Second-Stage Protestantism: A Concept with an Attitude

 

By Ed Knudson  (www.pubtheo.com)

 

March 20, 2006

 

The following is a discussion in a question and answer format. I am very interested in responses from readers. What is most helpful? What is questionable? What is feasible or not feasible?

 

What is Second-Stage Protestantism?

 

I have been looking for an organizing concept for my website on Public Theology which I have been building for some years. It has many different sections, lots of articles, weblinks, book reviews, etc. I have many interests and concerns but it often feels like I am moving from one thing to the other without a sense of how things fit together. Also, the term “public theology” indicates that Christian faith is something with public implications not just a private faith for private persons as is so often assumed. But that concept has not been rich enough to offer a point of view for my own thinking and writing as well as the website. So I have been looking for a key, organizing concept by which to hold together many varied interests as well as express a clear and compelling point of view for my work, a hopefully lucid perspective on many things, theology, history, politics, economics, ecumenicity. When the term “second-stage Protestantism” came to my mind it immediately helped me organize my ideas, it stimulated many thoughts and associations, and seemed to lead to new intuitive insights. It is hard to put into words, yet that too is what an organizing concept does, it provides a guide and stimulation for putting words on the concept in order to communicate with others. It’s like a gestalt, or paradigm, or in some ways if you think in terms of science it’s like a new theory by which all of a sudden you are able to hold together a lot of otherwise disparate facts. I am in the process of testing that theory now during this coming year of 2006.

 

What do you mean by saying it is a concept with an attitude?

 

I have been feeling more and more an emotional unsettledness about where the Protestant mainline churches are going. They have been experiencing a belligerent sustained attack from neoconservatives and the religious right for a couple decades now. Many claim these churches are declining and have lost any reason for existence. Few pay them any attention in public debates anymore. But rather than stand and fight these churches seem to be just accepting the attacks and acting as if they can just go on doing what they have always done and everything will be all right. For the sake of peace in the church we pastors (I am a Protestant pastor) are too tempted to avoid conflicts, to avoid being clear when we see something is wrong even in terms of our basic doctrinal beliefs. We need a new attitude. The word attitude in sailing refers to the relation of the sail to the wind; to move the boat the attitude of the sail must catch the wind. The Protestant boat seems to be hardly moving these days, it hardly has its sails up, or has not positioned them to be able to catch the changing winds in the politics, economics, culture of the local community, nation, or world. So the idea of Second Stage Protestantism is an effort to read the winds and hoist the sails of the Protestant boat. There are lots of us in that boat; we have some great leaders; we have engaged in much energetic and refreshing theological work and biblical research; we have places around the country where outstanding ministry is occurring; but many pastors and congregations are confused and floundering, have no sense of purpose and are at the point of giving up. We are all in this boat together and I want to help as we try together to read the signs of the times and recommit ourselves to being the church alive in new ways at this moment in history.

 

So it is a new and original concept?

 

Well, in some ways, yes, but I was looking for a concept that in most ways would provide a kind of “aha” moment for others as soon as they start reading about it. That is, they would say, “Yes, that makes a lot of sense.” It would correspond with the experience of others in a descriptive way. I can’t claim I am the only one thinking about these matters. I wanted a concept that helps make sense for a whole lot of people in terms of what they are already doing and thinking and saying. Maybe the best way to characterize this is to say that I am trying to engage in an “act of interpretation.” We are all interpreting our lives all the time, the lives of people around us, the events around us, what we see on the news. We are trying all the time to “read” what is going on around us, making sense of it, determining what different events mean for our lives and others. We also want explanations for why things are the way they are. In broad terms that requires an act of interpretation. Science can’t tell us these things; the timelines involved are too long, the scope is too large, and we are dealing with matters of human consciousness and meaning. Once an act of interpretation is put forward then communities gather around it because the interpretation gives purpose and meaning to daily life and work; it defines what is right and good in moral terms; it clarifies choices before us; it sets a direction for life both personally and in community. But that will only happen if the interpretation makes sense to people. So Second-Stage Protestantism represents an act of interpretation that I hope will be shared with very large numbers of people which can help begin conversations about the need for a shift in thinking and working for Protestants. I would like to see a perspective developed which would help people organize their lives and habits of thought and give them a clearer point of view of past, present and future, and therefore be able to act in meaningful, responsible ways.

 

So it is a historical concept?

 

Yes, very much so. As soon as you refer to a “second-stage” for anything that implies there was a “first-stage” and there is a transition between the first and second stage. I believe we are in a transition between a first and second stage Protestantism in the United States today, or, I should say that we are able to so interpret the history of Protestantism. Better yet, to refer to a second stage of Protestantism is a way of deliberating over the calling of Protestantism for the future, what it can be tomorrow, not just what it has been or is today. An act of interpretation always has an implication for the future. It is an act of faith to say that Protestantism can have a future. What we are realistically able to do today to create a future is determined by our honest reckoning with the past. We all live with a sense of historical unfolding in our minds, for our personal or family lives, our communities and certainly as a country. It is people who have a history. Theology has been too focused on the individual in contemporary times but individuals have short life spans. Individuals find meaning only in relation to others over time, in relation to their identity with others as a people. So I want to talk about the Protestant People of God with a history from which we gain meaning and confidence to turn and face the future. To retrieve history stories are told which incorporate individuals into an identity as the people of God. We need to think in broad strokes of history, not just narrowly in terms of one thing following another. The 9/11 event has become a defining moment in the history of the United States that we are still trying to understand in terms of its meaning for the future. The first stage of Protestantism is a way to broadly define the most important influence in the development of western civilization over the past 500 years and particularly the United States over the past 200 years or so. Protestantism is an old church in a young country. Protestantism has built this country. Now, to refer to a Second Stage is to suggest some very big changes, 500 year changes.

 

Has Protestantism really had that much influence?

 

I think so, though many people today don’t realize it. The most basic ways that people in this country think and feel today, and how they determine right from wrong and good from bad, come out of the period of the Reformation. I realize that is a big generalization, very big, indeed, but I would like to work with it for a time to see how much support I can develop for it in my own thinking and listening to others. But I do not mean by this that the United States is a “Christian country” in the way some on the religious right believe. What I want to say rather is that Protestantism is responsible for the United States as it is, a secular society, today! We in the Protestant churches as we trace our own history back to the Reformation can become aware of ourselves as a “people of God in history” with certain responsibilities for how we have acted. This is how our scriptures speak in the Hebrew bible. It is first-stage Protestantism that created much of the contemporary world; it provided the basic insights, impulses, and context for modern society and modern institutions. Even if a person will not accept that Protestantism was “the” most important force in the creation of modern society (about which philosophers, historians, economists may carry on strong debate), still the Reformation certainly set the stage for modernity and we Protestants must accept at least a major element of responsibility for the way things are today. We taught modern, secular people how to think and talk and act. The secular world is our creation.

 

For many that would seem to be an astonishing claim; what proof do you have?

 

Secular society had to come from some place. It is more true to say that Protestantism created it than to say it emerged out of nothing. Philosophers have tried to trace the origins of the modern notion of individual subjectivity. They go back to Immanuel Kant, or to Rene Descartes, but most recently some are suggesting it was Saint Augustine in the 4th century who displays this focus in his book of personal confessions. And Martin Luther, of course, was an Augustinian monk in Germany in the 16th century who was at the center of the Reformation. I don’t care as much whether people outside the church would accept the idea that secular society is a product of Protestantism. I do care that we Protestants would adopt such an interpretation in our understanding of ourselves. If we believe that God acts in history and that God acts through his people in history then we can identify ourselves with this movement of Protestantism and take responsibility for it. I believe doing so is particularly important for us today. We need a better understanding of ourselves as Protestants, and we need to evaluate what we have been doing in history according to some understanding of what God intends for us communally in the current moment. Protestants need a corporate identity, to think of themselves as a “people of God.” But even non-religious persons may be interested to know the degree to which modern society is the creation of Protestantism. Protestantism turned the focus of religion from an abstract, spiritualized eternity to the real, material world, the actually-existing world in which people live each day. In that way it turned attention to how people are to live in this world. This later had made effects in political and economic thought. Take the common belief in the free market. When Adam Smith put that idea into his book The Wealth of Nations in 1776, he was, according to the economic historian Jacob Viner, incorporating the previous religious idea of the providence of God into his economic theory. It is an article of faith today in business communities that government should leave economics alone and let the “natural” force of the free market guide and direct economic activity. Economic institutions don’t need government according to this belief; the best result will obtain if economic actors don’t have any formal rules within which they have to function since the free market will guide them. This is, indeed, a highly mystical idea taken over from Protestant faith in the providence of God. We have forgotten, of course, that Adam Smith was a moral philosopher; he believed the free market was possible because business decision-makers would make moral decisions because they existed within a community that believed in an objective moral order. Business institutions today have become large corporations which do not include in the calculations of profit the social and environmental costs of their decisions. They are in this sense “immoral” as Reinhold Neibuhr understood in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society. The free market is, then, a secularized idea of divine power and has tremendous influence in justifying the actions of modern business institutions and the owners of capital. Theologically, of course, God is the only source for the ultimate justification of human beings and their actions; the free market notion is a way business claims to justify itself without recourse to God or any other source of moral thought. But this is but one “proof” of the relation of modern society to Protestantism; there are many more illustrations, especially the notions of individualism, rationality, and vocation, Protestant ideas that still underlie the way people think and believe today. The Puritan notion of rational calculation and labor to demonstrate one’s predestined election lies behind modern business rationality, as Max Weber argued in his famous book on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This is a key matter to explore further. And it is important to realize that all the religious debates we have today among Christians in this country were started in the Reformation period; we are still debating a lot of the same things. It’s time to get beyond that because there are much more serious challenges before us now, as a country and world, other than minor points of religious doctrine. Another god, the god of the free market, is now the dominating ideology of the nation justifying immense institutional power of business institutions in the United States, and now also all across the globe. This is also the god of revivalists and others on the religious right who are really religious modernists creating a commercialized form of Christianity. We now know clearly that the market god which modern business has created is not the one true God of historic, orthodox Protestantism.

 

Why did you use the word “Protestant” in your organizing concept?

 

It is a common word just hanging out there without much definition in the minds of most people. Therefore it is available to build new content into it. There is no church with the official title of Protestant; it has been a category word, a term by which to label any Christian church that was not Roman Catholic. But that is one of the reasons, too, that I chose to use the term. What we have seen since the Reformation is one Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations. In this country we have also seen the invention of whole new denominations and/or religions, which are not really Christian, such as the Morman church. I would include many of the groups associated with the religious right in that characterization as well; many of them are modern American social inventions that claim to be Christian but really are heresies which do not believe nor worship according to historic orthodox Christian faith. Or, they place such complete emphasis on particular elements that they distort the whole. One of the functions of the word “Protestant” could be to look at the larger history, before the establishment of the United States, to try to clarify the true meaning of Christian faith in terms of its heritage, its own orthodoxy. Many claim to be “orthodox” today who are not actually rooted in Protestant history. People will have many views on how to define Protestantism and I hope we can have much good discussion theologically. But it is time to reject the idea that Protestant can mean anything one wants; we need to associate it with historic Christian faith. We have to find a better way to refer to the historical Protestant denominations than the term “mainline churches”. It is these churches primarily to which I want to associate the term Second-Stage Protestantism including Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Lutherans, American Baptists and others. These are the churches which I believe should begin to think of themselves as having a common history, a common witness, a common theological understanding of the mission of the church in the world today. And that is happening in many ways already. My own church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has officially adopted new relationships with these other bodies. To call for a “Second-Stage Protestantism” is to say that Protestantism should continue into the definable future, that it has a distinct calling to address the massive challenges facing our world today, that it should solidify itself as a distinct churchly identity over-against both the religious right and the Roman Catholics. This is one of the things I mean by an organizing concept with a point of view with an attitude. We need more theological clarity and moral urgency about the need for Protestant worship, witness, and mission in the world today.

 

So Protestantism should be opposed to Roman Catholics?

 

Opposed is the wrong word; Protestants need to distinguish themselves from the Roman Church, not as separate groups only, but as a more organized entity with a clear identity. For the last few decades Protestants have allowed themselves to hope for a reunion of the church. Vatican II in the early 1960s was an historic event in Christianity. The Roman church opened itself to Protestant bodies, rejected its claim to be the exclusive source of salvation, and created great excitement in the church about the possibilities for reunion of the churches. Martin Luther never wanted to leave the church; he was forced out; he never wanted a denomination named after him, but others referred to his followers as Lutherans and the name just stuck. After Vatican II many Lutheran theologians began to think and write in more ecumenical terms, in a sense preparing Lutherans for a time of possible return to the Roman fold. Many pastors called themselves “evangelical Catholics” and a Center for Evangelical and Catholic Theology was created by two theologians, Carl Braaten and Robert Jensen. But those hopes have been dashed by actions of the papacy in relation to the role of women in the church, various moral issues, and continuing commitment to an authoritarian church structure modeled on the ancient Roman empire. A great deal of energy and talent among Protestants has been spent on ecumenicity with Rome; now I believe that energy and talent should be turned to building up a clear identity for Protestantism, to creating a Second-Stage Protestantism focused not so much on internal church matters but on the absolutely urgent issues of clear public witness as well as justice and peace and sustainable environment in the world today. This is what motivated the ecumenical movement in the past. That movement, such as in the National Council of Churches, seems to have stalled in recent years as efforts have been made to create one church body or reach out to Roman Catholics. We need today to return the ecumenical movement to its previous purpose, working for justice and peace, but also for public witness clearly grounded in the historic faith of the church. Now, there are many, many people and resources within the Catholic Church which focus on these matters and with them we Protestants can affirm alliances. So I am not so much “opposed” to Roman Catholics as much as I am for building a strong Protestant identity. But we need to build a Protestant identity clearly different from the religious right in this country.

 

Is the religious right an expression of true Christianity?

 

I believe we must now answer “no” to that question. One of the reasons for a focus on “Protestantism” is because I am thinking primarily in the context of the church in the United States. Protestantism created the secular society of this country. Roman Catholicism had more influence in Latin America. But Protestants must accept responsibility for much of what we understand as modern society and culture in the United States. And, indeed, most of the mainline churches are today questioning many central aspects of our society, exercising that responsibility, in a way very different from the religious right. These churches recognize that the church of Jesus Christ is finally a church of all nations, not one nation; these churches have a world perspective and work together with the church in other countries in the World Council of Churches. But the religious right is made up of sects and groups which promote what must be called a “religious nationalism” which views the United States as a divine agent of salvation. The religious right has forsaken the one true God who created heaven and earth; it now worships a nationalistic idol, at least in its primary emphasis in this country along with what it calls the religious marketplace. The religious right is commercialized religion. So the religious right must be called what it is, a heresy, a false teaching, something to vigorously oppose. So in my mind, for simplicity purposes since we all need some simple distinctions to guide our thoughts and behavior, I think it best to think in terms of two parallel understandings of true Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church. Sometime in the future we may hope for a reconciliation between the two. But those claiming to represent Christian faith who practice the beliefs of the religious right are not legitimate expressions of that faith. It is, of course, necessary to talk much more about what those beliefs are. So I intend to write more about it and encourage others to do so also. And I would hope ways could be found to reach out to leaders and people of the religious right and help them turn away from their false beliefs.

 

Isn’t heresy too strong a word to use against people calling themselves Christian?

 

I am not interested in burning people at the stake for their beliefs. However, I do believe it is very necessary for Protestants to develop new ways to hold themselves accountable for faith and doctrine. Many of the so-called non-denominational groups were explicitly formed over-against doctrinal accountability making the claim, essentially, that they have a right to believe anything they want. Now, religious freedom is a right guaranteed in the constitution but the church is not the state. The Protestant Church today needs to witness to its core doctrinal understandings so that it can more clearly define itself as well as clearly oppose false preaching and teaching of the gospel. This is happening to some degree all the time but we need new institutional means to bring Protestants together. Internal discipline is one strength of the Catholic Church. Protestants would need to do this in a more conciliar process. That’s the direction I think we should be going and as soon as possible.

 

Why is a Protestant identity so important to you?

 

The motivation is not for the sake of the church itself. It is for the sake of the world, a world, Christians historically have confessed, that God loves. We as a nation and world really do face some horrendous issues now and in the near future. It’s no wonder that movies and television are displaying so many end-of-the-world themes. Name almost any single issue, war, security, education, health care, family wage, moral responsibility, crime, world poverty, population growth, energy supplies, global warming, environmental pollution; each of these have been problems, but now they are massive problems each threatening the lives of millions or billions of people. Some on the right  are literally calling for a holy war between Christianity and Islam and already preparing for it and actually looking forward to it. Despite these giant issues the political and governing process in this country cannot handle them and appears itself to be breaking down; politicians get elected not on the basis of telling the truth but on the basis of which candidate can most effectively sell propaganda and manipulate the minds of people in television ads. Polls indicate that in general the American people have nearly completely lost faith in public institutions, especially congress, which is supposed to be the elected representatives of the people. Something has gone completely and terribly wrong with politics in our time and there is no consensus developing about what is at fault. One of the culprits is the religious right which has skewed the electoral process so badly that politicians can avoid talking about real issues and get elected on the basis of symbolic religious issues they can do little about, since they are mostly legal issues before the court, or would solve nothing even if adopted, such as prayer in public schools and placing ten commandments on county courthouse walls. In the midst of this breakdown of the political process and the prospects for holy global war I look around and ask, who can do anything about any of this? What institution or group of people, what movement or association, what way of thinking and organizing can have any influence on these matters? The answer is Second-Stage Protestantism in the form of real faithful people and pastors in local congregations in cities and towns throughout the nation. These are people who work in business, government, in the professions, in nonprofit organizations in local communities across the country.  These are people who every Sunday are brought together in the power of the Spirit to experience themselves as the people of God through celebration of the historic liturgies of the church. Maybe these people can do something.

 

But these mainline churches are declining are they not?

 

Yes and no. Many of them are doing just what needs to be done according to how I think about Second-Stage Protestantism. There are local councils of churches all over, pastors of different denominations come together to study together and find ways to cooperate in various programs. Yes, over-all the mainlines are declining in membership while the groups associated with the religious right are increasing. That’s the perception, it needs more study to see what’s really going on in any particular place. The public media in general gives much more credibility to the religious right than it deserves in terms of numbers of adherents. The so-called growing churches are those which no longer preach the historic faith but are modernist, American, religious inventions. In that sense they represent a country which is rejecting orthodox Christian faith. And it is possible to speak about how Protestant congregations who are declining can be turned around; it is possible for pastors to reconceptualize their ministry in terms of making a turn toward new ways to engage in worship, learning and mission. In fact, I think it important to speak of a major type of turning, a kind of repentance, a turning away from the first-stage to the second-stage of Protestantism, a turn from what for many is merely private faith to public responsibility. As this is done there will be many, many new people who will attracted into the Protestant churches.

 

What more can you say about this idea of “turning”?

 

One of the benefits of the notion of Second-Stage Protestantism is that it raises the very issue of what needs to change from the first to the second stage; it stimulates ideas and conversation. I will be thinking much more about this and encourage others to do so also. What it means is, in a sense, to ask the question “What does repentance look like today?” If Protestantism built secular culture what does it mean to turn it in a new direction? What are the problems with current society and culture and politics? Such questions should be asked not in simplistic, naïve ways, but seriously and honestly looking at the most difficult psychological and institutional issues in our time. Our very way of life in this country is no longer viable, sustainable, legitimate; the future simply cannot be more of what already is. A tremendous shift is necessary in how we think and talk and act on a daily basis, in how we organize our lives within communities, in human settlement patterns across the earth, in how we use energy for transportation and industry. We have to fundamentally re-evaluate the role of the United States in relation to other countries. We have to re-examine the power of major corporations and ask serious questions about the ideologies people believe about how the world works. Such a great change is necessary that only people of deep faith are capable of doing so, people who leave the world from time to time to go to a holy place where they hear a different kind of talk than they hear in the world, people who are in touch with a source of transcendence other than the sources of legitimacy in first-stage Protestantism and its related Enlightenment institutions. I believe there are thousands, millions, of people out there who have already made or begun to make major changes in the way they think about their faith and their responsibility for the future. It is a matter of affirming and organizing folks and inviting others, building Second-Stage Protestantism through the power of the Spirit.

 

You seem to be saying the religious right is the problem and the mainline churches are the solution?

 

After the Reformation in Europe there were decades of religious wars, literal fighting wars, caused by religious division as well as competition among emerging modern nations. The United States was formed as a constitutional democracy and explicitly left out any reference to God in the constitution. Thomas Jefferson had referred to “laws of nature and nature’s God” in his Declaration of Independence in 1776 but even that deistic way to speak of God was left out of the constitution when it was adopted in 1789. The founders wanted to make sure that religious wars were a thing of the past. Now in our time the religious right has committed itself to religious war; it wants to literally put into the constitution language indicating the United States is a nation under God as defined by the Christian right. Military images of war and violence are the central metaphors used in many of these religious right congregations. Most non-church folks of a more civil and liberal persuasion are not aware of how far this has proceeded, how many congresspersons are even now visibly associated with the religious right. Religious nationalism, whether in the form of Islamic or Christian fundamentalism, is a very real and dangerous force within the world today. So, yes, I think a Second-Stage Protestantism should begin explicitly to publicly address the religious right, to establish deliberative processes by which to hold them accountable for their views, to declare their views as inconsistent with historic Christian faith. We should no longer tolerate such extreme views to go under the name of Christianity.

 

Who would listen to this? The media doesn’t cover mainline churches.

 

Media coverage is a very large issue, and one of the most significant reasons why we need to begin thinking in terms of a single Protestant identity. Each of the mainline churches, of course, can communicate with their members; each of them in various ways are trying to make clear that the religious right does not represent their views. That effort could be made vastly more effective if Protestants combined their efforts into a single voice. Imagine a single weekly newspaper sent into the home of every Protestant in the country! And/or, a single website. Protestants need to get into the news business in a big way. And a single Protestant news source would also help address the problem of media coverage. The large national media are not going to cover the actions and statements of individual church bodies. It takes too much work on the part of reporters to determine what is the Methodist view on an issue, or the Lutheran view, or the Episcopal view. We just have to face that fact. And we don’t have the luxury of being able to think that they, the media reporters, are going to know what we think; we will be defined by them in unhelpful ways unless they are given reason to think otherwise. We must, we just must as Protestants, seriously work to establish significant new ways and institutional means to put before the American people through the secular media a clear definition of Protestant public witness. The Protestant bishops could do this.

 

Are you proposing something like the Conference of Catholic Bishops?

 

Yes, that is one model, for Protestants. But it should have a focus on communicating through various media to denominational members but also to the general public. We have to get smart about these matters. Communication follows power. There has been a centralizing effect in modern communications. The national media are fixated on the presidency; what the president says gets covered no matter what. Everyone is interested, coverage is broad, an agenda is created, a mood or atmosphere or ethos is established. The religious right gets coverage because it is provocative and it has demonstrated political power. The mainline churches simply will not be heard in this culture until they come together to present a compelling argument in public, a coherent Protestant voice. It would be necessary to be savvy about the media but I am not talking here just about creating better public relations capability, though technical/institutional strategy is important. I am talking about the need for focused attention on real theological substance through the media. And we would have to deal with the stereotypical notions the media already have of the mainlines, that they are too liberal and couldn’t speak with one voice, that the leaders don’t represent the followers, that they are too diverse to be able to agree on important matters. I do think we need a brand new group, with the name Protestant in the title. The National Council of Churches does much important and good work and could continue to administer many of its current programs. But the publicity functions should be moved to a brand new entity for media purposes that is not associated with the NCC history. One NCC leader recently on a television talk show actually brought up the 1960s to prove a point and stepped right into the talking points of his opponents. Politics for the last thirty five years has been characterized by backlash against the sixties; we have to develop intentional ways to deal with that and get beyond it. To make any of this work we should not rely on a representative process like the NCC; the Protestant Bishops themselves should be sitting at the table. That’s what would focus attention of both the churches and the media. Again, communication follows power. Protestant Bishops could get this done.

 

What theological substance are you talking about? Where would you start?

 

Well, just imagine a five-day Protestant Bishop’s Convocation on Current Theological Heresies where the focus is on the questions of inerrancy of scripture (a “modern” view of scripture), religious nationalism (salvation through national glory or military power), and end times apocalyptic (including Christian Zionism). It would not be necessary to even vote on heresy statements, just raising questions could lead to much public discussion. In the process of dealing with these issues, of course, the positive Protestant theological contributions to these questions could be presented so the public could hear alternative ways to understand Christian faith. Right now, for example, most non-church people think the bible is a tool to pound people on the head for moral depravity rather than the source of revelation about a loving and graceful God. Most of the theological work has already been done; what we haven’t done is give our best theologians a platform for public learning either within or without the church. Imagine another five-day session on Jesus. We know more about Jesus today than most previous generations. The bible itself presents a diversity of views of Jesus, four different gospels plus another view from the Apostle Paul. The Jesus Seminar has demonstrated that people really are interested in Jesus; we don’t have to accept its methods, the narrow definitions of historical truth that are sometimes employed, to benefit from the results of Jesus research. The mission of Jesus constitutes the primary model for the mission of the church in communities today so it would be especially helpful to pastors and congregations to focus on Jesus. I could list many more themes of theological substance for such sessions, such as the crucial question of science and faith. And through technology hookups there could be hundreds of regional and local gatherings connected to the convocations, or whatever they would be called.

 

It seems you want more teaching authority in the Protestant church?

