John D. Rockefeller Jr., heir to the world’s largest fortune, was a pious, earnest man, a teetotaling Baptist who believed in modernity. He thought Christianity, to remain relevant, would have to be modernized. His millions would help make it happen.
Harry Emerson Fosdick was the preeminent liberal pastor of his day, a liberal Baptist who was tried for heresy while pastoring a Presbyterian church, winning admiration from Rockefeller. He built Fosdick his very own temple on the Hudson River, called Riverside Church. There the silver tongued preacher could denounce “fundamentalism,” by which he meant Christian orthodoxy, with its beliefs about a divine Savior born of a Virgin and resurrected from the dead after an atoning death on the Cross to gain forgiveness for the world.
Fosdick, like nearly all enlightened Mainline Protestant clergy of his day, preached an enlightened Social Gospel that believed the church’s chief duty was to socially and politically build a better world. He was a pacifist, even during the lead up to WWII, as he believed in human goodness. Humanity didn’t need salvation, but education, opportunity and inspiration from the enlightened.
Across the street from Fosdick’s cathedral was Union Seminary, once the prestigious academic voice of liberal Mainline Protestantism, originally Baptist, and also generously supported by Rockefeller. And later there was, also across the street on New York’s upper west side, the towering Interchurch Center, built with Rockefeller largesse to house the agencies of Mainline Protestantism. Together, these flagships of American religion would usher America into an ever better tomorrow.
Except today those former religious flagships are shadows of their formerly influential selves. Hyper-liberal Union, which once hosted intellectual giants like Reinhold Niebuhr, now mobilizes for protests like Occupy Wall Street, and sits on the fringes of even liberal Protestant academia. The Interchurch Center has been emptied of many of its tenants, as Mainline denominations continue their collapse. And once mighty Riverside Church survives on its endowment but otherwise struggles.
They have been displaced by what Fosdick dismissed as “fundamentalism” but which is actually Christian orthodoxy among Protestant Evangelicals, who have constructed across decades the largest churches and seminaries. Modernity and liberalism did not fare well for Mainline Protestants, whose churches have been emptying for 50 years, congregants not captivated by vague Easter sermonizing about flowers blooming.
Sophisticated opinion 100 years ago assumed that orthodox Christianity had no future, at least not for thinking people. But now traditional Christianity, with its focus on sin, redemption, miracles, holiness and a personal God, is surging around the world. Meanwhile, cultures dominated by liberal Christianity have secularized and face potentially bleak demographic futures.
Rockefeller and Fosdick, captive to the fads of their day, dabbled in eugenics and fretted about population control, supporting controversial Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. There was a logical continuity when Mainline Protestantism, having long abandoned its creeds, also abandoned Christian ethics, embracing abortion on demand in the 1960s and 1970s. The sad irony is that those churches are now bereft of children and disproportionately elderly.
Postmodern secularism, having captured and asphyxiated Mainline Protestantism, is baffled by the persistence of traditional Christianity among far more numerous Catholics and Evangelicals. It assumes these orthodox believers too will subsumed into the secular zeitgeist.
A New York Times editorial by Frank Bruni published on Good Friday quotes a gay philanthropist declaring that churches must be made “to take homosexuality off the sin list.” The column quotes several liberal post-Evangelicals explaining why Christians will surrender their faith’s historic definition of marriage in favor of this moment’s sexual fluidity. Big corporations, big media, and big philanthropies are demonizing and ostracizing dissidents from LGBTQ orthodoxy, supported by the tattered remnants of largely inconsequential liberal Protestantism.
These powerful cultural faddists will be disappointed. The Church of Jesus Christ has survived and prevailed against far greater and more formidable challenges. Christianity has no “sin list” per se, but it does have an ethic of life and holiness that understands humans not merely as autonomous material beings but eternal souls with sacred bodies having transcendent purposes.
Our Savior is the eternal Bridegroom of His Bride, the Church, for whom He gave His life. Christian doctrine and practice can never prevaricate about marriage, fidelity and chastity without losing the center of its faith.
Secularists of course aren’t terribly interested in Christian doctrine. But they might observe that sociologically, liberal, accommodating religion rarely excites a mass following or long survives. Contrary to assumptions of some Western elites, the world is getting more religious, not less, and neither growing Christianity, nor any major growing faith, is liberal.
Liberal religion may tell people what they superficially want in the moment but it does not speak to the reality of their souls. Faith that succeeds over the long run is always challenging and costly. It offers redemption, not idle affirmation. It warns of persecution and offers tools for perseverance.
Rockefeller and Fosdick bet on the wrong horse, and so do the latest favored religious voices of The New York Times. There will always be some who fall for the spirit of the age and die with it. But Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His defeat of death and hell. Though His faithful followers may be persecuted and stigmatized in the present age, they live and die with the assurance of a victory already won in the age to come.
This article originally appeared on The Stream