The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) experienced a painful split and divide in the 1920s and 1930s in the midst of the Scopes Trial and the Fundamentalist-Modernist debate. We tend to forget that the Presbyterian elder in the Scopes trial was not Clarence Darrow or John Scopes, but William Jennings Bryan: one who argued against Darwinian evolutionary theory and one who was a populist Democratic candidate for president and hero of the day laborer, the farmer and working men and women.
In other words, even in the so-called ‘clarity’ of the fundamentalist-modernist debate, the us-and-them was not as clear-cut is we like to imagine it was or deem it with our own ‘sophisticated’ historical perspective. Harry Emerson Fosdick delivered his famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” as a mainline Protestant salvo in the midst of a Presbyterian Church torn and rent asunder by those two camps.
Obviously, we know which side of the debate Fosdick was on by his own history and ministry, and perhaps we think even more obviously, we have purged the fundamentalist tendencies from our own ecclesial communion, if not entirely in the 1930s, then again in the 1960s and 1970s, and now finally in the 21st century. Surely in 2014, almost a century after Fosdick’s famous sermon, we have achieved his aims… no more close-minded, intolerant, narrow-minded fundamentalists can still exist among us, can they? But as we approach yet another General Assembly with fear and trembling, I wonder if we too often assume that the religious fundamentalists are only on the ‘other’ side or long gone.
Recently, the seminary faculties of Columbia Theological Seminary and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary offered statements to the church of a renewed call to life together in mutual forbearance, love and hope that is ours in Jesus Christ. (Columbia’s statement; Austin’s statement.) Advocates for “justice” and those on one side of many of the issues before us criticized these statements as seminaries just motivated by their own institutional constituencies standing in the way of Dr. Martin Luther King’s theme from his letter from the Birmingham Jail that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Never mind that affinity groups are not sitting in jails in Birmingham, Selma or Greensboro, but are in the seats of power and influence in our church. Never mind that affinity groups do not seek to incorporate the broad views of our church’s remaining and fragile catholicity, but are nearly single-minded on all the major issues before us, even as they advocate diversity and inclusivity. Immodestly claiming to take up where Martin Luther King Jr., left off in Birmingham, it is now full speed ahead taking on all of us Bull Connors who make up the rest of the PC(USA) constituencies.
On the other side, as I write, another large Presbyterian church has voted overwhelmingly to leave the PC(USA), and a sister church in the same city who did not get the 2/3 majority at their congregational meeting seeks to try their luck in the American court system. I wonder if they will abide by the decision of those same courts if the courts choose to overturn bans on gay marriage? Never mind, its full speed ahead by any means necessary, splintering and punishing the church in the name of faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Never mind that they cannot escape these issues and challenges whatever denomination or Christian communion they enter. Never mind that we are the lesser as we continue to limp along.
Shall the fundamentalists win? Some days it sure days feel like it. Will our Protestantitis ultimately be our own undoing? Sometimes it feels like we are hurtling toward two acculturated churches, a church of MSNBC and a church of Fox News. All very accommodated to the whims of our culture, each in their own way.
That is why I am grateful for these statements by the faculties of Columbia Theological Seminary and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, that point to a life together in Christ that includes our opponents in the future vision of the church. They could easily keep their mouths shut and let the chips fall where they may. But they expressed a love for the church of Jesus Christ that transcends and also incorporates (at times) the righteousness of all our particular causes; they expressed a hope that the fundamentalists shall not win.
May such wisdom and vision find its way into the corridors, particularities and debates of our own life together, in Detroit, and in our own life together back home. And may the fundamentalists, on either side, not prevail.
CHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.