29 July 2008

The Osteen/Schori Axis

The Atlantic's Ross Douthat has some further thoughtful insights in relation to Jody Bottum's very fine and instructive essay "The Death of Protestant America" in the current First Things (not yet available online but lengthily excerpted below):

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.

Here's the rest.


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