As WE NEAR the end of the 20th century, the United States draws astonishingly little leadership, moral or otherwise, from prominent and respected people associated with religious institutions. Apart from Billy Graham, still a visible presence in his 70s, the only nationally notable church-related leaders of America in 1990 are the fading remnant of the religious right. The televangelists, who a decade ago had so much impact on the country, have returned to their bases, like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, or are gone entirely, like Jim Bakker. And we don't hear much from theologians of any stripe.
There are issues on the national agenda which for many are closely tied to religious principles. Abortion is an obvious example, but so are questions of poverty, the treatment of minorities, foreign policy and the many forms of excessive self-indulgence from drugs to junk bonds. There is much to speak about but not much eloquence, prophetic or exhortative, emanating from the religious institutions, which for much of our past were a major source of morally invigorating language.
American churches are still well-attended, unlike those in Western Europe. Many appear to be prosperous and vigorous institutions, hard at work to serve the personal needs of their members. Some of them incorporate political substance into their service to the congregation, preaching on political issues and even helping to organize demonstrations and lobbying expeditions. But while many clergy may be politically involved, their individual localized efforts do not add up to much national impact.
There is no single explanation for this loss of effective leadership by the churches, but several possibilities come to mind. For 30 years many major denominations have been wracked by internal bTC struggle over doctrine and power. Fiscal distress, the lack of clergy, and various challenges to the moral authority of the church itself leave little energy for theological innovation or broadly framed national leadership. The time and energy required to fight these intramural struggles use up resources that might have gone into creative analysis of public questions or eloquent and persuasive arguments reaching out to Americans beyond the limits of a particular denomination. The more internally divided any organization is, the less effective it will be in influencing others to join its conception of the public good.
A second factor is related to the first. Since the 1950s most American churches have struggled over how to deal with a series of public issues they could not, or did not, avoid but which evoked strongly held and sharply conflicting opinions among both clergy and lay members.
Churches have been important institutional bases for nearly every recent political movement in the country; not only civil rights and anti-war, but also gay rights, feminism, pornography, abortion, assorted efforts to assist the poor and campaigns to alter U.S. foreign policy. Each of these issues has cut deeply into denominations and individual congregations, often leading dissident groups to secede. More important, these disputes among church people have raised doubts regarding the moral authority of religious leaders. To many ordinary citizens the church leaders began to look like just another bunch of squabbling Americans, no better and no worse perhaps, but not entitled to any special respect just because they were church people. American religious leaders may thus have dissipated their influence and lost much of their moral authority by getting caught up in a host of divisive issues within the denominational organizations and in the nation at large. As they became partisans, theological and political, their messages were discounted by all those who are not already persuaded.
Yet many of the widely admired religious leaders of the American past were also strenuous partisans of controversial positions. Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, was an active supporter of left liberal political causes. over several decades. Fulton Sheen was a fervent anti-communist. Cardinal Spellman was prominently involved in many public controversies as were Protestant leaders like G. Bromley Oxnam and James Pike. Not least, there were the many clergyman, black and white, who were leaders of the civil rights movement. Why, then, did those partisans attract respectful national attention while their successors in positions of church organization leadership do not?
Perhaps it was because they had something important to say and they found compelling language to express it. Niebuhr and others preached serious theology. Graham, Sheen and Norman Vincent Peale had the ability to attract vast audiences. Martin Luther King Jr. had style and substance. Both his eloquence and his message resonate today with almost as much force as they did a quarter-century ago.