 

The Protestant Bishops should be doing what bishops historically have done, teach the church. Nothing is more important today. And in the process they would be calling into account those Americanized versions of Christianity now so prevalent. They would also be energizing pastors and members in Protestant congregations. They would get people reading and debating theology, how to believe in Jesus faithfully today, how to be responsible for the future of the world God loves. They would excite interest among the non-churched in these significant matters bringing new members into our churches. We do need more teaching authority in Protestantism. The first-stage of Protestantism was in many ways a splintering movement; Protestants debated and differed and formed all sorts of small church bodies, especially among the Baptists. The focus has been on church polity, the form of decision-making, with an emphasis on congregationalism. Issues of authority in Protestantism do, indeed, deserve new careful deliberation. But we don’t have to solve this problem before going forward. The ecumenical movement has been helping us come together. And the times now demand a shift, a change, a strong turning from that first-stage to a new second-stage Protestantism which affirms that the faith of the church is not up for majority vote, the witness of the church is not available to the highest bidder, the gospel is the treasure of the church for the sake of the world and it must be taught faithfully in our time.

 

But there is no one Protestant theology, how can there be a teaching authority when there are so many divergent views among Protestants?

 

I think there is more unity than we might think, especially about what we know we are against. The emergence of the religious right has forced the rest of us to become more clear about the center of Christian faith and witness. We have got to realize that if the mainlines don’t act together then those alien forms of Christianity are going to become even more dominant in the future. Now, it is true that the current political convergence of George Bush’s Republican Party and the religious right may not last much longer; his particular successful outreach to the religious right for electoral purposes is fairly unique. I am not sure any other Republican candidate can succeed as Bush has done. So we may not forever have to face the question of the Republican Party associated with a particular religious expression as we do now. Second-Stage Protestantism is not a partisan-based effort politically; it would seek to challenge both parties for the sake of social and economic justice. But in matters of faith, teaching the historic faith of the church, it is clear that the religious right is a heresy that must be vigorously opposed, and Second-Stage Protestants would take on the task of creating faith expressions necessary to preach the gospel and gather the church in this second-stage of our history. That is, the criteria for our theology would not be so much what we can agree on doctrinally from our traditions; we already agree on the basics. Rather, we are brought together by the task before us; we may need to speak the faith tomorrow in a way quite different from the way we spoke yesterday. We might well find that doctrines of yesterday can be spoken in more common ways tomorrow without in any way sacrificing any significant content of the faith. The early church faced this kind of problem when it created the Apostles Creed. The church is always confronting the interpretive task of speaking the gospel in ways that can be understood in changing cultures. What we especially need to focus on is not doctrine as a set of intellectual propositions hanging out there in abstraction, but on the way the teachings of the church have already been received culturally in contemporary society and how they “work” politically today. Since Protestantism has created secular culture and is now all intertwined with it what we need to do is re-evaluate what it means to stand responsibly before God today, what it means to believe in Jesus as messiah turning away from the sins of the past. Even beginning to speak in this way means opening the future to new possibility. And a great deal of biblical, historical, and systematic theology has already been done on all these matters.

 

Can you give an example of a doctrine and how it has been received?

 

Perhaps the best example is the idea of individual salvation. The Reformation leaders brought the faith “back to earth” so to speak. They turned away from a religious culture focused solely on the idea of getting into heaven. They took seriously the gospel message that God creates the world and wants human beings to love one another. Let me put it this way: Many times members of congregations have come to me and said, “Pastor, I tried to read the bible but cannot understand it.” In the conversation that followed I would usually find out that they were bringing to the bible their own idea of what they would find there. The idea they were bringing is what the modern church, for the most part, but also the culture, has taught them, that Christianity is about an individual obtaining eternal salvation in heaven after death. But when people sit down to read the bible they find very little on that theme, it just isn’t there. So people are confused. When you read the Hebrew bible you see God intimately involved in history; salvation is not an individual matter but is about Israel as the people of God through history; God saves his people as a people not just each separate individual. In the New Testament you hear Jesus talking about the kingdom of God as something occurring here on earth even now, not just after death; salvation has to do with baptism into the church as the continuing people of God in history. So where did the idea of individual salvation come from? The afterlife aspect developed as theology addressed the world-view of ancient philosophy, especially Platonism. The individual aspect came out of the Reformation, or it may be more true to say, as the Reformation has been interpreted from the perspective of modernism. One of the most popular books about Martin Luther is by Roland Bainten called Here I Stand. The image is the single individual, Martin Luther, standing up against the Roman Church. Enlightenment philosophy, constitutional democracy, classic liberalism, all focus on the idea of the free individual. This was made possible by the opening up of the intellectual universe in the Reformation. The cultural idea of the free individual then worked back its influence on religion to create the dominant form of Christian faith in contemporary religious experience, which is an aberration of the actual emphases of Reformation. That is, both Lutheran and Calvinist views in the Reformation period maintained very strong notions of the public church, the corporate nature of the community of faith, salvation as participation in the body of Christ through the means of grace, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is this understanding of church that I want to call “Protestant.” But the so-called “left wing” of the Reformation took a sectarian form, placing itself over-against the “public” church or state, putting emphasis on believer’s baptism, the idea that only adults can be baptized once they make a personal decision. All the many Baptist sects were united in this belief that eternal salvation was a matter of individual decision. In our time the Baptist evangelist Billy Graham made the personal decision for Christ the climax of his crusades. Southern Baptist preachers have made effective use of television along with Pentecostals who also emphasize individual salvation. The “free individual” is the central doctrine of these groups, just as this is the central doctrine of classic liberalism, the two reinforce one another. Revivalism is hyper-active classic liberalism. Salvation is possible not by the grace of an all-merciful God but only when an individual makes a decision, that is the ticket to heaven. We can see now, looking back especially on the last three decades as the religious right composed of mainly Southern Baptists and Pentecostals has become so influential in popular culture that this has become an Americanized form of Christianity and alien to the traditional, orthodox, historic Protestant or Catholic faith. It needs to be mentioned that western constitutional democracy has defined religion as a private matter; John Locke taught that the only function of the church was to help individuals obtain eternal salvation; the Baptist churches have followed this narrow conception of the meaning of the faith in so far as they focus on individual salvation.

 

Are you saying Billy Graham was not preaching true Protestant faith?

 

I know it sounds wrong to many people, but, yes, now, looking back and realizing that the individualistic methods of Graham provide the model for most of the leaders of the religious right that this is an Americanized form of Christianity which has now moved so far away from historic Protestantism that it can no longer be accepted as a valid contemporary witness to orthodox faith. First stage Protestantism has been influenced greatly by this idea of individual salvation. Now, a turning is needed; theology for a Second Stage Protestantism needs to do a lot of work on why this idea is a heresy in the form it has now taken and how to understand and preach the historic Christian witness of salvation through a gracious and merciful God. This will have to do with the ideas of public church and Protestants as the people of God in the world today. Remember that John Calvin never taught that salvation was an individual decision; the focus was on predestination; God chooses the elect. And Martin Luther said clearly that the human will was under bondage, incapable of choosing God; faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit through hearing the living Word of God. To make salvation an individual decision is to make it a human work which is completely against the spirit of the Reformation. We Protestants have to be clear about these matters today; it is going to take great courage. Bishops and pastors must seek to teach Protestant faith to the Protestant Church and this means to distinguish clearly against the false doctrines of the religious right. We need to develop language to do this. For example, I no longer place Billy Graham in the Protestant category, he is a “revivalist” and “revivalism” may be the best term to use for the religious right. Protestant mainline leaders have been hesitant to criticize Billy Graham because he did invite mainline churches to participate in his crusades, against the desires of other revivalists. Just what language to use is one of the big tasks in Second Stage Protestantism.

 

Many people in the mainline Protestant churches endorse what you call revivalist religion. Your views would alienate them and perhaps drive them out of their local congregations?

 

I don’t know what percentage of mainline members may identify with the religious right. I have heard that it may be some thirty percent. I read in Christianity Today magazine an estimate of fifty percent, but that magazine has reason to over-estimate. It is very hard to measure from polling because it is impossible to adequately phrase questions about abstract doctrines and faith attitudes, yet this is an area I want to explore and hope others do as well. The biggest point here, though, is that to the degree these folks are in the mainline churches they are holding us back. I think there are far too many local congregations where a small cadre of extreme conservatives keep the pastor from preaching the true gospel and inhibit peace and justice ministries. We should let those people go if they refuse to affirm a positive new ministry. Bishops should help give pastors courage to clean house if need be. Then we can go about the mission of building the congregation with new energy and vigor. Jesus told the disciples to “shake the dust off your feet” if a local community refuses the gospel; in this case it may mean to shake away those who would inhibit full Protestant ministry. Take the example of a small congregation of say 300 members which hasn’t been able to grow much for years; a few members are vocal extreme conservatives who may be able to get a total of sixty members on their side. Let them all go and you have a congregation of 240 members; develop a new, positive, affirming, outreach program, sponsor progressive educational events, put ads in the local paper about a “turning” at this congregation to focus on ministry for all people, and you will be surprised at how many new people may be drawn to your community. I believe there is a huge untapped mission field out there for progressive Protestant congregations. I also believe, by the way, if bishops and pastors would begin to clearly articulate a positive Protestant theology distinguished from the religious right, with compelling reasons and clear argument, and really go public with it, that many of those who may have some sympathy for the religious right would change their minds and hearts. We simply haven’t been very good at making things clear but we are at the point that if we don’t do it now we may lose Protestantism altogether. It’s important to realize that what the religious right says about the mainline churches is not true, or should not be allowed to be claimed to be true, especially concerning historic doctrinal witness. Some years ago I sat down to systematically watch the television preachers over a period of a couple months. I could not believe the diatribe against the mainline churches. These folks know how to attack and kill their opponents. No longer can we afford to have a tolerant attitude as if any religious belief is as good as another, an attitude still too prevalent among some Protestants. We do have real opponents today and some may be inside our churches; we should not let them control our congregations or church bodies.

 

Your strategy will just send more members to the revivalists wouldn’t it?

 

Maybe in the short term. But this raises a very important fact about the growth of revivalism and what it means for Protestants. First, let me distinguish between the leaders and followers of revivalism. When I criticize the religious right I am especially criticizing its leaders, less its followers. Its growth should be taken as a judgment upon the mainline Protestants. We have not adequately reached out to the constituencies that make up the religious right. I just returned from a visit to a small Michigan city. A friend drove me around the city. I saw a large stone Presbyterian church downtown along with a brick Methodist church and large Lutheran church. In neighborhoods I saw a scattering of smaller Protestant churches, and happened to see no Catholic parishes here. At the edge of town there was an older white, wood-framed “bible church” and further out in a field a new “big-box” revivalist building was being built. I later learned that the Presbyterian church was rapidly declining and was trying to use revivalist methods to try to attract young people but it wasn’t working. I was not in town for a systematic study of the churches, these were just casual observations. But it is the case in most areas around the country that denominations are associated with social and economic class. This is a very large and real issue that must be faced by Second Stage Protestantism. The small Pentecostal churches at the edge of town, or across the tracks, the folks that used to go to the tent meetings that came through rural neighborhoods, these churches have become the big-box, market-based, media-supported, mass-mobilized, commercialized churches full of lower and middle income folks. The lower income and working class are the folks the mainline churches have left behind. We need to fundamentally change that. We need to formulate complete new mission strategies and ways of talking and organizing which can rebuild our congregations including all classes of persons which is the biblical model. The most important part of this is the theological task, clearly preaching the one, true God over-against the false gospels out there.

 

It is the “big-box church” where growth is occurring. Is not this the wave of the future?

 

If Protestants don’t change that may be true. Think about how the big-box shopping malls have destroyed the downtowns of small towns and cities across the country. Now the big-box churches have come and more are coming. Along with the empty storefronts downtown we can see empty downtown churches.  This is a tragedy. Too many of us seem to just accept this. It’s economics. We have become economic determinists. We believe in the “creative destruction” of so-called capitalist development as if the church of Jesus Christ is determined by the forces of the market place. Jesus is for sale and he is being marketed today in the big-box churches more effectively than in the historic churches. Tear down the old and build the new. Too many of us seem to be just accepting this. And it’s not just buildings that we are losing in the process, we are losing the historic witness of Christian faith. We are giving ourselves over to alien beliefs about how the world works. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can take a stance of protest against what seem to be the dominant forces alive today; that’s what Protestants are good at doing, they “protest”. Not only are we losing our downtown and urban churches we are also losing the vitality of community life in many of the smaller cities around the country. We are giving away the power of local communities to maintain themselves and provide for human flourishing just at the time when the redevelopment of local community should be one of the most important national priorities. Local Protestant congregations have been at the center of building local communities and urban neighborhoods all across the country for the last 200 years. They built hospitals, social service agencies, homes for the elderly, supported local schools, created colleges. They encouraged faith in free enterprise and local business development. These congregations created the moral and cultural climate encouraging honesty and fairness in economic relations, responsibility in family life, care for the less fortunate. These Protestant congregations were what I call “public churches”, that is, they took real responsibility for the life of the community around them. The members of these churches were often also leaders in business and local government. People were encouraged to engage in their vocation in the community thereby serving others and building up the life of the community, the life of the secular community, we need to say clearly. All of this is part of what I mean as First Stage Protestantism and it was very good indeed. It didn’t happen because of market forces in some mysterious way, it happened because Protestantism taught people to work, to give of themselves, to share their talents and energies, to build up the life of the community. Now, against all this we see the growth of sectarian big-box revivalism based on faith in a so-called religious marketplace which is an attack on the secular community Protestants have worked so hard to create.

 

You use the term “sectarian” for big-box revivalism. Can you talk more about this?

 

The term comes out of the Reformation period when church-state relations were reconfigured. Protestantism developed two primary forms, Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist). There was no separation of church and state; each prince determined which religion would be followed in his area, Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed. So these were “public churches” in the sense that the church accepted certain responsibilities in relation to the state. But there were other religious groupings not officially related to the state or the state church, these are referred to as “sects” and they were often organized over-against the state and the church. The key characteristic for me is that a sect is separatist, it believes in separating itself from the community around it and more often than not takes a hostile, antagonistic orientation to everyone outside itself. Sometimes sects can be the source of creative ideas helpful to the rest of the community; some of the Reformation sects focused on working for peace, for example. But the style and negativity of these groups can be exactly opposite the public biblical gospel. All through church history, for example, self-appointed prophets have announced the end of the world and gathered a group around themselves to wait for the end when they will be saved and the rest of the world will be destroyed, or some variation on that theme. These false prophets reject public responsibility for the future of the world God loves. This end times hysteria is what is being emphasized in many of the big-box revivalist churches; they preach against so-called secular humanism and public schools, they view themselves over-against others, they have narrowly focused on sexual issues such as abortion and homosexually and found it possible to raise money and politically manipulate and mobilize people on the basis of hatred. Big-box revivalism is the worst form of religious populism. This sectarianism is very different from the biblical model of the people of God. The people of Israel were called to be a blessing to all nations. The coming of Jesus is announced as good news for the whole world. The first thing the church did when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire was to force the emperor to start a massive public welfare program for the poor. The biblical gospel is always a public word, a word about public reality, so a public church is one that is oriented to God’s love of all in all the world. Faith is an internal attitude about external realities, not just about me and my group. So for me the term sectarian means the opposite of public church. That’s the language I think may be helpful as we consider the future of the church today in Second Stage Protestantism. It needs to be based on what Jesus told us to do: love God and neighbor, the neighbor outside of our own household, the neighbor who is different from us. The orthodox tradition is not sectarian.

 

Why has this sectarianism been so successful in gaining adherents?

 

I have already mentioned some factors. Let me list a few reasons more systematically, each of which deserves much more discussion. First, the mainline Protestants became comfortable in serving their class-based constituencies, did not seriously reach out to low income and working people and this left the field to the new Americanized versions of Christianity. These are the very folks who have not enjoyed as many of the benefits of secular society as the mainlines and therefore have a natural hostility to them. To be a mainline member you have had to be a successful middle or upper class family; if you have too many problems you don’t qualify and stop attending church or go someplace else. This has got to change; it is a very big task of Second Stage Protestantism to invent new ways to be the church today, a church for all people. Revivalism has hit a nerve with its emphasis on the family; families are struggling to stay alive today, especially lower and even middle class families. Revivalism is successful because it is addressing real anger and pain in the lives of people and turning them against the dominant upper classes who are viewed as liberals and non-religious. Actually, politically, the religious right organizes lower income folks to vote for the interests of the upper classes, the sectarian religious rhetoric is turned upside down politically. The religious right pastor betrays the class interests of his people. Social class is a critical component for understanding the growth of revivalism in our time. It is a hidden reality we don’t like to talk about even though it is plainly present in everything we think and how we talk all the time. It is also a fundamental reality exposed throughout scripture. Theological work must take into account the class implications of faith language. Much more work is necessary to be able to do so effectively.

 

Second, great investment in and value for higher education on the part of the mainlines has set them apart from the uneducated and this has become a primary social/political dividing line. The more educated people are the more liberal; the less educated the more conservative. The uneducated feel uncomfortable in the educated mainlines. Educated mainline children have tended to leave the church as adults; Protestants have not discovered a theology and piety compelling enough to keep their own children in the church. That’s another huge issue for Second Stage Protestantism. To put it more positively, adults with a Protestant background constitute a tremendous opportunity for outreach and mission.

 

Third, mass marketing through television has created a totally different cultural climate in this country and restructured business into large, nationally-dominant institutions with tremendous power over local business and community. The public consciousness of average persons is just dominated today by television marketing and programs geared to maintain attention. This is new in human history; nowhere before has it been possible for so many to be so controlled by so few. Big-box revivalism fits into this pattern; star preachers build large local followings through television ministries. Mass marketing has given corporations access to the individual minds of our youth, creating a youth culture with its own values and language over-against traditional social institutions; this is another huge factor for Second Stage Protestantism; revivalism uses corporatist techniques to address this youth culture in its own way. Everything is focused on the relation between the “mass” controlling function on the one side and the individual person on the other side, with no emphasis on lateral communications among persons of integrity in local community. Mass-based revivalism manipulates the minds of individuals; no local “church” is necessary or profitable; it is a modernist phenomenon using methods learned from star-based commercial culture and measures itself by how much money is made. So, although in relation to traditional Protestantism the religious right is sectarian it has actually adopted the principles and practices of current commercial culture and that’s why it works. Salvation is for sale. By selling religion sectarianism today has become, ironically, like the Catholic Church against which the Reformation was waged.

 

Fourth, electoral politics is under the control of corporate business and media to such a degree that it can be easily manipulated through strategic advertising for those interests rather than for deliberative democratic processes. Just imagine all the money media corporations get from politicians; it is a total disgrace in a democracy; yet the issue is hardly discussed because, of course, business media control the public agenda. The media helps to build the religious right by giving attention to its hysterical proposals. A political party finds it can get elected by appealing to the religious right, which, in turn, gives religious right leaders a sense of importance and helps build their movement. So politics and the media help create revivalism. They create the national market for religious rhetoric and this market then regulates, or works back upon, all the local franchises, the local expressions of revivalism, coordinates them, creates the language and habits of thought that local preachers need to use to participate in the larger religious market. These folks have created a certain formula for religious talk and organization and even “doctrines” (such as biblical inerrancy) which work for them because there is this national market for sectarianism. This market could go away if primary media and electoral politics ignored these folks but I don’t think that will happen unless mainline Protestantism is able to find its own credible and compelling public voice.

 

Finally, it’s important to realize that sectarianism has a long history in the United States. The issues we face today are not new, there have been major revivalist periods in the past, there has been a constant tension between established public churches at the center of the community and sectarian movements at the edges of society. What may be “new” today is the extent to which these movements from the edges have been able to exert their power at the center, not so much in local communities, except in the South, but certainly at the national level through what we referred to as the national religious marketplace. The revivalists today really do believe in this market concept; it is their god. But I think it can be better explained by what I call “backlash politics.” Revivalism emerges in times of dramatic social change or crises. And there have been several deep and abiding social changes in the past decades: the civil rights movement for blacks and other racial minorities, the women’s equality movement, and changes concerning institutional authority. All of these emerged from the 1960s and have created real change in the status relations among groups of people even in terms of the very language which can or should be used for discussing these matters (the so-called political correctness which conservatives chaff against). White people, men, and those in positions of authority (like the clergy) have lost substantial status and power through these social changes and they have been fighting back; their political expressions constitute a conservative backlash against social change. This is the primary market for current sectarianism. Years ago the book Future Shock was widely discussed; well, that shock has generated substantial reaction. Most northerners do not appreciate the depth of change that the civil rights movement caused in the South. Christian schools began in reaction to school integration and busing students to achieve racial equality. Most of the early revivalist preachers were centered in the South, they preach explicitly against the cultural radicalism of the sixties which they claim pervades secular humanist institutions, but what underlies a good deal of this is subtle and not so subtle racism and sexism. George Will wrote an article a while back in which he said he was so very happy for the sixties; Republicans have been riding the wave of conservative backlash ever since. Most of us probably fail to also appreciate the depth of change represented in the changing role of women in society. It has required great change in the relations of men and women. Revivalism has been able to mobilize people against this change and has latched on to the issue of abortion as a wedge issue to oppose women’s freedom and government programs which support equality for women;  abortion works politically for them and politicians willing to engage in backlash rhetoric. And finally, the question of authority is a crucial issue requiring a great deal of deliberation concerning Second Stage Protestantism. The rebellion against authority of the sixties was a major shock against which there have been very strong movements, primarily, intellectually, in the form of neoconservatism, a school of thought enjoying a great deal of influence in the current administration. Religious right leaders run their congregations in a very authoritarian manner; this movement is not democratic; these folks want to return to traditional authoritarian social structures. Backlash politics thus explains quite a lot about why sectarianism has proved to be so successful during the past decades though to make the point I would have to give much more detail than I have been able to do here. Many of the newer revivalist preachers will claim they are not preaching a racist gospel but there is no question that racist reaction to the black freedom movement is a major explanatory factor in the development of the religious right. The very concept of inerrancy is associated with a religious culture which believed the bible supported slavery and should not be questioned by historical methods. Big-box revivalism is bringing the cultural sensibilities of the South to the rest of the country, in the name of God. It is time for us mainline Protestants to open our eyes to see clearly what is going on.

 

How do you see the future? Will revivalism become the dominant form of Christianity?

 

It already is dominant politically. When is the last time you saw any Protestant mainline spokesperson in a newspaper article or television program? When I talk about the religious right with mainline pastors I too often get a reaction that we don’t have to worry about it. Maybe that is right, maybe the backlash will peter out; backlashes do not represent, after all, the primary underlying social forces of history, there is, still, a sort of primary public ethos in this country which affirms rights for blacks and women. But we have to realize that this “primary public ethos” is in fact something real, it exists, we are in this country one people, one nation, with what is at any one time a general public sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong. Politics is a contest over what that general public sense should be and that in turn tremendously influences what can be preached on Sunday mornings. When people walk through the doors of the church they bring with them the frameworks of thought and language they have received from the media. They interpret things within that framework in the terms by which the debate over issues is occurring publicly. This is a real contest all the time. Second Stage Protestantism must be involved in this contest. We Protestants have not been doing so well. Some of our most exciting theological work has been done within specific groups, such as feminist or womanist theology and black theology, but we need to find better ways by which such theologies can be received within the context of the general public ethos of the nation. We cannot finally separate ourselves into little enclaves of theology that speak only to our own group. Revivalism may well dominate the future if Protestants don’t come together in new ways to present a new way to be the church in the 21st century. It all boils down to how we are going to preach. The future is created by preaching.

 

So what should Protestant pastors be preaching these days?

 

I said earlier that our preaching should directly address the heresies of the religious right. We need to be clear about that. And we need to interpret history, as I have been trying to do some here. Theology is interpretation of history not explication of abstract doctrine. There has never been a time when theology is more important. Biblical preaching will help our hearers “see” what is happening today, just as Jesus tried to help his disciples see what was going on around them in their time. In the gospel of Mark this “seeing” is a very big deal. To know the future one must “see” into present reality; the preacher must expose what is going on the world today through words. That’s all we have, words. We see through words, interpretation, but it must be also as I said, “reality,” not mythologies, not abstractions, not just repeating religious words, but preaching that faces the facts of life right now. That’s what people want. They want to understand their lives right now, what is happening to them, what their purpose is, what meaning there is to their history, the times of their lives. The revivalists are providing this in their end times doctrines based on a false reading of the book of Revelation. The fact that this is so popular should teach us something. People want to understand their lives within the context of a clear historical interpretation. Protestants are not providing this. Our best church historians do history after the model of secular history; what we need are strong theological interpretations of history. To do this we need to understand Protestantism as a “people of God” through time, with a past and with responsibility to forge a future. I would love to see groups of Metropolitan Protestant Pastors around the country coming together to study the history of their metropolitan area, for example, looking at facts and interpreting them theologically, developing specific ways by which to preach into the reality of life in that area, taking responsibility for the whole territory of their ministry; that’s what Jesus did and that’s what we should do. Jesus did not encourage people to leave the world for the sake of some vague spirituality, he walked into the midst of the reality of towns, villages, and finally Jerusalem itself; that was his territory for ministry and he lived his life and died his death in the midst of it. I certainly wish the church historians in our seminaries would consider their primary audience not other academic historians but the people of God in Protestant congregations; we pastors and people need clear and compelling theological interpretations of history. Theologians such as Jurgen Moltman have been doing this but we need much more of it and it needs to get to the parish level more quickly than through generational influence of seminary education. That’s another reason we need the Protestant Bishops, right now, to teach us now, to lead us and help focus on those particular interpretations that illuminate and reveal the nature of things today so pastors can preach into the reality of our times.

 

You seem to be saying that the guidance of the church should be bishops not a religious marketplace?

