American Protestantism has not yet learned how to speak to the nation. Individual churchmen, both clergy and lay, sometimes speak a telling word incisively and constructively. But the churches as organizations have not learned—and this is increasingly clear—how to speak effectively to the Federal government or helpfully to national leaders.
Protestantism gives the general impression that it is anti-Washington, anti-government, sometimes even anti-patriotic. Rarely does it voice affirmation or approbation. Most often it is heard when there is something to condemn or oppose. Then Protestantism is loud and clamorous in rebuke.
This attitude plays into the hands of Protestantism’s historic defamers who have always said Protestantism exists only on negatives—that it is simply anti-Catholic, or that it is against the established order. Indeed, this vitiates the true meaning of Protestant, which is “to speak for,” “testify to,” or “in behalf of.” Yet too often the impression we make upon the nation’s Capitol is that history and social conditioning have made us chronic critics and perpetual protesters.
I make this observation from within the Church as a servant who loves the Church, as one who believes in church councils, and in the National Council of Churches and serving on one of its committees. I say it as a two-term president of the Washington Council of Churches.
A BRACING MINISTRY
During a pastorate in Washington covering seven Congresses and four presidential terms, I have concluded that Protestantism must find a way to speak to its own people in loving solicitude and with strong affirmations. When men of Christian character and conviction come to Washington, they are spurred to deeper dependence upon God and tend to an accelerated growth in spiritual understanding. What they miss, and what Protestantism has not learned to convey, is the shepherding word of love and concern for these sons of the Reformed faith, the pastoral word of confirmation and faith in her own sons, the bracing word of commendation where it is merited, the assuring word of identification with believers everywhere, and the life-giving note of the Gospel.
Some will say that many messages of affection and concern are dispatched. But these are often concealed in private, or do not “get through” because the dominating motif in the Protestant accent is negative. The churches are “against this”; they “denounce” that; they “deplore” so and so; they “condemn” something else. Social action “experts” peddle pronouncements from door to door and spy on the voting records of Congressmen as to whether the votes are based upon the expressions of the church convention’s most recent resolutions (as though this kind of vote were ever possible), or if possible, could be a dependable assessment of the Congressman’s Christian commitment.
I do not mean to imply that the Church should remain silent and induce quietude or acquiescence. Nor do I mean that individual leaders should vacate the prophetic ministry. Far from it! What I lament is that the Church is too often regarded as simply another secular political pressure group, and is so evaluated because she does not speak the higher word of the eternal Gospel and the word of pastoral care. Protestantism is not heard nor heeded seriously in its many notes of rebuke and condemnation because it has not uttered effectively, if at all, the prerequisite word of pastoral concern. It has not established itself sufficiently as the shepherd of souls to be regarded as discerning and authoritative in other areas.
Much of this pervasive negativism derives from the Church’s participation in political study and action without prior pastoral solicitude. In the days of the War for Independence, devoted Americans were political zealots out of religious conviction. Today, churches themselves take part in politics without the grass-roots consent of individual church members.
A new “fundamentalism” has arisen which shapes much of this activity. I do not refer to the biblical fundamentalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This new “fundamentalism” has arisen as successor to the now-decadent social gospel in the pulpit. Its prophet is the social education and action “expert.” The “orthodox” persons are those who conform to the processed pronouncements guided through church bodies by the “experts.”
The expert’s vocation is presumably to direct research, to speak and write on the application of the Christian ethic to social, economic, and political concerns of the age. He prepares materials for study, evaluation, and declaration. He can also omit research in areas unattractive to him. It is asking too much of such an individual or of small groups to refrain from projecting their own social, economic, and political philosophy into the processing of resolutions and proposed actions. Such would be contrary to human nature—even redeemed human nature. It is not difficult, therefore, to see how the views of a committee or small group of “experts” to whom a project has been delegated can become the expressed views of major groups or whole denominations.
What happens in the new “fundamentalism” is that processed pronouncements in the name of the whole body tend to be asserted as the Christian view, the only authentic, valid Christian view on some social or-political topic. Then follows the hardening of these views, their investment with sacrosanct qualities, the promulgation of socio-economic views on the level of theological doctrine. The “orthodox” person then is the individual who accepts and espouses these views; the “heterodox” person is the one who challenges the social and political pronouncements—even if only because he wants to arrive at his own convictions in his own way. Too readily the “deviant” (easily stigmatized as a social and economic heretic) is then isolated from the main stream of life where these declarations are forged. Soon the views of the deviants are not spoken, because they feel their convictions will not be respected by the “experts.” They feel the resolution-framing group is closed to them, or that they will not be taken seriously by “the professionals.” Yet sometimes, as the Cleveland China declaration demonstrated, the promulgations of experts may be radically wide of the views held by the church membership. The deviant is ignored, lumped with a miscellaneous assortment of malcontents, anti-National Council maniacs, and chronic critics of everything in organized religion.
