Journalist Shiflett tries to explain the demise of mainline Protestantism.
Noting that evangelical churches are booming while membership in Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopalian churches is on the decline, the author wants to know two things. Why have the mainline churches felt free to overthrow centuries of church teaching in favor of a liberal gospel that talks more about inclusion than about sin and redemption? And why have traditionalists failed to stem the mainline march to the left? Central to his investigation is the recent fracas over the Episcopal Church’s ordination of a noncelibate, openly gay bishop. Gene Robinson’s election to the episcopacy has caused major fissures in his church, Shiflett recounts, adding that the other mainline denominations are sure to have battles and possibly schisms over homosexuality in the next few years. The author interviews several “progressive” Episcopal priests, as well as disgruntled mainliners who have left Protestantism for Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. He also reviews the work of “celebrity heretic” John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop who has made a name publishing books that deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ and a theistic conception of God. Shiflett, who describes himself as an “itinerant Presbyterian,” seems relatively free of bias, though the progressives do come in for a bit more of his caustic wit than the conservatives. He describes the liberals’ flabby God as “the Wee Deity,” mocks the church bulletins that describe Palm Sunday parades merely as “fun,” and accuses progressives of valuing tolerance above all else. Liberal Christian readers may feel they’ve been caricatured, whereas traditionalists are more likely to recognize themselves in these pages. The author dips only scantily into scholarship; his argument would have benefited had he further availed himself of the many germane texts that sociologists of American religion have produced in recent years.
Altogether, a breezy introduction to the fractures in contemporary American Christianity.