 

Yes, exactly, exactly. That is, bishops not because they are at the top of an authoritative hierarchy, but because they are real human beings, not mysterious forces guiding everything. The future happens through human decisions. Bishops are responsible for the teaching of the faith and they provide a place in the church to focus the attention of the church. They represent the substance of what we believe. We are talking here about the content of the faith of Christianity, we are talking about acts of faith in God on the part of persons and groups, we are talking about personal and communal faith commitment. We are saying that the church and its preaching and practice must be based on faith in God not on a marketplace where the religious ideas which make the most money become the content of Christianity. The market idea has become a way for the most powerful people and institutions of the country to avoid taking responsibility for their actions and for the future. Protestantism built this country on the idea of personal responsibility for others in community because it is God who is calling us and requiring of us to love the neighbor. It is this faith that must remain at the center of Protestant preaching and practice but it will be so only if bishops make it happen and provide the courageous leadership necessary to influence and teach the whole church. It is only this faith that will make it possible to address the huge changes required now for this technological civilization on global and local levels. Faith in the market god is leading us to disaster for both people and earth. I am not saying that the market as an organizing concept for certain aspects of economic activity is not efficacious; I am saying the market idea has become for many a kind of religion that justifies irresponsibility on a massive scale. Protestantism must now criticize something that it helped to create for the sake of the world God loves. I do not see any other countervailing force to the direction things are going except a strong and vibrant and faith-filled Second Stage Protestantism led by bishops and pastors both on the national and local levels.

 

Haven’t ecumenical groups been questioning the market concept for years now?

 

Yes, and that is exactly why mainline ecumenism does not enjoy popular favor in the contemporary ethos following the end of the Cold War and the apparent victory of capitalism over communism. This is all very difficult to sort out intellectually; it is hard to find the right words by which to helpfully discuss these matters because the words are so emotionally and politically charged at high levels of abstraction, capitalism, socialism, communism, democracy, freedom, militarism, etc. We must try to do so, however, and this is a big part of what I mean by the need for theological historical interpretation. The ecumenical movement on the world level has clearly perceived the problems associated with what is now called globalization. That is because groups like the World Council of Churches have included and given voice to representatives of not only the rich countries but also the poor ones. Mainline Protestant leaders, our most able and faithful observers, have been telling us for a long time about the need to listen to the voices of the powerless on both the global and local levels. They have been influenced by heroes of the faith such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer who spoke out clearly against Hitler’s effort to exterminate racial and sexual minorities. No credible theological work can be done today that does not include serious reflection on what made such a horrendous project possible, including the role of the corporation in the technological modernity of Hitler’s Germany. So I am not saying anything particularly new when I talk about the need to question the power of economic institutions operating under the banner of the market concept and using it to justify extraordinary irresponsibility. We need to tell that history, the story of the Protestant People of God in the 20th century, a story of witness to faith, peace, and justice. Included in that story would be those who have opposed what Protestants have been doing. The fact that Protestants today do not enjoy a strong role in public context is due to systematic attacks on its credibility; there has been a strong reaction against the WCC, NCC, and mainline churches raising issues of economic justice. Though this has come from many sources, there is one person who represents this reaction specifically and may be the one most responsible individual for damaging the social witness of the ecumenical church. His name is Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran now Roman Catholic who is said to be one of the most influential advisors in the current White House; George Bush calls him “Father Richard.” Years ago Neuhaus created an organization through which he attacked the World Council of Churches for including representatives from churches in then Communist countries, for example, and attacked the National Council of Churches for its support of programs of the poor and for liberation movements in Central American countries, claiming that these are “Marxist” programs. The church’s concern for the poor in this country and the world is claimed to be Marxist by people like Neuhaus. Neuhaus has written many books and appears in many ways to be a careful academic observer of issues in faith and politics, but he is actually a political operative calculating how he can align himself with prevailing powers and decided to do so by building his reputation attacking mainline churches and promoting his version of revivalist cold war rhetoric made popular at the time by Ronald Reagan. Anyone critical of American economic foreign policy is considered a communist in this bipolar view of the world. Like others of that period Neuhaus engaged in completely irresponsible McCarthy-like charges of communist sympathizers, playing to the media, which repeated the charges and severely damaged the church. He is now trying to organize a coalition between Catholics and the religious right. Too many Protestants take him too seriously, that’s one reason I am here trying to be as clear as can be that he is an enemy of the Protestant witness and mission in the United States today. We need to have the courage to name our enemies these days and Richard John Neuhaus is one of them. That’s part of what I mean by referring to Second Stage Protestantism as a concept with an attitude. It should be noted that most Catholic Bishops reject the neoconservatism of Neuhaus.

 

The Cold War seems to be crucial to your interpretation of history and church?

 

Indeed, that is certainly true. One cannot understand current configurations of either politics or religion without an understanding of the Cold War, and the period before, World War II, and what happened in Germany between the first and second wars, the Weimar period. The Cold War created the context for contemporary revivalism. All the language and habits of thought come from this. In the 1950s for example the young Billy Graham in Los Angeles stirred up people by announcing that if America did not turn to Christ the atheistic communists in the Soviet Union would send nuclear missiles to destroy New York and Los Angeles. The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst sent a memo to his reporters with the phrase “puff Graham” (write stories praising him) because he thought the evangelist’s message was good for the country. When I said earlier that the media has created the religious right here is a primary example when it literally did so. Graham had calculated that he gets his biggest audiences not from preaching Christ alone but preaching God and country, preaching religious, nationalist populism. This, of course, supported the Cold War nuclear buildup with hysterical religious rhetoric, but it worked to build audiences and bring in dollars. The same formula is used today except that communists have been replaced with liberal secular humanists (and Protestants) as the terrible enemy and now, of course, with the 9/ll event Islam has become the prime target. Billy Graham himself later moderated his message, has criticized the excesses of revivalism, but it is his formula which is still followed by current revivalism. And it is in direct opposition to the witness of the mainline Protestants through this period. Especially the Vietnam War created the context for the current Protestant witness. In 1969 I was hired by an  ecumenical council in Washington D.C. to discuss the Vietnam War with pastor groups in the metropolitan area. I remember telling them that the church needs to help the country face reality about this war (the biblical prophets tried to get people to face the reality of their times), that the war was a big foreign policy mistake and was hurting not only the people of Vietnam but also this country, that the justification that this war was necessary to defeat Communism was not legitimate. This was in general the view of Protestant leaders at the time and most of the mainline churches moved to a position of promoting peace and they have maintained that position since for the most part. This history should also be told. We Protestants as the people of God over the last decades have been witnesses to peace; this is our recent history and heritage and it should be celebrated and affirmed. We have seen beyond the false dichotomies between capitalism and socialism, free nations and communist nations, and looked for other ways for the peoples of the world to live in peace, including promoting important functions for international institutions. End times revivalism views the United Nations literally as evil, “one world government” as a threat to United States as God’s divine agent in history, but Protestants must have the courage to name our own evils and that would include the revivalist formula the religious right has been using to build audiences and bank accounts since the Cold War. It is an evil and a heresy and a terrible threat to the future of this world God loves.

 

Naming evil is not something liberals like to do; can Protestants bring themselves to do this?

 

I do not want to give up on the liberal attitude, it is a gift of Christian faith to the world, it basically means openness to the other, to the one different from myself, to the one other than myself and my group. The one other than myself is of as great value as myself. This is the heart of Christian faith as Jesus teaches, love God and neighbor. It really is simple. We are to worship God, and there we discover God loves the other as well as ourselves, and that we are to love the neighbor, that is, the one outside of our own household, the one different from us and our group. This is our spirituality, not a spirituality leading us to contemplate mysteries in heaven but a social spirituality that directs our attention to concrete neighbors, real people in real places. Salvation occurs now, not someday, it happens in love of God and neighbor; we are “saved” by the neighbor actually, at least that’s what Jesus says in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Salvation is a social, relational experience. Current theological work on God as Trinity is helping return us to the social nature of participation with God in community. It’s impossible not to get this sense when we read about Jesus going about his life in his place. The religious right does not preach this gospel, has no sense of social spirituality, it rather in a bipolar manner separates people on the basis of who is going to heaven and who is going to hell, a minor theme in the bible; they view themselves as the elect God loves over against others and all those others are destined for hell; this is a complete perversion of classic Calvinism which directed believers to go and build up the life of the community for all (Calvin actually tried to do that with biblical principles in Geneva, Switzerland). Consider that all groups naturally, sociologically, tend to separate themselves from others and view the in-group as good and the out-group as bad, “we” versus “they”. Jesus completely turns that around in his preaching. That’s why the church is not a “natural” community, but one created by the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ through preaching the gospel. We are to love God and the neighbor, the one outside of our group is the one to whom we are to act in a loving, life-giving manner, restoring all to life in the public community through healing and casting out of demons. Evil is that which threatens the life God gives, now and in the future; evil is that which separates people from their competence and power to be able to live within the world God created for justice and mercy; evil is the use of others for one’s own power, benefit, or privilege. (Just read about Jesus to affirm this view of evil.) Now, this understanding goes way beyond classic liberal tolerance. We are not to just tolerate the neighbor, but love him or her or them. Everything I am trying to say about Second Stage Protestantism has to do with how we as the church may be able to love the neighbor in our times. But let me try to say clearly here that we get this motivation from the gospel, from the faith of the church, from our history, from real and honest preaching. We do not get this from liberal constitutional democracy. The church is not the state. The church has its own way of talking within itself. It does not get its motivation from the first amendment to the constitution in this country. Sometimes “liberal churches” conceive of themselves as open to all other alien religious voices and talk as if all religious views are equally of value and that we should be tolerant of everyone and every view. Yes, the first amendment says everyone has a right to worship as they please. But that does not mean every religion is right, that every god is as good as another. Protestants must not give up the very source of what makes us who we are, otherwise we lose the content of our own confession and thus the spirit and energy that makes us the church of Jesus Christ in the first place, a church for others, as Bonhoeffer says. I believe the first amendment and separation of church and state are critically important for the life of civil society but the church is not the state, the church lives from its own faith. The idea of tolerance is important for civil society, it is not enough for the church. We are to love the other, even love the enemy, and that means being able to define evil, that which is hurting the other God loves as much as us. Protestantism helped create modern liberal constitutional democracy, but is not defined by it. Constitutional democracy itself is now in crisis in this country and the future is very uncertain; it is still a question whether the democratic experiment will be successful. We should not be tolerant of forces, such as revivalism, that would destroy liberal tolerance in civil society. But to address these and other equally important issues we as Protestants now have to turn, develop new habits of thought beyond liberalism, anchor ourselves in the faith of the church, so that we can with clear eyes and hearts of love create a new way to be a responsible public church in our time, to be a messiah church.

 

What specifically would you name as current evils?

 

Let me answer by going to the heart of the theological task and that is by asking who is God, what does this word mean? In the bible God is revealed as a holy and righteous God who requires justice in the world. It is God who is the final source of justification of us as human beings, of our actions in relation to ourselves and others. The word “justification” here is the big word, for Lutherans but also for all Protestants. Both Luther and Calvin had strong concepts of the holy and righteous God. It is only God who can ultimately justify us. This is the important clue to evil. Any other principality or power, any other idea or institution or person or nation which claims to be the source of ultimate justification is thus a candidate for a false God and thus evil because it opposes God and God’s righteousness. In moral philosophy the term justification is used to refer to the ground or basis for any particular moral teaching or action. For theology God is the source of justification of human action and nothing else. It is Protestants who have since the Reformation been that church which taught its people that each stands before God responsible for their action within the world. Roman Catholicism has relied more on itself as an institutional power capable of defining law, cannon law, governing the lives of its people. Protestants make ethics much more difficult; we do not have the same access to natural or canon law but stand directly before a God who requires that we do what is right and good at the present moment. It is this “terrified conscience” which has been one characteristic of Protestantism, most carefully described by the philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century as the liberal state was developing in Denmark, and which we should not dismiss today in any quest for easy and comfortable spirituality. What emerged in the modern world is all sorts of other ways to justify action, particularly ideologies and corresponding powerful institutions, which have for many become other gods. We must face the reality of these other gods, not try to relieve ourselves from the requirement to choose which God we are going to serve. The one most important reality we must face today is, as we have already mentioned, the idea of the market and the modern business institution. I do not want to debate economic philosophies in the abstract. I want to point to the overwhelming and massive institutional power that is exercised today on both local community and global levels by modern business enterprise. Economic philosophy has moved beyond mere theory, it has become a religious means to justify human action on a massive scale, and a means to avoid standing before the one true God who requires justice in human affairs. These business institutions have been created by Protestantism and now Protestantism must evaluate what it has wrought. For modern business institutions now claim they are autonomous from any moral constraint other than their own calculations of profit; they claim they are autonomous from any form of government and are, indeed, currently, trying to create a world context where they themselves set the only rules necessary for their behavior rather than a world governing body determined through democratic process. This economic  ideology by which these modern business institutions are trying to justify themselves is my own primary candidate for the term “evil” in our time for these institutions are now threatening the very life of the planet and with it the lives of all people. A very good thing, capitalist institutions as a means of creating wealth and a middle class, has become something that is working against God’s will for the future, something that serves only itself and is trying to convince everyone that only it is the source of goodness and salvation. Everything is subsumed to the god of economic growth and expansion of capital investment without care for the poor or the capacity of the physical environment to sustain human life. They engage not only in material but also cultural production; they now are the primary force for creating cultural identity through media domination; they have tremendous influence over the family and morality and children and teenagers; they now have come to entirely dominant electoral process and have turned government into an agent for their own interests, even in terms of vast military superiority in order to protect the investments of the wealthy, killing for greed, maintaining social order to make money no matter who is damaged in the process and putting vast numbers of people into prison in this country. I don’t think these powerful institutions will change their ways by themselves. It is going to take responsible persons and professionals within them as well as organized forces beyond them to hold economic institutions accountable for their actions. That is a primary mission for Second Stage Protestantism.

 

So evil is that which is opposed to responsible, ethical action before God?

 

Yes, that is one way to put it. I am always concerned when I hear politicians use the word evil. It is not a word that should be used in political discourse. It is a religious or theological term. Any pastor or theologian is going to be very careful about how to interpret the term in the context of any particular period of history. The religious right trivializes evil by associating it with a devil nobody believes in; but evils are very real today. Jesus associates demons with “legion”, with the many, with a Roman military group, and that gives us a good hint about defining evil. It is best associated with “mob spirit,” the power of the mob takes over our minds and leads us to do things we would not otherwise morally do. Think of the lynch mob in which white people feel they are justified in killing a black person if that black person has violated a white woman; a “spirit” takes over the mob so they are not even interested in facts or true justice; the mob acts in revenge for the alleged violation. Notice here that certain ideas about what makes for justice in sexual racial relations are associated with this mob spirit. The spirit tempts each individual; each individual in the mob gives in to the mob spirit, allows the evil of the mob spirit into their minds. Each individual is not evil, but they allow evil to control their actions, which is sin. Sin is allowing evil into our minds. When a president uses the term evil in political rhetoric it has the effect of creating a mob spirit, that the nation as mob is justified in killing others because they are evil; this is very dangerous talk because it is using the terminology of evil to create what is the true evil, mob spirit, or in this case extreme, unreflective nationalism engaging in holy war. This in turn can lead the nation to do things that are very wrong and hurtful to itself; any military commander knows how important it is to have a very clear and rational understanding of the enemy, to respect the enemy, to engage in very deliberative actions in how to address the enemy, and all this is opposite of mob spirit. So any politician willing to use the term evil should be suspect, including Ronald Reagan when he referred to the Soviet Union as the evil empire and George W. Bush when he refers to Islamic fundamentalists as evil-doers. Mob spirits that justify immoral actions are evil. Both extreme nationalism and current economic mythologies qualify as kinds of mob spirit. In fact, the primary social form of the religious right, the large assembly whipped up into a frenzy with music and belligerent preaching is a form of mob spirit in my mind; it is not encouraging careful spiritual formation of each individual person; it is controlling the minds of persons for the benefit of the leaders; it helps justify irrational beliefs and immoral actions. Such assemblies do not reflect the People of God at worship; they are designed to raise as much money as possible just like any other corporation without regard to morality and justice. One of the best resources for interpreting these matters is Soren Kierkegaard. Toward the end of his life he wrote biting criticism of the church because it was acting like a “herd” of pigs, a mob of unthinking individuals, a social construction for beginning middle class conventionality. He wanted the church to be the place where each individual comes to see that he or she stands before the one true God and is responsible for his or her actions in the world. The Protestant People of God are individually responsible before God as they go into the world to serve others; this is the historic Protestant teaching from both Martin Luther and John Calvin. But this understanding of the responsible individual doesn’t just happen naturally, it happens within the context of the worship of the Protestant People of God. Economic mythologies teach “the market makes me do it” and is the opposite of moral responsibility before God. Jesus says it perfectly and clearly, you cannot serve God and mammon.

 

Economic ideology, what you call mythology, is the most powerful factor in society today?

 

Yes, I talked earlier about “facing reality.” Jesus faced reality. If we ask what evils put Jesus on the cross we should not answer with abstract spiritual forces off in some other world; he was killed by two institutional realities, the Jerusalem temple and the Roman Empire each with their own ideologies. Just read the bible, it’s all there. A true biblical theology will help us understand ourselves in relation to the most dominant realities of our own time and that is economic institutions following a particular economic mythology. The religious right screens out economic factors from its analysis of modern social/cultural problems and in doing so fails to see the reality of what is happening in the world today; that’s why its various proposals for political change cannot address the real problems facing families and young people. It is mainline Protestants who have been looking at the realities of economic systems for some time and trying to develop ways by which to witness to a God of justice in relation to them. Their views are generally critical these days and that’s why their voices are not heard in the public media. The project of Second Stage Protestantism is an effort to work much more on these matters and develop new ways to make a difference. This needs to be based on resurrection faith; finally institutional evil does not prevail; there is a greater power made real in the world through the resurrection of Jesus.

 

What do bishops and pastors know about economics?

 

The various Protestant denominations have formulated social statements on economic issues and these are important sources for further study and deliberation within the church at all levels. There are a great number of organizations inspired by Protestant faith working on the issue of economic justice globally and locally, just think of Bread for the World. The World Council of Churches has been carefully studying these matters for some time now. The economic system is not just hurting the poor; it dominates the lives of all; it is destroying local communities; it is making everyone dependent on highly centralized technological systems which it controls. I would like here to mention that it is pastors, local pastors of congregations, who as a group represent a tremendous resource for research on economic issues. Protestant pastors still visit their members, they are in the homes of real people, they hear about the lives of their people in concrete detail; they are not just dealing with mass audiences like religious right movie stars. In the lives of their people pastors see the wreckage of current economic dominance of society and culture. I will here mention just one thing, time. The time of people’s lives is nearly completely dominated today by activity serving the economic gods, work (many people need two or three jobs to make ends meet), going to stores (shop till you drop), watching television the content of which is determined by economic institutions. Very little time is spent related to government or democratic process or volunteer work or even involvement in family life in terms of actual discussion or social engagement or culture creation. If there is one thing I hear from people as a pastor it is the phrase, “I don’t have enough time.” The more machines we buy to “save time” the more we have to spend the time of our lives maintaining the machines, keeping them running, keeping the economic machine going. In fact, we are now living our lives within this huge economic technological machine as postmodern philosophers are telling us, a machine that at any moment may crash, may break, so we live internally with a sense of panic, pushed forward at breakneck speed, utterly and fully dependent on systems and forces beyond our control. The machine pounds us and pushes us and drives us and finally is killing us. The so-called “American way of life” is so machine-based, so energy-based, that it is not good for our own human flourishing and also threatens the future of the earth itself. Each home is hooked up to the machine in several ways and things are designed so every household regularly sends in the checks to those in control. Each household is dependent on the centralized system and that’s how those in charge want it; they want everyone dependent on them. They don’t want to look at alternatives. Second Stage Protestantism is a way to talk about the fact that we really need to find new, alternative, fundamental ways of being human and being human communities, new ways of “being” itself. We need to find ways to reconceive for ourselves and those we love “the times of our lives.” To do this we must talk about these matters in all sorts of venues; we must put words on our experiences, words that reflect the realities of our lives, words that acknowledge the pain we are experiencing together, not the mythologies coming out of economic theories and beliefs. Economics is a modern discipline; its theories have been around only for a couple hundred years now. It has created its own mythologies about human nature and how the world works. It is economic talk that is mythological today, not theology. Theology should help us reveal the true nature of our daily lives so that we can talk our way with others out of the dominance of economic institutions. We need an Exodus from economic domination, we need to seek a new Promised Land.

 

Why is talking so central to your conceptions?

 

Words create reality. I think it is particularly important for us today to recognize that contemporary philosophy is affirming something the church has long known. In Genesis God speaks the world into existence. The gospel of John states the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Apostle Paul asks how there can be a church without a preacher. Human beings speak with breath; our words are carried in the winds of spirits connecting one consciousness with another; all human relationships are mediated through words. Just imagine going through a day when you say “hello” to others and no one responds, no one speaks back to you; you will soon begin to wonder if you exist. It takes the other to speak us into existence. Words literally create us, create community. This is true not only for church community, but any community. Recognition of this in contemporary philosophy is called the “linguistic turn,” a turn away from the idea that it is rational concepts that constitute reality, or correspond to reality, to the understanding that how people in communities talk constitutes their reality, the only reality that they can ever know. Philosophy has moved away from what is called foundationalism, which is the effort to create universal rational constructs or world views such as Platonism which so influenced the ancient church. Philosophers today have faced the fact that they have to start with already existing mental outlooks, there is no universal rational truth out there which can be known with certainty. The legal basis of modern constitutional democracies is words in documents. Politicians and lawyers are constantly debating with words the meanings of words in all three branches of government. My own reading about the linguistic turn has been through philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty and theologian Robert Jensen but there are many others. More recently I have been struck by new social understandings of Soren Kierkegaard’s writings; he sees language as constituting spiritual realities of past, present, future. That is, there is no history without words, no future without words, no consciousness of the present without words. The present is transcended only through words. I use the word “spiritual” here because I think today too many people use the word to refer to something other than the physical, material reality of our lives as the place of salvation; spirituality is not mystical contemplation of eternal truths in some Platonic or other universe but for Christians spirituality is a matter of using our physical tongues to speak and experience community with others in the concrete, material world God creates for us and for which God requires of us responsibility. The incarnation of God in Jesus points to this material world as the place of God’s divine activity. Christian spirituality, I will say again, is loving God and neighbor and that happens through words. All forms of communication, non-verbal or through images, are given meaning and context only through words. This linguistic turn in philosophy corresponds to some degree with the amazing new development we have seen in just the last decade, the very fast and massive growth of the Internet which is part of the “information revolution”, moving economic realities from an industrial to an information age. People want to communicate, to use words, to connect with one another. The fast growth of the Internet and cell phones demonstrate this like never before. Second Stage Protestantism will be worked out in relation to these new realities. What words do we use to preach the historic, orthodox church into being in our own time under the one true God? We have a source for such preaching, of course, a whole book of words, the holy scripture. This ancient book is rather more important than modern constitutions.

 

You referred earlier to resurrection faith? What did you mean by that?

 

It is a language event. Protestants, unlike the religious right, have been concerned to think about the faith. Theology is important. Doctrines are important. The church faced a real conflict with science in the 19th century and its mechanical rationality. Most Protestants have been able to move beyond those conflicts and inform themselves with the new science of relativity that developed in physics in the 20th century. But the religious right is still locked in battle with 19th century mechanical notions. If you look at their most important writings you will find most of them come out of the late 19th and earlier 20th century when the fundamentalist movement began. But this conflict has affected many in First Stage Protestantism as well. It is the reason many have left the church, no longer finding the doctrines of the church, such as resurrection, credible. I recently had a chance to have a lengthy visit with a very close friend, my college roommate, who was a pastor but left the church to work in business. I had stayed in the church and during the visit he sincerely wanted to know why; how could I continue to believe in and preach these doctrines? As he asked his questions I realized that he was operating out of what I now call the religious right mechanical world view, the view of the world taught in the 19th century and which still exercises influence, the view of what constituted scientific understanding according to Isaac Newton’s closed, mechanical, cause and effect universe. For this world view the most important issue about the resurrection is the question “Did Jesus rise physically from the dead?” That is, the emphasis is on the physical, mechanical process of the resurrection. One has already made up one’s mind about the physics involved, either yes or no, either this was a supernatural event or it was not, supernatural in the sense of God’s intervention against the so-called laws of nature. Once one has accepted the background assumption that the world is a closed, mechanical universe then religious thought is very limited. For the religious right, which views the world in this way, the test of faith is thus to believe what seems to be a logical impossibility. That’s one of the reasons for the educational divide between Protestants and the religious right; the latter are preaching to the uneducated who are more willing to believe logical impossibilities. I don’t think, in matters this important, that we should be placing intellectual quandaries in front of people like this, especially since science itself has entirely changed its primary understanding of how the world works. It is no longer a big machine, rather 20th century science has placed time back into the equation. It is matter, energy, and time that Einstein talks about, not just matter and energy that was the focus of Newton. Today modern science itself talks about a beginning and an ending to the universe, just as the bible does. Today modern science is much more open to novel and unique physical events, anomalies, things that can’t be explained, uncertainties. I am not saying that modern science can affirm the resurrection as a physical event, I am just saying that we live with a whole new sense of openness about the physical universe in quite a different spirit than is represented by the religious right. There is a lot of discussion going on between physicists and theologians right now and this can provide exciting involvements for Protestants. I myself am open to the possibility of physical events in history unexplained by science, such as resurrection, it would be unscientific to reject the possibility of unique events today, but we need not claim that only a physical event can explain the resurrection; it is no doubt fully a language event if nothing else, and that makes it an historical event, and that is only what, in fact, can make it real to us. God certainly can work through language as well as physics. Through language Jesus after crucifixion was present to the disciples in the power of the Holy Spirit. The resurrection gospel can be preached with intellectual credibility today, without apology, without dissembling, without just preaching louder because the facts seem unconvincing. And what a gospel this is! On Easter Sunday a new power is let loose in the world, the power of evil is broken. Early Christians could confess Jesus is Lord, not the Roman Emperor whose cross was designed to cause terror in the hearts of the people, not the religious leaders of the temple, not any political or economic power. A new space in the world is opened to new possibilities for understanding not only one’s own personal life but the whole life of the world itself. I don’t think there is any more compelling gospel that can address the reality of the future than the power of God in resurrection faith, so I see it as central to theology for Second Stage Protestantism.

 

So what is the prime message you would have for non-believers?

