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Progressive Religion: It’s Time to Read the Room

Everything in American religion changed after the media spectacle of the State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes in the summer of 1925. The Scopes Monkey Trial, as it came to be known. That event left an indelible mark on the American psyche.

The Scopes trial underlined for many — both religious liberals and religious traditionalists — that natural selection would be the wedge that permanently split American religious thinking into two broad — and most likely irreconcilable — camps.

The position to take was not difficult for religious conservatives: they doubled down on what at the time were called “the fundamentals,” and this became the movement we call fundamentalism:

Inerrancy of the bible;

miracles are real;

demons cause disease;

social conservatism, and so on.

The liberal answer was not so easy to articulate. Humanists, many of whom were atheist or agnostic, doubled down on science: objective verifiability. Many Humanists became strict materialists: If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.

Interestingly enough, both of the extremes in the argument in those days were talking about the same sort of god concept: the monarchical European white guy in the sky. Fundamentalists thought that such a concept was the only way to stay true to the bible. Humanists thought that such a concept was merely absurd.

If you were a Humanist in Minneapolis, Minnesota or a Southern Baptist in Biloxi, Mississippi, your position on the matter was fairly clear. But what if you were a Presbyterian in Cleveland, Ohio?

The middle ground between those two hardline positions was a lot more difficult to articulate. A neo-orthodox theologian of the time, H. Richard Niebuhr, summed up his assessment of the liberal religion of the day: “a God without wrath saving a people without sin through Christ without a cross.”

The fallout from the Scopes Monkey Trial is still falling today! And, I hasten to add, it never was only about religion. It was about politics as well.

The lawyer for the defense was Clarence Darrow, a professed humanist. His opponent, the prosecution, was William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State, three-time presidential candidate, and the greatest populist politician in American history.

William Jennings Bryan was something you don’t see much anymore in American politics except among African Americans: He was a political leftist who was also a sincere fundamentalist (Presbyterian) Christian.

Even though he won the court case, William Jennings Bryan felt utterly humiliated by Darrow’s line of questing, and died shortly thereafter of what nowadays would most likely be diagnosed as a stroke.

What wasn’t clear at the time was that progressive liberal politics was beginning to eat its own.

By that, I mean that many poor, desperate people — as my parents were, for example — need to believe in a wrathful god who will right all the wrongs of our world by throwing the rich and powerful oppressors into hell. And they need to believe that this grinding, spirit-killing world will end any day now when Jesus comes back to right all our social wrongs. A wrathful god is their only hope for justice.

The Scopes trial widened the chasm between the liberal haves and the populist have-nots. The populist movement previous to the Second World War had goals that were closely aligned with the goals of the liberal religious Social Gospel Movement that was then prevalent among mainstream, mainline, middle class Protestant denominations. (This was the coalition that would elect Franklin Roosevelt, an Episcopalian who loved the pomp of religion but had zero interest in theology.)

The sunny, happy middle-class god continued to appeal to people who were succeeding in the wealthy post-war years. But many people were not succeeding in living the American dream even in those affluent times. Then, in 1973, wage growth stopped for the average American worker and went into decline.

It is no accident that the mid-1970s was the time that right-wing Christianity became central to American politics. Right-wing Christianity reversed the trend that theologian H. Richard Niebuhr had derided: “a God without wrath saving a people without sin through Christ without a cross.”

Nope. The new politically conservative Christianity preached a wrathful God, a sinful people, and a suffering Christ that offered salvation . . . or else!

Liberal Protestant denominations doubled down and kept preaching their loving god and their eternity without hell, and those denominations went into a steep decline that just keeps accelerating in our own time.

And, just as liberal Christians doubled down on a happy-clappy god, many Humanists doubled down on a strict materialism.

Here’s my point: Neither of those groups were reading the room. Many Americans were just getting poorer and poorer. And more desperate for any way out.

For example, take a look at contemporary American entertainment. How much of it is science fiction, fantasy, the supernatural, and so on? Escapism.

In case you haven’t noticed, Zombies, and chain mail, and chainsaws are everywhere!

It’s time for political and religious progressives to read the room . . .

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