The Suicide of the Liberal Church

HedgesSome highlights from Chris Hedges’ recent piece on the liberal church in America:

The self-identified religious institutions that thrive preach the perverted “prosperity gospel,” the message that magic Jesus will make you rich, respected and powerful if you believe in him. Jesus, they claim, is an American capitalist, bigot and ardent imperialist. These sects selectively lift passages from the Bible to justify the unjustifiable, including homophobia, war, racism against Muslims, and the death penalty. Yet there are more students—2,067—at the evangelical Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary alone than at the divinity schools and seminaries of Yale, Harvard, Union, Vanderbilt and Chicago, whose combined enrollment is 1,537. 

The doctrine these sects preach is Christian heresy. The Christian faith—as in the 1930s under Germany’s pro-Nazi Christian church—is being distorted to sanctify nationalism, unregulated capitalism and militarism. The mainstream church, which refuses to denounce these heretics as heretics, a decision made in the name of tolerance, tacitly gives these sects credibility and squanders the prophetic voice of the church…

The liberal church committed suicide when it severed itself from radicalism. Radical Christians led the abolitionist movement, were active in the Anti-Imperialist League, participated in the bloody labor wars, fought for women’s suffrage, formulated the Social Gospel—which included a huge effort to carry out prison reform and provide education to prisoners—and were engines in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Norman Thomas, a longtime leader of the Socialist Party of America, was a Presbyterian minister.

These radicals generally were not embraced by the church hierarchy, which served as a bulwark of the establishment, but they kept the church vital and prophetic. They made it relevant and important to the oppressed, the poor and to workingmen and -women. Radicals were and are its hope.

The loss of an array of prophetic voices on the national scene such as Phil and Daniel Berrigan, William Stringfellow, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. left the liberal church as morally bankrupt as the rest of the liberal class. James Baldwin, who grew up in the church and was briefly a preacher, said he abandoned the pulpit to preach the Gospel. The Gospel, he knew, was not heard most Sundays in Christian houses of worship. And today with most ministers wary of offending their aging and dwindling flocks—counted on to pay the clergy salary and the bills—this is even truer than when Baldwin was writing…

During the rise of the American species of corporate fascism—what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism”—the liberal church, like the rest of the liberal establishment, looked the other way while the poor and workingmen and -women, especially those of color, were ruthlessly disempowered and impoverished. The church and liberals were as silent about the buildup of mass incarceration as they once were about lynching. The mainline church refused to confront and denounce the destructive force of corporate power. It placed its faith in institutions—such as the Democratic Party—that had long ceased to function as mechanisms of reform.

The church, mirroring the liberal establishment, busied itself with charity, multiculturalism and gender-identity politics at the expense of justice, especially racial and economic justice. It retreated into a narcissistic “how-is-it-with-me” spirituality. Although the mainline church paid lip service to diversity, it never welcomed significant numbers of people of color or the marginalized into their sanctuaries. The Presbyterian Church, for example, is 92 percent white. It pushed to the margins or sought to discredit liberation theology, which called out the evils of unfettered capitalism, white supremacy and imperialism. The retreat from radicalism—in essence the abandonment of the vulnerable to the predatory forces of corporate capitalism—created a spiritual void filled by protofascist movements that have usurped Christian symbols and provided a species of faith that is, at its core, a belief in magic. This Christian heresy is currently on public display at Donald Trump and Ted Cruz political rallies.

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