 

Well, I would try to help them understand there is no memory of the past, no imagination for the future, no solidarity with others in the present, for any human community, except through words. Words create all communities. Adults have choices about which human community they are going to allow their minds to be influenced by; communities create the persons within them. The modern notion of the isolated, physical, individual self is a fiction; children raised by wolves without language die. It is through unique gifts of the Spirit that the Protestant community has a particular memory, a particular imagination, a particular kind of solidarity with others. Political communities are gathered around law and the violence which enforces law; economic communities are gathered around the making of profit; cultural communities are gathered around ethnic and racial identities; military communities are gathered around glorified violence; but the church is created through the preaching of the Word of God for all and the celebration of the sacraments, God made present through material reality. In other words, there are new ways to talk about the faith which may be intellectually compelling for non-believers. But the main thing is to find ways to preach and act on the gospel of God’s love, which the church at its best moments through history has always tried to do. And finally this means to be willing to lay down one’s life and the life of the church for the sake of the world, just as Jesus did. The church does not want to dominate others, to use God to control them, to force anyone in any way. The church exists through God’s gracious word. Each of us is not living each day; each of us is rather dying each day by giving ourselves and our time to whatever it is we think is most important. We offer ourselves and the times of our lives every day to something, we hand over our money, we hand over our energy, we give up ourselves to something, we have no choice over whether to do this, we all die someday finally. We do have some choice over whether we will respond to the gospel of God’s love and become a part of the Protestant community, accepting responsibility for the future of God’s earth.

 

You have used the phrase “one true God.” Should the church be talking about one true God in a world of liberal democracy?

 

Yes, but we should do so only on the basis of the gospel, on the basis of the power of the church within itself, its own spirituality, not the power of the state. Here is a major difference between First and Second Stage Protestantism. First stage Protestantism lived off some quasi-official establishment of itself as the state religion of the United States. In the 1960s when I was involved in the civil rights movement we used to talk against the  WASPS, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. We attacked the WASPS for failing to stand up for justice for black people. Looking back now I realize it was the WASPS who responded to the preaching of Martin Luther King and others and helped pass important civil rights legislation. It is true that Protestants enjoyed considerable power in society not only at the federal and state levels, but especially in local communities. Protestantism was a primary cultural force and exercised power through authoritarian structures. God was the ultimate authority. The pastor speaking for God was a well respected figure in the community, for example. Children were forced to go to church. Since the Constantinian era in the 4th century the church has enjoyed unusual institutional power within society because of its association with the power of the state. This continued in this country to a degree through traditional social structures up until the more recent cultural dominance of economic institutions, as discussed earlier. The religious right now wants to replace Protestants as the established religion of the United States, it has adopted the ways of business in its operations, it wants to return to a time of authoritarian social structures, but it can only fail at that task unless this country chooses to be something other than a constitutional democracy. But Protestants in Second Stage Protestantism must give up all desire for any sort of state assistance for any part of its ministry. There should be no talk of one true God at the service of the country; there should be no talk of the country responsible to serve the one true God. The one true God is the faith of the Protestant Church, not the state. The church should not allow the state in any way to define the nature of the one true God, support any worship of that God, nor do anything  in any way in relation to the one true God or any other so-called god. The state is secular. The church is not the state and the state is not the church. We should promote no civil religion.  It is only the church which knows the revelation of the one true God though holy scripture, norm and content of our faith. Human beings cannot know God through their own effort; only if God chooses to reveal God’s self can God be known and the bible is the way we know how God is revealed. In this I agree with those today who are using the theology of Karl Barth to let the language of scripture itself be the way by which the church is created today. However this has some tendency to separate the church off from society into an enclave that just keeps repeating religious words with no connection or reference to the outside world. I believe the historical-critical method of reading the bible provides immense resources for understanding what the words meant in ancient times so that we can correlate and compare the historical conditions of those times with our own times and thereby interpret and preach the truth of the scripture into the reality of  contemporary public life. That’s the key, the bible presents the gospel always in terms of its public context, public meanings, in real places for real people. We don’t just preach what the bible says; we preach from the faith that the bible inspires, from the revelation of God that the bible provides; but that faith is a living faith, a faith alive now. And that faith is not just a personal faith but the faith of the people of God in community now; that is a key point for Second Stage Protestantism, faith as a communal reality and project. I cannot maintain my own personal faith by my own resources; I need the support and correction and solidarity of my faith community, a faith community that witnesses to the one true God, a faith community in the power not of law (the state) but Spirit. The biggest failing of the religious right is that it refuses to see itself as part of the larger Protestant community, it refuses to be corrected by historical orthodox Protestantism.

 

But if the state and church are so separate how can the church influence the state?

 

We should today completely affirm the concept of separation of church and state which has developed from liberal constitutional democracy. The church has its own language and its own authenticity apart from any legitimacy granted from the state. The church speaks that language within itself, and that language includes the fact that God is a God ruling over the state as well as the church. Christians believe government is from God. But that does not mean that we in the church should use our own language in the public realm, nor need we expect that our language should be placed in public documents. We don’t need to reference God in constitutions because we believe God is there whether or not it is officially stated. Neither should we believe that a Christian can rule secular society any better than a non-Christian. That is, we should not try to put “Christians” into positions of power, at least as a church we should not do so. Rather, the church is teacher, that is our role, and a most important role that is today. We should aggressively work to become a more public teacher. Jesus was a teacher, the Reformation leaders were teachers, the Prophets of the Old Testament were teachers, sometimes inside but most often outside the government. The Protestant Church is a teaching church; it wants no power for itself within the positions and structures of government. The church’s teaching will be accepted in the public world only to the degree that it represents compelling insight into the human condition, persuasive interpretation of the history of the nation, and realistic vision for the future inspiring hope and confidence for the human flourishing God intends for all. The church loves the neighbor through public teaching, just as Jesus did.

 

We already have public schools and higher education institutions. Why should the church focus more effort on public teaching?

 

Protestantism built the schools we have in this country; it is time to take a long overview of the relation of Protestantism and education. Most of the higher education institutions began as religious schools. Protestantism encouraged public schools for all in local communities. Rarely did Protestants build their own schools for children in local communities. The religious right started creating private schools only after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in 1954; so the motivation for private schools today can be associated with racism clear and simple. Now the religious right is on a wholesale attack on that which historic Protestantism created, the public school, and is being assisted in that attack by one of the main political parties in the country. This is an outrage. Of course, the first thing the successful religious right leader wants to do is build himself a college, repeating the Protestant experience. We should rather re-examine what has happened with education in this country in all its aspects, which is more than we can do right here, we do have to rethink public schools. But I want to emphasize two matters here, first the liberal idea of objectivity and then the role of science in schools.

 

Why is it important to consider the liberal idea of objectivity?

 

Through higher education Protestants have been educating themselves out of the church. So I am concerned with the intellectual credibility of the faith. We have got to find ways to preach the faith to the educated today and there are some promising new openings available in the winds of current academic thinking. I think it important to remind people that it was the Protestant Reformation that created the context for the whole liberal idea of objectivity, that it is possible to stand apart from the world and observe it and come to conclusions about how it works apart from the magic and mystery the Roman Church and paganism had taught through the middle ages. Science itself is a product of the Reformation in this sense. Max Weber talks about this as the “demystification of nature”. Magic was used by the Roman Church to manipulate believers. The Reformers attacked all magical manipulation related to holy relics, saints and healings and penance practices (exactly the sorts of methods used today by the religious right). Martin Luther’s preaching had extreme social effects; he emptied the monasteries telling the monks and nuns to stop focusing selfishly on their own individual salvation and go into the secular community to do some honest work such as baking bread, building homes, helping to clothe the neighbor. He advocated public support for new schools for children. And, significantly, Luther advocated what I call “practical reason”, just use your head to see the real needs of the neighbor. Though Luther himself was not a social reformer, he remained “medieval” in his view of social structure, each person was to accept their “station” in life, his religious views were revolutionary for society too because religion was such an integral part of the society at the time. Other reformers such as John Calvin were more “modern” in the sense that they believed that human reason and the bible could be used to create a more just society. The idea of “humanism” was a product of the Reformation period which manifested itself most directly in the Enlightenment age. I think that Protestants should announce that “secular humanism” is the great gift of Protestantism to the modern world rather than the source of contemporary problems as the religious right claims today. As we face a very troubled future we need more rationality now than ever before. That’s why it is of great concern to me that our political life today is being controlled by such irrationality, including the hysterical religious right. Liberal society will not be able to solve the great problems it faces without the thorough-going application of reason to public affairs.

 

So rationality and liberal objectivity are solutions for the future?

 

Partly, but we now know that there are big problems with liberal objectivity, and this is a major factor defining a Second Stage Protestantism. The Enlightenment faith in reason has been absolutized in modern academic institutions. The idea of objectivity is that one can transcend specific conditions, raise one’s self up in space, so to speak, see the world for what it is, and describe it in perfectly rational terms; this is what is called the scientific method, at least a part of it. To describe the world in rational terms modern science has found it cannot use words, it has invented elaborate forms of mathematics to so describe the world. But once described it must communicate the results of science through some words, and such descriptions are, again, what “creates” modern social realities; these are the realities within which scientists live if informed from no other source. But a great big change has occurred in science only fairly recently, at least as broadly perceived. In the age of mechanical science there was great faith in the scientist’s ability to describe the laws of nature. That is, human beings are able to “know” external reality, how the world works; there is reliable and certain knowledge about the world through science. To the degree that science can provide helpful knowledge I believe it remains an extremely important enterprise. However, scientists themselves have come to see that their knowledge is limited, that when science examines reality it also changes it, that it is easy to analyze parts of things, it is another thing to put them together to understand them synthetically as a whole. The intellectual movement known as postmodernism has grown up as a very major challenge to the idea of liberal objectivity. This is an intellectual orientation which has emerged more from the liberal arts side of college campuses, the literary and philosophy departments, as well as the social sciences. This is a “wind of change” that makes it possible to completely rethink the relationship of theology and reason. Postmodernism cuts apart and undermines the confidence of European, western, Enlightenment faith and the notion of the “ascent of man” through science and technology. This is true to such a degree today that it may be only the Protestant Church which can articulate for the world the continuing importance of reason to address the issues of the day, reason rather than religion.

 

So postmodernism is important for Second Stage Protestantism?

 

Yes, very much so, though it is by itself not adequate. It helps clear the way for theology, the theology that modernism has tried to exclude from truth. Postmodernism is a devastating critique of modern liberalism, a much deeper and more significant critique than that represented by the religious right. It is amusing to me that so-called evangelical theologians are generally critical of postmodernism because it undercuts what they have come to believe about the certainty of modern knowledge and an objective moral order. Revivalist theology is actually a form of modernist religious faith; this is true not only in its total faith in the efficaciousness of individual decision, but also in its mechanistic world view, as we discussed earlier. Current revivalism is not Reformation faith, it is not the historic faith confessed in the creeds of the church, nor is it biblical faith, it is a modern invention using modern categories and tests of truth. Intelligent design theory claims, for example, that science, not faith, is able to demonstrate the truth of God’s existence. The symbolic numbers in the book of Revelation are added up and manipulated to “prove” current historic events will take place, which is not faith revealed through words, but faith proved by arithmetic, mathematics being, of course, a primary test of truth for moderns. According to the modern Newtonian world view, God’s action is known only when mechanical laws of nature are interrupted such as miracles. This is all modernism and such religious talk works because modernist assumptions are still maintained by large segments of the population, especially those not enjoying the benefits of higher education nor understanding the development of physics in the 20th century. Revivalist leaders think they are attacking liberalism; they actually represent a religious incarnation of an earlier liberalism in modern society. And the critique of liberalism made by revivalist leaders is very tame and simplistic compared to the devastating critique of postmodernism. Revivalism is a religious throw-back to the 19th century and so it fails to perceive clearly and trivializes everything it touches, from its view of the family to sexuality to politics to world history. To face reality we have to be able to see it clearly and postmodernism helps to see what is happening in this extremely complex, inter-networked, information-based, technological society. It is more a description of what is happening than a prescription of what should be. One of my own access points to postmodernism is the French philosopher Michel Foucault who thoughtfully describes the conditions within which modern knowledge and institutions developed, such as the mental hospital, the clinic, the prison and modern approaches to sexuality. He is criticized for not providing any moral direction in his work but Foucault is just trying to describe things as he sees them, though in his later work he begins to speak more of ethics in a suggestive phrase, “the practice of liberty.” Foucault does expose the degree to which knowledge is associated with power through both academic institutions and the professions based on knowledge. Modern knowledge professionals have emerged in the last couple hundred years to enjoy authority and legitimacy in society over-against that of clergy in the middle ages; it is they who are the primary beneficiaries of modern higher education, who believe in liberal objectivity, who exercise great power in social relations including the legal system, and who earn inordinate salaries in relation to other workers. The religious right is on the attack of such liberal professionals in its anti-elitist and its anti-intellectual tirades and this is, indeed, also an indicator of the power of professionals in modern society. But the right should know better what it is attacking; it is attacking the very foundation of what makes modern society work. These professionals themselves are to a great degree the result of the Reformation, they are the product of Protestantism with its emphasis on the importance of reason in determining how to best love the neighbor. Many were motivated to enter their professions in order to serve others, the Protestant motivation. To the degree that such professionals are able to be persuaded of the postmodern critique, to the degree they will newly affirm the importance of moral factors within their practices, these professionals are a major audience for what we are calling here Second Stage Protestantism. The Protestant Church should engage in a major outreach effort to urban liberal professionals with compelling new ways to present the gospel of Jesus Christ in the context of festival worship, a task in which postmodernism can help. It is these professionals, whether working within the context of business enterprise or nonprofit organizations or government, who are the primary resource by which to help modern society make a turn to a peaceable, just, and sustainable future. The need for such professionals to become truly engaged in something other than simply making money for themselves has become extremely urgent. The religious right with its simplistic 19th century theological rhetoric is turning these folks more and more against Christian faith, just at the time when they are needed most to help look beyond their own self-interest to the possibility of creating new ways and means for human flourishing in the future. It is those professionals who also become theologically informed who can most help the Protestant Church in its mission of public teaching.

 

What role does ethics play in the practices of urban liberal professionals?

 

Here is another problem with the idea of liberal objectivity. It has screened out so-called normative methods from the process of human knowledge creation. I believe in the most careful studies based on the best possible empirical methods in the study of the complexities of modern society. But we need to realize the significance of ethics issues at every stage of this process, including decisions about what to study in the first place and who are to be the beneficiaries of that knowledge and how that knowledge is distributed through what institutional vehicles for what costs. Human knowledge today, such as medical knowledge, is being delivered to the upper and middle classes who can pay the costs according to the so-called free market; knowledge is not being delivered adequately to the poor and working classes. In fact the best sociology and psychology is used by corporations to manipulate people’s minds as they make consumer decisions. No wonder these folks are mad and turn to outmoded religious faith against the so-called knowledge classes. Successful political electoral strategy today is based on this knowledge divide. But religious right leaders urge their less educated followers to vote for a political party that does not believe in providing more equitable access to health care for all, and thus betray the interests of their own people. The main idea of constitutional democracy, that people are able to know and vote their own rational self interest, is undercut by outmoded religious faith of the right. I am not very hopeful that the political process by itself will be able to return to a process of representing the real interests of people unless there is a large movement of public professionals who begin in many and various ways to protest what is going on and change the system, this includes all those political professionals now working in the system. Access to knowledge is but one of the major issues of ethics standing today before professionals of all types. There are also before us immense issues related to professional practice such end of life health care issues, stem cell research, the relation of the human body to the machine, artificial intelligence, ownership of genetic information, and the list can go on and on. Now, it is liberal Protestantism that has experience and history in ethical deliberation. Many liberal Protestants have stayed in the church not because they were persuaded about the content of the faith but because they believed that there was also an ethical content of Christianity that should not be lost. These liberal Protestants are part of what I call First Stage Protestantism; that is, that time is over. We should be able to retrieve the best from that history and deliberation as part of our reflection on the Protestant past, however, that attitude (ethics without faith) we now know is not viable and cannot sustain the church nor provide adequate or compelling justification for ethics. We need the one true God for that.

 

So, knowledge is not the source of salvation?

 

Saying knowledge will not save society means to admit that one of the primary Enlightenment hopes remains unfulfilled, and we now know, was a false promise in the first place. I remember my father, born 1905, tell me about how many believed that idea in early 20th century. When everyone is educated then things will be all right. Then in that very century we have witnessed two world wars generated from one of the most highly educated European nations, the nation which invented the modern university, using the best of modern technology for purposes of extermination of racial minorities and military superiority. To read Zygmunt Baumen’s book on the Holocaust is to experience the chilling reality of how knowledge and efficient bureaucratic structure can be turned  against humanity. The German professionals involved did not ask the questions of ethics which may have led them to change their behavior, they did not question which power they would serve, the power of the state, the power of the corporation, or the power of God revealed in all its brokenness in the midst of those who suffer pain and injustice and death at the hands of the powerful. This is the one true God revealed when Protestants read the scriptures, a God revealed in a pitiful, suffering one on a cross, destroyed by both religious and state power. It is this cross that ultimately is the source of salvation, not knowledge gained by human reason, important though that surely remains. It is that cross which connects God with us, and us with others, in a real solidarity that includes the most powerless among us, across the entire public world, a solidarity celebrated every Sunday at the communion table of the Lord. This solidarity is the source of truth more than liberal objectivity. It is for the other that we must use our knowledge, our powers, our minds, our hearts, our ultimate commitments and this has been the characteristic Protestant message across the centuries. This faith created this secular world and now must turn to question it and turn to face the new realities of our time with hope and confidence. One of the theologians who has made Martin Luther’s theology of the cross central to his thinking is Douglas John Hall, a Canadian reformed theologian whose works are recommended for study to formulate the theology of a Second Stage Protestantism.

 

How do you propose to reach public professionals?

 

They are organized. The religious right mobilizes individuals in mass-based audiences and gives them a false gospel and false political hopes about nearly meaningless social issues. Even if they obtained all their political goals it would change little or nothing about what is really happening in modern society. Their analysis of why we have problems is completely wrong; they blame ordinary people for moral failure when it is really the modern corporation which is the primary source of heartache in the world today, corporations which are profit machines which care not for any moral concern that would threaten the bottom line. We will not be able to change corporations unless professionals who work within them decide to act ethically. It is human persons who can act morally; business systems today are programmed for immorality, to exclude moral concerns. Business professionals are organized in many different groups, as are all other professionals. A Protestant Mission Strategy today should focus on where people are already organized. Professionals are organized in many groups and those groups can be the basis for outreach.  Of course, the place to start initially is with those professionals still within congregations. There are lots and lots of Protestant Public Professionals in the church already and we need to act now to enlist them in the church’s mission. We need to work harder to nourish them with strong and compelling theological content, call them to new responsibility for the future and learn from them how best to develop intentional means to relate with professional associations. I realize this is a rather new way to think about outreach; it will require much more deliberation to develop a full mission strategy. But the idea is to suggest that in Second Stage Protestantism the agent of change is going to be public professionals perhaps more than any other one group. These professionals stand in the history of Protestantism itself as indicated earlier. A way of talking about this history can be developed which incorporates them into the continuing Protestant people of God facing the realities of the world today.

 

Why do you use the phrase “people of God” in relation to the professions?

 

Each profession is based on a body of knowledge. Modernity is characterized by several of the bodies of knowledge, each with a profession to deliver the knowledge to the society and around each profession very large institutional structures have now developed. Society has become fragmented by these institutions each focused on their specialty, each examining only a part of reality; local communities are today controlled by these hierarchically organized, horizontal authority structures, up and down so to speak, these institutions are the source of personal identity, financial rewards, and personal meaning so far as that can be provided by these institutions, whether related to business, government, health care, education, media, etc. I call these “Enlightenment Institutions” because each is based on an idea or value emerging from the Enlightenment period which were implemented in the constitution and bill of rights, such as private property, freedom of speech, reason, the individual, etc. These together we can call “liberal society.” And, yes, it is important to use the word “liberal” for this society. The term “conservative” refers to previous monarchial society. The Enlightenment institutions have now grown to be extremely powerful and to a certain degree independent of each other, each competing with the other. The two political parties today each favor a different Enlightenment institution, Republicans favor business, Democrats favor government, but both parties as well as the media are now dominated by economic institutions. Business has been able to make government a tool of its own interests and dominate the mental consciousness of individuals, to keep people going to work and to the shopping mall. Because the national media are so powerful problems are defined as national rather than local problems which means solutions must come down through the hierarchial institutions focused on their specialties which means no one sees the total complexity which characterizes the lives of real persons, families, and communities. We all live within a maze of fragmented reality. Now, there are many implications of this brief description of Enlightenment institutions, including the fact that the People of God concept cuts across all the Enlightenment institutions, it brings together people in all the professions in ways that can provide the space for new and creative thinking. But what I want to emphasize right now is that the way Enlightenment institutions have developed  generates a great deal of pain and anger, so much so that political life today is characterized by extreme nastiness, hostility, and incivility. There is now a wholesale attack on liberal society from the religious right, from postmodernism, from neoconservatism, from media outlets like Fox News and right wing radio, from many different sources, and liberals who want to speak on behalf of a liberal vision of society find themselves unable to find the words to do so, except for the so-called libertarians who think of themselves today as “conservative” which is a total contradiction of the meanings of these words. The liberal heritage coming out of the Reformation and Enlightenment is so focused on the idea of the isolated individual that it has nothing within itself to be able to understand social reality. It is that isolated individual which is made holy in the constitution of the United States, it has no social view; our legal system of lawyers and judges tries to function with no coherent understanding of how people relate to one another in groups. And, again, economic theory enshrines the individual rational decision maker as its view of human nature, maximizing personal pleasure and minimizing pain for individuals is the whole goal and purpose of life according to this theory. The Enlightenment institutions are all focused on the individual as the unit of analysis in the creation of modern knowledge used by the professions; social reality is for the most part screened out, not even perceived, not taken into account and consequently is being destroyed and people, who finally gain identity and purpose only through social reality therefore are experiencing tremendous pain. It is not just the injustice for those who are not enjoying the benefits of Enlightenment institutions that should be of concern to the church but also the pain that everyone is experiencing including the best educated professionals. The way the messiah church connects with people must be on the level of their pain, that’s how God has chosen to connect with humanity through the cross, that is what Jesus did in his ministry, that is the source of solidarity with others that is represented in the term the “people of God,” at least the way I want to use the term. It is not a glorified people, or a victorious people, a people which exercises violence over others, it is a people connected on the level of their mutual weakness and pain, acknowledging pain, that very reality which economic theory claims people are trying to avoid, acknowledging weakness, that very reality which those seeking political power are trying most to avoid. Through connections on the level of pain and weakness we human beings experience social solidarity, that is a fundamental wisdom revealed in the scriptures, that is where the one true God meets us, in the foolishness of the cross, that is how we become the true people of God.

 

Pain and suffering are not very popular themes to put at the heart of your ideas.

 

Pain fundamentally is separation from others. It’s when we find ourselves alienated from others, when we experience ourselves as isolated individuals alone in the universe. Liberal society, including schools and economy, is now creating these isolated alone individuals with hardly a clue how to connect with others, how to find meaning, how to make friends. So the age of the therapist has emerged, someone with whom to have at least some semblance of a relationship even though it has to be paid for. Many pastors in Protestant churches have become therapists providing individual “therapy” to client members. There are times when therapy may be helpful. But what people really need is meaningful community, a life with others, a place to connect with others on a deeper level, a place to find ways to make a difference in the world. Understanding the church as a people of God rather than a collection of isolated individuals, rather than a voluntary association which people choose individually to attend, is a very important aspect of Second Stage Protestantism. Pastors are community builders first and foremost through preaching and healing ministries. Healing is primarily a matter of being restored to the life of the community, ultimately that restored community on the other side of the end of history when we will participate fully in the life of the Trinity. And because this community is founded on the level of pain and suffering, founded on the cross of Jesus Christ, it is a “real” community, it is community based in reality, not false mythologies based on the false promises of a class-based society. That’s why the church can be the source of a viable social vision for the future. The church is not dedicated to liberal objectivity (which so often ignores the hidden realities of class), it understands itself in solidarity with those in greatest pain in society, it brings together all people in the midst of their pain and suffering, in the midst of their experience within the Enlightenment institutions of our day and their complexity and their failure to deliver on their promises. Second Stage Protestantism will turn away from the individualism it taught in the past to become a people of God in history for the sake of the world God loves. It is through participation with the people of God that each individual finds the fullness of life with others.

 

Is there nothing good about Enlightenment values such as liberal objectivity?

