Back to the mainline

November 2, 2010

If you had asked the pastor of the mainline
church I grew up in how his congregation was addressing public issues like
poverty, health or education, he would have pointed to a few church-sponsored
programs (like a child-care center and a Meals on Wheels program) but he would
also have named church members who were doctors, civil servants and public
school teachers. As he saw it, the church was making a powerful public witness
through the faithful presence of these Christians--doctors who went the extra
mile for their patients, government workers who were diligent and fair, and
teachers who had a special heart for the disadvantaged. The importance of
living out one's faith in one's vocation was a theme of virtually every sermon
I heard.

There was nothing special about my pastor's
perspective. He was expressing the mainline Protestant style of public witness
(with lots of parallels in the Catholic tradition). Call it a tradition of
civic engagement: Christians are called to work within their community and
within their secular jobs to make the world a bit more just, loving and
hopeful. We don't expect to transform the world, but we can offer the light of
Christ here and there.

That tradition has never gone away. It has always
been the dominant mode of public witness for mainliners. (See, for example,
Mark Chaves's account
of mainliners as "the quiet hand of God" [pdf].)

It is strange, then, to see sociologist James
Davison Hunter write a whole book, To
Change the World,
that recommends this approach as if it were something new
or one that has to be re-invented. Hunter recommends the "faithful presence"
model as an alternative to the politicized attempts by Christians to change the
world that have been offered by liberals and conservatives, as well as an
alternative to the avoid-the-world response offered by neo-Anabaptists.

In his
review
in the Century, Duane K.
Friesen rightly notes that Hunter's three-part typology--in which there are Jim
Wallis liberals, Christian Coalition conservatives, and Ekklesia Project
neo-Anabaptists--leaves out a lot of Christians and is downright inaccurate in
some respects. (For example, if you've actually read Hauerwas or studied the
Ekklesia Project, Hunter's primary examples of neo-Anabaptists, you would know they
are not about being apolitical or remaining "pure from" the world.)

"The public witness of the church today has
become a political witness," Hunter declares, with deep regret. Perhaps he
has spent too much time listening to the culture wars rhetoric on the religious
right. He is not describing most really existing congregations, at least not
the mainline ones I know.