Last week I attended the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). The first, in Providence, Rhode Island, included perhaps a couple thousand conservative Protestants, mostly professors and seminary students. The second, in Boston, included 10,000 mostly academics and students engaging religion, many if not most at secular schools.
At ETS, members must affirm an Evangelical statement of doctrine. AAR has no doctrinal boundaries, and the overall bent is against orthodox Christianity. If there is a doctrinal requirement it is obeisance to the current totems of multiculturalism, diversity and individualistic expressionism. Some ETS participants like myself journeyed north to attend AAR, but they likely came prepared for predictable broadsides against capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, militarism, colonialism and Western Civilization. Most seemed to do so good-naturedly.
There were Evangelical and other orthodox Christian enclaves within the AAR including after hours receptions. A highlight for me was the reception of the Wesleyan Theological Society jointly convened with the Society for Pentecostal Studies. Some groused about the absence of alcohol, but they survived. A PhD student from Brown University in Providence wandered in and seemed not to know the meaning of “Wesleyan,” asking if it related to the university. I told him I had just been in Providence for ETS, about which he was also unaware.
These meetings of AAR and ETS in Boston and Providence were symbolically significant, maybe ironically. Boston was founded by theocratic Puritans who would not appreciate AAR’s liberationist fixations. Providence was founded by Roger Williams, an ultra-Puritan who escaped Boston to found the world’s first oasis of religious liberty. His church he founded there, before rejecting its imperfections, is the first Baptist church in America. Many ETS participants admiringly trooped through the gorgeous 18th century white, tall steepled sanctuary.
Southern Baptists dominated the ETS gathering, and my favorite part was the reception hosted by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), one of the world’s largest seminaries. Almost certainly I was the only Methodist in the room. SBTS represents the Reformed/Calvinist wing of the Southern Baptist Convention. One friendly older man asked me if I was a “Reformed” Methodist. I said no, just a regular Wesleyan Methodist. We both smiled.
At that reception and elsewhere in Providence I encountered Southern Baptist and other evangelical luminaries whom I previously only knew through Twitter or their published works. It was of course spiritually and intellectually stimulating. Providence is a wonderful little city with a charming historic neighborhood, and a large statue of Roger Williams looming over his creation. Boston of course is larger, itself beautiful and very historic. The streets were festive in the crisp air as thousands of AAR attendees anxiously zipped to various sessions while also sampling the city’s many wonderful restaurants. With Thanksgiving impending I very much wanted to visit nearby Plymouth Rock to pay homage to the Pilgrims, but there wasn’t time.
My departure also prevented my attending the AAR related event that captured the most publicity, which was release of the “Boston Declaration” by liberal theologians to denounce the “corruption of [conservative] Christians in the United States.” The theatrical media event was at historic South Church, where the participants literally donned sackcloth and ashes, like repentant Old Testament prophets and kings. Except in this modern case the wearers of sackcloth and ashes were not repenting their own sins but loudly denouncing the alleged sins of their theological opponents and rivals. They likened themselves to the Confessing Church that challenged German Christian complicity with Naziism.
This Boston Declaration denounced a lot:
- the false ideology of empire building
- the false ideology that peace is achieved through military strength and that violence is the necessary foundation for freedom, safety, or security.
- the manufacturing and proliferation of weapons which continue to drown the planet in the blood of millions through global war and the terrorism of domestic mass shootings
- the false ideology of the corporate ruling class that services and supports the US military
- the false ideology of American exceptionalism
- the false ideology of white normalcy and bigotry
- the patriarchal and misogynistic legacies that subject women to continual violence, violation, and exclusion
- violations against the Earth, especially the stripping of her resources and polluting that harms her and the creatures that inhabit her soil and seas
- economic policies that are grounded in an illusion of extreme individualism and favor the accumulation of wealth for a few to the detriment of the many
- Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry
- homophobia and transphobia
There wasn’t much Thanksgiving spirit in the Boston Declaration as it insisted “this is a time of heightened racist and patriarchal empire where wealth is concentrated at the top.”
Instead of wearing Old Testament costumes and imagining themselves as the moral equivalent of resistance to the Third Reich, the Boston Declaration could have thoughtfully critiqued the many genuine problems of contemporary USA conservative Christianity while also including the many failures of liberal religion. To have done so would have been more truly prophetic. Instead its harangue just offered the usual litany of leftist tropes that proliferate in secular academia.
But the political stagecraft at Old South Church was at least entertaining and captured some of the finger-pointing sanctimony of Boston’s original Puritans while omitting their spiritual and intellectual seriousness.
No doubt the Boston Declaration prophets joined other AAR participants in fully enjoying Boston’s fine dining and lavish hotels. All of us who were there are among the most privileged and undeservedly blessed people to have ever lived on this earth. If sackcloth and ashes were appropriate, it would’ve been for the incredible ingratitude of which we are all guilty as Christians in 21st century America.