It is a fatal mistake to group perceptive and knowledgeable persons who differ with the substance and timing of certain declarations with reactionary fundamentalists or carping critics of standard brand Protestantism and to dismiss them as on the “fringe” of the Church. This can be tragic for the Church. In recent months the question has arisen with new force as to who is on the “fringe” of the Church, and who really says what the Church thinks and wants said to the nation and to the world.
A PATRIOTIC STEWARDSHIP
To say the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time can be calamitous. Therefore it is all-important that there be no confusion in anybody’s mind about who is speaking, and for whom he speaks.
The Cleveland China declaration is a case in point. The Cleveland document, on the whole, had many notable passages and doubtless expressed what some able thinkers had concluded ought to be a Christian view of the various subjects. Most of this was lost to the world by the colossal tactical blunder on the Red China issue. To meet the Ambassadors of friendly Far-Eastern nations after that episode was embarrassing. For within 24 hours after publication of that passage of the report all Communist and leftist radios throughout the Far East were proclaiming that the American people had repudiated their government. Their line was: “America is a Protestant nation. The Protestants have said that the People’s Republic of China ought to be recognized by the U. S. government and admitted to the U. N.” Apart from any evaluation of substance, to provide that propaganda weapon at that time was tactically a great misfortune. And Mr. Dulles was obliged to correct the world’s false impression in his first address on his return from Mexico. The plain truth is that this statement represented the thoughtful considerations of some 600 persons and (according to dependable opinion polls) was the converse of the dominant majority of Protestant people. When declarations are made and there is the possibility of attributing the views to large groups, we Christians have a patriotic stewardship, as well as a Christian responsibility, which should restrain us from providing ideological weapons for our nation’s enemies. What is said, by whom it is said, for whom it is said, and to whom it is said ought to be made certain to the public.
We need to learn to listen as well as to speak. Sometimes a discerning, dedicated Christian in government, with the best channels of information available to him, hesitates to communicate with churchmen because we are more disposed to speak than to listen. There are responsible and dedicated Christians whose words ought to be evaluated and heeded by any who aspire to speak for the Church.
In our age churchmen have great difficulty in coming to agreement on doctrinal matters such as the nature of the Church or the validity of the ministry. They tend instead to be authoritarian in international affairs, to dogmatize in politics and to absolutize in referring to matters of social and economic doctrine.
Some of us, evangelical in our theological commitment, were interested in CHRISTIANITY TODAY, not to revive fundamentalism but because its columns were open to leaders uncommitted to this new “fundamentalism.” One useful purpose of a journal like this is to provide open columns for vast numbers of people whose views of the world, of society, and of the Church may not be fully consonant with the growing “neo-fundamentalism” of our day. The right of private judgment still rests at the heart of Protestantism.
I do not want to be misunderstood, though experience suggests that “guilt by association” is as lively inside the Church as in the secular order. I am not here despising or even minimizing social studies or political inquiry. I happen to be a sociology major who long ago discovered that sociology is essentially humanistic. And I will always have an avid interest in politics and international affairs. Many of my parishioners are politicians and diplomats. I want my concern and the concern of the Church always to be in religious terms. That is why it seems to me that when anybody or any group speaks in the name of the Church, the message must issue from an unmistakable spiritual base and that base must be erected and maintained by constant pastoral attention long before the Church speaks on the controversial theme. Only upon this well-established spiritual prerequisite can the Church expect to be heeded when it speaks to the common order of man.
The authentic prophetic role need not be neglected. The light of the gospel message should shine undimmed. The place where the true prophet stands is never congested in any age. Rarely has the prophetic word represented composite views or processed declarations. When there is utterance it must be clear who speaks, for whom he speaks, and to whom he speaks. The prophets for the most part have been lonely men who were sure in the depths of their being from whence came their message, for whom they spoke, and to whom the “Thus saith the Lord” was directed.
Edward L. R. Elson is Minister of The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D. C. Among the members are President and Mrs. Eisenhower, several cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, and diplomats. He is author of several books; And Still He Speaks, will appear next Spring.
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