Driving Wedges in Mainline Protestantism

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One of the emerging areas of influence of the Christian Right is in the mainline Protestant denominations affiliated with the National Council of Churches (NCC). Strong conservative evangelical currents and organizing by Christian Right organizations inside and outside the churches have eroded, if not displaced the historic role of these denominations as bastions of religiously-inspired movements for social justice at the center of American religious life. A Moment to Decide: The Crisis in Mainstream Presbyterianism, published in 2000 by the Institute for Democracy Studies, raises the possibility that the Presbyterian Church (USA) may become a conservative evangelical denomination.57 The gridlock created by this battle is typical of what is happening in mainstream Protestantism. Conservative factions in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for decades have systematically undermined the social justice orientation of the denomination. Unable so far, to prevail outright over Presbyterian moderates and progressives, Presbyterian rightists are campaigning to take over the denomination, even as some openly threaten to leave the church altogether, much as some GOP's conservatives threaten to bolt the party. In fact, a number of conservative churches have left over the years to join the rightist schism, Presbyterian Church in America. (PCA).

For much of the twentieth century, the liberal Protestant churches served as the moral center of the culture, for example, playing a leading role in the civil rights movement, while conservative evangelicals were generally either silent or on the other side. Conservatives have waged an ever-widening guerrilla war on the mainline churches, creating gridlock within the ecumenical National Council of Churches and its member denominations while simultaneously seeking institutional influence and control. These struggles echo the conservative takeover of the formerly moderate Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and its subsequent alignment with the Christian Right. SBC has, among other things, purged its seminaries of liberals, reversed its historic advocacy of separation of church and state, banned the ordination of women as pastors, and declared that women should be in submission to men.

A major issue of engagement between the mainline denominations and the Christian Right is the status of homosexuality. In the summer of 2000, the United Methodist Church took stands against gay ordination and same-sex commitment ceremonies; the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed an amendment to its church constitution banning "holy unions" that must now be ratified by its regional bodies, Presbyteries. The Episcopal Church approved a resolution that recognizes both married couples and couples living "in other life-long committed relationships" characterized by fidelity and monogamy. In each case, the struggle is far from over, and schisms and threats of schism abound. The erosion of the mainline Protestant churches has created openings for both the Christian Right and the Catholic Church to contend for dominance as the "moral center" of American political life.

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