The message of these events is clear: The terms of belonging to civil society have changed. In the early 20th century, debates about Christian orthodoxy took place within an America where the basic elements of Christian moral teaching were generally accepted. Today, such thinking stands at odds with the politics of identity that dominates elite institutions. That sets the scene for external culture war and internal civil war.
The website of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, Fla., says the congregation “is committed to anti-racism and radical solidarity with folx on the margins.” Last month the church featured a “special guest” for the children’s sermon at weekly worship. Isaac Simmons, who uses the stage name “Ms. Penny Cost,” donned a high-slit sequin dress, denounced capitalism and praised liberation theology. In a follow-up post after the event, Rev. Andy Oliver, the church’s pastor, wrote: “Ms. Penny Cost was an angel in heels appearing to shepherds in the fields on the night shift, telling them that Good News had arrived on their doorstep. What was once the margins is the center.”
Churches are increasingly in the middle of cultural and moral controversies. Mr. Oliver’s denomination has dramatically fragmented over issues of sexuality, with many congregations leaving to join the Global Methodist Church, a new denomination founded in 2022 as a conservative alternative.
The Catholic Church is being torn apart, too. The Synodal Path in Germany, an ongoing national consultation of bishops and laity, has pressed for progressive changes in doctrine and discipline. Traditional Catholics distrust Pope Francis’s Synod on Synodality, a global listening effort, as a project to surreptitiously change church teaching, which has seemingly over-represented the input of disaffected laity.
The same applies to religious schools. Last year a priest at the University of Notre Dame wore a Pride stole while attending a “Coming Out Day Celebration” sponsored by PrismND, the university’s “official LGBTQ+ undergraduate student organization.” The school’s student newspaper, the Irish Rover, recently reported that a faculty member was openly offering support to students seeking abortions.