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United We Fall

Randall Balmer (Professor, Columbia University)

August 28, 1999

image of New York Times newspaper titleEditorial, New York Times, August 28, 1999 by Randall Balmer (Ann Whitney Olin Professor of American Religious History at Columbia University).

Last week's vote by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to move toward closer cooperation with the Episcopalians represents another unfortunate step down the blind alley of ecumenism. photo of Dr. Randall BalmerIf these denominations hoped that such actions can stanch the hemorrhaging of their members, I can't imagine a less productive strategy.

The ecumenical movement -- the impulse to unite all followers of Christ -- takes its cue from Jesus' wish, recorded in John 17, that his followers ''may all be one.'' Not long after the Reformation led to the splintering of Christianity into countless denominations, ecumenical sentiment began asserting itself in earnest.

The drive toward Christian unity, especially among Protestants, intensified during the cold war. American Protestants, who in the 1950's considered themselves the guardians of middle-class respectability, wanted to adopt a more corporate management style, to avoid a duplication of efforts and to present a united front against the perils of Communism. (My wife, for example, was told as a child that she must attend church to help keep the Soviets at bay.)

The ecumenical movement led to the formation of the National Council of Churches in 1950 and to the construction of the Interchurch Center in Manhattan, a place where different denominations could house their offices next to one another. The idea was to promote understanding and cooperation among believers who shared basic Protestant beliefs, even though they differed in particular doctrines.

Aside from the suspect theology underpinning the movement -- I believe that Jesus was pointing toward unity in some future age, not in the present world -- ecumenism has been a largely unmitigated failure. Yes, it has taught us the importance of mutual respect and communication across religious traditions, but it has also led to a diminution of theological distinctiveness.

Mainline Protestant denominations in America have suffered appallingly from a lack of definition, doctrinal or otherwise. It's no longer easy to distinguish readily between, say, a Presbyterian and a Congregationalist, or a Methodist and a Lutheran.

To a degree, ecumenism has collapsed beneath the weight of its own pretensions. Turning from the fight against Communism, ecumenism preached cooperation, even with political radicals. It aspired to unite all Protestants, but in so doing it ratcheted its doctrines down to the lowest common denominators of agreement: peace, justice and inclusiveness. Those are noble principles, but they are unlikely to inspire popular allegiance. History demonstrates, moreover, that the most durable religions in America have been exclusive, not inclusive, with very carefully delimited theological distinctions.

The effect of ecumenism on mainline denominations has been devastating. According to every empirical index -- attendance, membership, giving -- mainline Protestants have declined since the mid-1960's, while more conservative, evangelical groups have grown. Evangelicals, by contrast, are theologically well defined, often to a fault. You may not like their doctrines, but they have little trouble articulating what they believe and what distinguishes them from other groups.

Although denominational leaders resolutely deny any connection between ecumenism and decline, many Americans have opted for the clarion call of evangelicalism and other clearly defined groups rather than the uncertain sounds emanating from mainline Protestantism. Tragically, in an increasingly pluralistic society, mainline Protestants are the only religious group lacking a voice. Mainline Protestants have exchanged their theological and historical heritage for a mess of pottage, an ideology so calculated not to give offense that its very blandness is offensive.

These Protestants -- Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationists, Methodists -- must regain the courage of their convictions. Their salvation lies in a recovery of their own traditions rather than in the chimera of unity.