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When critiquing American churches, opinion writers often adopt a form of historicism even Hegel would just barely accept—a philosophic stance that no doubt drives their chiding of churches as “behind the times” or “on the wrong side of history.” The same gives them the gall to patronize Christians when their churches, at long last, “catch up” with the moral Zeitgeist, yielding to secularist pressures. With wedge issues like abortion, contraception, same-sex matters, and divorce, 20th century secular culture relentlessly picked away at the integrity (especially) of mainline Protestant denominations, often forcing a choice outright between the gospel and the evanescent moral spirit of the age.

One of the more disquieting features of the progressive view of history is its subtle drive to sway opinion by brute force, substituted for reason. As the argument might go, “X will eventually happen anyway, so we might as well put it into place now.” Formally, it makes even less sense: “X is very likely to happen. Therefore it should happen.” A worse garbling of facts and values is rarely accomplished in the culture wars.

Incremental compromise has been a popular method of executing progressivist brute force aims for mainline Protestant churches, and sometimes it leads to strikingly odd compromises.

Minneapolis’ Star Tribune reported the other day that Presbyterian Church (USA) leaders have bestowed their blessing on noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy, but have nonetheless withheld approval of same-sex marriages within their denomination. The fact this is an incremental compromise is evidenced by the logical incompatibility of the two decisions: If gay romance is not only ethical but healthy and appropriate for spiritual leaders, how can it not be enshrined in a church marriage?

Still stranger is the somewhat, well, presbyterial impulse at work in the church leaders’ close vote: Members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) could, if they felt strongly enough about the issue of gay clergy, simply start a new denomination and avoid the cumbersome process of clergy straw polls on matters of natural law. One supposes the confines of Riverside Drive feel too much like an ideological ghetto, though, and that uprooting the moral theology of Christianity is the real heart of the affair.

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