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On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther accidentally kicked off the historical era known as the Reformation.
This obscure German professor began a rather technical argument about sin, forgiveness and purgatory that turned into a violent crisis that reshaped Christianity ever since. As a Lutheran pastor, I am duly obligated to mark the anniversary of this event (usually on the preceding Sunday), which, as complicated as its causes were and as mixed as its outcomes have been, is certainly a point from which most Protestant churches can trace their origins.
But the Reformation was never supposed to be remembered as a single moment in history. It was supposed to be an ongoing process of reform and renewal within the whole Christian tradition.
So I startled myself when a friend asked me recently: Could another Reformation happen in American Christianity? With churches heavily polarized along political and sometimes racial lines, with leaders growing increasingly out of touch with both dissenters in their own flocks and people just outside of them, and with increasing numbers of Americans departing the church traditions in which they were raised (if they were raised in church at all), it was a good question. But I didn’t hesitate to answer: No, there’s no second Reformation coming. Even if that’s what we need.
The danger signs for American Christianity are obvious and growing. The conservative evangelical establishment, having largely embraced Donald Trump since his 2016 campaign for the presidency, increasingly appears to take its doctrinal cues from whatever culture wars are being pushed in national media and politics. The summer wave of protests against racial injustice have been answered with calls to defend the policing status quo. The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas said on Fox News that to resist law enforcement officers is “to resist God himself,” paraphrasing the words of Paul the Apostle.
But among other evangelical groups, that deference to civil authorities is nowhere to be found when public health authorities restrict public gatherings (whether those restrictions apply to worship or not) to restrain the spread of the coronavirus. In October, evangelical entertainer Sean Feucht did not have a permit when he held a huge “worship protest” in Nashville, where churches are largely open and not prohibited from gathering, and he falsely claimed Christians are being persecuted there. From the outside, white American evangelicalism appears less concerned with doctrine or theology than with a continuous adaptation to Republican electoral fortunes.
My own mainline Protestantism, meanwhile, has had different but related struggles. If the public profile of conservative evangelicalism can seem like a pious extension of Fox News talking points, our public profile (to the extent it even exists) hews closely to the rhetoric and priorities of progressive activist groups and liberal institutions. And while our denominational leadership leans vocally but rather indistinctly left on issues of racial justice, gender and immigration, our congregations are often politically mixed.
The local pastor’s job is very often a balancing act that leads some of us to compulsively lower the stakes of political conflict and to stigmatize the very fact of conflict itself. Everyone is a little bit right and a little bit wrong, and in the end the important thing is not what decisions get made but how well we come together to keep the Sunday school and the church budget functioning. (I know this happens because I’ve been guilty of saying this many times.)
The Catholic church has at times avoided this secular co-opting by mixing “liberal” positions on immigration and poverty with “conservative” positions on abortion and sexuality. But in recent years even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been a barely audible voice in our national life, mildly lamenting things like racism and mistreatment of migrants while some members freelance by promoting claims that climate change is a hoax and Democrats can’t be Catholic.
How so many American Christian leaders ended up sounding like talk radio hosts or school administrators is a long story. But here we are now, as likely to be found barricading our rhetorical doors to keep our constituents inside as trying to throw them open to people outside. Rather than trying to serve as the conscience of a party or nation, plenty of us are content to tag along with the people who have real influence.
Seems like as good a time as any to nail some theses to a door and start something, right?
But part of the reason the Reformation happened in the first place is that the stakes were so high for pretty much everyone. You couldn’t just opt out of the church, and the decisions of your prince or of a council of bishops or a theological faculty could determine the faith you lived by (not to mention the often dreadful consequences for heresy). Churches lived on rents and subsidies more than voluntary offerings. While the relationship between the church and the state was a big topic in the Reformation (though not nearly the biggest), the place of the church as a state-protected monopoly really wasn’t. If the prince decided against your faction, it was possible to migrate to an area with a friendlier prince, but not to go across the street and start up Second Lutheran Church.
Today we can argue to our hearts’ content and define our faith as precisely or broadly as we wish without fear of being banished or executed. That’s a considerable improvement since the era of the Reformation. But now the solution to deep conflict within a Christian tradition is usually not to try to win a consensus or even a concession within it. Today the solution is more typically to just leave — for the church across the street, for another denomination, or for the eloquent arguments for sleeping in on Sunday.
Lutherans, Episcopalians and now Methodists have all gone through this at a national level, and in countless individual cases in churches all over the country. Catholicism and evangelicalism have recently joined the Protestant mainline in numerical decline. Reform becomes more and more urgent even as it becomes harder and harder to accomplish.
So on this year’s Reformation Sunday, I will try to remember that Martin Luther had no idea he was starting anything so consequential back in 1517. I wouldn’t wish for history to repeat even if it could. If there’s a possibility of renewal in all our futures, if there’s another path for Christianity in America, it will have to be something unlooked for and unexpected. And the sooner the better.
Benjamin J. Dueholm is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in University Park.