 

Yes, there is very much which is good. What I am trying to say here is that we now live on the other side of the growth of actual institutions built upon liberal values. Protestants helped affirm those values; Protestants played a large role in building modern institutions in local communities which have now become these large Enlightenment institutions. Protestants should now be asking themselves how well the institutions are preserving and functioning in relation to these values. Take free speech, for example. Are modern media institutions really providing for free speech for all Americans? Or are these institutions in the hands of corporations limiting speech to the views of the wealthy? Those are the kinds of questions that need asking as Gibson Winter in a book on Christian social ethics suggested some years ago. We need to evaluate liberal society based on its own values. Is the idea of private property, a very important idea for the emergence of modern society over-against feudalism and monarchy (my home is my castle), really functioning today in a way that assists large numbers of people to enjoy access to and control over their own property? Most people have such large mortgages on their homes that if they lose their job they will shortly be on the street. The finance system in this country has been designed so that the vast majority of people are regularly sending in their mortgage checks month after month, year after year, constituting a good part of their salary, but most of each check is interest for the wealthy. Most young people cannot afford to buy a home in the places they desire to live. The idea of property rights seems to function today as a justification for greater and greater concentration of wealth in this society, where some have nearly all the wealth/property/power and everyone else has little or none. We are becoming a society like those in many South America nations where a few families control the wealth and live behind the high walls of gated compounds. In fact, that is one reason why the wealthy today are making such great efforts to control the media, to fund the religious right, to keep small businesspersons thinking in the ways that maintain corporate control, to manipulate the minds of the populace so they can maintain their position of dominance. Is this a free society? The state taxes everyone to provide more and more police, more and more military to protect the property of the wealthy. We have become what many call a “national security state” where security, protection of property, is the number one concern. But whose property is being protected? Our leaders say we have to fight wars against enemies to maintain our freedom but we should be asking to what degree is this nation really engaged in the use of violence to protect the property and power of the wealthy. It may be we are returning to medieval days when that was the job of the knights on behalf of the manor lords. I am concerned that one Enlightenment institution, commercial business enterprise, a very important one since people obviously need jobs and food and housing and clothing, has been allowed to so completely dominate modern living and the other institutions needed for a liberal democratic society. Business is today failing to provide what people need for human flourishing and in a democratic society one would think that people could hold it accountable. The problem is that business now has found a way to control the political process as well as government itself. I see no social or political agent emerging that can reasonably address this issue, no social organization capable of transcending the current moment to see clearly what is happening, other than the Protestant Church. It sounds very grandiose, I know, but let me try out this language: Protestants have a new calling, to literally “save liberal society”, this is the society intended in the founding documents of this nation. There is enough in the liberal vision coming out of the Reformation and the Enlightenment that is worthy of saving indeed. But that means that we have to help liberal society look carefully at current institutions and ask how they need to be adjusted to serve liberal values including the idea of individual freedom. And it means helping liberal society make the turns necessary to realistically face the future. Protestants still have the resources to be able to make difference across this nation if they would decide to do so.

 

What resources do Protestants have that can make a difference today?

 

Well, first of all, we have places where people can come together to talk. Before the fall of the Berlin wall I was impressed with the fact that churches in East Germany provided the places for East Germans to come together to talk specifically about what was wrong with their government. The church was weak and powerless, but talking can make a difference. You didn’t have to be a member of the church to come to talk. The talking created a new public consciousness over-against the structures of authority of the state. Government leaders, who can only rule if the people’s beliefs give them legitimacy, literally gave up their positions; the government fell. And it all happened very fast. All of a sudden there was very massive change. Now, I believe there are very large numbers of people all across this nation who are dissatisfied with their lives, what is happening in their local communities, what is going on in national politics. All the polls about confidence in institutions provide evidence that people are very dissatisfied with leaders. I think people are also confused and uncertain, they don’t have confidence in their own mental habits and concepts; the institutional maze is so vast that no one person can comprehend the complexity of modern institutions even on local levels. The ideas in our heads don’t correspond to the realities of our lives and that is a very discomforting situation for anyone. The postmodernists reject the notion of “correspondence theory of truth” (that ideas correspond to reality) but that just indicates the degree to which modern people are living in a kind of vertigo leaving them so incapable of thinking about social realities that they just try to maintain some semblance of sanity by focusing on their own private lives. So people take pills or other drugs or go to therapists to get some relief in their heads. They numb themselves by watching television about the stories of other people’s lives. What people lack today is ideas by which they can comprehend the public realities of their lives. There are few places in today’s modern world where people can actually come together to talk about such ideas. Even schools and colleges are so dominated by the various experts that no one sees the whole of reality. The various political parties have not been able to formulate ways to talk that grasp in any beginning complete way what is happening let alone develop alternative options. The Protestant Churches can be places where people can come together to talk, to develop a new public consciousness about the reality of the times of our lives. I am speaking here simply about church buildings. Protestants still own enough of them all across the nation to make a difference. That is a very big resource. But Protestants also have a way of talking that can build a new public consciousness. It is part of our history to work with big concepts and that is what is needed to deal with complex reality. I have here been trying to discuss such concepts and a way of talking as a beginning exercise. There are very large numbers of people and groups all over who are already trying to find ways to talk about these matters but each has their own way of talking. The Protestant Church as a public church for everyone can be a place where people can listen to many voices and promote ways to bring these voices together in a new public consciousness.

 

You are saying the Protestant Church should provide a place for people to talk politics?

 

The political language used today is almost meaningless. I cannot emphasize that enough. Words like “liberal” and “conservative” are used in ways that are simply ridiculous; they correspond to little reality and only add to mass confusion. That’s why I try to use the word “public” and why I think it is helpful. We need a completely new way to engage in public talk. The problem is too many Protestants have given themselves over to the expert talking of the modern bodies of knowledge as if these are the only source of legitimacy. We do have to listen to these expert voices, especially about critical issues such as energy depletion and global warming. But we Protestants have another source of public talk and big concepts by which to comprehend large swatches of reality, that source is the bible, and the theology based on the bible and on reflection on the history of the church as it has interpreted itself and the world on the basis of the bible. Protestants in their best moments always take the bible very seriously; the fact that the religious right has been able to attack the mainline churches for not taking the bible seriously must be completely rejected. The bible, Old and New Testaments, is about politics through and through, it’s about power and relationships of power. The central term in Jesus’ preaching is the “kingdom of God”, a pretty big concept, after all, a very political concept, a concept referring not just to individuals but the whole territory/space within which power is at work on everyone, a concept deserving of the most serious study in formulating a theology for Second Stage Protestantism. We cannot merely claim that the bible is authoritative, we must demonstrate its power in speech that reveals the nature of contemporary reality, public not only private reality. In my own experience preaching today focuses on the private lives of individuals and families. Most sermon illustrations have to do with personal relationships and raising children, issues having to do with life in the home. Rarely is there an example exposing relations between workers and managers/owners in factories, or relations between the powerful and the powerless, or the dynamics of social class in creating the ways by which we humans define ourselves and who is good and bad. Yet all of this is in the bible, Jesus regularly preaches parables which cannot be understood without reference to economic and political and class relations. The Old Testament is the history of a little nation oppressed by big empires again and again. The prophets are constantly talking about international relations. If you go into a Protestant church to hear a sermon it will mostly help you in your private life, not in your public life. Unless that changes the Protestant church is going to go away; there are many other places modern folks can get help with psychology and self-help programs and how to raise the children. In fact, how to raise children itself is really a major public issue!! The only way local pastors, on a broad scale, are going to be able to become serious about public preaching is if the seminaries begin teaching it and the Protestant bishops begin to expect it by providing the model for it. It is the most important thing needed in the world today: good public Protestant preaching. The church can provide not only the place for public talk but the bible provides the content for it.

 

Why doesn’t better public preaching happen today?

 

I am going to be very specific about this question. It has to do with local congregational economics. Those who give the most money influence the content of what can be preached in too many places and those with the money are usually owners and leaders of business enterprise. Pastors in their minds selectively filter preaching ideas to check how they may be received by particular persons within their congregations. Pastors are not like traveling evangelists; preach and leave. They have to live with people over a period of years; they not only have to preach and teach, they have to maintain their organizations, keep them afloat economically. So the power structure of a congregation becomes a key component in any analysis and strategy for how to develop public preaching in a particular place. It would be too threatening to economic survival for many pastors to preach clearly and factually about economic mythologies, for example, since for business leaders this has taken on the status of a religious creed, supported by a national public ethos dominated by corporate media especially since the end of the Cold War. This wasn’t such a problem in First Stage Protestantism because people shared a social/moral understanding larger than economics; today economics has taken on the status of a religion for those in business. This is the primary factor which restrains honest public preaching today. The only way this will change is if pastors admit this in company with others and make explicit decisions to support one another as they try to change this behavior. But this really requires the development of a new mission strategy for groups of pastors and congregations in areas around the country. And, of course, the national Protestant bishops could help immensely by convening convocations which deal with these matters. If there is to be a Second Stage Protestantism, if local congregations are going to reflect the views of their national bodies, if Protestant churches are going to survive, there has to be honest public preaching that reaches into the hearts and minds of the people in ways that make sense, that interprets their lives, that gives them purpose and meaning in daily life today, preaching that reveals the one true God. When that happens money will flow into the offering plates. Money follows ministry and mission. 

 

Where will the money come from for a Second Stage Protestantism?

 

There are many businesspersons who themselves reject the degree to which public consciousness is today dominated by economic mythologies; they know there is more to life than making money and a big bank account; they know they live in a social universe important to them, their family, friends, local community; they realize that they have been successful only through the care and help from many others; they care for others less fortunate than themselves; they want to act responsibly in relation to the future; they, in other words, share Protestant values. These folks can support a Second Stage Protestantism despite its critique of economic ideology. We spoke earlier of outreach to professionals and these are also an economic resource. But as I said above, money follows ministry and mission. A concern for money kills the church; public preaching creates it. Jesus, remember, was supported by women of means, they gave in response to his preaching and teaching ministry. He interpreted his times realistically; he faced the actual powers of that time; he didn’t draw people out into a separatist community to lament about how awful things are; his preaching was real in the midst of his community. The Apostle Paul did the same thing. Preach the truth today, the money will come.

 

Again and again I hear you using the word interpretation. Why is that so central for preaching and thinking today?

 

Interpretation is how the bible gets into words describing life today. It is historical interpretation of our own recent history as I talked about earlier. But it is also a social interpretation, and that’s particularly important today because of the so-called cultural wars. The religious right is a backlash movement against recent changes in traditional social structures, especially concerning the family. It sets up as the ideal a concept of the family coming out of the 1950s in this country, father-mother-children, the nuclear family. I too think the family is very important, but it is important to realize that changes in family life have been occurring for a very long time now, ever since the beginning of the modern era. The modern family is completely different from the medieval family. The family of tomorrow may be completely different from the modern family. Christian faith is not defined by particular ideas of the family, this is another way the revivalists have created a false god, a false doctrine. It is true that social structural change is difficult, a good deal of mental stability can be assigned to social stability, so we are dealing with very important matters here. I think Second Stage Protestantism needs to open itself to social invention, to defining many new ways to be family and community in the times ahead of us. This is because the idea of the family as a consuming unit, each family having a full compliment of modern machines, is not a sustainable idea for the future. You can see what I am driving at here; thinking over the next fifty years, for example, there are going to have to be major changes in basic life styles. I think there is going to be much more time for social life and the invention of new forms of social life in local communities. Rather than be so concerned about keeping the social structures of the past I think Protestantism should help people move into the future, it should participate in the very important process of re-inventing social life. This is the social “interpretation” which can be helpful. In the bible we see many social forms, not one view of the family; God should never be associated with particular social forms. Social forms are human creations through language, not eternal patterns. Lutheran social ethicists used to talk about “structures of creation” as if the family, government, and church were eternal in and of themselves but there was a tendency to assume that current forms of those structures were also eternal. No, the one true God is calling us to create new social forms today, new ways literally to be human beings involved with one another. One of the most debilitating economic mythologies today is that everyone must have a full-time job before they are worthwhile; there is extreme prejudice against those who don’t work, even against those who cannot work due to a disability as well as those who do not have the mental or physical qualities necessary to be able to successfully work in large corporate institutions. The unemployed are looked down upon. The poor are abused with claims they are lazy and irresponsible. Why is this work mythology so strong today? Partly because work was such a high value for First Stage Protestantism. But it is economic institutions who have taken this important idea and made it a part of an ideology/mythology that is now part of the process that is killing people, families, and the earth we all need for substance. A major turning away from this ideology is necessary for Second Stage Protestantism. We need a complete new theology of work.

 

Where do you look for ideas for what the social future can be?

 

There are already many efforts occurring to establish more flexible job patterns, work hours, correlating schedules of work and school. Young families are experimenting with ways by which the father is the primary child caretaker rather than always the mother, and they are trying to find ways to spend more time with their children. People need adequate incomes to do that, of course, and much higher priority should be placed on a living wage for families in our political process. If they really believed in the importance of families these are the things religious right leaders and pastors would be working on politically; the fact that they are betraying the interests of their own families by support of a political party opposed to such measures is an indication of the depth of their apostasy, of the degree to which they are interested in their own financial rewards rather than those of their lower and middle income followers. The revivalists are not the place to look for ideas for what the social future can be, they are a reactionary group exercising no responsibility for the future. Jerry Falwell wanted to celebrate his success as a televangelist so he built his own housing subdivision for families and what did it look like? Any other suburban development. There are some folks that we can learn from, however, and it may seem surprising to mention them. We should look at the poor in Africa and how they are able to live meaningful social lives without access to technological civilization. We should look at places where cultural arts bloom, where people have the time to create and participate in culture. Much ancient or primitive religion provided such opportunities for people. There has been among many educated persons a “return to the primitive” in recognition of the value of the ways of life of native peoples and this can be a resource for thinking about the future. This interest in the primitive is part of postmodernism, a critique of technological civilization, especially the idea that it is only moderns that know how to be a human being. The one true God is the source of life for all cultures so multi-culturalism should be an important emphasis for a Second Stage Protestantism. The church in general must seriously confess the sins of First Stage Protestantism which much too often in the name of missionary zeal destroyed ancient cultures and associated European cultural habits with God’s will for all. I said earlier that Jesus teaches that the other, the other person, the one different from ourselves, can be a source of salvation. I was referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus was talking to Judeans, an area just south of the territory called Samaria. A Judean falls ill at the side of the road, Judean leaders pass by ignoring him, but a Samaritan, one different from Judeans and looked down upon by Judeans, comes to the aid of the one in need. The people hearing this story would have been totally amazed; the story turned around conventional social attitudes and opened the people to see that the grace of God comes from some very surprising places. This opens us to see the gifts of God from unusual places. That’s the attitude we should have in Second Stage Protestantism. We need to be open to all the fullness of what God has created in all parts of the world. Modern people in the United States have closed their minds into a very narrow pattern as a definition of how human beings can and should live, each of us stuck in our nice home nearly isolated from others, with little interest in neighbors, controlled by the economic mythologies presented from the television sets in our homes, sitting there feeling hostile about other peoples different from ourselves, especially those Muslims who seem intent on destroying us. If Jesus were telling his parable today it would be a Christian American at the side of the road and a Muslim who would come to his aid.

 

In your view it seems that economic justice does not mean that poor countries should become more like the United States?

 

Absolutely!  The American way of life, the life patterns of current middle class families, are not sustainable for ourselves let alone the rest of the world. I said earlier that we faced big changes, very big changes, 500 hundred year changes, from first to a second stage Protestantism. It was in just such a time that Jesus lived. Remember, in the year 70 the whole of Jewish society as they knew it was totally changed; Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Jesus had been crucified in the year 30 or so; the earliest church got its start in the midst of these very big changes. Even in the midst of these changes the church was still concerned for economic justice; we read in Acts about the prophet Agabus predicting a famine and the need to share resources with the struggling church in Jerusalem. We alive today face massive changes and we too must in the midst of this be concerned with economic justice for all. But that does not mean that we are merely called to share some resources with the poor as if that will accomplish much; it means we have to look at ourselves and our own way of life and realize that the future requires great change in how we live, shocking change, change that will cause tremendous mental instability because we are not being prepared for it by current political or cultural leaders. In fact, they are leading us completely in the wrong direction. They want us Americans to believe we are the greatest nation on earth, that everyone else wants to be like us, that we are the model for the future, that we are the way of salvation for all, that we must use the most sophisticated and powerful weapons ever invented to preserve our way of life against anyone who threatens our dominance and superiority. We are the most arrogant people on earth today, perhaps the most arrogant who have ever lived on this planet.  And this is all being generated by faith in economic mythology rather than in the one true God. Just put this picture in your mind: imagine thousands and thousands of financial speculators sitting in front of their computer screens calculating, watching numbers, calculating, making decisions to move money here or there based on simply the value of money here or there, trying to increase the value of their own bank accounts based on how successfully they calculate and manipulate their investments around the world. Each of them is influenced by the decisions of the others of them with whom they are in competition to make the most money each day and the total result makes the difference in what is built where by whom, who benefits from this whole process, what economies grow and which decline, who gets to eat and who goes hungry, who gets water to drink and who goes thirsty, who gets clothing and a place to rest his head at night and who goes  homeless. This is capitalism. This is the height of the modern image of human being, rational and calculating (part of the Protestant heritage). This is the way to the good life. This is the free market. This is global economics. This is what is lifted up as the “way the world works.” Economic mythology claims that an invisible hand guides this process, that the best for all results when each tries to get the most for himself without regard for morality. But after thirty years of explicit trial, since Ronald Reagan installed fierce free market advocates throughout the international financial institutions, the global financial marketplace we now know generates the conditions where the poor get less and less and the rich get more and more. Here is the truth: the rich live off the poor. We in this country enjoy the benefits of our lives by living off the poor in the rest of the world, and it is getting worse every day. The few dollars sent as charity through hunger programs does little or nothing to compensate for the systematic theft of the world’s resources by the richer countries today. The current system is not only unsustainable in relation to the physical resources of the planet, but it is completely unjust and justified only by national arrogance and faith in economic mythologies. It must and will change, it is intolerable, it is against the will of a holy and righteous God as revealed in the bible. Judgment Day is coming.

 

What evidence do you have for talking about judgment day?

 

Well, that’s the right question. Evidence is important. I have been writing this primarily for people who are already aware of global warming, the depletion of oil resources, the continuing growth of world population, and increasing poverty around the world. Our best scientists and most thoughtful observers have been telling us these things for some time now. My own effort is to discuss these facts with theological language from the Protestant tradition to interpret our own times. I think this task is important. People who allow economic mythologies to control their minds do not want to face these facts. The people who have been making lots of money from the current system do not want that system to change; they are pushing it as far as it can possibly go without concern that machines wear out, the big economic machine can crash at any moment, it is based finally on trust and faith, it is based on ideas that are not working today for everyone, it is going to crash sooner than later. We are coming closer to judgment day concerning the crisis in oil availability and production now that China and India and other countries are substantially increasing their usage. It will not take a much higher price for a gallon of gas for people to decide not to buy that larger house in the exurbs and it will not take many such decisions to create a shockwave throughout the housing industry which has been the primary engine driving economic growth over the last years. That’s why this country is now fighting a war in Iraq; the president is trying to protect the American way of life. No president could get elected by telling the truth, so what we get are economic mythologies. We have to face reality, to face the facts in front of our faces. And we desperately need strong and compelling interpretations of the facts not based on mythologies. And that’s why these things should be discussed in Protestant church basements around the country. It is not the church that is promoting mythologies today, it is the modern business institution. The facts are already plain in people’s experience. Not long ago I read an article in my local newspaper about the loss of population in the Midwestern states, up and down the middle of the country, so-called “Middle America.” It is an area of economic decline. Judgment Day has already arrived in many parts of rural America. The folks in the small towns and cities in Middle America raise and educate their children who then go off to the cities, often the cities further east and west, where the jobs are, where people seem to want to live. Business leaders in many of these small towns have promoted the idea of taxpayers creating commercial and industrial parks to invite business to come and save their towns. Many of these commercial parks have been built but they stand empty, business doesn’t come, money is wasted, people keep leaving. The business leaders in the towns are acting on the basis of pure mythology and damaging the very place they have chosen to live. The people develop a generalized anger and lack of self-confidence, they feel that something out there is hurting them, their leaders tell them it is those educated elites in the cities who don’t like them. Pastors in local churches, some even in the mainline denominations, can’t do much about the economic decline but find they can stir up their people by redirecting generalized anger toward issues like abortion and gay rights. So these pastors in effect blame the weakest members of society, women facing the need of an abortion and gay people who have always been rejected by traditional society. The generalized anger is now turned against persons who have nothing to do with the real economic problems in the community. Theology knows something about this; the weakest are often blamed for the sins of the powerful. These pastors then turn on the local school convinced that if correct religion were taught in schools then the problems of the community would be solved; that only weakens the school even more and wastes the energy of those involved. Since the community lacks a true interpretation of the reasons for decline to give it confidence, it cannot bring itself to oppose the giant superstore in a neighboring town which then has the effect of destroying small businesses and more people move away. And these pastors along with business leaders work to elect politicians willing to lie, willing to say that abortion and homosexuality are key issues, that urban educated elites are the real problem, that government should not regulate business, let the free market work, the very market that it is plain to see has not been building up their community. If a politician came along to tell the truth, that the United States could create a national industrial policy and thereby influence business decisions and infrastructure investment bringing prosperity to rural America, that person would be called a socialist and probably an atheist since for the religious right faith in the free market is the same as faith in God. These pastors are betraying their own members, betraying their communities, betraying historic Protestant faith. The Protestant Church should hold them accountable for their false beliefs and this betrayal, and encourage its pastors in these communities to preach a true interpretation of these matters including the one true God who demands fairness and justice in economic life. I believe that Protestants should build a vision for human flourishing in Middle America where small towns and cities could be places of greater economic self-sufficiency providing for themselves and others, utilizing the built-up infrastructure already available there, rather than be so completely controlled by external economic forces, such as the Wal-Mart corporation which is a high energy-using company providing goods from China made cheap by exploitation of a labor force controlled by an authoritarian government of the Communist Party. There may be enough Protestant pastors and congregations still in these towns to provide community leadership for the renewal of Middle America but to do so it would be necessary to adopt such an interpretation as I have provided above, clearly align themselves against the religious right influences in their community, not engage in ecumenical relations with those preaching a false gospel of economic mythologies, and organize to implement a new vision for rural America. There are great historical resources here. Middle America was the primary scene for progressive political movements and populism among farmers and workers sometimes aided by the church. Protestants can use that history to imagine and build a realistic future for Middle America but within the context of a substantially changed world.

 

What can churches realistically accomplish in Middle America, the so-called red states?

 

In most of the towns and small cities of Middle America there are still many Protestant churches and pastors. But they are not doing so well each of them separately trying to keep their churches alive. The big-box revivalists have identified a formula that is working for them because it is tied into a national mass identity through television and current public consciousness as we have described above. Protestants need their own new formula for being publicly responsible and to build their churches. I think that formula will have to be something like what I am trying to talk about here as Second Stage Protestantism. It has to be based on actual facts, on the actual experience in people in these communities, it has to be a compelling interpretation of what is happening and what can be done about it. Imagine the Protestant pastors in towns and small cities coming together to really forge new formulas for ministry and actually doing it. I think most Protestant pastors already have the capacity to do so through their theological training but we are not creating the social space within which new language is formulated by which to grasp what is going on and which fires the imagination about new possibilities. This is because the political language within current mass-generated public consciousness is not providing people in Middle America with the mental tools and concepts by which they can correctly interpret their experience. For example, large numbers of people in Middle America vote for politicians who are against welfare, which is considered an urban problem, often viewed in racial terms. It’s black people who get welfare and rural folks are hard working and responsible and don’t need welfare. The fact is that when studies are done on who receives government subsidies, when you total all government payments, it is the blue urban states that pay more taxes than they receive in payments and the red states which receive much more in government subsidies of all kinds than they pay in taxes. The red states are welfare states! What is inside people’s minds as a belief is exactly the opposite of the reality! Now that is a hard fact to face but Protestant pastors could help people face these sorts of facts. What is going on politically these days is so far from dealing with realities that no political solutions are going to be able to change things for the better. If you believe that homosexuals are the cause of family breakdown you might feel good voting for politicians who talk that way but those politicians will be able to do nothing to actually help rural families because family problems have nothing to do with homosexuality. Homosexuality is being used by big-box churches to fight against mainline Protestants, create mass audiences aligned with politicians who don’t have a real analysis of what’s happening in rural communities. Anti-homosexuality wins elections. Politicians who win elections based on hatred for homosexuals and the immoral urban educated elite and lazy welfare recipients are the very politicians who will vote against the very public subsidies that are keeping Middle America alive, at least if they are consistent with their political philosophy (most find they have to vote for the subsidies, such as for farmers, or they really would lose elections). What I am trying to say here is that Protestant pastors could really make a decisive difference in rural areas by helping people face the facts of life. I don’t see any other single group that can accomplish this. That’s exactly what Jesus did in his time. His language helped people face the facts of their time and even in that time of great social change he called them to act responsibly by loving the neighbor.

 

Is conservative political philosophy hurting rural America?

 

Yes, very much so. It is not based on reality. The reality is that the economy today is controlled by very large corporate institutions, the rural economy as well as the urban economy. So if you don’t like what has been going on you have to look at the actual powers who have been in charge. The issues of abortion and homosexuality have nothing to do with the economic facts in rural America. So nothing that is done about those two issues is going to change anything in rural America in terms of its basic capacity to economically survive. That is completely obvious. It is as if Jesus blamed sinners for the failures of Jerusalem leaders. But he didn’t do that. His prime objects for what he opposed were the real people in power at the time, he didn’t blame the poor and sinners, his heart went out to them, he preached God’s grace to them, he called them to face the realities in which they live and love the neighbor. So any pastor who says that politics should be based on these two issues of abortion and homosexuality is in effect lying to his or her people, such a pastor is allowing cynical politicians to use false religion to avoid facing the facts of life in rural areas which have to do with economic realities. Corporations do not want people to perceive clearly what they are doing, they want to do whatever they can do to make the most money in the short term, so they don’t want government involved in guiding the economy over the long term to achieve what is best for most of the people. Most of the parables of Jesus have to do with economic realities; economic justice is one of the matters concerning the kingdom of God in the world. No pastor who reads the scriptures carefully can avoid seeing how much Jesus was involved in the real lives of people including economic facts of life. He says nothing about homosexuality, nothing about abortion, these are issues manufactured by the religious right in their formula for generating mass audiences based on hate. Protestant pastors know this and we have to begin acting on the basis of these truths, actually building congregations on the basis of Jesus and his concerns.

 

What about the split between urban and rural America? What should the church be doing about this problem of red and blue states?

