Re-engaging Mainline Christianity for Critical Citizenship

Peter Laarman

I write from the premise that things are already quite far gone for the general health of constitutional democracy and the civic sector in the United States. I believe most readers of this journal will agree that these are no ordinary times and that what used to pass for moderation—for Arthur Schlesinger’s “vital center” in 1949—might well appear radical today in relation to how far rightward things have shifted.

Shopping our way, so to speak, through a time of unspeakable violence brings with it a kind of spiritual sickness.

My second premise is that within the same mainline Protestantism that has been dismissed as totally fossilized (“historic Protestant Christianity” is the term commonly used) lie seeds of significant civic renewal. Those seeds need watering, of course, and they need nurturing, but the case is by no means hopeless. There is a still-small “yes” muffled beneath the loud “no” that many are quick to pronounce over these diminished bodies.

And here I must acknowledge my own instinctive “no.” I grow frustrated over the dithering and lack of direction I see within the mainline. Put bluntly, how many heirs of historic Protestant Christianity in the United States today find themselves in active resistance to what Walter Brueggemann calls the “dominant script” of a society organized around narcissism, the pursuit of private wealth, and the aggressive and increasingly ritualized humiliation of the poor?

Notwithstanding the bleak overall picture, part of the mainline has already recovered the consciousness that the church receives divine grace for the sake of a suffering world and not for the private consolation of its members. That is an important start—a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of a re-engaged critical citizenship. And by a re-engaged citizenship I do not mean that liberal church folk should constitute themselves as yet another wing or adjunct of the Democratic Party. My hope is not that the church turn political in that sense but simply that it become more courageously the church, bearing a light and bringing a perspective that is neither Red nor Blue but that is much deeper, clearer, and more compelling than any current partisan ideology.

White Male Protestant As Outsider:
 A Conversion Narrative

In my judgment the single most grievous lapse in civic consciousness today—and also the most grievous lapse in the perspective held by most mainliners—is an almost serene obliviousness to the asphyxiation of democratic institutions and subversion of the public interest by private power and private interests.

On this point I realize I remain stubbornly at odds with a conventional wisdom that sees corporate dominance as natural, necessary, even benign. Indeed, as the years go by I sometimes feel like a crank for having to point out that government of, by, and for Wall Street regents and hedge fund hegemons is not quite the same as government of, by, and for the people. In insisting upon this difference I even begin to feel like a person of the nineteenth century, perhaps a distant kinsman to William Jennings Bryan. And I suppose that in some key respects I am a person born out of time. Without doubt my way of seeing the world was shaped by a peculiar set of formative experiences going back to the Upper Midwest of the 1950s.

I grew up among Dutch Calvinists whose forebears settled Holland Township along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Sheboygan County, Wisc. My father returned from wartime service to run the same dairy farm that his father and grandfather had operated from the early years of Wisconsin statehood. The politics of the place were solidly Republican, but even as a little kid I could sense a difference between the country-club Republicanism then gaining ascendancy and an older yeoman-farmer Republicanism that still had not been quite extinguished in the century that followed the GOP’s founding in Wisconsin in 1854—the year in which my great-grandfather set up his farm. My dad, certainly, had a strong strain of populist anger in him that I avidly absorbed, even as my antiwar activism in college began to generate a painful estrangement between us.

In college I formed a parallel and equally strong commitment to racial justice, but the genesis of that had nothing to do with residual rural populism and everything to do with the way the leaders of the Black Freedom Movement in those years started to excavate the other key strand of America’s buried history—not just the economic struggle of urban workers and small farmers but the titanic liberation struggle of a people first enslaved and then further abused on these shores for over 350 years.

I could not have built my life around commitments to economic and racial justice absent one other key influence. At my college we had two extraordinary campus ministers—both Yale Divinity graduates—who punctured our pretensions and did their level best to get us engaged with the big issues then roiling U.S. society. Brown’s senior chaplain—Charles Baldwin—used what seems even now like shocking language to help me put my life into real perspective and keep me from clinging to the safer shores. “LAARMAN, you’re a FRAUD!” was a typical Baldwin greeting. Charlie assumed that I knew (and I did know, because I listened closely to his sermons) that this was his way of alluding to the cheap grace I enjoyed as a campus radical.

It wasn’t all raillery. When I concluded, under these same chaplains’ influence, that I could not in good conscience take any human life under military orders, they helped me through the C.O. process, even finding a lawyer to help me out when my Wisconsin draft board turned down my initial application. And later, when I wrestled with my vocation, no longer able to feel that I could justify my original plan to spend my life teaching English literature, they gently suggested that I give seminary—their seminary—a try.

