Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Unnecessary Fall

The New Republic's senior editor John Judis evaluates the Obama presidency, assesses what he thinks are the reasons for Mr. Obama's sinking approval ratings, and concludes that Mr. Obama has too often sounded an uncertain trumpet, compromised too much in his assault on Wall Street bankers, and hasn't been liberal enough in his economic policies.

Judis makes a good case that the President has been inconstant in both his rhetoric and his actions, threatening yesterday to teach Wall Street a lesson and then today not only failing to follow through, but actually rewarding the fat cats he had criticized yesterday. This inconsistency is the mark of a man either unprincipled or unsure of his abilities, and the American people will quickly lose confidence in a leader who lacks confidence in himself:

Obama would periodically criticize bankers after embarrassing revelations-at various times calling the bonuses they gave themselves "shameful" and an "outrage"-but, after hearing complaints about his rhetoric from the bankers, he would back off. At a private meeting on March 28 with 13 Wall Street CEOs, the president, his spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "emphasized that Wall Street needs Main Street and Main Street needs Wall Street." And, in his Georgetown speech, Obama returned to his theme of collective responsibility. The recession, Obama said, "was caused by a perfect storm of irresponsibility and poor decision-making that stretched from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street."

Obama's policy followed the same swerving course as his rhetoric. One week, he would favor harsh restrictions on bank and insurance-company bonuses, but, the next week, he would waver; one week, he would support legislation allowing bankruptcy judges to reduce the amount that homeowners threatened with foreclosure owed the banks; the next week, he would fail to protest when bank lobbyists pressured the Senate to kill these provisions. But, more importantly, Obama-in sharp contrast to Roosevelt in his first months-failed to push Congress to immediately enact new financial regulations or even to set up a commission to investigate fraud.

There's much more in Judis' article to help one understand the failure of this President to provide effective leadership, especially in solving our economic woes. One can quibble with Judis' belief that Mr. Obama should have proposed a bigger stimulus than the $800 billion that the administration settled on, but so much else that he says has about it the ring of truth. If his essay were summed up in a single sentence it might be that Mr. Obama is simply unsuited for the position to which he has risen.

It's good that the folks at The New Republic are beginning to see what was plain to anyone who, in the summer of 2008, was thinking with his head about Mr. Obama and not with his heart.


The Future of Evangelicalism

Timothy Dalrymple at Patheos interviews historian Rodney Stark of Baylor University on the future of evangelicalism. Actually, the discussion winds up being more of a conversation on the future of "mainline" protestantism, but in any event Stark has some interesting things to say.

He challenges, for example, the notion that the decline of mainline protestant churches began in the 1960s, pointing out that the slide began much earlier and was in full swing in the mid-19th century, especially in Europe. The embrace of Enlightenment deism and theological and social liberalism by those who taught in protestant seminaries eventuated in the production of generations of church leaders who no longer believed the traditional doctrines of the church and who had nothing to offer their parishioners.

Stark comments:

If you take (liberal theologian) Paul Tillich's view of God, in which God is essentially something imaginary, then why do you bother to hold a church service in the first place? If there's nothing there to pray to, why do it? The liberal clergy lost their faith, but they continued to hold church.

The second factor was, when the clergy in the mainline denominations decided that they could no longer save souls -- because there were no souls to save -- they decided that they should save the world instead. They switched from religion to politics, and that was a politics of Left-wing radicalism.

It's fine, of course, to be a Left-wing radical. But it was far out of step with the people in the pews. The people in the pews still believed in God, and the people in the pews did not believe that they needed a socialist government next week. Consequently, they stopped sitting in those pews and started going to other pews.

