestant churches. Ordinary lay people have the sense that the headquarters elite continually subvert their core values, either through loss of courage and clarity or through outright contempt. It is difficult to imagine any of the mainstream churches vigorously promoting chastity with the slogan “True Love Waits,” as the Baptists have. They would be embarrassed to say something so clear and direct.
Rather, the good liberals who control most church headquarters have trouble saying “no” or setting clear limits. In some cases, for example with regard to homosexual behavior and sex before marriage, they constantly agitate for changes that directly challenge the traditional values of the laity. The notorious 1993 ELCA draft on human sexuality is a perfect case in point. It is no wonder that laity often consider the church headquarters an enemy of their Christian convictions.
Meanwhile, sexual sins by the clergy are ferreted out and prosecuted with unrelenting fury. Serious cases of unfaithfulness, which ought to be severely punished, are mixed with more minor violations that often bring draconian punishment. And since the perpetrator is always male, the offense is never a shared sinful act with the “victim,” but a “hegemonic abuse of power.” Old-fashioned lust, often reciprocated by the victim, is no longer recognized as a motivation. “Sin” is out, “abuse of power” is in.
The Republican victory of 1994 seemed to strike a blow against increased growth of the central government and for the shifting of political power to state and local levels. The voters expressed their conviction that growth in the federal government was not paying off in increased effectiveness. Taxpayers were paying more but getting less. A similar suspicion floats among the laity of the mainstream churches. Regarding the national church’s crucial tasks of foreign and home missions, we are clearly paying more but getting less. The ratio of bureaucrats to actual overseas missionaries keeps climbing. National staffs keep huffing and puffing, but there are fewer home mission starts each year. Meanwhile, interest group concerns-commissions on women and multiculturalism-continue to soak up funds.
One of the first actions of the victorious Republicans was the Congressional Reforms Accountability Act. Among its provisions was the requirement that Congress submit to the same federal rules and regulations that the people have to observe. This legislation was met with great approval; even the Democrats said they would have done the same thing. Such is not the case in the church. After widespread agitation to get rid of quotas, the ELCA Conference of Bishops held that the “representational principles” of the ELCA should continue. The Bishops do not accept, however, that “representational principles” should govern the election of bishops. They remain overwhelmingly white males and do not wish to have quotas applied to them. Neither do I, of course, but why are they immune to a system to which everyone else must bow?
One could point to many other parallels. Taxation without representation, unfunded mandates, and unnecessary bureaucratic inefficiency all exist in the church. But why is there no populist upheaval? The first thing to note is that there is at least populist resistance, if resistance means that people are keeping their money close to home. Giving to local congregations has gone up along with inflation, but local parishes are not sending proportional monies to regional judicatories, which in turn are not sending as much to national organizations. Thus, the famous shrinkage of all mainstream headquarters. (This is also happening among more conservative churches, but they have traditionally been more congregational in polity than the mainstream ones.)
Few leaders among the mainstream churches have responded to this shrinkage by altering their behavior. One reason may be the “softness” of the systems of accountability in the churches. The churches, like the schools, are relatively invulnerable to popular pressures because their main actors are not accountable to the direct vote as in the political realm or the direct dollar as in economic life. Leadership often resides in well-insulated bureaucracies not directly responsive to votes or dollars. That is why they can maintain theological and political orientations far different from their grassroots membership.
Given this elite recalcitrance, why has there been no real effort to “throw the rascals out,” as there has been in national and state politics? Why have church locals not tried to “take back” their church as American locals have tried to “take back” their government? Even given the lack of direct accountability, there must be some deeper reason why populist concerns do not powerfully affect the church. Alas, the sad reason is that most mainstream church members simply do not think that the larger church is important enough to merit close attention. The various delinquencies of church headquarters just don’t affect the people in the pews enough to get them stirred up. Once in a while, when the media magnify issues such as those surrounding sexual ethics, the troops respond and demands arise for reform and accountability. But most of the time life goes on as usual at the parish level. And pastors generally maintain peace by keeping the laity blissfully ignorant of the shenanigans occurring at the church headquarters.
The populist revolt can only begin in earnest when and if pastors decide to mobilize their laity in a self-conscious movement within the church. But rather than lead such a movement, many pastors would prefer to “go independent”-something that is likely to happen much more frequently if things continue as they are.
All this, however, is not to suggest that a populist movement in the churches would necessarily be a good thing. “The people” are not automatically any more trustworthy than the elite. What is trustworthy is the Holy Spirit working through the authoritative tradition of the Church. But much of that tradition has been eroded by rampant individualism among the laity and malfeasance among the elite. Real hope for a mainstream church such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America resides in a repentant centering on the confessional tradition that has held Lutheranism together for these last four centuries. Hope for the future of the church is only to be found among those of its adherents-laity and elite alike-who have a sure grasp of its tradition.
Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College and author, most recently, of The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Fortress).
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