 

We do need to realize what a great divide has been created between rural and urban America by the way economics and education have developed over the last decades. The fact that we have red states and blue states politically today reflects this development. That is, it isn’t that people in rural areas are naturally conservative and people in urban areas are naturally liberal. Rather, social-economic forces have created differences between these two populations and politics now reflects those differences. This matter deserves much more study, including the role of government tax and subsidy policies. One of the differences is education; education has not been delivered equally around the country. Less educated rural folks these days tend to vote for so-called conservative politicians, more highly educated urban folks vote more for so-called liberal politicians. Political strategists try to take advantage of this difference in how candidates are marketed to constituencies; educational level is a major political divide. But this just rubs raw the status feelings of people in relation to educational attainment. That is, politics today lives off the differences between rural and urban America, it exasperates the differences rather than heals them. The red states are mostly the states that have been left behind (note the term; the left behind series of hysterical end time novels sells to people who are feeling they are left behind). Young people leave to go to college. Young families leave because they can’t find jobs. And now even older adults are leaving to go to the southwest states for retirement. Arizona and New Mexico are rapidly increasing in population, new “exurbs” are being built there like crazy. Las Vegas is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country. This means more use of energy, more building, replacing in other places the housing and infrastructure of Middle America where people used to live, wasting the resources in those communities. The American  people are moving to exactly the high-energy-use areas where resources such as water are in least supply, which means that we become even more dependent on vast technological resource systems and networks, systems and networks which are under the control of private corporations which are in business to make the most money not to create the most human communities for human flourishing which means people over the next fifty to a hundred years are going to face great uncertainty concerning basic resources available for human life. Just at the time that we need the highest levels of rationality in government to engage in careful demographic study and planning we are electing politicians who do not believe that government should be involved in such planning. I mention these matters because the church needs to have a clear picture of what is happening in the complex world in which we live. To the degree that we preach and teach in the midst of a real world we need to know what is happening in that world in order to be able to speak about the mercy and justice of God in our time. The beliefs and concepts made available to us through the current political process are entirely incapable of presenting legitimate options for thinking and deciding about the future. It is not a simple urban-rural split, we are one country, and we in the church should reject a politics that cynically uses rural red states over-against urban blue states or vice versa. If the red states are to survive economically they need not only subsidies from government they need good regional development planning that encourages investments and resources to flow to rural America so that it can sustain itself and rebuild itself and draw more people to live there. I would love to see the Protestant Bishops hold a national conference to focus on the red-state and blue-state divide and expose the underlying realities I have been talking about and call politicians to account for their cynical and malicious political rhetoric that is dividing this country and hiding the real issues from public debate. That would help Protestant pastors put together their own local groups to create the new formula needed to address these issues realistically in their congregations as they take responsibility for their communities, just as Protestants have done historically.

 

Can Protestants organize such intentionally political involvements?

 

We have to realize that the religious right has become extremely political and is, in fact, having a real influence in the political process today as I have tried to show already. It is the religious right that has turned the red states into red states, after all. Remember we are talking about political pluralities in these red states, not all the people. The minority views of the religious right on abortion and homosexuality have been able to influence enough voters to turn elections in favor of those politicians willing to use that negative rhetoric. It actually would not take many votes to turn the red states into blue states. Now to speak that starkly about Republican and Democratic political involvements is hard for any Protestant congregation to accept. But I think we need to see reality here as I have tried to show. What we need to do at least is to take the issues of abortion and homosexuality off the public agenda as key current issues. Make the Republican Party along with the Democratic Party compete on the basis of the real issues facing a community, not these false issues. Right now Republicans are being elected with the help of the religious right. I don’t know what can change this except for a compelling voice from another religious group such as us Protestants. It would be wrong to expect Democrats to try to get elected on the basis of the views of the religious right. It is wrong to expect them to start speaking with any religious voice. What we need is for Protestants to expose the biblical and theological illegitimacy of the religious right, which is what our position has been anyway. We just need now to act on what it is we already believe, act decisively and clearly in a public context. Jesus died in the midst of a very real political world; the cross stands in the midst of politics; so the effort is dangerous but I believe the mission of the Protestant Church, the people of God in history, must include strong political involvement, not just on one side or the other, but calling both political parties to account for their actions in relation to the future of the world God loves and wants to preserve and protect. Right now, in our time, it is the Republican Party on the national stage which has made an alliance with a particular religious view; that must be aggressively challenged by Protestants today not for political reasons, but for the life of the world itself.

 

What can a local pastor do to begin organizing in a local congregation about politics?

 

The first thing is to be clear about the need for a new interpretive framework to understand what’s happening in current politics from a biblical perspective, from the view of Jesus in relation to his own times. I believe this interpretive work is crucial, but most pastors are already doing it, they just need to apply their interpretation to the life of the community in which they are working. They should not think faith and politics are separate, these two are intimately connected. So a language for speaking the interpretation is crucial. To work out such new interpretive framework and language it is necessary to relate with other pastors, probably, so that a single pastor has the support and encouragement of others. From there all sorts of possibilities suggest themselves. Let me mention just one. It is possible to choose a few persons in the congregation with whom the pastor feels it is possible to talk directly about these issues. Do this privately for a time to develop a group within the congregation who is aware of possible new themes in preaching and teaching and leading. It is also possible to draw together a small group of Republicans in the congregation. Talk to them honestly about the problems presented by the Republican Party and its adoption of particular views of religion, its used of religious talk in political rhetoric as we have discussed above. Ask them what they think about this and how a pastor can be faithful to historic Protestant theology without addressing the ways in which the religious right views are wrong, not only politically wrong, but theologically wrong. A pastor can develop an intentional pastoral strategy for engaging in such private meetings leading to a possible congregational decision process to adopt a congregational mission strategy for ministry. Where such a strategy cannot be developed officially by a congregation the pastor can work at organizing specific efforts through particular current and new committees or task forces to begin specific tasks in relation to political involvement, knowing at some point that the congregation as a whole will at some time be forced to deal with it. The key thing to note is that a pastor creates the “climate” of opinion within a congregation through preaching and teaching on a regular basis. As this climate is constructed it is possible to form the action groups to begin carrying on work in the community. Another key point in all this is that a pastor must decide in advance that it is possible to lose members who will oppose such efforts and to let them go. Do not try to keep everyone. In my own experience, conflicts of this kind mean that messages are sent to those who stay, positive messages which open the congregation to new understandings about the identity of the congregation and who is invited to be a part of it. The remaining folks will then begin inviting their friends because it is a hospitable place to be. As long as the negative folks are allowed to remain and influence the congregation then these other positive folks will not be inviting their friends and neighbors. Remember, even in Middle America the whole community does not think like a “red state” in the media-political definitions of the term. There is close to a majority of every red state that thinks more like a blue state. In other words, there are large numbers of people in most communities who do not in any way support the extreme conservative position on any of the issues facing us in the national public context. There is a very large, untapped mission field out there in every area of the country; Protestant congregations just have to go out and reach it with the interpretation and language that strikes a chord in hearts and minds. Local congregational conflicts can be the way to reach out. A big conflict over mission strategies, reported in the local press, can be a good way to communicate to the rest of the community that a congregation is open to new people in a new way. So, don’t be worried about conflict or press exposure, use it to turn the congregation in a new direction. Such work is difficult, so that’s why the support of other pastors and the local bishop is important if possible.

 

What if my pastor is a conservative Republican?

 

For members of congregations the situation is more difficult than I have talked about above if a pastor identifies clearly as a conservative politically. In today’s context “conservative” tends toward a more extreme conservatism since the Republican Party has taken such a much greater turn towards a more particular extreme definition of what it means to be conservative, what is called “neoconservatism.” It is possible for laypersons, however, to organize a small group of like-minded persons to begin meeting, study neoconservatism, identify over time the ways in which the pastor in preaching and teaching is dispensing neoconservative or religious right viewpoints, develop a clear record of such, and at some point set up a meeting with the pastor to discuss what the group thinks about such preaching and teaching and what can be done about it. Always focus on the actual content of the preaching and teaching, not on personalities or emotional factors. What’s key is the teaching and preaching, that is how communities are formed and sustained. Laypersons are going to be less informed by biblical and theological backgrounds so doing studies here are important as well, perhaps led by a neighboring pastor. Most Protestant pastors are not politically conservative. In my own church body the vast majority identify themselves as liberal or Democratic in their political leanings. I think that’s because pastors are preaching about Jesus every Sunday and it is just very difficult to get Republican neoconservatism from the way Jesus talks in the bible. It is important to realize that most pastors are quite jealous about their relation with their congregations and may resent other pastors intruding. Not so long ago I would not have recommended that a group of laypersons seek the help of a pastor outside their parish. Now I believe we are in such a political-theological crisis that laypersons must begin to do so, must hold their pastors more accountable for what is preached. The neoconservative philosophy is so far from, and such a challenge to, orthodox Protestantism that any pastor who is preaching it is in some way preaching heresy or idolatry, as I have discussed above concerning economic mythologies. Let us say that a pastor is preaching the end times notions of the religious right, that Jesus is coming any day and therefore it is unnecessary to be concerned with environmental issues. Such preaching is based on relatively recent apocalyptic religious views and is not biblical; it is a modern heresy. Laypersons could begin meeting, investigate this literature, come to understand this is really an Americanized version of such thinking, and challenge the pastor on theological-biblical grounds. Nowhere should such irresponsible preaching be allowed to go unchallenged.

 

What other actions do you propose to expose religious right leaders?

 

I encourage specific actions against such leaders. Concerned laypersons can get together, starting with just two or three people if need be. Choose an active pastor of the religious right in the area; do research on this person; attend the congregation; develop a dossier on the content of the preaching with the specific political themes you hear; write up a brief paper on these themes and how they are against the bible or not based on the bible. Do research on the financial practices and political activities of that congregation. Then, if the evidence warrants it, engage in direct actions such as picketing outside the church building on a Sunday morning handing out leaflets to members as they leave. Such action challenges the legitimacy of that pastor in terms of the bible and orthodox Protestantism. Wise use of the media is necessary too. But the challenge must be on the basis of the substance of the faith not just political opinion. I believe such types of actions are necessary in a Second Stage Protestantism and various groups who engage in such actions can share their experiences and encourage one another. There are many organizers from the field of community organization who can help in developing the best ways to develop such action. One purpose of such action is to make a public witness about the true nature of Protestantism which will encourage people outside the church to reconsider their relationship to the church. “Hey, those people are standing up for something I believe in, maybe I should attend their church.” That’s how Jesus did it. He acted for others in healing and teaching and sometimes that took strange forms, such as his diatribe against Pharisees. Remember too his cleansing of the temple. Jesus acted within the political context of his time. And people followed him because of his actions. Witness is not just words, it is action with words, and it is public action, action that gets noticed by others so that it makes a difference.

 

How was Jesus involved in political activity more specifically?

 

I said earlier that we today know more about Jesus than people who have lived in most of the previous centuries. That is because there has been a great deal of research in just the last decades using new methods to study the bible as well as the discovery of new and older manuscripts of the bible and other ancient documents. But much of this research has not gotten down to the parish level. Like everything else in today’s world it gets complicated. So much academic work has been done that no pastor can keep up with it and do everything else a pastor has to do in the local parish. But if there is one type of literature to become acquainted with for a Second Stage Protestantism it is the new Jesus research which places him more accurately and thoroughly within his actual social-political-economic context. The church has always believed in the incarnation, that God entered into real human life in the person of Jesus, but we don’t adequately realize what that means if we don’t have a good sense of the actual times in which Jesus lived. Furthermore, to believe in the resurrection of Jesus is to believe that the life of Jesus is raised, that’s why we have the four gospels which are narratives of his life. Believing in resurrection is not just a matter of believing something illogical, a physical raising, as we discussed earlier, but the life of Jesus is raised for us to behold and emulate. We cannot follow Jesus as disciples today without knowing what it meant to follow him when he walked upon the earth himself. I cannot here tell the whole story, but it is important to realize that he was raised as a child and conducted his ministry primarily in Galilee, north of Samaria which was north of Jerusalem in Judea. Galilee was ruled by King Herod under the power of the Roman emperor, Judea was ruled by Pontius Pilate under the power of the Roman emperor. Jerusalem was ruled by the chief priests who were appointed by and subservient to Roman authority. (An established church in this country would be like these chief priests, subservient to political power, which is the role much of the religious right is playing today.) There were various political-type movements among the people, including Pharisees and Zealots, Peter was probably a Zealot before he began to follow Jesus. The Zealots wanted to fight militarily to free the Jews from domination by Rome. Knowing this background means that it is possible to more correctly understand the words and actions of Jesus in relation to the issues he faced. He refused the military solution, for example. He died on the Roman cross, a political instrument to maintain Rome’s power through terror in the hearts and minds of the people. The resurrection meant for the earliest believers that the power of Rome was broken, a new space in the world was opened up for a different form of power. I am just trying to give a taste of this background here. I think adult classes on these topics would be very good to sponsor on a regular basis so that people can better understand the regular Sunday readings about Jesus. Many churches already do this, of course. Richard Horsely has written on the political background of both Jesus and Paul in the Roman empire, for example, and suggests there are similarities between that time and our time as the United States is viewed by many as an empire today with military dominance in the world. What it means to be the church in the midst of an empire country is one of the questions which can be answered more comprehensively by careful study of the scriptures. I think it always important to remember Jesus was a teacher, he did not come as a government official, he came not as wealthy landowner, he came not as a religious official, he came as a teacher and the teaching function is the primary way the church exists in the world. We can only know the content of his teaching if we learn about the real world within which he lived and died.

 

What are some key theological resources for Second Stage Protestantism?

 

Throughout this document I have been referring to words and language, preaching and teaching. This is all we have in the church, this is how the Holy Spirit works. To speak we need to breathe, to speak we must first inhale the air from outside ourselves, speaking is a kind of blowing out of words with wind. The Spirit works in the wind, in the speaking. It is a very natural process after all, not magical, yet full of mystery because it is through words that God has chosen to reveal God’s self among us. I emphasize this because so many today are looking for some esoterical manifestation of spirits and gods in strange places. It is all a matter of the tongue and the ear, hearing God’s word spoken to us, speaking God’s word to others. I have learned this through theologians such as Robert Jensen and my seminary teacher, Gerhard Forde (Theology as Proclamation), but there are many others. The one best book to examine carefully, called a classic by many, is by George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. It is the most often quoted theological work over the past couple decades, especially among those trying to write within an ecumenical context. He speaks of two primary  theories of religion, propositional doctrine and experiential-expressive. Debates between the two constitute the substance of theological work in the modern period, the first is understood as the traditional approach and the second as the liberal approach. The first emphasizes doctrines, that religion is a matter of believing certain propositional statements such as God exists, Jesus is both God and man, etc. These are matters of the head, we should believe certain things cognitively, with our minds. The experiential-expressive theory of religion starts more from the experience of human beings. Doctrines refer not first and foremost to intellectual propositions but are “symbols of inner feelings, attitudes, or existential orientations.” (p.16) For example, F. Schliermacher, called the father of modern theology, taught that all human beings have an inner sense of subjective dependency on something outside themselves, a higher power or ultimately God. Lindbeck suggests both approaches can better be understood by reference to a third approach, what he calls the cultural/linguistic theory of religion. Both doctrines and experience are important because they are both mediated through words. It is not merely words but how words are used in a religious tradition that makes the difference, the underlying cultural criteria by which words are interpreted or given meaning is what makes the difference. Words are the link between head and heart, so to speak. And, of course, the biggest point to make is that the words do real work. That is, when you say to me “good morning” and I say back to you, “good morning, good to see you,” there is a mutual recognition of one another that creates each of us in relation to the other. The gospel is particular words spoken to us from God, revealing the nature of God and God’s love for use as specific human beings. Words create the relationship with God. “God loves you.” Without words God doesn’t get to us, at least in ways by which we become conscious of God. This understanding of language, how God works through words, is crucial for understanding what I mean by Second Stage Protestantism. We need to speak the church into being in the 21st century in new ways, taking into account the historic doctrines and experience of Protestantism, to speak into being the public church which faithfully takes responsibility for the future of the communities and world within which God has placed it, loving the neighbor. There is one matter in the Lindbeck formulation, and the formulation of modern Protestant theology in general, that we should note as a failure, however. The Lindbeck approach does begin to address the issue I want to mention because he is talking about “culture”, that is, whole groups of people believing in certain ways of talking. But I think we must be much more specific and refer to the historical experience of real people who experience themselves not just as individuals but who experience themselves as part of a people through history. The experiential-expressive approach of modern liberal theology has focused entirely on the inner subjective experience of individuals as individuals, not as persons in community, not as persons as a people. Such an approach means that individuals think of the church as a voluntary association of like-minded persons rather than as a people formed by the grace and mercy of a loving, speaking God, a people with a history and a future. If we don’t use the words of our tradition, the words from the bible, to speak the church into being in our time, then there will be no Protestant people of God in our time or the future. Both Lutheran and Reformed church bodies believe in the doctrine of election, for example, that it is God who elects who God wills to be part of the people of God in the world today. But the Christian life is not based on doctrines; doctrines are for theologians, and important work they do indeed. But the doctrine must be preached! It is pastors who preach not the doctrine but the gospel, and it is this experience of preaching and being preached to that constitutes the decisive experience of the Protestant People of God. It is pastors who do God’s work of electing by preaching: “You are this day elected by God to serve the neighbor.” The language is the language of election, of gospel, and the form of the language is very important. The words work through the preaching of pastor (and people, of course) in the power of the Holy Spirit. The bible shows that all sorts of people were elected who try to escape from the task and avoid the election. But when God elects there is no escape. The religious right turns this completely around and says that you have to make a decision to elect God. That is terribly wrong and has terrible consequences in that people in the church then think they are the good ones because they made a decision and everyone else is going to hell. No, the important thing is that God chooses us, not that we choose God, and God chooses us to love the neighbor, the other one different from us. The pastor has the most important job in the world: choose and elect the Protestant people of God today.

 

Why do you keep using the language about the neighbor being “the one different from us?”

 

This refers for me to a very critically important aspect of orthodox Christian faith. I spoke above about Lindbeck’s reference to the background criteria that different religions bring to understanding what it is they believe. For Christianity this idea of “otherness” is such a criterion both in terms of our understanding of God as well as of neighbor. Interestingly it comes to us Christians today from a non-Christian source as a reminder of what it is that always should have been at the center of our faith but has been repressed in some stages of our history as a church. That source is contemporary postmodern philosophy which has an accent on “otherness” and “difference.” I will first discuss it in terms of theology from a Christian understanding. For Christians God is other than themselves or anything in the world, God is Other. God is not a tree or the sun or a rock or a people or a political or economic ideology. God is not an idea or a projection of the human mind. The word God is reserved for that which is entirely other than anything else in this world. That’s what it means to say God created the world. But in this creation God is creating that which is other than God. God loves this other, the creation, which is different from God. God loves that which is different from God’s self. And so, also, God wants us to love God, that which is different from us, and to love the neighbor, which is a word obviously meaning not of our own household, our own identity. We are to love that one who is other than us, different from us. For Jews that means to love the one who is not Jewish. Jesus even tells us to love our enemies, the ones most different from us. The early Christians who were Jews had difficulty deciding what this meant in practical terms but it was the Apostle Paul who clearly saw that it meant to love the Gentiles, the ones different from Jews. The early church was a multi-racial and multi-cultural social phenomenon and it had lots of problems as we read about in Paul’s letters. In fact, it is impossible to understand Paul’s theology without taking into account the fact that different peoples are coming together in one new community in the power of neither law (Jewish) nor desire (Gentiles) but of the spirit of Jesus, one who literally died for others. In this “otherness” talk we see what is distinctive about Christianity. God is not my group’s God over against the gods of other groups, but my God is the same God who created other groups and I am to love them as my neighbor. That is especially what the world needs today, I believe, and it is right there at the center of Christian faith, right there in the center of the bible. Even in the Old Testament the people of Israel are to be a blessing to the nations, that is their calling, that is why God elected them. And this understanding comes out of the experience of Israel after it had been destroyed by a foreign power and lived in the situation of captivity, such as in the prophet Isaiah. That is, the genius of Jewish-Christian faith comes out of not a situation of power, but of utter weakness, the weakness of a captive people and the weakness of the cross, what the Apostle Paul calls the folly of the cross. Martin Luther said that in order to hear the gospel the law (God’s will) must first be preached which drives us to know ourselves as weak and guilty and convicted and in need of God’s grace and mercy. Modern people don’t want to hear such talk, they want to think of themselves as powerful and guiltless and better than others who have gone before and better than others today who are not modern and “civilized.” Preaching the law today can be assisted by postmodern philosophy which is a devastating critique of modern arrogance especially as represented in the sense of superiority of those of us in Western European societies including the United States. To love the neighbor, to love the one other than and different from us is to love those in other parts of the world, those very others we think of as below us or as threats to us. The mission of the Protestant People of God at this time in history is to love the neighbor and it has never been a more challenging time to do so than right now since Protestants are weaker now in relation to public power than perhaps at any previous time in American history since colonial times. Our very weakness may be a strength.

 

What does this mean for a Protestant approach to the Muslim world?

 

Let me first say that I think of Jewish people as part of my own household of faith. It is clear in Romans 11 that the Apostle Paul thinks of Jewish people as continuing in the promises of God which will be finally fulfilled. Paul was not preaching another God different from the God revealed in the Old Testament when his preaching created the early church. So, Judaism in its various forms is not a separate religion from Christianity in essence. I realize that not all Jews would accept this embrace but their acceptance does not determine my own attitude. In fact they have every reason historically to be wary of Christians, a history concerning which all Christians should get on their knees and confess their sins with utmost sincerity and honesty. I recently read a book on the church in the middle ages before the Reformation which documents unrelenting, horrendous use of violence against Jews by both angry mobs intent to destroy “Christ killers” and by official legal authority under Christian rulers. That book by Peter Brown (The Rise of Western Christendom) also discusses the development of Islam. Now, if Judaism can be understood as a part of the Christian household of faith, as I want to understand it, how about Islam? All three of these religions are Abrahamic; they trace their origins to Abraham as the father of their faith. All three of these religions are “religions of the book,” one is the Hebrew bible, one is the bible containing the Hebrew bible as well as the New Testament, and one includes the bible and additional writings of Muhammad of Mecca (570-632) called the Koran. It seems to me that there is enough here to suggest that there can be hope for new interpretations by which all three can begin to understand themselves within the context of a common understanding of God and faith. Such, at least, I suggest could be a major project of Second Stage Protestantism. Thinking over the next fifty to a hundred years these religious divisions must be overcome in this world, at least the conditions and divisions which lead each to do violence to the other must be overcome or the world will face a very bloody future, worse than what is now occurring in Israel and Iraq, and judging from the past and the current mobilization of anti-Islam hatred among the religious right which desires the United States to engage in holy war. Christianity shares responsibility for the emergence of Islam. Remember that the Middle East in the early middle ages was Christian. But the doctrinal battles over the divinity of Christ were not just debates among theologians, they were debates and fighting conflicts between whole sections of Christendom that divided communities. Islam emerged in the seventh century partly because Christianity failed to unite people in peace. This was also because Christians all through this period relied on the power of the state to settle disputes, violent power, military power. Even Saint Augustine had requested of the emperor to send troops to settle a doctrinal controversy among Christians in his territory. I mention these matters so that we today can recognize that in the long view of history we in the church must reckon with the fact that Christianity has been in association with military power since the emperor Constantine officially adopted Christianity as the religion of the empire (before that Christians would not pick up the sword). The Reformation changed that relation decisively (Luther separated out functions of legal authority to the state and of spiritual authority to the church which later became the modern pattern) but not conclusively (there were all manner of other forms that continued in Protestant history even in the United States and in various states). This issue of the role of violence in relation to church and state has become the one most pressing concern for all Christians today and the very future of the world itself. The Protestant People of God in the United States can make a most important witness by energetically and courageously entering into this debate today. We must do so now because the name “Christian” in our society has become associated directly with the encouragement of violent military solutions to what is now in some circles called “the clash of civilizations.” Protestants still have the resources, the people around the country, the energy, the perspective, and the claim to be the legitimate voice of the church of Jesus Christ, to speak on this issue today. We just must do so, I believe we are elected by God to do so. There is no other way it is going to get done if Protestants do not respond to God’s call and just do it.

 

Why has the Islamic world set itself against the United States?

 

I will answer clearly, but those who may be questioning my comments so far may want to take a breath or two or three and get settled in their minds to hear a hard truth. The United States itself is responsible for Islamic hatred. The United States government over the past fifty years has been fully involved in the Middle East. It must have been doing something wrong.  It has created the conditions within which we now face a future of holy war. Muslims are using violence against the United States because the United States has used violence against Muslims for a long time now. The American people are nearly ignorant about the facts of what their government has been doing in the Middle East over this period and in other parts of the world where there are major numbers of Muslims, such as Africa. It is those facts which Protestant churches must now try to teach the American people to create a new public context within which political decisions can be made about these matters. Our political leaders have not been able to tell the truth, much of the activity has been done by intelligence agencies in secret, and the dominant players have been American corporations with a financial stake in being able to enrich themselves through their involvements in other countries and in the use of American military force to protect these investments and activities, particularly concerning energy resources because it so happens that Muslim countries are the places where oil is located. A politics associated with economic motives has kept the truth from the American people but 9/11/2001 was a giant wake-up call, one which put the issue before all of us in a way that cannot be avoided. It was the center of finance in this country which was attacked, the World Trade Center in New York; Muslims are angry about international economic activity of American business corporations in relation to their countries and the role of the military in support of same, such as the Gulf War and the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the current administration’s response to 9/11 has been a politics of fear against terrorists and evil-doers without providing the background of how things have become as they are. An excellent book on this is by Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, which describes how the United States has been involved in promoting regime changes in countries such as Iran and even training people in Africa and the Middle East who later became terrorists. It will be impossible to develop workable foreign policy without admitting mistakes in the past. That includes addressing all sides of the very difficult conflict between Israel and Palestinians which has been a great source of anger among Muslims. The fact is that taking advantage of Muslims economically, and using military violence against them, are the patterns of America foreign policy that are weakening this country and creating the conditions for holy war. The Protestant Church should formulate a teachable history of this period and broadly sponsor live learning events across the country to provide the American people with the truth and to explore credible options for a peaceful future.

 

Has violence characterized both Christian and Muslin history?