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century the shrinking mainline churches accelerated and simultaneously evangelical churches which promoted a traditional interpretation of the gospel exploded. Even within the contemporary mainline, Stark points out, the healthiest churches are those led by theologically conservative pastors. Unfortunately, their liberal colleagues don't seem to care much about church growth and survival:

One fellow from the United Church of Christ -- which used to be the Congregationalists -- bragged to me, "It doesn't really matter what the members do. We have endowments that we can live on forever." Well, that's an interesting attitude, but it won't work. They will close down. Many have been living off their real estate for years; they close a church and cash in the property. But in this American market, denominations that cannot bring in new members and support will eventually close. That's the way it is.

The fact is that much of mainline protestantism is deistic and deism has little purchase on the hearts of those who are searching for meaning and forgiveness in their lives. It offers nothing for which one needs a church. It gives one no reason for which to rouse oneself from bed on a Sunday morning. Worst of all, perhaps, it's often hostile to the passionate faith of young believers:

Very early in my career, when I was a graduate student at Berkeley, I had contact with seminary professors as I was conducting studies. Since I was at Berkeley, a notoriously liberal institution, they were sure that I would be very sympathetic to their problem. So time and again I was told that their greatest challenge and their most important instructional duty was, and I'll quote, "to knock the Youth for Christ crud out of our seminary freshmen."

Well, they were pretty successful at it. They weren't successful at much of anything else, but they did manage to undercut the faith of a lot of their students.

On the question of whether evangelicals have resisted the technological innovations of the last two decades Stark proposes a test:

There's a notion amongst intellectuals that conservative religious people are hostile and uncomfortable with technology, while liberals are comfortable with it. But consider this. If you led me blindfolded into a church, and I didn't know whether it was a liberal or conservative church, then you ripped off my blindfold, I could tell you instantly whether it was a liberal or evangelical church.

Are there hymnbooks in racks on the back of the pews? If there are, it's a liberal church. Conservatives got rid of that stuff long ago, because they know we don't sing real well with our chins on our chests, and we spend too much time leafing through the hymn book. Better to project it up on a screen so that we can lift our chins and sing. It's true almost one hundred percent of the time. The notion that conservatives are Luddites is nonsense.

He also has some interesting thoughts on the question of whether the American church will follow European churches into senescence:

People want to talk about the low levels of religion in Europe, but it was always thus. There were almost no rural churches in the 14th and 15th centuries, at a time when almost everybody was rural. So the question is: How could they have gone to church? The answer is: They didn't. And they faced lazy state churches the whole time.

The clergy in Germany have a labor contract that says that if fewer than five people show up, they don't have to hold services. If I were a preacher in Germany, and I got a check even if I didn't hold church, I'd hold such terrible sermons that no one would come. It's a very effective incentive system for having the church close.

Europeans have always marveled at how religious Americans are, but the reason Americans are so religious is because, in an unregulated situation, all kinds of different churches and denominations will appear, with each one appealing for support. The marketplace will shake these out, so that you will slowly evolve a bunch of pretty effective organizations. The net effect of their efforts will be a relatively high level of public religiousness. Most people will get found and get recruited.

About the only misstep in the whole interview, I think, comes when Stark is asked about evangelicals on the left such as Jim Wallis:

I want to say one thing about the Leftist Christian movement in the 1930s. They were at least consistent. They hated charitable giving. They said it's ameliorative, an attempt to reduce the really sharp pangs of inequality and keep this corrupt system going. So they hated it. If there was good government, they thought, there would be no charitable giving. I suspect that there is still, underneath it all, a lot of that even in Wallis' movement.

The only thing I wonder is why he claims to be an evangelical. Except that he gets much more attention. If he did not claim to be evangelical, he would just be another liberal Christian. But this way, he gets to be the media's favorite evangelical. Martin Marty will invite him to the banquet.

I don't think this is at all fair to Wallis, with whom I have my own disagreements. Wallis is a big government liberal, to be sure, but to tie him to those who disdain personal giving is an allegation that shouldn't be made in the absence of supporting evidence, and Stark offers none.

Otherwise it's a good interview, and there's much else of interest beyond what I've recounted here. Check it out.