Yesterday I wrote a post entitled ‘Mormon Envy‘ in which I used Kenda Dean’s book Almost Christian to reflect on how Mormons succeed at catechizing their youth and Mainline Christians, captured by Moral Therapeutic Deism, do a woefully poor job at it, according to the National Survey on Religion and Youth.
As I alluded to in the post, I have significant reservations about how Mormon theology squares with historic Nicene Christianity. When it comes to doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement and Eschaton there’s simply too much divergence between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity for us to consider them in the fold. Having said that, my issues are theological and, I like to think, civil.
My post yesterday, while only tacitly about Mormonism, generated a surprising amount of pushback about Mormonism itself. Most of it was too uncivil for me to agree to post here.
Even more surprising to me, the pushback was not from Mormons but from self-identified liberal Christians who generally regarded Mormonism as conservative and, seemingly by definition, antiquated, oppressive and rigid in both worldview and praxis.
My own pushback to one comment wondered if the fact that we now think of the word ‘indoctrination’ pejoratively, as brainwashing, is not but evidence that we’re captured by secular presuppositions. When, I wondered, did intentionally forming our children’s beliefs and worldview became the equivalent of emotional or intellectual harm? And isn’t raising our children without imposing a belief system on them it’s own kind of imposition? It’s own kind secular indoctrination?
The tenor of pushback I received makes me wonder if Moral Therapeutic Deism is so pervasive in the Mainline Church’s youth because the Mainline Church’s parents are captured by the presumptions of the secular culture, leaving their children without a compelling alternative (Christianity) to the dominant culture. Why would youth be interested in Church if all they receive in Church is Culture-lite?
This is where I suspect the formation of youth, and how (and how well) we do it rubs up against the larger culture wars being played out once again with gusto.
Scot McKnight has a good post today that picks up the argument from here:
Ross Douthat, whose book Bad Religion I posted about on this blog, has been given some serious pushback by Diana Butler Bass, whose book Christianity after Religion I may well blog about too. (Here’s a recent post by Douthat linking to the others.) Two claims: Douthat thinks mainline Christianity’s demise is due to its lack of moorings in historic Christian orthodox faith, while Bass is making the counterintuitive claim that mainline liberalism’s theology may be the seedbed for a renewal of Christianity in America.
Put in terms of accommodation, Douthat’s argument is that mainline Christianity has accommodated itself too much to culture, to progressive politics, to the trends of society and so has lots its footings. Bass is arguing that by accommodating itself to the culture, politics and society mainline Christianity might find a new way into a renewal. Douthat says Bass is over-reaching and thinks her hope is unlikely to find its realization.
The numbers tell the story of rapid and frightening decline among mainline denominations; the numbers tell of strength or at least of a sustainable future for the more conservative denominations (like the Southern Baptists) and the numbers are probably even stronger for the non-denominational evangelical.
Yet, there’s a problem at work here that belies simplistic theorizing. I doubt that one can wash away departure from the orthodox faith among mainliners and say it has nothing to do with the decline. At some point many have asked, “If that’s what these leaders believe, what’s the point?” But scholars know this is not the whole story. Some have pointed directly at birth rate among mainliners (amazingly low) compared with more conservatives (much higher), and said if you let these numbers stand for 2-3 generations you will see reversals, and that’s what happened: the conservatives have overtaken the mainliners. Yet, I suspect even this isn’t enough, so I’d like to propose for your consideration another factor to consider:
Both mainliners and conservatives have accommodated themselves to the culture. This isn’t an either/or.
Mainliners have accommodated themselves to the elite, sophisticated, and more upper class society.
Evangelicalism, or the conservative churches, have accommodated themselves to the populist culture.
There are more numbers for the latter than the former. Hence, one element of the demographic changes is “target audience” for accommodation strategies.
I have some ideas, but I’d like to know (1) if you think this thesis can be sustained and (2) what are indications of accommodation to elitist culture among mainliners and to populist culture among evangelicals?