To: ____________________ c/o Father __________________________
By: Electronic Transmission
Date: 26 September 2020
Father ________________ passed along to me your e-mail to him of 4 September along with the attached article on Grace Community Church in Los Angeles County.
Your initial sentence says that [your parish] newsletter ‘points out very clearly why and how the “Church” is declining.’ I am not sure what in the newsletter in particular you believe provides this clarity. But what follows in your e-mail suggests that you believe that the central problem urgently afflicting the church is political in a broad sense. The bad guys are Biden and the left wing. Fox news people are good guys. The proper course seems to be for the Church to become – what? – active in the political campaign? Your concern that the political left will try to limit church tax exemption would, in the event of that kind of campaigning, become moot: churches that engage in partisan political activity already are liable to lose such exemption.
The issues you suggest are vast and cannot be addressed simply. But since you lead with decline in the Church, let me begin with the matter of Church demographics.
There is a decline in American Christianity at present. It cannot be understood without a somewhat broad perspective. Consider three periods.
First, between 1945 and 1965 population in the U.S. grew and religious participation grew with it or even a little faster. The ‘Mainline’ Churches, such as the Episcopal Church (in which I was raised), the United Methodists, and the Presbyterian Church USA grew briskly during the post-war Baby Boom. The Episcopal Church reached its highest membership around 1964, with 3.4 million.
Secondly, beginning in the mid-1960s both the post-war Baby Boom and the Church membership boom ended. Population growth slowed but did not end. Church membership also did not decline but shifted. As the ‘Mainline’ groups began to embrace the cultural baggage of the 1960s (the loosening of sexual norms, the embrace of the divorce culture, the questioning of traditional authorities and institutions), they also began to decline in numbers. More doctrinally and morally firm churches, however, experienced growth. Emblematic of this twin development is the reversal in status of the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The UMC was the biggest Protestant body in the U.S. in 1960, much bigger than the SBC. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the UMC declined. Meanwhile the SBC boomed, surpassed the UMC, and became the largest Protestant group by far. In this period the old Mainline groups declined so sharply that by the 1990s Richard John Neuhaus was referring to them as the ‘Sideline Churches’. From 3.4 million in 1964, for example, the Episcopal Church lost half its members – to under 1.7 million today – and still is declining. But this second period was not a time of net decline for American Christianity. Church membership didn’t so much decline as shift. The liberal, Mainline groups lost members, but conservative evangelical and Pentecostalist groups grew, as did the doctrinally firm Eastern Orthodox, the Missouri Synod Lutherans, and other religiously conservative groups (Orthodox Jews, Mormons). The Continuing Anglican Churches formed in this period and also did well in it. The Roman Catholic Church grew too, though in that case it is hard to draw conclusions because much of their growth flowed from Hispanic immigration.
A third period began around 25 years ago. In this period the conservative SBC also begin to lose membership. In the 2000s it seems not just that people are abandoning liberal, vacuous religion, but also organized religion in general. The younger the age group, now, the less ‘churched’ it is. This trend is not, I think, only a matter of religious affiliation. In general, the post-World War II population was filled with clubbable people, ‘joiners’. My parents’ generation joined churches, indeed, but they also joined a host of civic and service organizations (Kiwanis, Rotary, the Optimists, Toastmasters, the Masons, Lions, Elk, Moose, the PTA, etc.). Many of these organizations now are experiencing a decline much as the Churches are. Younger people are not inclined to join any of these organizations. Here in Athens, Georgia, friends in the Athens Folk Music and Dance society have the same complaints many churches have: ‘We’re aging.’ No doubt the increasing participation of women in the work force and decline in family sizes after 1965 also fed these trends. In any case, there are broad and long term changes in American society behind declining church participation. Young people are not joiners, and if they do join something it is liable to be intensely personal and perceived as beneficial to themselves (a health club or gym, e.g.).
In short, the decline in the Church is real, but also is part of a very deeply rooted, longstanding trend in American society that goes far behind [your parish], far beyond the ACC, far beyond religion, even, and in particular far beyond the current political climate. Deep political engagement of the sort you seem to advocate would do nothing to reverse current trends. The government or liberals aren’t keeping people out of church in most cases: people in _______________ and Athens are perfectly free to come; whether they choose to do so or not is another matter.
On one view, the current phase of post-war religious development can be seen as the working out of the pernicious elements in radical American individualism. The rejection of institutional authority, which became very obvious with the 1960s, is in fact a deep-seated American tendency and is very inimical to the Church. With all due respect, to walk away from a church because it seems insufficiently supportive of my political preferences is really a very liberal, 1960s kind of thing to do.
On taxing churches, which you see in our future, a few thoughts. Donations to churches are not tax exempt in all free societies. Such donations are taxable, for instance, in Australia, but Australia enjoys freedom of religion. In the U.S., however, there is a fairly broad coalition supporting such tax exemption. If a President Biden wanted to tax donations to churches, he would find himself fighting some powerful members of his own coalition, starting with African American clergy and churches. Furthermore, since the tax code treats all charitable giving under more or less the same rubric, to tax religious groups but not tax arts groups, major foundations, museums, NGOs, medical charities, etc., would raise very high First Amendment objections.
But if churches accept government goodies, they have to understand that who pays the piper may call the tune. Hitler had too much control over German churches because of longstanding government subsidies to churches that the Nazis continued. To this day the German government supports Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed churches with tax dollars – and German Christianity is a mess. Grace Community Church is complaining about the loss of parking leases. Maybe they are being punished by Los Angeles County. Nobody from LA County was interviewed in the article, and I don’t take a one-sided report at face value. There are, in any case, good reasons for religious groups to keep government at arm’s length.
Please do not misunderstand me. There is a clear hostility to traditional Christianity and traditional religion in many quarters. The California bar association forbade members from affiliation with the Boy Scouts before the BSA caved on the matter of gay scouts. Senator K. Harris suggests that membership in the Knights of Columbus should be a bar to federal judicial appointment: that sounds like anti-Catholic bigotry to me.
The answer, however, is not for the Church and clergy to embrace political action. That is not the Church’s vocation. The answer is: 1. for church members to become more, not less, intensely loyal to their churches; and, 2. for laymen to engage in the political sphere taking the Church’s moral teaching for guidance. The clergy in their official capacity and the Church institutionally should NOT engage in partisan or political activity. The Church is supposed to make its members well-instructed Christians and kind and holy people. My job and Father _________________’s job is to catechize the faithful in the gospel and to equip them to act as Christians in the world (including as citizens and voters). Our job is not to pretend that we have any more political or practical prudence than anyone else.
Political clergy are, in my view, offensive. It doesn’t matter if their political persuasion is left, right, or center. We’re all entitled to our political opinions. If we’re clergy, though, we should be careful about airing them. If the fact that I spout off about Joe Biden or Donald Trump turns someone away from Christ, then God will judge me for that.
With all good wishes, I remain,
Yours in Christ,