Like all conservatives, I’ve been called a Nazi more than once. But only once in my life did I feel like a Nazi.
I had a job as a church secretary in a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, this country’s largest Lutheran body. One of the annual duties we all hated was completing the mandatory statistical reports. This was unpleasant partly because it involved going over a lot of records (total membership, number of communion acts, number of baptisms, etc.). But it was also morally noxious.
Because one section of the forms dealt with ethnicity. It required us to go through the entire congregational roll, name by name, and determine to what ethnic group we would assign each member.
Our senior pastor, a splendid old saint (now gone to his reward) without a corpuscle of bigotry in his body, nevertheless saw no problem in applying the old Jim Crow rule to the problem: “One touch of the tar-brush makes you colored.” Thus, if someone casually mentioned to him that one of their great-great-grandmothers had been a Cherokee, the pastor would have us mark them down as “Native American.” This looked good on the forms, since the ELCA was then — and remains today — desperate to be “diverse.”
I CAME ACROSS A news item from the Christian Post Reporter the other day, concerning diversity efforts in the ELCA. It says that the denomination’s constituting convention (1987) adopted the goal “that within ten years of its establishment its membership shall include at least 10 percent people of color and/or primary language other than English.”
At that time their minority membership stood at 2 percent. By 1997, when the 10 years had passed, that percentage had skyrocketed to 2.13 percent. By December 2005 they were able to boast a whopping 3 percent membership of pretty-much-anything-except-Germans-or-Scandinavians.
It would be easy (and pleasurable) to simply laugh at the spectacle of pale, towheaded Midwesterners prowling inner city streets, accosting blacks and Hispanics, begging them, “Brother, can you spare a dime’s worth of authenticity?” To picture German ministers and Swedish church basement ladies scratching their heads and asking, “What can we do to make our church more welcoming to fans of hip-hop and salsa?”
But the impulse behind this farce is both serious and symptomatic.
The problem of the ELCA, and of all mainline Protestant denominations, is the problem of any large, wealthy, traditional organization that has lost track of its mission. The ELCA is like Phillip Morris, which now calls itself Altria. It was built on a product of which it is now heartily ashamed.
For Altria, of course, the product was tobacco. For the ELCA, it’s the Cross of Christ.
I UNDERSTAND THAT OUR READERS aren’t all Christians, and proselytizing isn’t my purpose here. I’m simply noting the historical fact that the structure of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was built on a theological framework, a framework expressly centered on the Cross. And that’s a problem for any church organization that wants to be accepted by the right people and approved by the right institutions in 21st Century America.
The ELCA, like other “mainline” denominations, is effectively Universalist today. Universalists, after all, get invited to the nice parties and are almost never made fun of in movies. The ELCA still talks about the Cross, for the benefit of the rubes who actually sit in the pews and pay the bills, but the people in the upstairs offices mostly agree that there’s really no such place as Hell. This reduces the Cross to a metaphor at best, an artifact which they’ll quietly relegate to the attic once the old people have died off (leaving their money behind).
That comfortable theological slide, however, leaves the church with no important job description. If everyone is going to Heaven regardless of faith or moral performance, there’s not a lot of reason for anyone not to just sleep in on Sunday mornings.
This is where Diversity comes in. With Heaven guaranteed to all, the church’s only motivation becomes whatever difference it thinks it can make in this world. Multiculturalism being the flavor of the generation, they’ve re-imagined themselves as a dynamic force in its service.
Unfortunately, the ethnic groups whom they’ve chosen to honor with their invitation don’t seem terribly excited about the opportunity. It appears that they haven’t, in fact, been praying each night at bedtime, “Oh Lord, please make me more like the Schmidts and the Larsons.”
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