Should The Church cater/pander to the reputed majority views of young people, i.e. the much mythologized Millennials, in pursuit of their allegiance? There’re ongoing insistent demands from liberal church voices that Christianity, especially the Evangelical world, will crumble unless key teachings at odds with purported Millennial preferences are amended or abandoned.
The larger issue is should The Church accommodate sociological trends or cleave to historic teachings.
One anecdote comes to mind. A recent biography of southern writer and aristocrat William Alexander Percy recalls his students days at Harvard University Law School. In 1906 he and his fellow law students, mostly Yankees, were much impressed by a new article in the prestigious and widely read journal Century Magazine called “Reflex Light from Africa” by Charles Francis Adams, Jr., grandson of John Quincy Adams.
Adams had just visited Africa, where he observed “ineradicable and insurmountable race difference” that persuaded him that black people were intrinsically subordinate to white people. He admitted his “scientific” observation struck at the “very root of our American polity, the idea of equality of man before the law. We cannot conform to it.” Adams claimed Reconstruction in America had failed because of this “ethnographic fact.” So the best to expect was to accept the black person as a “ward and dependent, firmly but in a spirit of kindness and absolute justice.”
Percy wrote his prominent father, a future senator from Mississippi who famously opposed the Ku Klux Klan, that Adams’ article had created “much astonishment” at Harvard. Adams was a Boston Brahmin and Civil War veteran whose family had for generations opposed slavery and racial injustice. Percy, who would later manage hundreds of sharecroppers, himself had racial views that were condescending but relatively enlightened for a Mississippi planter of that time. He was also a humanitarian who assisted with relief efforts during WWI and the Great Flood of 1927.
Adams’ claim of a natural racial hierarchy that Percy embraced was commonplace at the time, when even and perhaps especially progressives believed that white Europeans, especially Nordics and Anglo-Saxons, were superior persons duty bound to rule the world. Percy’s gushing letter to his father confirms that Adams’ views were affirmed among young elites at Harvard.
Would Christian ministry in 1906 have been correct, in appealing to the prestigious Millennials of that day, to abandon historic Christian teaching in favor of the “scientific” fad about white racial superiority? What if preaching against that fad persuaded Millennials of that time to reject the Gospel? Which is more important, fidelity to historic Christian teaching or temporary political popularity? Which belief system has aged better, Adams’ discovery of racial hierarchy or the biblical claim that all are equal before God?
Adams was Unitarian and Percy rejected his childhood Catholicism to become a stoic. Maybe liberal Evangelicals of today, if transported to their time, would urge adopting their racial views so the Gospel would appeal to such accomplished persons. In contrast with the scene at Harvard and in Boston, early Pentecostalism at that time was attracting whites and blacks to common worship, which had little precedent. But neither fashionable nor educated people were attracted to Pentecostalism.
One hundred years from now, which views are likely to have weathered the vicissitudes of time better, the 2014 political preferences of today’s 25 year olds, or The Church’s classic theology?
St. Paul’s words come to mind: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires,…”
This week and beyond, Millennials on IRD’s staff will be addressing this issue in their own blogs as part of a series. They merit hearing. Here’s the first one, from Brian Miller, himself a law student. Look forward to more from others!