The American Heresy

From Jody Bottum's very fine essay on American Protestantism in the latest First Things, a brief analysis of the theology of Katherine Jefferts Schori, presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church:

To be saved, we need only to realize that God already loves us, just the way we are, Schori wrote in her 2006 book, A Wing and a Prayer. She’s not exactly wrong about God’s love, but, in Schori’s happy soteriology, such love demands from us no personal ­reformation, no individual guilt, no particular penance, and no precise dogma. All we have to do, to prove the redemption we already have, is support the political causes she approves. The mission of the church is to show forth God’s love by demanding inclusion and social justice. She often points to the United Nations as an example of God’s work in the world, and when she talks about the mission of the Episcopal Church, she typically identifies it with the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals ... Her Yahweh, in other words, is a blend of Norman Vincent Peale and Dag Hammarskjöld.

The Norman Vincent Peale bit, I think, is particularly telling, because it gets at something that I think is often missed about the current religious landscape: Namely, the extent to which Schori's theological premises are shared across the culture-war divide, by Christians who oppose gay marriage and abortion and voted eagerly for George W. Bush as well as by liberal Protestants who consider the contemporary GOP an abomination. Peale's heirs occupy the pulpits of what remains of the Protestant mainline, but they preach from the dais at numerous evangelical megachurches as well. The people who read Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer and The Prayer of Jabez may be more politically conservative then the people who read A Wing and a Prayer, and read certain passages of Genesis and Leviticus more literally, but the theology they're imbibing is roughly the same sort of therapeutic mush. Indeed, the big difference between the prosperity gospel that Osteen and his ilk are peddling and Schori's liberal Episcopalianism has less to do with any theological principle and more to do with what aspect of American life they want God to validate. And this difference, I suspect, has a great deal to do with social class. Osteen and Co.'s God wants us to pursue financial fulfillment because they're largely preaching to entrepreneurial, upwardly-mobile members of the middle class, whereas Schori's God wants us to pursue a more personal fulfillment - sexually, emotionally, philanthropically - because she's preaching to a demographic that, financially speaking, has already got it made. (Which, in turn, is why it isn't a surprise that as American evangelicals grow more prosperous, they're starting to discover their God's Dag Hammarskjöld side as well.)

Obviously the world of religious conservatism also includes lots of people who are invested in actual Christian orthodoxy, as opposed to the Osteen-Shori vision of God as a really powerful life coach. But the theological continuum that encompasses both Schori-style liberal Protestants and Oprah-watching, The Secret-reading spiritual seekers - call it moralistic therapeutic deism, call it gnosticism, call it the American heresy - extends way deeper into the "religious right" than a lot of people think.