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Jesus Creed

The Blue Social Model and the Kingdom of God

Here is a very serious critique of the mainline by Walter Russell Mead, and I offer it to you for conversation. It was sent to me by a friend, an Episcopalian priest, and one who observes that too many today – and he observes that evangelicals are about a century behind the mainline in this — are following down this path.  

What do you think? What is the secret to balance?

The Blue Social Model isn’t the Kingdom of God.

My final provocative thesis is this: there’s an underlying problem that both leads mainline church leaders like Episcopal bishops to put too much weight on making vapid and useless political statements and that contributes to the inexorable decline of the churches entrusted to their charge.

The problem is that the contemporary mainline churches have confused the Blue social model with the Kingdom of God.  I’ve written about this model before — what the Blue model is and why it is breaking down, why the breakdown has impaled contemporary liberal politics on the horns of an impossible dilemma, and how the Blue Beast is sucking the life out of themainline churches today. Historically this is not surprising; the blue social model was in large part formed by thinkers from the mainline churches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Somehow the mainline churches came through the violence and the upheavals of the twentieth century with their faith in liberal progress largely intact.  Neither Stalin nor Hitler nor Reinhold Niebuhr could convince us of the power of original sin; neither Hiroshima nor the Holocaust shook our faith in the ability of good government programs to remake mankind.

To mistake an ideology or a social model for the transcendent and always surprising (and irritating!) Kingdom of God is, technically speaking, the sin of idolatry.  It is to worship the work of our own hands.  What makes it worse is that to some degree in the mainline churches we have replaced faith in the scripturally based and historically rooted doctrines and values of the Christian heritage with faith in progressive social thought.

Instead of proclaiming a gospel of salvation that still brings lost sinners streaming through the doors (ask the Pentecostals and evangelicals who have continued to grow even as we shrink) we issue statements urging the federal government to fulfill its contributions to the Millennium Development Goals and to raise the minimum wage.  They preach and plant churches; we have professional development workshops for diocesan employees.

I want to be clear here.  Liberal mainline Protestantism is not just a ghastly mistake and a return to literalism and fundamentalism is not the way out of the current impasse. The great historical riches and insights of the mainline denominations are more important than ever today.  The liberal, questing spirit that refuses to take ancient truths for granted and that challenges historic orthodoxies in the light of lived experience has a vital and necessary place in the life of the church.  It’s important that the mainline churches halt their disintegration and decline and regain the strength to play their role in the American religious system.  I am not writing all these terrible things about bishops because I want them to fail.  God has work for the mainline church to do, and God’s work in the world will suffer if we fail.

But the Blue Beast cannot save American society and it cannot save the mainline church.  Until we come to terms with these truths and start living them we can neither help ourselves nor do much to help anybody else.

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posted February 24, 2010 at 3:50 pm

The Blue Social Model isn’t the Kingdom of God?
Of course not . . but neither is the Red model.
The Kingdom of God is just that the Kingdom of God. How dare any of us presume to usher it in with our view of the world.

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Mark Baker-Wright

posted February 24, 2010 at 4:38 pm

For the most part, I’ll have to leave this to people more qualified than me to respond. I’ll just note that, for all this guy’s railing against liberalism, and his accusation that liberals have confused the “Blue Social Model” with the Kingdom of God, he doesn’t really provide any evidence that liberals have actually done this. He just asserts it.

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Scot McKnight

posted February 24, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Mark, fair enough, but he is Walter Russell Mead:

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posted February 24, 2010 at 5:03 pm