Divinity school didn’t take, or at least I did not take to it, during that trial year. I was still deeply angry over what I took to be mainline complacency on civil rights and Vietnam. And as someone still struggling to come out fully as a gay man, I could not then sort out the difference between church condemnation of homosexuality and Christ’s unconditional welcome. I dropped out of YDS to become a community organizer and then, for fifteen busy years, a trade union activist and strategist. It took all of two decades before I would finally drop a note to the Fund for Theological Education (administrator of the old Rockefeller Brothers trial year program) that said, in effect, “You win.”

Disembedding the Mainline Option

I tell my story without imagining for a moment that the kind of education I experienced—the scales falling, not all at once but nevertheless falling steadily during my formative years—is something that can be reproduced easily or canned into some kind of crash course for active citizenship. Yet I feel that a roughly similar awakening is what is most urgently needed today within mainline congregations and seminaries. Were it up to me, I would focus civic leadership training on two realities: first on the systemic economic violence that characterizes this culture, and then on the untapped power of the prophetic faith tradition to deconstruct and counter the regime of violence.1

The violence is easily described. Noted pastor, teacher, and movement strategist James M. Lawson, Jr., calls it the violence of plantation capitalism. It encompasses the millions of jobs outsourced or else badly degraded via the “temping” of the U.S. workforce, and it includes stagnant or falling real wages and salaries over three decades for those in the middle, even as incomes and real wealth accumulation at the top soar to stratospheric heights. It includes the evisceration of workers’ right to organize over the course of these same decades, the lethal vise of overwork and debt that stifles the family lives of so many working parents, and the plunge in earnings for those at the bottom to the point that many full-time workers either find themselves homeless or must rely on food stamps and food pantries to feed their families.

The violence includes brutal cuts made to cash public assistance and health care coverage for the very poorest even as the corporate welfare trough overflows with new subsidies and giveaways; it includes the return of involuntary servitude for a significant number of the more than two million locked away in America’s thoroughly racist and now partially privatized prison system; it includes the grotesque unfairness of both the tax code itself and of IRS enforcement that targets the returns of the working poor while turning a blind eye to shameless tax cheating by the wealthiest. Finally, the new ruthless economy wreaks its horrific violence through the ongoing engineering by conservatives of what Yale political scientist Joseph S. Hacker aptly terms “the great risk shift”: shifting the burden of paying for health care, education, and retirement to individuals and away from the society as a whole.

Although this unsparing economic violence hides itself in relatively plain sight, almost no one—and almost no one within the church—calls it violence, names it as virulently undemocratic, or even acknowledges its existence. The reason has to do with its protective bubble.

I will sketch three different but not disparate bubble effects. The first will be grasped immediately by those who follow such iconoclastic journalists as Bill Moyers, Amy Goodman, and Jon Stewart. As first observed more than a quarter-century ago by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, this is the numbing effect created by our light-’n’-bright- entertainment-cum-advertising digital culture—a culture in which metastasizing soft features gradually subvert critical reflection and destroy narrative coherence.

The second bubble effect, obviously linked to the first, is what happens to a democracy when voting for the American Idol becomes more compelling to most people than voting for an American President. What happens when politics becomes a diverting personality contest thinly superimposed over the preceding—and far more consequential—money vote that determines who the actual party candidates will be?

Bill Moyers frames the challenge eloquently:

We talk about problems, issues, policy solutions, but we don’t talk about what democracy means—what it bestows on us, the power it gives us—the astonishing opportunity to shape our destiny. I mean the revolutionary idea that democracy isn’t merely a means of government, it’s a means of dignifying people so that they have a chance to become fully human. Every day I find myself asking, Why is America forsaking its own revolution? (The Christian Century, April 17, 2007)

How many voters today, let alone non-voters, conceive of voting as an action that profoundly shapes their destinies? Civic participation has been thoroughly trivialized and downgraded—nearly extinguished altogether in a culture of distraction and diversion.

The third bubble effect is still more insidious and damaging. Pulitzer-prize–winning writer Marilynne Robinson critiques Americans’ passivity in response to increasing petty coercion (Social Research, Spring 2004; reprinted in Harper’s, August 2004). She concludes that this land can no longer be described as the land of the free and the home of the brave. In the face of government bullying and ceaseless corporate and media intrusions, we behave—most of us—like lambs led to the slaughter and like sheep that before their shearers are silent. The third bubble effect, in short, is the one we ourselves create by surrendering to the other two.