 

I often hear comments to the effect that Islam is a religion that believes in violence as if Christianity is any different. Here is another place where history is important. Americans have become an extremely arrogant people because they do not know their own history. Christians are arrogant when they think Christianity is a religion of peace and Islam is a religion of violence. Both Christianity and Islam have a very long and bloody history of fighting not only against one another but each of them within themselves. Most pastors have read books on church history and know Christianity was spread through Europe often through military triumphs of one king over another; the victor then declared everyone in the conquered territory to be Christian! Christianity did not develop through the conversion of individuals as if the modern Billy Graham pattern can simply be projected onto the past. As I indicated above, the very origin of Islam is associated with the need for civil peace at a time when Christianity was causing such civil disturbance due to its own internal conflicts. Second Stage Protestantism should be based on a realistic reading of church history including the ways by which Protestants themselves have promoted and participated in violence, look at the Thirty Years War that ended with the Peace of Westphalia in ????. Consider how the bible was written as an unfolding interpretation of the history of the people of Israel. In the Old Testament we see that the people of Israel, finally, at least through the prophets, took responsibility for their own failures in history. They realized that if bad things happened to them it was their own fault, they had failed the justice that a righteous God requires in human affairs. This notion of historical responsibility is a very key and important understanding for a Second Stage Protestantism, based on the scriptures. It should not be interpreted in narrow moralistic terms as the religious right preachers do, but it should be interpreted in terms of what God requires of all societies, justice for all. The one true God is a God of justice and justice is required for peace. This is the essence of so-called “natural law” a measure of which God has put into the hearts and minds of everyone. It is necessary to seriously face the possibility that the injustice and violence the United States has been committing in its recent history is escalating to the point that there is going to be a very serious consequence and correction in world history not favorable to us in this country. The United States has become a belligerent nation swaggering around on the world stage under recent Republican leadership elected by a politics of fear of unknown evil forces associated with fundamentalist Islam. It is of great importance that Protestantism today dedicate itself to informing the American people about their own history and helping them to accept their measure of responsibility for how things are. Unless this happens policy in this country is going to more and more be based on mass hysteria, the same kind of hysteria generated by Adolph Hitler in Nazi Germany to support his mission of world domination which finally destroyed that country.

 

Who are some prophets today?

 

There are many Protestant pastors who are trying to preach prophetically today and one of the things I want to do is begin to identify these pastors more specifically and present their preaching to a wider audience. And I believe all Protestant pastors must now identify themselves with the prophetic function of ministry, more so than they have done in the past. The job today is not to first and foremost be a church administrator or an organizer of church functions, others can do this, it is to preach prophetically, interpreting history realistically, pointing to signs of hope for peace and justice. It is dangerous work, Jesus was put on a cross for telling the truth about Israel’s history and the power of God. Prophets are often strange-looking persons saying things people don’t want to hear but which open up new ways to be alive and be human and accept responsibility for the future. I will mention one man who has recently become one of the most unpopular figures in America in order to demonstrate that this country is now in a state of mass hysteria. Before doing so let me emphasize that “popularity” means today speaking in a way that contributes to mass hysteria. Successful politicians are those who have simplified a formula of fear/security that characterized the Cold War. The United States failed in Vietnam because the reason for the war (fear of Communism) did not match the reality on the ground (a civil war). Ronald Reagan was elected through rhetoric which explicitly ignored this fact and returned to fear of Communism to support huge military increases. Reagan learned this formula from John F. Kennedy who had won his earlier election by claiming a “missile gap” existed (a false claim) which he would correct. This formula, fear of the enemy, has been the basis for successful elections in this country ever since; it is currently the constant refrain of conservative politicians especially through attacks on so-called liberals who are said to be “weak on defense.” It has been so popular, so successful that it has completely intimidated any opposition, for to be weak on defense is to not love the country, to be isolationist, defeatist, or a naïve peace activist. This kind of rhetoric works, it can destroy opponents. In his state of the union speech in January, 2006, George W. Bush said the American people “will never surrender to evil” and received a long, loud applause, as if there are others in the country who would want to surrender to evil, as if to disagree with his policies is surrender to evil. This is nothing but appeal to mass hysteria. The various right wing talk show hosts regularly repeat this sort of thing over and over again. And even the general media since 9/11 present the news of the day in the context of who is winning and losing this battle and that battle as if the audience is a band of teenagers at a football game screaming for their side to win. No history, no background, no cool and careful reasoning, just mass hysterical screaming, that is what characterizes politics today. It is very dangerous. It is irresponsible. This is not a game. The prophets of old preached against lying in public and against false national glory at the expense of others.

 

How can Protestants grow by preaching unpopular prophecy?

 

I think pastors should build their churches on the basis of their prophecy, on the basis of telling the truth, on the basis of a clear and compelling interpretation of history. And I believe that there are very large numbers of people out there who reject appeals to mass hysteria, who do not want to live on the basis of fear and insecurity, who are rather desperately looking for a larger view of the world and history by which they can orient their lives, find meaning and purpose, and find themselves called to engage in noble and significant work. The current political use of mass hysteria is an opportunity for Protestants to build up their church on the basis of biblical theology! Protestants have always believed the bible is the standard and norm for truth, we just have to actually use it to interpret our times. The prophets of the Old Testament are an incredible resource for biblical preaching today. And I think we modern people can be helped to understand that it is the height of arrogance for us to think of ourselves as the only wise ones who have ever lived, that we are “civilized” in our use of reason, when today this country is being driven by mass hysteria! What happened in Germany in the 1930s took place in one of the most highly educated nations on earth. One of the ways we in this country can avoid that fate is through biblical prophecy, but pastors have to demonstrate its usefulness in the way it can be applied to our own times through interpretive acts of preaching. Prophetic preaching will build the church! But it is not just to build the church which is the goal, of course, it is to be a blessing to the country and the world, to love the neighbor by telling the truth and taking responsibility rather than selling fear to justify military violence. Because the mass hysteria has become so strong there are few places in society where a more careful and sober view, a truly “conservative” view, can be entertained, and Protestant churches are perhaps the most important of these places. We cannot look to the academic world for prophecy, the religious right has a modernist view of religion and its view of the bible as inerrant means it cannot see the historical correlations between the ancient prophets and our own times, it is us Protestants who know how to read the bible in the context of its history and in our churches across the land we provide a space in the world for people to come together to experience themselves as a People of God dedicated to God’s purposes for all people and the earth. Our churches are a place for prophecy!

 

So, who is that person you consider a prophet today?

 

Since unpopularity and controversy are characteristics of prophecy one place to look in the popular media for prophets is unpopular and controversial figures. The media chooses figures from the religious right because they match the criteria reporters use for what makes for a “religious” statement, such as when Pat Robertson announces that natural disasters are caused by God as judgment for what Robertson considers immoral acts, as he recently threatened against the citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania, for voting out school board members who had tried to force the teaching of Intelligent Design in science classrooms. This is a trivialization of an important issue, the relation of faith and science, but the media considers such things to be news. Christian faith loses credibility in such news reports, which, of course, is the view of the reporters, in general; religious faith is incredible. But I would like to point to a person not associated with Christian faith, a most unpopular person these days because of his interpretation of the 9./11 events. His name is Ward Churchill, a professor of Indian studies at a Colorado university. Shortly after the events of 9/11 he published a brief paper on the Internet in which he said that the people working in the World Trade Center were “little Eichmanns” referring to the Nazi administrator of the extermination camps under Hitler. Eichmann claimed he was just following orders to try to justify his role in the holocaust. Churchill was saying that the people working in the twin towers were following orders by participating in a world financial system that benefits the rich countries at the expense of the poor. The terrible implication is that the twin towers workers deserved to be killed due to their complicity in an unjust economic system. I do not share that implication nor its assumption that the terrorists flying those airplanes were doing God’s work, yet it is important to face the fact that that is how they understood their mission, that they were, as they believed, doing God’s work. Furthermore, Churchill’s provocative writing raises an important ethical question for all Christians involved in the current economic system. If this system is generating immense poverty in the world, if economic actors are making decisions forcing poor countries to pay their debts to the wealthy in rich countries rather than serve the needs of their people for health and education, if the rules of trade and investment have been established to insure that wealth flows from the poor to the rich, then anybody who does, indeed, participate in that system is ethically culpable. Simply to call the terrorists “evil” as George Bush does and wage a total war against them rather than to carefully consider what it is they are saying to us in this drastic action is to fail to be able to formulate policies which can actually work on behalf of a peaceful future. These terrorists are making a political statement, they are not just wild-eyed, irrational religious nuts, they have a perspective on the United States which we can come to understand if not agree with. That is what Ward Churchill was trying to say in his brief paper. His facts were wrong, he initially thought Iraq was involved in the attacks, and his paper otherwise is not so well written since it was a quick reaction to the news, but the point at issue is the ethical culpability of people working to support an unjust economic system. Churchill has been banned from speaking on college campuses for raising such a question. Efforts are being made to force his expulsion from his academic job. The only thing saving him is academic freedom. But his words are prophetic, they “see” into the reality of the current global economic system, they make a judgment about that system from a justice perspective just as the ancient prophets of Israel did again and again and again. His words are prophetic in that they reveal that injustice will in the end lead to violence, disruption, destruction, the end of social and economic order, just as Israel’s prophets understood. His words are prophetic in that they call each person to act ethically, to be responsible in their work, to question themselves and the system they work within if injustice is the result. His words do not justify the violence, as I do not, since the terrorist violence will lead only to further violence as a reaction as the United States has proceeded to do. The United States is doing just what the terrorists may have wanted it to do, blindly resort to military violence against false targets weakening the country and contributing to an increase of reliance on violence by all, creating a mass hysteria which can only result finally in self-destruction. The evidence for the degree to which mass hysteria controls minds today was seen in the faces of Colorado Republican leaders who appeared on news shows following the exposure of Churchill’s paper. They could hardly speak coherently, their mouths were agape, they couldn’t believe anyone could write such a ridiculous paper, they were totally incredulous. That is because they are so committed to the idea of the benevolence of the world economic system and to the rightness of the American control of that system that any criticism of it was beyond comprehension. Gone are the days when it was possible to discuss anything rationally about capitalism, if you question it you are an impossible traitor to your country and must be expelled. This is mass hysteria and it characterizes current politics, especially Republican politics, but also Democratic. Anyone who raises questions about the fairness of the dominance of the United States in world capitalism, that the rules should be established in our favor rather than to help the poor, is viewed as a wild-eyed prophet out of touch with reality. I suggest that it is those whose minds are captured by mass hysteria who are the ones who are out of touch with reality, the reality known from the prophets of the bible, the reality that the one true God will not forever allow such great injustices to go unchallenged in the world. If this country continues to waste its resources and strength on violent military actions which cannot succeed, if it refuses to adjust the behavior of its most powerful institutional actors, corporate enterprise, so that all countries can develop ways to feed and clothe and house and provide safety for their populations, then its days are numbered. It seems obvious to say that, but sometimes it takes a prophet.

 

Why don’t people see the importance of economic justice?

 

It’s because they believe in economic mythologies as I tried to show earlier. It all has to do with how we define “reality.” What I have to say here can be helpful to pastors as they try to think about these matters and find ways to discuss with persons who work within business settings as well as others. It used to be that it was religious faith that was accused of consisting of mythologies. Today religion is not taken seriously, even by those in the religious right who use the old mythologies simply to make money. The neoconservatives who say they support religion do not believe in religious mythologies, they support religion because it is a means to obtain political power. The Catholic Church takes religion seriously but it primarily speaks within its own institutional structures, it considers participation in the church itself as salvation and creates its own world, so to speak, in and of itself; reality is what happens inside the church and its own churchly culture. That is the direction of even such newer theological movements as radical orthodoxy. There is a movement within Protestantism led by Stanley Haurerwas and others which wants to duplicate the Catholic model, to break the church out of the world into its own more sectarian culture; while there is some help in some of this theology, especially concerning peace, it is not moving in the historic Protestant direction. It is the Protestant Church which has always considered itself a public church, a church with an internal theology but an outward mission, taking responsibility for and never giving up on the world God loves in-so-far-as it is able, loving God (worship) and neighbor (world). The historic confession of the church is that God created the world, the whole world, and that notion is compromised by any theology which narrows the scope of God’s crerative loving activity. The cross of Jesus Christ covers a multitude of sins, indeed, the sins of the whole world, and any lesser concept of redemption does not reflect what it means for Jesus to be both human and divine. The winds of the Holy Spirit move throughout the world not merely within the walls of the church at worship. If this is all true then the God revealed in the bible is a God whose will is meant not just for the church but for the world. And God’s will has everything to do with what we call economic justice, that is, with fair chances among human beings for life, material life, food, water, clothing, housing, income, all the material necessities, the same content as the modern discipline of economics. Material reality is the location of spiritual phenomena in Christian understanding of the incarnation and of following the commandments of God. When spirituality is defined as something “religious” as separate from the world of material reality we lose almost everything of what is talked about in the bible. So the theology of a Second Stage Protestantism must reject most notions of “religious mythologies” if they lead us out of this world as the focus of our spiritual life. This means then that Christian understandings of life within the reality of the material world will come right up against any opposing views of the world. Both theology and economics are trying to describe the same thing. No longer can they be separated as if they describe separate realities. And the fact is that economics has moved beyond science, it has become itself a mythology of how the world works. In my own studies of these matters I have become convinced that theology provides a much more coherent description of reality, the reality of human and moral life, than economics. The idea from the bible of one true God of justice makes more sense intellectually than the economic mythologies. Demonstrating that is one of the projects of a Second Stage Protestantism; many theologians and others have been working on it already.

 

Do you mean that theology should replace economics?

 

No, not in those terms. I mean economics refers to a limited field of reality in the world which can be helpfully interpreted from theological perspectives. When economics is allowed to become a mythology or religious in character, ultimately justifying human behavior, it becomes demonic and theology can be a necessary corrective. Protestantism from the Reformation put accent on loving the neighbor through best use of human rational capacity. This idea promoted the development of science and the various bodies of knowledge we discussed earlier, including the science of economics. Now, economics is a social science, not like physics which does not have to deal with matters such as human consciousness and social interaction. Economics is a set of social relations, not simply exchange relations. Failure of economists to admit that fact is one of the factors leading to economic mythology which in turn means that the social impacts of economic activity (on the family as a social institution, on how income is distributed in the community) are screened out of perception of reality. I would be most happy if economists would admit they are studying just one piece of the whole human reality, but that is not what many of them do today, they claim that economics constitute the whole of reality, that everything can be explained through economics. There is a movement today, for example, funded by large corporations that provides judges with expenses paid courses the content of which claims that legal decisions are always economic decisions (who gets rewarded with what money). See the writings of Richard Posner on this such as  his book The Economics of Justice. I think it helpful to break economics into three levels, the macro, institutional, and individual levels. The macro is the whole economy. Now the notion of an “economy” is a modern idea, never before in history has there been any study of the totality of what is considered to be economic activity. There has long been the buying and selling of goods in markets, but never the idea that one can think about the totality of such activity in one concept. Like other efforts to formulate modern knowledge, economics thinks it is studying something real, the “economy” as a whole. To study this all kinds of counting as to go on, government has to set up ways to receive numbers from corporations and other sources, these numbers are aggregated, summed up, and the totals are assumed to tell us something about the economy as a whole. We “know” the economy through these numbers, gross national product, productivity, employment rates, etc. Along with government accounting the stock markets get to be centers of attention as everyone tries to follow the market, to see what the “economy” is doing. All of this is mythology. It works because everyone believes in the myths, including the myth that statistics can demonstrate something real when aggregated in such massive ways. As soon as large numbers of people would stop believing the myths the statistics would tell us something different. Economics today is a faith system. The idea of the “economy” as I said has never existed before modern times. But we sure do believe in it today, it has become a sort of god. During the Christmas period, for example, news shows like to report how sales are going and even urge people to go to the mall and buy gifts for friends and family in order to help the “economy.” Serving the economy, offering one’s self up to the economy, has become the duty of human beings. We are not to buy things because we need them, or because we love our friends or family, but because we must serve the economy. Most retail businesses would go broke without high Christmas sales so the actual fact about this is the economy is dependent on the social/religious activity of Christmas but in contemporary economic mythology it is the “economy” that must be served, the social/religious under-structure of reality is literally screened out of perception by the focus on economics alone. Christmas sales are aggregated and if better than last year then it is a “good Christmas” and the stock market goes up. The economics actually is based on a social-religious-community reality, business feeds off the social reality, it lives from it, it uses it, it manipulates it, it tries now to control and determine it, and, in fact, it is driving it so hard that Christmas as a social-religious celebratory experience is losing its capacity to deliver those meanings in the first place. Business is killing the thing that makes it profitable because of its own mythologies. It is not just the economy, it is a particular type of economy that is believed in, the capitalistic economy. Business as an institutional reality justifies its existence in relation to this new god, this new mythology, the capitalistic economy. As I indicated earlier, business now is able through its dominance of major media to influence the minds and hearts of the mass society of individuals; it uses that media to propagate its mythology, to evangelize for its god, a god that has strict rules to follow, a god that drives people to go to the mall to consume more and more, a god that promises much more than it can deliver and that is why so many people are so filled with generalized anger today, a god which defines what is an acceptable human being in very narrow ways, a god which determines what is “hot” and “in” and what must be done to be “cool,” and a god which announces that you can be  “free” from any social constraints to do what business wants you to do. What I have tried to do with this example of Christmas is demonstrate the three levels of economics, the general level of the economy as a whole, the institutional level of actual business activity which has become so powerful today as compared to other spheres of society, and the individual level where the human person is defined in very narrow terms as a pleasure seeking animal. I find it helpful to think in terms of these three levels as they are related to one another in dynamic ways. If economics would stick to a more modest realm, admit its dependency on social reality, and admit it must always function under rules finally determined by democratic processes in the community, and if its leaders would admit that their economic decisions are also always also moral decisions then I would not be so critical. Capitalism as an economic system has been immensely productive as long as it operated within the larger morality created from Protestant faith, but it has in the 20th century separated itself from any other accountable authority and taken a turn toward becoming a totalizing mythology and dominating force in society which is not good for the democratic polity of the country nor its social-religious character. A theological interpretation of capitalism may help save it from itself especially now that it is claiming to be able to function autonomously on a global scale.

 

What evidence do you have that economics has become a totalizing belief system?

 

I have already given several examples, the myth of the free market, the myth of the notion of an “economy” itself. There is in any belief system a totalizing tendency, a tendency to universality. But these matters, as all else, as we have seen, are best understood in a historical context. One can look at the actual history of capitalism. And here the decisive event is one that has happened not so long ago, the fall of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War. The Cold War was viewed as a battle of economic ideologies. The fall of Soviet Communism has been interpreted as a victory of capitalism. That is, capitalism no longer has to demonstrate its validity through reason or logic or science, it can claim to be authorized by an historical victory, at least this is how proponents now think about it. That is the primary reason why it has become a totalizing belief system in the actual minds of the people now in power in the United States. These are the people now working very hard to install this belief system into institutional machinery at the world level with no accountability to an operational democratic decision process. It is a strenuous effort to protect the prerogatives of the wealthy. And that is why there has been such a strong effort to control the politics of this country since it still has dominance of the international economic institutions. The beliefs of the wealthy are put forward as universal truth. Notice that it is not democracy that is the primary belief system, but capitalism. When capitalism has so much power then democracy itself is threatened as we can see today with the nearly complete dominance of economic institutions over the political process in this country. This tendency to universality is causing economic institutions to over-reach, to claim more for themselves than is warranted by a full view of human being and human society, to associate themselves with military violence at such a scale that they will lose both credibility and legitimacy since they will be destroying that from which they live in the first place, society itself. There is going to be a great deal of pain in the future as the economic institutions which provide the people with the sustenance they need for survival stagger and crash in a world of what are still and finally limited resources. The western notion of itself as superior, universal  and unlimited, the idea that the Economic Machine can grow eternally to gobble up everything, these ideas which justify current powers cannot guide a rational approach to the future today. If American politics continues to be driven by fear and economic mythologies there is great pain coming in the future for Americans, greater than they even now are feeling, the pain of the poor will be the pain of all, it may be time to raise the Crucifix.

 

What do you mean by saying it is time for the Crucifix?

 

Protestants have had a tendency in their worship to display in their sanctuaries the empty cross, the cross of the resurrected Christ. Roman Catholics have used the crucifix, presenting before the people the full image of the suffering body of Christ on the cross. I am wondering whether or not in Second Stage Protestantism we should return to the crucifix in order that Protestants might be able to identify with the extensive pain that people in western culture are and will be experiencing in the next fifty years or so. Jesus says that “they do not know what they are doing” and so, also, in our time, we do not know what we are doing, everything we do to try to prevent and solve problems just causes greater problems, we blame everything on the least powerful among us rather than point the finger where it belongs, at the most powerful. We crucify the poor in order to justify the rich. This thinking, blaming the victim, which is taught by both neoconservatism and the religious right is irrational. The powerless around the world are not to blame for the failures of American foreign policy. The poor in this country are not to blame for the failures of the economy. Black people are not to blame for the terrible condition of our cities. Atheists are not to blame for the hedonism and individualism of current culture. This thinking if it continues to inform policy formation in this country can only cause ever greater crises because it is irrational. First Stage Protestantism lived much of its life within a public atmosphere of great hopefulness for the American experiment, a kind of theology of glory, not adequately facing the realities of sin and evil, trying to overcome pain and suffering through the application of rationality in science and technology. Liberal Christians early in the 20th century even imagined a “Christian century.” To survive the 21st century we must be much more sober and realistic, we must ground hope for resurrection in the reality of the cross. We are able to live not according to mythologies, not the ghosts of modern culture, but faith in the one true God revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ.

 

What are the ghosts of modern culture?

 

Modern culture has been constructed through opposition to God. Modern secular culture needs God to push against, it comes to know itself only in relation to what it believes it is rejecting. So God for modern culture is a kind of Ghost. The Ghost is still there; it is very important for the Ghost to remain there for without the Ghost modern culture does not know itself, cannot define itself. In historical terms the modern age is defined over-against the medieval age, an age of reason over-against the age of faith. The medieval  God remains as an authoritarian Ghost in the minds of modern persons. In terms of personal biography large numbers of persons conceive of their lives in the same way, they were raised in the church but then went to school and college where they gave up naïve faith for more “rational” explanations of the way the world works, the various bodies of knowledge we referred to earlier along with their Enlightenment institutions. But God remains as a Ghost in the minds of such folks, they define themselves in terms of when they gave up on silly magic or authoritarian prescriptions of how they should morally live their lives. But the Ghost remained in the mind, and even the morality remained for most of these folks who have been raised in the church. Over the years I have countless conversations with persons about these matters. Right now I am corresponding with a young man just out of college about whether God exists. It is interesting to me that he has a very strong need to deny God’s existence, he is very engaged in this conversation, he needs to know that God does not exist so that he can justify behavior he believes would otherwise be proscribed by God. When I ask him what concept of God it is that he is rejecting he is confused, he believes he knows exactly what God it is that he is rejecting and refuses to entertain the possibility that there are other concepts of God or that God may not be a concept in the first place. In other words, he is defining himself by a Ghost which continues to haunt him at the depth of his being. This is the situation for very large numbers of people who understand themselves as secular persons today, especially those who have been raised in the church or who are part of larger families with a history in the church, so much so that it characterizes modern culture itself. To see how this works consider popular music and take Madonna as an example. Her persona has been carefully created explicitly over-against the church and the mother of Jesus. (I am not concerned here with her personal beliefs or actions, but with her persona, the way her image works.) The Holy Mother is associated with sexual liberation of young people, a most powerful image justifying sexual expression at a time in the life cycle when the hormones are raging. This has made very large amounts of money for Madonna and all associated with her. In this example, the Ghost is explicitly associated with a religious image but all of modern culture, such as in Hollywood movies, lives off the Ghost whether or not it is explicitly associated with religious images; it is there in the background as a judging, threatening God. The essence of the so-called “free press” is defined by its purpose to “present the facts” over-against religious interpretations of events. God is taken out of history, God has nothing to do with public events, God in no way is involved in public matters. Yet the Ghost remains, haunting the press, which helps the press to define what is and what is not news, what is right or real or good, what is ethical and what is not, what is fair or just. Without the Ghost these ethical issues are impossible to define for, finally, definition of what is right and good requires some sort of transcendent source. The success of the religious right is seen precisely here, it has created its own communications networks in competition with the secular media, it has developed its own capacity to interpret history and deliver its interpretations and consequent definitions of right and wrong to its constituencies. Protestants must do the same if they are to survive in the modern media age. For the secular media keeps its ear tuned to what religious voices are saying and defines the news within the context of those voices. The most powerful religious voice is the religious right so its definitions of God and what God requires has great influence on the news. For example, the religious right defines traditional sexual morality and the secular media uses that definition to determine sexual infractions by public figures, and justifies its exposure of such infractions by appeal to the “character” of the politician. What is actually going on, of course, is a massive flow of power to the secular press over politicians in order to command the attention of the American people for news broadcasts and advertising revenue. Nothing sells like a good sex scandal within the interpretive framework of sex defined in relation to the Ghost (as interpreted by the religious right). Political advertising today is done within this same context in relation to a host of issues. It is “character” that seems to make the difference so political advertising focuses on creating political personas which can be sold to voters in the same way that Madonna is sold to young people, along with creative negative personas for the political enemy. Actual debate about substantive issues makes little difference in how politics is conducted these days. What it means to be a human person, the “character” of the person, has become the substance of politics. It appears that the Ghost has not gone away from this process since most politicians are now trying to find ways to engage in religious talk in political campaigns in order to demonstrate their character. What this means for public life will continue to be a major concern within Second Stage Protestantism, for the Ghost is the Protestant concept of God, love God and neighbor, whereas the god of the religious right has become a nationalistic and commercialized god. So modern politics has become a battle of ghosts and gods, who would have thought?

 

Does the Ghost remain in postmodern culture?

 

I am tempted to say no, but the question perhaps should be considered an open one. That is, postmodernism as a conscious orientation to the world is still something affirmed more in intellectual than practical public politics. Whereas modernism is defined over-against God, postmodernism has little concern for God at all. It is the orientation of those coming from families where for generations there has been little concern for God. There are more and more such families and persons in western cultures. They seem to survive quite well without God. The question we are dealing with here is whether there can be something which can be called “secular society.” Can such societies survive? Can any society survive without some sort of central concept of God at the heart of the society? The founders of this country believed that a democratic government could maintain itself without explicit adherence to any particular, official religious faith. This is what we can call Classic Liberalism, belief that human beings can order themselves within democratic processes including checks and balances of three units of government, with rule by the majority yet with respect for minorities, a “limited government.” The religious right is on a crusade to demonstrate that Classic Liberalism cannot work, that only faith in God can provide the basis for democracy. Yet the notion of God that the religious right promotes is an authoritarian one, completely opposed to the spirit of democracy. What we seem to have before us in the public context today is a battle between fundamentalism and postmodernism, the one claiming life must be lived under an authoritarian God, the historic God coming out of medieval Catholicism and carried on in First Stage Protestantism (the Ghost), and the other claiming no God at all. What is rejected by both sides is Classic Liberalism. If either of these sides wins we lose the country as we have known it, though the greater danger comes from fundamentalism since the logic of its approach leads to authoritarian fascism on the scale of corporatist empire. Though postmodern criticism undercuts all classically liberal beliefs it represents an appropriate modesty concerning the notion of western superiority and the importance of multi-cultural sensitivity, and it is possible for postmodernists to decide to participate in Classic Liberal government as the best possible style of political process for a postmodern world. Still, postmodernism provides no adequate basis for social morality, some transcendence is necessary for some order in social life, is necessary for human beings to be able to find purpose and meaning in their lives as well as how to determine right and wrong. I suggest that such transcendence can be provided through interpretation of history for the country itself and that one of the tasks of Second Stage Protestantism is to help the country develop such an interpretation and promulgate it throughout the public school system. Such an interpretation should not be based first on abstract philosophical concepts coming out of either postmodernism or fundamentalism but on actual history as it unfolded, and it must be a critical history, that is, that is willing to reveal where the United States did not do so well, where it made mistakes, where it failed its own values, where it hurt other peoples. Most of the foreign policy conundrums we now face as a country have come out of a failure to rightly interpret the Vietnam war, for example, as well as the second world war, and the Cold War, as discussed above. Just as in biblical times when there were debates among schools of thought within Israel about how to interpret and understand its history, so politics should be characterized by similar debates today, except that there should be a much stronger substratum of historical understanding than exists today. The American people are nearly ignorant about their own history. Never before has the study of history been more important. And this history has to deal with the Ghost, with the reality of religion. The terrible current legacy of the religious right has been to associate Christian faith with obnoxiousness, with ridiculous hysteria, just at the time when all secular persons would do well to realize the importance of religious faith in the history of this country as well as others. Protestants should in no way follow the model of the religious right as it approaches these issues. However, it would be possible to organize and present a major study of American history and make it known to others as a helpful contribution to public life today. Americans need a positive self-understanding in order to face the tremendous changes coming in the future otherwise the country will turn against itself as it tries to protect itself. Just as the auto-immune system of the body can destroy the body so the United States is becoming so militarized, is defining everything in terms of national security, is using up its resources fighting against false enemies, that it is actually attacking itself, attacking that which is healthy in the national body, weakening itself just at the time when it needs its strength to change to face the future. I believe Protestants need to help the country affirm the democratic processes of Classic Liberalism but to do so there needs to be honest and realistic assessment of history, and, to a certain degree we Protestants must be willing to keep the Ghost out of it, for the sake of a world that already has too many gods.

 

So Protestants should in the end support Classic Liberalism?

 

Well, yes, Classic Liberalism is the intellectual foundation of the country. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, are documents of Classic Liberalism. Martin Marty gave a talk on this a couple of decades ago; he said few people actually believe anymore in what I am calling Classic Liberalism. He was referring to the academic community, primarily, I think, especially social science which through its studies recognizes that a central tenant of Classic Liberalism, the free individual, does not correspond with reality since individuals are created by their social environments. The human person does not just pop into existence as a free, rational individual. But, Marty said, he wants to come to the aid of Classic Liberalism as worthy of continuing respect as a form of government. He was speaking to Protestants and I agree with him. But I think in a Second Stage Protestantism we need to carefully study what Classic Liberalism means now for the future. We should do that study at three levels. First is the philosophical background of liberalism, its key concepts such as contract theory which corresponds with covenantal theology, the theory of law which corresponds to Protestant notions of natural law, the theory of rights which is associated with the idea of the free individual (including whether a corporation should be considered a legal individual), the theory of the sovereignty of the people and what that means for a deliberative political process and representative democracy. Understanding these matters is crucial as I will indicate below. The second level of study should focus on the history of how liberal beliefs have been actually implemented in the institutional machinery of government in this country. We now have over 200 years of experience with an effort to institutionalize Classic Liberalism including the relation of church and state. I think Protestants as a body should engage in such study and not rely on the judgment of individual scholars; we need to develop the concept of “communal understanding,” that it is necessary for us as a particular People of God in the world today to have a communal perspective on the world in which we live. Such a communal understanding will not come about through the political process as if understanding is determined by majority vote, it will come through careful deliberation involving large numbers of people led by faithful leaders. And the third level of study is contemporary practical politics. Protestants should not only engage in the political process, we need to develop an understanding about it. We need to engage in a process of stepping back from the intensity of practical political involvement and seriously ask how best to engage within it for the sake of both church and world. Early in his ministry Jesus went into the wilderness away from town and city and there confronted the demons and determined his own stance before he entered into the realities of his day. Protestants need to do the same today. This is especially necessary in our time because the divisive, polarized politics currently being practiced has little to do with, and is actually in opposition to, Classic Liberalism. That means the people of the country are not learning Classic Liberalism from the political process. We are not practicing what we preach in this country today. Since Classic Liberalism is the intellectual foundation of the documents and fundamental political beliefs of the country that means that practical politics is undermining and calling into question this foundation, these beliefs. This process has proceeded to such a degree that very large numbers of people don’t believe it is important for them to even take the time to vote in public elections today. The explanation for this should not be based on blaming people for not voting, we must ask what it is about current practical politics that is leading so many to believe that voting is not worthy of their time and effort. We must ask who controls the process of politics today, what language is being used, what do people learn from involvement in the political process, and how does this relate to the history of the country and its founding philosophy. Classic Liberalism, it can be said, has its origins in the Reformation which influenced the Enlightenment and so Protestants are able to claim it as a political philosophy emerging from their own history. At least, I think it would be good for Protestants to make such a claim, take responsibility for Classic Liberalism, study what it means in today’s situation of practical politics, and act on the basis of the communal understandings which result. It may be that it is part of the mission of Protestantism in the world today to “save” Classic Liberalism from itself, from the way it has been implemented and is currently being practiced in the United States today. If Protestants do not do this it is likely that the future will see a country very different from the one envisioned in its founding documents. I don’t see any other organized group of people in the country today that is capable of engaging in broad, deliberative processes by which to call the country back to its original beliefs and vision. As Martin Marty said, almost no one believes in Classic Liberalism these days.

 

Why is current practical politics so threatening to Classic Liberalism?

 

Classic Liberalism as institutionalized in this country was an effort to avoid war, to find a way for human beings to come together in civil society without recourse to killing one another and to avoid what had been going on in Europe for centuries, religious wars, and wars among kings-monarchies for national glory. At the heart of it is a belief, a very significant belief, that it is possible for human beings to talk to one another and come to agreements for their mutual benefit. Note here that it is not based on magical market theory, it is a communication theory, a deliberative process involving thinking persons using words that can serve as bridges among real people leading to mutual understanding. This deliberative process has been institutionalized in three different branches of government in order to accent the necessity of constant thinking and talking among the three branches where no one branch is able to exert its power over the other branches. Within each branch there is a further process of deliberation, especially the congressional branch involving many representatives elected by the people. The founders wanted to eliminate the tendency toward monarchy and war that they had correctly seen in history. This idea of deliberative process, this idea that human beings are capable of engaging in deliberative processes, is a “liberal” idea, it is a hopeful idea, it does not correspond very well with actual history which is a history of war and conflict. Now, current practical politics for the past thirty years has been based not on this idea of deliberative process but on the idea of politics as war. This is what the term “conservative” means today, it means to be “realistic” about how elections are won and lost, that it is necessary to destroy your opponent by “framing” them in a negative light, it means to manipulate the emotions of fear and anger among the electorate through political ads, it means to avoid rational debate about actual policy proposals and outcomes, it means using all the tools of psychology and sociology to build up hysterical mass audiences who will vote for your candidate and against the terrible, evil, other one, it means the intentional effort to create enemies against which it is necessary to fight to the death, it means using language of religion for purposes of political warfare. These methods work. Political leaders who lower themselves to use these methods can get themselves elected. But such a process is not teaching the people the principles of Classic Liberalism, exactly the opposite. Grover Norquist, one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington D.C. right now, recently told a conference of college Republicans concerning politics that “there are no rules in a knife fight.” This is the message given by conservative leaders to the young people of the country today, no belief in law and rules, no belief in deliberative arguments, no belief in respect for others, no, politics is just a knife fight, a war of one side against the other. The political process today is dominated by people who do not believe in the principles that founded the country. It is as if the country has been invaded by outsiders who don’t believe in the principles on which the country was founded and are intent on destroying it from within. Political leaders who are calling themselves “conservative” are waging war on Classic Liberalism. The word conservative historically means to conserve the best of the past, and I would say that the hope for a world without war represented by Classic Liberalism is something worthy of preserving since it constitutes the very foundation of the country.

 

Why has the conservative attack on Classic Liberalism been so successful?

 

I have already talked about the primary reason, just one of the Enlightenment institutions, corporate enterprise, has come to nearly completely dominate not only the society but also the democratic polity of the country. The idea of competition in capitalist economics has been applied to the political process which is conceived of as a survivalist struggle within which the strongest win. It is not a matter of deliberation, not a matter of thinking and talking, it is a conflict defined in terms of Social Darwinism not Classic Liberalism. The so-called “free press” is in the hands of corporate enterprise so it cannot criticize its benefactor to the degree necessary. In fact the press propagates the notion of politics as war, especially in how it covers the “horse races” of elections. The fact of nearly total corporate power today is screened out of the consciousness of both people and professionals even though it is the elephant in front of everyone’s face. That is one of the reasons why I see only the Protestant church as capable of mounting an effort to tell the truth in today’s public life. It is the only major institution which enjoys a broad presence in American society and is also distant enough from economic power to be able to provide a place from which to “see” what is going on in the world. A second big reason for the success of conservatism has to do with the nature of liberalism itself. In any conflict the liberal tendency is to want to talk, that is the essence of liberal belief, talking can resolve conflicts, respect the other person enough to talk with them. For the conservative today, talking is no solution, it is fighting, engage in war, destroy the opponent by any means necessary, use language not to reach understanding but to dominate and defeat. It’s as if the Cold War, the conflict with an external enemy, has been internalized; the enemy is now within, as the rabid talk show host Michael Savage has named his book. Now, the liberal really does not have any way to respond to this without giving up liberal beliefs in the first place. In other words, Classic Liberalism cannot survive if political leaders do not share the beliefs that founded the country. I have engaged in conversations with many, many conservatives over the years and more and more I have found that their object is not to listen and consider options but to dominate and defeat, to force allegiance to their way of seeing things. A third reason that conservatives are able to “win” the debates on these issues has to do with the way the liberal media work. The media is liberal, as the conservatives claim, most reporters have gone to college, they share liberal sentiments. But what that means is that they dutifully report the conservative voice on the news even when that voice is one that engages in merciless and unwarranted attack, even when that voice engages in deliberate public lying. I have seen this over and over in the political debate on television news shows. The conservative stakes out a clear, often hostile position, the liberal wants to discuss it and doesn’t seem to stand for anything. Are you for abortion or against it? Are you for the Iraq war or against it?  The liberal wants to discuss. The conservative wants to fight. And fighting, of course, always makes for better news, better ratings, more money from the advertisers. On religious issues the whole process gets completely ridiculous. To have a good fight it is necessary to have a religious right spokesperson over-against a representative from an atheist group. Now that really reveals the nature of religious debate in the country! So, it is clear that the modern media do not present the context for learning anything about Classic Liberalism, the process is one of rather silly conflict to try to get high ratings. In fact, those who support a liberal position, that talking through an issue can be helpful, end up looking like they have no substance. No wonder few people today believe in the idea of Classic Liberalism, it is not taught in the political process, it is not taught in modern media, the place that it is taught to some degree, the public school, is also one of the prime targets of the extreme conservative right. Maybe the Protestant church is a place where people can learn again about the hope of Classic Liberalism, the hope for a world with less conflict and war.

 

You are saying that conservatism has come to mean the promotion of war?

 

Yes, because it wins elections. But it has become irrational. When I was growing up my Republican father told me that it was Democrats who got us into war, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. That is one reason he was a Republican. Conservatives historically have been hesitant about a powerful central government. That is another idea of Classic Liberalism, limited government. The founders, as I said earlier, didn’t want a monarchy where the king could easily declare war for national glory. Declaration of war is assigned to the congress in the constitution. Now we see that it is those who name themselves conservative who have completely jumped on to the bandwagon of war. It wins elections. The central reason why the conservative talk show host Sean Hannity says he opposes liberals is that they are “weak on defense.” For him the classic historical reference is World War II when Hitler was “appeased” so it is necessary to fight the enemy. Hitler is proof that talk doesn’t work. I will not here discuss all the history, though such is an important project for Second Stage Protestantism as I have indicated already, but I just want to say that the idea that we must build up ever greater and greater military capacity has become irrational. The Iraq war is demonstrating again, as Vietnam did earlier, that it is impossible to go and bomb the enemy into submission. The idea that it is possible to do so comes out of neoconservatism, which was a reaction to the Vietnam war, and which feeds off of the damage to the national ego that Vietnam was lost, that the military was unable to be successful. In other words, for purposes of national glory this country must go to war. Neoconservatives really do believe in war, more so than is the habit of thought of more sober conservatives historically. The liberal orientation, as we have seen, is to talk to the enemy, to engage in diplomacy, to try to avoid war, but that view is now labeled “weak on defense” by today’s conservatives. It is very difficult for liberals to argue otherwise. I consider this label to be a case of deliberate public lying. Rather than discuss the pros and cons of any particular war conservatives vilify any position other than their own, they believe in war. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, recently wrote a column in which he explicitly said that it was a problem that the American people did not have more appreciation for military glory, so he described a battle in Iraq where an officer engaged in heroic acts. Now, conservatives do not usually come right out and say this forthrightly, that they believe in war, but here Brooks is saying so clearly. To be a country, to love your country, it is necessary to engage in war for national glory. It is necessary to hate the enemy. This is a complete rejection of the Classic Liberal hope that this country would be different from others in history. And ominously, it actually represents the adoption of a political theory of exactly that figure against which this country fought its last really big war, Adolph Hitler.

 

How can Classic Liberalism avoid war in the future?

 

Often it has come to my mind something that might be called a principle of historical interpretation, or of any social conflict. I am not sure where I got this idea and have not thought about it systematically, but would like to mention it here to initiate some reflection. It is the idea that you become like your enemy. In a protracted engagement in conflict a sort of strange dialectical process takes place. I can’t quite explain it but it seems as if you become like the enemy against which you are fighting. It happened with the religious right in its fight with modern science; the religious right actually has taken on within itself the standards of truth in 19th century mechanical science, as I described earlier, despite the fact that such science is viewed by the religious right as its most horrible enemy. Another way to say this is that “losers win”, the losers of a conflict may end up winning in the long run. Rome conquered Greece but it was Greek culture and beliefs that came to dominate in the ancient world. The South lost the Civil War but it is southern attitudes and values that seem to be winning in the cultural wars of today. And so I seem to be seeing in this country that we seem to be becoming more and more like the great enemy we faced in World War II, Nazi Germany. The glorious moment of that victory has been celebrated in this country ever since, it is a highpoint of our national glory as a country. And it seems as if the United States wants to experience such victory and glory again and again but as it does so it takes on the very characteristics of that nation which was defeated, a nation that glorified violence and war and superiority over others, a nation that tried to justify itself by creating its own civil religion, its own brand of German Christianity, a nation that ended in total destruction. One of the persons who helped to provide philosophical justification for Hitler’s war-making was Karl Schmitt who taught that a nation knows itself through its enemies. This political theory, of course, is completely the opposite of the teaching of Classic Liberalism, which suggests a people can know itself through its own internal practices of liberty, that conflict can be ultimately avoided through talk, through deliberative processes of communicative engagement. It doesn’t take war to create national identity in Classic Liberalism. But now for the past thirty years we have seen the emergence of a political party calling itself conservative which gains power by teaching war, by teaching that we must hate the enemy, by teaching war for purposes of national glory. I wonder if it may not be true that something Jesus taught us long ago may be the answer for not only religious life but the life of the nation, may be, in fact, the most realistic and practical answer for politics today. Jesus taught us to love the neighbor, the one different from us, including the enemy. Jesus even said “pray for your enemies.” I wonder if it is not true that if we do what Jesus says then we will not have to become like the enemy because the enemy no longer has any power over us. We will be able to enter into relations with the enemy based on cool calculation rather than hot and blood-thirsty anger. Perhaps Protestantism can teach the country to slow down in its march to war after war, to turn from the ways of war, to re-affirm Classic Liberalism and develop more and better ways to talk among the nations of the earth. The way I have been talking here reflects my own reading of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas who has made his theory of communicative competence the center of his philosophy. Habermas, coming out of Germany, has had to address the fact of Nazism in his philosophy and therefore in my mind can be an excellent resource for understanding politics and liberalism in a Second Stage Protestantism. Habermas does not want to give up on Classic Liberalism.

 

Does the Democratic Party promote the philosophy of Classic Liberalism?

 

Not really. The base of this party tends to be against war because it remembers Vietnam, and it is more concerned for economic justice in general than conservatives today, but the leaders of the party are not grounded in Classic Liberalism any more than conservatives. That is why Democrats have no way to respond to the “weak on defense” argument of the conservatives. The use of fear and insecurity has been so effective to win elections for the conservatives that it has become their primary approach even if it is becoming more and more irrational. That is the reason I believe we see the mass hysteria we see today; it is being whipped up by conservative political rhetoric and it works. And in the last years the Democrats have been a party of interest groups, each group supports candidates who then expect to receive the favors of government for their particular interest. That means that Democrats are not elected on the basis of philosophy, on the basis of a message which resonates with the broad electorate, and can be so easily associated with moral relativism. And it is also true that as the costs of campaigns have increased so tremendously in the age of mass marketing that Democrats like all other politicians must raise vast sums of money to be able to compete, and the money comes from corporate business. That means that Democrats cannot critique business as we have done in this paper. In fact, there are many in the Democratic Party who are called “Republican-lite”, that is, they have given up what used to be called social democracy which understood government to have a role in assisting those who for whatever reasons are not able to participate or are unsuccessful in the market economy. Here is what Protestantism has to face: there are very many people today who do not really believe in democracy, do not want all people to go to the polls, do not want rational debate on policy options, especially about social welfare programs, and do not believe even in Classic Liberalism that founded the country. Corporate interests who are benefiting in unbelievably generous ways from the current system do not want change, do not want discussion, do not want accountability, do not want to stop the flow the money into their coffers. Corporate interests receive incredible benefits from the way war is conducted today; war is very profitable. They certainly don’t want the poor to vote, just to fight in wars. The Democratic Party would do well to ground itself in the values that founded this country, Classic Liberalism. I am not sure how successful such an effort would be since there are so few people today who believe in or place priority upon these values. Protestant churches could provide settings where much debate and invention of options could take place concerning how to place much greater priority on what was once called “civics” within educational processes. But when the practice of politics as war is the dominant form of politics in the country it is difficult to put forward deliberative options. The country today cannot practice what it preaches because it no longer even preaches the philosophy that grounds its institutions. Terms like “democracy” and “freedom” have become rallying cries for war, not actual values which guide political thinking. The people who are using these terms today are neither serious about actually doing democracy in this country nor about deliberation over how it might be that larger numbers of Americans can be “free” to participate more substantially in the economy and society.

 

What does all this mean for political differences on the role of government in society and economy and social welfare programs?

 

In this document I have been trying to focus more on underlying beliefs and habits of thought rather than on the ways current issues are debated. I am looking for a new language by which to get at deeper issues in politics today, a language that can be used by persons to discuss in such a way as to lead to mutual understanding no matter what political party they have identified with in the past. I think that the Protestant church is about the only place in society where it may be possible to develop such new language, to engage in reflection and deliberation, to call people to responsible participation in the political process. I have emphasized the economic realm because I believe that many social, environmental, and health problems experienced by the American people are the result of inadequate regulation of powerful economic actors. It is completely obvious that air pollution causes disease the costs of which are passed on to people and health care institutions. So it is then necessary to provide tax money from all the people to help alleviate the problems caused by those who are polluting the air, which means the people are subsidizing the costs of such industry. But this “obvious” fact is screened out of consciousness by those who believe that government should not regulate those who pollute the air because such regulation constitutes “socialism.” Every social or environmental issue is thus debated in terms of highly abstract political or economic philosophy resulting in a politics of war to defeat your opponent. It is this process that has become irrational in our time. The growth of government in provision of social and health services over the past decades has come about primarily due to lack of good economic planning and regulation on the part of government. Good economic planning could greatly reduce the size of government, but such planning is exactly what the economic institutions are opposed to. Or, it is more true to say that we already have economic planning in this country, we just don’t call it that, and we do not discuss on whose behalf such planning should be done. That is, governmental actions in relation to the economy, such as the Federal Reserve Bank, are debated within the context of what is good for the “economy” rather than in terms of what is good for people. Giant retailers such as Wal-mart are possible not because they are the most efficient but because their costs are subsidized by government and the rules governing business make such giants possible. Change the rules and you change business. As long as business can get the public to believe that these topics are off limits to democratic process then it can use government for its own purposes rather than what is best for all the people. For example, business is able to set up bidding wars among local and state governments concerning tax breaks for locating new factories. It is the economic actors who are in charge, not government by the people. Throughout American history there has been conflict and tension between the interests of property and the interests of the people, so these issues are not new, but at this point in history both government and business have grown so large that things are much more complex than they have been in the past and business has come to dominate nearly everything including government and politics. The Protestant Church represents the only organized institutional force within society which has enough distance on these matters to be able to imagine an alternative future, one which recognizes the importance of both government and economic institutions, and one which includes the needs of the least among us in both urban and rural areas.

 

What do you mean by the phrase “messiah church?”

 

The word “Christ” means messiah, or, in brief, the way to a desirable future which also redeems the past. To call Jesus the Christ is to see in him the way to the future. The church is the body of Christ, the continuing reality of God acting in the world. This has many ramifications, but the phrase “messiah church” is shorthand to say the church can be the way society as a whole is able to move into a desirable future. Just as Jesus is sent from God’s love into the world so also the church exists for the sake of the world. The church exists not for itself, not to build up its own existence over against the world, but to give up itself for the sake of others outside the church so that the world might live. The way of Jesus is the way of the church. In concrete terms the church is the way the God of Israel continues to be manifest in history after the destruction of Jerusalem; the church is scattered and sent into all the world to make the future possible for all, the future of this real and material world. This emphasis on concrete reality is particularly important as demonstrated in the sharing of the communion meal in the church. It is the body and blood of Jesus that is shared, concrete realities, known in real bread and wine, the material of the world carrying the divine reality of God, pointing to the existence of the church in the midst of this very real, material world. I emphasize this because there is so much today going under the name of “spirituality” as well as philosophy and the various Enlightenment bodies of knowledge which abstract from concrete reality rather than enter into it and deal with it. It is this very real world that has a future, just as Jesus’ resurrection is not a rejection of his continuing bodily presence. This is the essence of historic, orthodox Protestant faith which brought theology back down to earth and pointed to the world God made as the place of redemption, fulfillment, and ultimately salvation as God promises to make, indeed, a new heaven and earth on the last day when all are raised. This language of history and future provides the substance of the faith, a faith which is able to imagine an alternative future from the promises of God. In every age it is the calling of the church to be a place where the concrete future is imagined not as pie in the sky, not as mere hope or idealism, but as actual possibilities for real people in real situations in real places. This imagined future then works back upon us from the future pulling us into the future, so to speak. The future is not the result of law, just doing what the past demands, but it is the result of promise, the promises of God ultimately to be with us in the midst of the world as it is and, in the power of the Spirit, to be able to envision that which has never been though is possible through the way of Jesus. The Word of Jesus is always a word of concrete possibility in the here and now, no matter how bad and hopeless the current situation seems to be. It is always a word of grace, not forcing us, but opening us to that which otherwise cannot be imagined, creating expectation and a willingness to be surprised by what seemed impossible. The messiah church, then, can be a place to imagine a concrete future for the world. It is not the role of the church to dominate the world, to exert power over the world, to force the world, but to offer a way for the world to survive as a place of peace and justice for all. And this can be done in a language that the people of the world can appreciate, understand, and affirm.

 

Why would the world be willing to listen to what the church says?

 

After two centuries the church has much to confess, many sins to turn away from. One of these is the temptation to claim authority, even the authority of doing violence to others by words and deeds sometimes with the power of the state. Lacking trust in the word of God the church has resorted to institutional power and psychological manipulation to force faith. The degree to which this was done in First Stage Protestantism must now be given up in the Second Stage. This is the only way by which to reach out to those who have left the church because of its oppressive cultural dominance. The Word of God can stand on its own without violence or intimidation. It is necessary to reject, then, the whole style and approach of the religious right which wants to return to medieval times and try to use the power of the state to implement its religious views. Unfortunately in our time belligerent claims of the religious right create negative reactions from people in the world. This must be explicitly rejected. The possibility of concrete alternative futures must be offered through words of grace in the spirit of Jesus for real persons, real communities, real nations, and the real world in which God has placed us to do that which must be done so that the world can survive as the place God intended it to be.

 

 

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