Why the fundamentalists win

Last month, Ross "Don't" Douthat took the opportunity to concern-troll the mainline after some fallout with the Episcopalian General Conference. A bunch of bloggers I follow wrote in response, and reading them was a humbling experience; they're all smarter folks than I, and what did I have to say? Nothing, that's what. Because I was in Niantic at the time, gorging myself on books on spiritual formation at $3 apiece. I didn't even discover the kerfluffle until a week later.

I was really meaning to write something about it. Anarchist Reverend's post "Progressive vs. Liberal" got me wanting to write something about it (or at least about related topics.) But then, yesterday, Slacktivist brought it up again: "Progressive religious voices not irrelevant, just ignored."

This is particularly big for me because, as I've written before, I have some issues with tribalism in my past, and I've read enough Nietzsche to be leery of ressentiment. I don't want this to turn into an excuse to curse the right and mourn the mainline.

I want to contribute to this discussion. I want to think substantial thoughts, and say substantial words. I'm tired of being a commenter. I want to write.

Mission statement and mission parameters

Growing up mainline, I've read a lot of shit about the decline and fall of the mainline churches. The choice of words is deliberate: most of it is shit.
  • Writing from the mainline about their marginality comes in the flavor of grief. Growing up, my favorite was anger (John Shelby Spong's reactionary anti-fundamentalism, say; I've read it from many other sources and shouldn't single him out, but his name comes to mind first.) The other two dominant stages seem to be sorrow ("What can we do?") and bargaining ("Maybe if we can look and sound like the evangelicals..." and the Confessing Church movements generally.)
  • Writing from the other side of the aisle, at least official writing, is intolerably smug. Describing it as "LOL liberals don't even believe" is a caricature, but it's not much of one; I'm guessing that most mainliners have read something like that, and it pops up in every comments section of every article about the marginalization of the mainline. (Without Slacktivist, Kathy Escobar, Morgan Guyton and several others I wouldn't be able to see past that smugness at all.)
  • And the official metanarrative is useless, because it's simply wrong. The basic assumption is that the mainline churches are the dominant ones in America, but they're on their way out, being supplanted by evangelicalism. (That's been the story for my entire life.) Furthermore, the assumption is that we lost the Mandate of Heaven because we're not real Christians any more, and the "real" Christians (by which is meant, of course, the fundamentalists) are.
Yesterday, in response to Slacktivist, I made a tangential observation, which eventually became a bit more substantive as I expanded on it. The best impetus was from Morgan Guyton's "Thoughts on the alleged demise of liberal Christianity":
The cynic in me wants to believe that megachurches are successful because they’re providing “family safe, kid friendly” theology that is super-shallow and designed to make yuppies feel good about themselves and validated in their judgments of poor people, gays, Muslims, etc. But it’s envy that makes me say that, not any basis in empirical reality. I have no idea what combination of Seth Godin marketing principles and genuine movement of the Holy Spirit is responsible for their success....
Thinking about it, I realized something else: neither did I. And I don't know anybody who's looked at that much either. And hey, wouldn't that be interesting to research and read? From that thought about what'd be interesting, this post - with God's help this series of posts - was born.   So that's the mission statement. Now for the mission parameters:
  • I will attempt to eschew big-picture demographics. Demographic trends dominate the discussion about the fate of the mainline, because the question is usually, "Why do they get to have so many people and we don't?" It's a valid question, but it's not one that I'm interested in addressing head on.
  • I will attempt to write positively. I feel far more willing to assume bad faith and ill will than most of the mainliners I know. (Why they're so hesitant to say "evil" is a mystery to me some days.) That said, I've already commented that a lot of strident anti-fundamentalism is reactionary shit, and I want this to be research, not tribal polemic. As far as is possible, I will assume good faith, good will, and good spirits; and I'll try to avoid being overtly confrontational.
  • I will attempt, as far as I can, to focus on irrelevant details. If we want to look at why the mainline is struggling, I think it'd be interesting to look less at the big dolorous strokes, and much more at the thousand cuts. Therefore, as much as is possible I'll look at stuff that nobody's mentioned because it's too small, or theoretical, or simply unrelated to anything else to tie into the bigger picture. Because it's my belief that the irrelevant details are much, much less irrelevant than we think.
Let's see where this thing goes.

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