The Creatively Maladjusted Church

In sketching a pervasive economic violence I cited the vise grip exercised by overwork and ballooning personal debt in private life. I now cite an additional factor that closes the iron triangle of spiritual and psychic oppression. That third factor is the corrosive consumerism to which few are immune. Yale theologian Serene Jones speaks of how our deepest desires have been marketized and thus fundamentally betrayed—how we are suffering through an epochal crisis of the heart and of the imagination while barely comprehending the damage done. I will add only that shopping our way, so to speak, through a time of unspeakable violence brings with it a kind of spiritual sickness. Try as we might, we will never repress all knowledge of the torment—that of others and that of ourselves—that lies groaning beneath the floorboards of the “typical American lifestyle.”

So now a question: How can people escape the bubble and gain release from the iron triangle without disintegrating and without falling into the clutches of the Loony Left or the Rabid Right? More specifically, how can the church help us to come to our senses—literally—in time to salvage democracy and restore common decency?

Chicago Theological Seminary’s Susan Thistlethwaite argues that the main task today is to re-evangelize the church itself. Our task is to call it to account in precisely the areas where it has been least honest and least faithful to Jesus—its idolatries of flag and altar, its subservience to wealth, and its smug exclusion of those it judges to be “less than.”

I agree, but I also see this as a monumental task that can potentially frustrate and exhaust those who begin to undertake it. It is so much easier for prophetic leaders to bypass the culturally embedded, captive church and to make common cause instead with the secular insurrectionists. The problem, of course, is that bypassing the church also means forfeiting its irreplaceable language. It means refusing the vital nourishment that is still divinely supplied to us from within the tradition, like manna in the wilderness.

Among the nourishing resources is, first and foremost, the independence of the church. Here I mean not just its First Amendment independence but its capacity to function as a uniquely free social space on account of its grounding in a powerful alternative discourse. Weak-kneed as its leaders may sometimes be, the church retains access to a tap-root of prophetic tradition reaching way down and way back—not back to Voltaire and Jefferson but all the way down and back to Miriam and Moses. James Lawson notes the real significance of Moses’ call, which is also our own call today: Moses begins to see the world the way God sees it, after which liberation becomes his only agenda.

So yes, we can give up on the church, but the cost to ourselves and to the world would be too great. However much we may weary of its dithering, we should never forget what the Spirit-led church can do, independently of any ideology of Left or Right: it can name domination systems in its own distinctive and still-resonant language; it can proclaim and also demonstrate just what community looks like by lifting up the traditions of Sabbath and Jubilee; it can rouse us from our numbing and narcosis and supply us with the long narrative and the critical frame we need in order to recover coherence in a culture of planned incoherence and narcissistic idiocy; it can awaken us to the suffering and the hope unfolding all the time within the justice struggles of those at the bottom; and, by no means least among these gifts, it can renew and delight our spirits through the beauty of its rituals and songs and stories.

I once preached that the church at its best functions as a tiny but effective air purification system planted somewhere within a giant smoke-filled room. Its success won’t be measured by whether it clears the air immediately but by whether it keeps its filters clean. In a culture where the smoke is getting thicker, surely a church that might be smaller but that is creatively maladjusted in the way Dr. King envisioned is preferable to a church that is larger but less honest and less provocative than it needs to be.

Susan Thistlethwaite has it right. If we want to salvage American democracy, we should start by disembedding and re-evangelizing the mainline church. Start the Long March within the rusting but still resonant ecclesiastical hulk. And for the cynical, this word from Karl Barth, who once asked in anguish whether the church does anything more than “disclose the deceitfulness of men.” Barth’s answer: “Our duty is to take seriously and to heart the known tribulation of the Church and to wrestle with God, the God of Jacob: ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me.’”


1. The reader might ask, “Why is this guy harping
 on domestic economic violence when the more troublesome edge of U.S. violence is on hideous display right now in the Middle East? Has he been living under a rock?” My answer is that U.S. imperial violence from the Spanish-American War right up through the present is directly traceable to the underlying economic violence I describe. This is the main burden of the monumental historiographic work done by William Appleman Williams, and no one since Williams has been able to disprove 
or significantly discredit his argument. Of course
I support mainline antiwar activism and I am significantly involved in it myself. The danger is that the churches will think their job is done when this war is winding down and will neglect to work on the root causes of our “warring madness.”

Peter Laarman earned a degree at Yale Divinity School in 1993 and is executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, based in Los Angeles. He is editor of Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006).