I think there is much wisdom in your critique Scot, even though I think Mead comes at it too heavy handed for me. I came to college a skeptical, unchurched, nominal Christian who found in the liberal mainline that “questing spirit” you mentioned which sought to apply theology to social thought and not take orthodoxies for granted.
But as I sought to bring my faith to bear upon issues of social justice and cultural engagement, I felt that same questing spirit became a wandering spirit with little to offer and nothing to lean on but the reflexive, personal politics of those who compose its ranks. If not the establishment sensibilities of its social locations, then its often the fixation with the denominational traditions themselves which preclude the mainline from the sending and risk taking which should also be apart of its mission.
It’s not that every policy concern or advocacy initiative rings hollow, because much of that engagement does serve a worthy purpose and the Kingdom is witnessed to when Christians put the needs and concerns of Shalom first. But these same leaders must call the church to participate in and practice more fully its own convictions about what should be normative for the the larger society. When I first considered ministry in college there were few mainline models for how to integrate social engagement with congregational life. “Be a lawyer” I was told, so I can ‘work with advocacy groups or denominational offices.’ The extent of social witness within the pastoral role was modeled primarily in speaking truth to power in city hall or the state house. In my heart, from the Gospel and from political experience, I know there is much more to it than this. The congregation can become a nursery or greenhouse of social transformation and people as diverse as Andy Crouch, Shane Claiborne and Kirby Jon Caldwell and countless others are showing us what that third way can look like in American culture.
Christopher Lasch in his work, “The True and Only Heaven” makes the point that this was the chief liberal mistake of the civil rights movement, that the reform they asked of the nation, they could not ask of their own congregations.
This too is the problem with the Red Social Model which deserves and to a certain extent has gotten as much critique as the Blue.

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posted February 24, 2010 at 6:17 pm

There is an inherent contradiction: Meade’s support of the Iraq war would seem to indicate a belief that original sin only applies to domestic and not foreign policy.
This contradiction is easily resolved though, in limiting “the gospel of salvation” to other-worldly (and not this-worldly) concerns, and limiting the role of churches to the nation’s “religious system” (and not the secular sphere).
Meade may not want a return to the fundamentalist-modernist schism, but he does seem to seem to see a chasm between the spiritual and the social, with Christian faith not relevant to the latter.

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posted February 24, 2010 at 6:43 pm

I’ve started to skim through the book co-authored by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright. If Borg represents the view of the mainstream church in America, God help us…
Also, my wife started attending a new Anglican church in the area two years ago, and I’ve begun to tag along. She grew up Episcopal. Seeing the Anglican-U.S. Episcopal schism taking place, I’ve come to appreciate orthodox Christianity all the more. I think the African and Asian churches have something to teach us about being true to the Word of God while retaining a Social Justice conscience. And I’ve also come to appreciate my years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship all the more…

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Mark Baker-Wright

posted February 24, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Forgive me for asking, but Mead’s name means nothing to me, and the Wikipedia article doesn’t help matters much. Is there a reason the fact that it’s him (as opposed to anybody else) should sway my opinion?

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winn collier

posted February 24, 2010 at 6:50 pm

“Instead of proclaiming a gospel of salvation…we issue statements urging the federal government to fulfill its contributions to the Millennium Development Goals and to raise the minimum wage. They preach and plant churches; we have professional development workshops for diocesan employees.”
Those lines pierce deep. I will be pondering them for a bit.
-and- it’s not either/or, right? but a question of where the true power and the ultimate hope lie?

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posted February 24, 2010 at 7:37 pm

Sounds like a slippery slope argument. “Evangelicals who are talking about social justice today are the mainliners of tomorrow….” It also overlooks how the Catholic church has been able to uphold both social justice and orthodoxy. But I’d grant that we need to be careful that our eschatology not become entirely this-worldly.

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posted February 24, 2010 at 7:58 pm

#8 Winn – The sentence you quote demonstrates Mead’s false dichotomy: spiritual or social.
Only if one defines salvation narrowly as “going to heaven when I die” should churches have nothing to say about poverty or justice. In ‘Surprised by Hope’ NT Wright argues well against Mead’s kind of gnostic presuppositions.

