Progressive Revival

Over the summer, a seventy-year old family member has struggled mightily with the possibility of losing her home.  For many months, she has been in a financial meltdown, one unnoticed by politicians claiming that the economy was “sound.”

Washington politicians were not the only ones ignoring the growing economic worries.  Churches and religious institutions have been oddly silent about the economy, too, except in theoretical ways.  The Vatican recently condemned the immorality of the new economy; Protestants have been working on the Millennium Development Goals.  Neither of these lofty projects addresses the fears of a retired seventy year old watching everything she worked for slip through her fingers.

Eighty years ago, churches largely failed to address the economic and social problems of the Great Depression.  In the face of America’s worst economic crisis, the churches slid into religious depression.  Even before 1929, religious leaders noticed faith ebbing into ennui–a decline in church membership, missions, religious education, seminaries, stewardship, and justice ministries.  In 1927, Reinhold Niebuhr remarked on “a psychology of defeat” that had “gripped the forces of religion.”

This “psychology of defeat” had been aided by a sustained fundamentalist attack on mainline churches during the twenty years prior to the Depression.  This theological conflict weakened the denominations.  When the 1929 crash occurred, America’s leading churches had been so battered by arguments over the Virgin Birth and biblical inerrancy that they lacked the resources to mount a meaningful response to the economic crisis.  While the economy spiraled, Christians succumbed to, what historian Robert Handy called, “a nationally observable spiritual lethargy” where people even ceased to expect that churches could help them.

At the time, the editors of Christian Century wondered why the Depression had not sparked a renewal of the churches.  After all, in tough circumstances people often turn to God for relief.  “But this depression is different,” they wrote.  It was “due to the failure of human intelligence or the blind power of entrenched privilege, or both.”  It is a bit difficult to figure out how to spiritually stir people out of a crisis caused by greed.   

If this isn’t depressing enough, the most vigorous forms of faith that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s were also the most extreme–this period marked a high point of Christian nationalism, Aryanism, and religious fascism in the United States.  Demagogues like Protestant preacher Gerald Smith and Roman Catholic Father Charles Coughlin fired populist passions against Jews, the government, and liberals.  

The parallels between religious events of the 1920s and 1930s are painfully obvious and not terribly comforting in our current situation.  However, if we understand how the churches failed our great-grandparents, we might have the foresight to do better.  

Thus, I offer a 5-point spiritual bailout plan for churches:

1)  Stop fighting about issues like gay and lesbian people in church.  People are sick and tired of it.  God loves everybody, OK?

2)  Repent.  Greed is a sin.  I think we forgot.    

3)  Preach hope.  Defeat has no place in church.  I haven’t heard a sermon on hope in ten years.  Let’s get to it.  

4)  Avoid the temptation to scapegoat others.  No crusades allowed.

5)  Read the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-13; Luke 6:20-31) and take them literally, especially when Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”    

I pray that churches find this plan more palatable than Congress found the $700 billion bailout plan.  Even if this is only a great recession, we’ve got to do better this time.


Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus