The new religious war: who's winning and losing

Posted: Nov 06, 2001 12:00 AM
Today's homily, brothers and sisters, was suggested by some religious close-ups that appeared in The Dallas Morning News over the weekend: case studies in the embrace of Islam by Americans. How long, and how fervently, the embrace will continue, post-Sept. 11, is something nobody is well-positioned to say. Still, motives are enlightening. Here's one young woman -- a former Methodist youth minister -- who "wasn't concerned about heaven or hell"; rather, she "took it all for granted," never understanding "why Jesus had to die for my sins." Over she went to Islam. A one-time Baptist took "a hard look at how I was living," what with "going to pubs and mixing freely with women." Islam suited him better. "Straightforward message, strict morals attracting American (Islamic) believers," says a sub-headline. The truth that Christianity ascribes to its doctrines -- including the doctrine of the Trinity, a stumbling block now as always for ultra-monotheists -- is not in danger. Truth doesn't become less true because someone turns from it. What's the issue, then? The mushiness of the Christian presentation (as opposed to that which is supposedly presented) is a big part of the issue. Mushier than many modern Christians it would be hard to get. So-called liberal Christianity has been in the theological saddle for more than a century: modifying, modernizing, toning down, sanitizing, sweeping out -- with many a disdainful sniff -- stuff deemed non-essential to the social-services mission many would prefer for Christianity. Salvation? Heaven? Hell? Quite a few "Christian" ministers and theologians have little more use for that stuff than does the Methodist youth minister quoted above. Could there be a connection? Christian leaders downplay notions of Truth; seekers after Truth take their trade elsewhere. Maybe something goes on here -- something that should have been utterly predictable in human (nevermind supernatural) terms? Two decades ago, Dean Kelley of the National Council of Churches published a landmark study showing that, whereas so-called liberal churches were losing members, so-called conservative churches were gaining them, due to taking their own theology seriously and enjoining members to an equivalent seriousness. "This stuff matters," was what conservative churches were saying. "Nah," went the riposte from the other side, "what matters is social attitudes." Particularly was this true when it came to morality and sexual equality, those premium, blue-ribbon modern concerns. It's nothing these days to hear Christian leaders pooh-pooh the "anti-woman," "anti-gay" ravings of St. Paul himself. (Imagine a mullah or ayatollah even suggesting that poor Mohammed didn't have a clue.) The principal Protestant churches -- Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists -- have shrunk apace since the '70s, dwindling not just in absolute numbers, but also relative to population growth. (Immigration has kept Roman Catholic numbers up.) No surprise there, really. Religion is about betting your life. Do you bet it on mush, lukewarm and unbuttered, or do you look for something into which you can sink a full set of teeth? A forest of Islamic arms, swooping heavenwards, then down again to earth, then up, then down, five times a day in prayer -- this kind of thing makes an impression. A dutiful Sunday summons to fellowship and free-thinking, your standard fare in many a Christian church -- for this I need to get dressed? The one-time Methodist youth leader didn't think so; nor the pub-crawling ex-Baptist. Something tougher, fleshier, more real, was what they wanted. If in Islam they believe themselves to have found it, today's soft-textured Christian "leaders" may have only themselves to blame.