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posted February 24, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Scot, in reading the wikipedia article about Walter, I read that his father is an Episcopal priest. With Walter saying things in the article you gave us the link to like:
“Nobody cares what you think while your tiny church is falling apart.”
“I?m not urging the bishops to change their politics. I?m urging them to shut up.”
“Fewer and fewer powerful people pay any attention at all to what Episcopal leaders think.”
I am thinking that their family gatherings must make for some interesting conversations!
Your question about balance is a good question. I know that what we read in the Bible, what we hear from the pulpit should have an impact on how we live in the world, how we vote, how we view helping the disadvantaged. And yet…I dislike it when the priests spend their homily time on anything to do with politics, law, etc. I want to hear the Gospel and then it will be up to me how to vote, based upon what I believe is best in line with the words of Jesus.
But that’s just me. I am open to changing my mind in this area.

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posted February 24, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Agreed that the question of balance is a good one. In my mainline church (which is in one of the denominations considered by some to be “liberal”), we are taught about social justice, but also about the fact that we can’t bring about the consummation of God’s kingdom, which will only happen upon His return — i.e., the old tension of “now, but not yet.” And they don’t teach the justice element to the exclusion of the importance of things like individual spiritual disciplines, and the desire to invite non-Christians to purpose in Christ (the latter, in fact, is a large part of our congregation’s mission statement). We don’t have it all figured out, but the church seems to do a decent job of attempting to strike the balance by not ignoring one part of the story to the exclusion of the other.
It is of course a serious problem that many mainline churches adopt the unbalanced model you describe. But it is certainly not true of all or even most within the mainline, any more than it would be accurate to say that all evangelicals are circling the wagons in the hopes that Christ will return soon, so they can stop worrying about the environment or the poor.
And, in response to one of the comments above, it is also inaccurate to assume that people like Marcus Borg (or John Shelby Spong, etc.) represent the views of most mainliners. I think that the more moderate within the mainline and evangelical churches have more in common with each other than with their respective fundamentalist fringes.

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posted February 25, 2010 at 9:34 am

Mead’s rant isn’t a critique; it’s a caricature?one drawn in a spirit of self-righteousness. There are plenty of reasons to be critical of mainline Protestant Christianity, but a screed that draws on stereotypes (“our faith in the ability of good government programs to remake mankind”) and false dichotomies ( “They preach and plant churches; we have professional development workshops for diocesan employees”) and that offers no specific examples in support of its argument is not helpful.

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Andy Holt

posted February 25, 2010 at 10:36 am

“A bishop isn?t here to inject Christian values into public policy debates; a bishop is here to inject mature, thoughtful and committed Christians into public life. The Diocese of Long Island shouldn?t be taking stands on the minimum wage; it should be producing people who transform the life of the region at every level of engagement.” (From the previous thesis in the article.)
I couldn’t possibly agree more with this statement. The primary calling of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus, and as he himself showed us, the only real way to change the world is to make disciples. That’s what the Church can do that no one and nothing else can do.

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Bob Porter

posted February 25, 2010 at 12:36 pm

The thing that is wrong with the Blue Social Model (or the Red Social Model for that matter) [obviously, definitions required] is the confidence that either places in a human source of power. In the Blue it is Government; in the Red it is Free Enterprise. The Jesus follower is responsible to speak truth to these sources of power, but never forget that the real source of power is our Heavenly Father.

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Randy G.

posted February 25, 2010 at 1:43 pm

I take Mead’s critique seriously in that pastors ought not confuse their role with those of public policy makers, but the Blue/Red stuff is too much. I am still a believer in Jim Wallis’ “God is not a Republican or a Democrat.”
Randy G.

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Greg Smith-Young

posted February 25, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Serving as an ordained minister in a Canadian denomination similar to the Episcopal Church, Mead’s comments seem bang on to me. I don’t hear him saying that churches should care about social justice concerns. The problem is that we make pronouncements and call for government action, with little effect, and suppose that this is the prophetic ministry of the church. Meanwhile the primary role of denominational leadership (bishops or whatever) is seriously neglected.
Mead’s blog post from the previous Sunday is also an interesting read:
BTW, Mead’s father Loren was president of the Alban Institute, an important publishing and consulting group on matters related to mainline protestantism.

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posted February 25, 2010 at 7:56 pm

If Jim “God is not a Republican or a Democrat” Wallis would only practice what he preached….there is no way Sojourners is not fully in the camp of the Democratic party…

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