For the last 50 or 60 years, Americans have seen their religious institutions challenged, rejected and sometimes even threatened with extinction.
Mainline Protestant churches and the Catholic Church constitute Exhibit A, the former with their plunging membership numbers and the latter with the loss of trust from members because of the scandal of priests who abused children and of the bishops who hid their crimes.
For the last six-plus months something similar has put many of Americans’ governmental institutions on the defensive — institutions (including the presidency) that until recently have appeared to be deeply rooted enough to survive almost any storm, even presidents threatening the Constitution they’re obligated to defend.
Among the institutions to have their foundations shaken, rattled and/or rolled in the Donald Trump presidency are the Electoral College, Congress, the courts, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Justice Department, the Congressional Budget Office, our several intelligence agencies and even the presidency itself. Plus, of course, our two major political parties, both of which have proven to be largely empty suits.
In short, the U.S. is experiencing a widespread institutional crisis, and I haven’t even mentioned our on-life-support health care system or the economic system that got pummeled starting almost 10 years ago and has only partly recovered.
Can we learn anything about how such challenges to governmental structures by looking at ways in which religious institutions have been earthquaked?
First, let’s recognize that when institutions lose their public support, vibrancy and capacity to adapt to new realities, they are not always toast, but that’s usually the way to bet.
It’s unclear what eventually will remain of Protestantism, which used to include a supermajority of Americans. Nor is it yet clear whether the Catholic Church in America can regain the trust of people in the pews, especially those who’ve been astonished and bruised by such developments as Robert W. Finn, then bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, being found guilty in court for failing to let law enforcement authorities know of sexual abuse by one of his priests and Finn’s eventual resignation.
The Catholic Church has made lots of changes for the better in how it protects children, and Protestant churches have been trying many new approaches — not just to retain current members and attract younger families but also to reach out to the “nones,” those millions of Americans (almost 25 percent of adults) who, when asked to check which religion on a list is theirs, choose “none of the above.”
These changes have come as a response to the considerable damage done to Catholic and Protestant institutions. Whether the changes will be enough is unknown.
The hard-hit Presbyterian Church (USA), for instance, has for the last few years set aside money to fund “1,001 New Worshiping Communities,” including one called “The Open Table” that is growing with help from my own congregation.
The recent sensational testimony to Congress by fired FBI director James Comey, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others has affirmed that some of our governmental institutions are on the receiving end of one blow after another in the Trump era. Trump’s tweets, public statements and the supporting statements from others in the administration have undermined public confidence in governmental institutions. For instance, the administration has tried to ram constitutionally improbable executive orders on immigration through the courts, and although the courts have stood their ground admirably so far, these actions have raised questions about whether the courts can be fatally compromised by another branch of government. The decision yesterday by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments about Trump's travel ban while allowing some parts of the ban to proceed will further test the role of the courts.
Can our military remain trustworthy under a president who threatens to use it willy-nilly, including committing more troops to a 16-year-old war that has rarely seemed winnable? Can our public schools survive a secretary of education who advocates policies that threaten them? Can our intelligence services continue to protect us when some in the Trump administration seem to want to work through unofficial back channels that cut out those services?
In a time of national institutional crisis, Americans need to decide which institutions need protection, which need reform and which could use a gentle death. If they don’t, the wrong ones may perish.
* * *
THE BISHOPS' RINGING UN-ENDORSEMENT
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has released a statement about the Republican health-care bill under consideration in the Senate. The bishops say the bill would “cause disturbing damage to the human beings served by the social safety net” and that it could “wreak havoc on low-income families and struggling communities, and must not be supported.” Other than that, it's good to go.
* * *
P.S.: My latest book, The Value of Doubt, just got a lovely review in The Presbyterian Outlook magazine. Here's a pdf of the review: Download Outlook-Doubt-Review. If you don't yet have a copy, you can get it on Amazon or from your local independent book store or you can e-mail me at email@example.com and I'll tell you how to get an autographed copy.