Dr. David Gushee gets it right …

David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University. I originally met him through Evangelical Environmental Network, and his anti-torture work, and ever since I always pay attention to what he writes. Here’s his recent editorial from the Associated Baptist Press (another great newsletter to subscribe to … here.)
Opinion: A doomed,
reactionary church?
By David Gushee
(ABP) — The act of reflecting this week, in class, on the development of Catholic social ethics resonated in an unexpected way with the situation facing Christians today. It became clearer than ever to me that when Christians become cultural reactionaries, they doom the church to irrelevance.

The Catholic story went like this: After the Reformation, for centuries the Catholic Church postured itself in a defensive crouch. It missed the opportunity to respond to the challenge posed by the Reformation. It resisted creative engagement with modern science. It held onto a feudal-agrarian economic vision long after industrialization and capitalism. It resisted political liberalism and modern democratic movements. It resisted egalitarianism in gender relations. It resisted birth control and legal divorce. It resisted its own loss of political power and cultural hegemony. It resisted the separation of church and state.
In all of these matters, the Catholic Church dug in its heels and just said “no.”
But in the late 19th century the tide began to turn. Pope Leo XIII added an authoritative Catholic voice to the chorus of Social Gospelers and others who were concerned about the excesses of unfettered laissez-faire capitalism. He released the first modern Catholic social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in 1891. This document didn’t just say “no.” It engaged contemporary culture, especially economic life. It sought to draw on the best of the Catholic tradition in order to speak a relevant and helpful word into the culture of the day. That encyclical, for example, treated such issues as the role of the state in economic life, the need for a living wage for workers, economic life as serving the common good, the need for workers’ associations, and the profound problems of communism as an alternative to capitalism.
Ever since that time, Catholic leaders have offered periodic declarations in the style of Leo XIII. Some of these declarations have been better and more relevant than others. But all represent a shift from a merely reactionary posture to an effort to engage society constructively. These documents are significant enough that all who study Christian social thought today must consider them.
Now consider the parallel to conservative Protestantism, especially as one finds it in the South.
Ever since the social revolutions of the 1960s, white conservative Protestants basically have been in a defensive crouch. They have missed the opportunity to respond in creative ways to the challenges posed by the social changes that have occurred since that time. They responded to the Civil Rights Movement with caution or worse, and many have never come to terms with it — as evidenced by the unsubtle racism that surfaced during this election season. They responded to the modern feminist movement with scorn. They responded to the sexual revolution with scorn. They responded to critiques of American capitalism and foreign policy with scorn. They responded to the growth in American ideological and population diversity with scorn.
This has positioned conservative white Protestantism as a culturally reactionary religion in a rapidly changing culture. It is a religion that just says “no” to everything about American culture as it has developed since the 1960s.
Such a religion appeals to a sizable but rapidly shrinking proportion of the American population. It is most appealing in the small town and rural South and Midwest. It characterizes the rhetoric of most Christian Right groups.
There are moments when all that Christians can do in relation to culture is dig in their heels and say “no.” Certainly that was true in Nazi Germany. There could be no accommodating with the absolute evil of that regime, and those who did accommodate have been rightly viewed as a disgrace to the gospel.
Everyone has to make their own judgment about how to read “the signs of the times” in any particular cultural moment. As for me, I think this is a time for Christian engagement rather than reaction; for creative participation rather than angry retreat. I believe that, if conservative white Protestants and their leaders continue in a stance of mere reaction, they will doom themselves and their version of Christianity to irrelevance.
Cultural engagement does not mean the abandonment of Christian Scripture or tradition. It means creative reflection on the contemporary significance of Scripture and tradition to the culture in which we have been placed. It means engagement with real people around us right now, not dreamy retreat to an earlier era that is now gone forever.