Possibly the most slanted, conservative take on American church history to appear in recent memory. Reeves (History/Univ. of...


THE EMPTY CHURCH: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity

Possibly the most slanted, conservative take on American church history to appear in recent memory. Reeves (History/Univ. of Wisconsin, Parkside; A Question of Character: The Life of John F. Kennedy, 1991, etc.) here publicly airs his grievances with dying mainline Protestant churches. He provides mountains of details to demonstrate that they are dying--no news there--and then makes the bold and unsubstantiated leap to the claim that they are failing because they have been overrun by liberal bleeding hearts who are hell-bent on neglecting the gospel, undermining patriotism, and teaching their Sunday school pupils to use condoms. Reeves also assails such predictable targets as multiethnic theological education, the churches' ""aggressive lesbian contingent,"" and homosexual ordination. At bottom, he asserts that mainline churches are ""stuck in the sixties"" in their affinity for social justice and confusion about personal morality. His incessant liberal-bashing is irritating and banal, but that alone does not make it poor history. Reeves accomplishes that by ignoring the larger, more provocative questions that other scholars have posed concerning the mainline's decline. Ultimately, Reeves's singleminded preoccupation with the dangers of liberalism diverts attention from a persistent motif of American history, which is that only religions not associated with power and authority will inevitably flourish, as, for instance, antiestablishment fundamentalist sects are doing today. An even more damning problem is that Reeves utterly ignores the phenomenon of religious pluralism (""Is modern America secular or Christian?"" he asks, as if these were our only options). This is predictable, considering Reeves's insistence that America's founding ""fathers"" intended it to be a Christian nation. A far better choice is Randall Balmer's brilliant ethnography, Grant Us Courage: Travels Along the Mainline of American Protestantism (1995), which sensitively and provocatively explores the real issues underlying contemporary American Protestantism. Mainline churches may be dying, but they deserve a more intelligent eulogy than Reeves can provide.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 1996


Page Count: 288

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1996