I do not believe that Protestants need to become Roman Catholics but we do need to understand the problems which beset us from within. The big money parachurch ministries depend upon constant recreation of a market for theological kitsch, and theological kitsch drives out the kind of deep thought which really does need to be the focus of the church’s efforts and resources at this point. Therein, I suspect, lies the coming crisis of conservative Protestantism.
In October, I had the pleasure of attending both the lecture and subsequent seminar given for First Things by Ross Douthat on the crisis in conservative Catholicism. Not being a Roman Catholic, I was there very much as an outside observer of the discussion but it raised for me the obvious questions: Is there a parallel crisis in conservative Protestantism and, if so, in what does it consist?
Douthat’s argument—that conservative Catholics overestimated their success and influence both in the political and ecclesiastical sphere, has limited parallels in conservative Protestantism. Certainly, the cultural power of conservative Protestants has massively declined since the days when threats of a boycott by the Southern Baptist Convention could strike fear into the heart of a corporate CEO. As with their Roman Catholic counterparts, politically conservative Protestants are coming to realize that they placed too much faith in the political process. Yet, on the ecclesiastical front, Douthat’s crisis assumes the importance of a unified, institutional church. The fissiparous nature of Protestantism means that such a crisis cannot happen. We are, after all, by definition schismatics from a Roman Catholic perspective. In this sense, Roman Catholics would no doubt see Protestantism in itself as constituting a permanent crisis.
Nevertheless, setting Roman Catholic objections aside, I would suggest three areas where conservative Protestantism in the USA—at least its broadly reformed strand with which I am familiar—could be said to be, if not in crisis, then certainly moving toward such.
First, far too much power is exerted by wealthy and influential parachurch organizations. A good example of this was provided this year by events surrounding the attempted exchange about Evangelicals and Catholics Together which was commissioned by Reformation21, the e-zine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Three of us were involved: Timothy George, Thomas Guarino, and myself. The exchange was respectful, honest, friendly, but frank. My own article was scarcely a paean of praise to the ECT process.
Within hours of the first article (that of Tim) being published, a tweet and a hostile blog post by a senior representative of another Reformed parachurch group based in Florida, followed by rumored behind-the-scenes shenanigans, were enough to get the series pulled (and then thankfully picked up by First Things—kudos to Rusty Reno). Sad to say, one parachurch group had effectively closed down perfectly legitimate discussion in an unconnected forum by sheer bully-boy tactics.
An aberration? Unfortunately not. This is symptomatic of the way things are in much of the conservative Protestant world. As long as the most influential parachurches are run like businesses, money and marketing will be the overriding concerns, even as concern for ‘the gospel’ is always the gloss. Reinforced by a carrot-and-stick system of feudal patronage connected to lucrative conference gigs, publishing deals, and access to publicity, such tactics as those described will continue to be deployed. Roman Catholics might look on Protestantism from the outside and see it as theology ruled by a mob. Speaking as an insider, it often seems to me to be ruled more by the Mob.