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“Fundamentalism” Invades Manhattan

Fabled Mainline progressive Riverside Church rejects change and moves to sideline.

By 8.31.09

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Apparently Christian "fundamentalism" briefly seized the pulpit of America's most famously liberal church, but, as the New York Times reported, the invasion has been repulsed.

Built in 1930 with Rockefeller money as a cathedral to progressive Protestantism, Riverside Church was pastored by Social Gospel proponent Henry Emerson Fosdick and protest-era radical William Sloane Coffin. Across the decades, Martin Luther King, Olof Palme, Daniel Ortega, Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro have disclaimed from its pulpit. Rev. Brad Braxton presumably was expected to follow his predecessors' politically prophetic example when he ascended to the church's pastorate late last year. But he was forced into resignation this summer after only nine months, amid allegations that he had preached "fundamentalism," compounded by concerns over his allegedly $600,000 salary package, as chronicled by the Times.

Even at the Depression's advent, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. spared no expense on Riverside, which was modeled after Chartres Cathedral. Its statues and stained glass honor Charles Darwin, Mohammed, Buddha, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Booker T. Washington, along with more traditionally honored saints and apostles. Rockefeller constructed it primarily as a stage for the golden tongued, fellow liberal Baptist Fosdick, who had been removed from a Presbyterian pulpit after a celebrated heresy trial, during which later Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was his defense counsel. Fosdick rejected the Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection in favor of a social justice gospel emphasizing an earthly rather than a heavenly kingdom. A pacifist, Fosdick carefully avoided any support for World War II, preferring idealism to realism. No fool, he was also a shrewd politician who kept his liberal, and mostly wealthy, Manhattan congregants happy, or at least mesmerized by his oratory. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once laughingly pronounced that Fosdick, though a friend, was a chameleon who would explode if he walked across plaid.

As an interesting aside, Fosdick's daughter was the distinguished Democratic Party Cold War strategist Dorothy Fosdick who, apparently rejecting her father's pacifism and preferring Niebuhr's realism, worked for hawkish, anti-Soviet Democratic Senator Henry Jackson for 20 years. According to one biographer, she was also a paramour to an earlier Democratic patron, Adlai Stevenson.

Rev. Fosdick's critic and friend, Niebuhr, taught across the street from Riverside Church at equally liberal and famous Union Seminary, also amply endowed by Rockefeller dollars. Eventually, next door, Rockefeller largesse would also construct the imposing Interchurch Center, as a headquarters for the National Council of Churches and a host of Mainline Protestant agencies. President Eisenhower attended its dedication. These several blocks along the Hudson River, near Grant's Tomb and Columbia University, formed a sort of Vatican for liberal Mainline Protestantism when Mainline Protestants still sat in the driver's seat of American culture at mid-20th century.

Mainline is now sideline, Union Seminary is now a ghost of its former self, most of the Interchurch Center's major denominational tenants have either departed or downsized, the Rockefellers' commitment to liberal church causes has receded, and Riverside Church has become embroiled in controversy over its true mission, which had once seemed so clear.

Guided by his philanthropy advisor, Henry Fosdick's equally liberal brother Raymond, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. envisioned Riverside Church as an enlightened monument to inclusive Christianity, progressive politics, and aggressive humanitarianism. Powerful pulpiteers from Fosdick through Coffin largely upheld this vision. Coffin was the former radical chaplain of Yale University who helped burn draft cards, and he regaled his Riverside listeners during the 1980s with stinging denunciations of the Reagan Administration. Coffin's successor, James Forbes, was the church's first black pastor. Although conventionally liberal in politics and theology, he came from a southern Pentecostal background, and he preached with an evangelical cadence, even as he remained politically correct, and avoided substantive controversy. His pastorate helped Riverside evolve from mostly white to majority black. Some liberal whites, accustomed to Coffin's endless political jeremiads, were disappointed by Forbes's lack of polemical fire.

Rev. Braxton, who is also black and southern, seemed to follow Forbes's example, though he was much younger, only 39 when he was appointed. But hardly a few months had passed since his arrival at Riverside when the Times reported a lawsuit by some congregants to prevent his installation. Citing lack of transparency about his large salary, they also "complained that Dr. Braxton was moving Riverside away from its tradition of interracial progressivism and toward a conservative style of religious practice." One litigant alleged the new pastor subscribed to a "more fundamentalist brand of religion." Other critics accused him of being "Afrocentrist" and having "no connection to the prophetic witness that has been our cornerstone."

"What he says consistently in sermons is talking about the only way to God is through a particular fundamentalist path, which is to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, and that's a huge change in our theology," complained one anti-Braxton congregant to PBS's Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly. "It's a huge change in our openness and our inclusiveness."

Braxton called the charge of fundamentalism "laughable" and pointed to his support for same-sex marriage and alliance with "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons." He also called for Christians "to repent of their Christian imperialism that belief that Jesus Christ is the only way." But he admitted he thinks that Jesus and Scripture are "non-negotiables" for Christian congregations. Defenders of Braxton alleged that his white critics were "afraid…that the church will turn black" and were accustomed to WASPish, patrician and independently wealthy pastors like Coffin.

The Times described the church as divided between older whites with "emotional roots in the civil rights era," and younger middle-class blacks with a "less politicized set of religious beliefs." Although a powerful orator, Braxton was unable to quell the controversy and abruptly resigned in June, hoping the church could "address its internal tensions" after his departure. Seemingly to rebut charges of "fundamentalism," Braxton's farewell letter emphasized that he is a "progressive Christian" who seeks social justice through "deeds" and "creeds." Noting that the over 2000-member congregation had "struggled publicly for decades" about its identity, he complained that the recent "antagonism" and "consistent discord" had made his ministry impossible.

That the old guard at Riverside Church could not even adapt to a "progressive" evangelical from a black Baptist tradition bodes ill for aging, liberal Protestantism, which derides any dissent as "fundamentalism." But the inertia well matches the overall state of Mainline religion, aptly represented by the still glorious but fading Rockefeller-built monuments along the Hudson River, where the spiritual tone increasingly resembles the nearby marble silence of Grant's Tomb.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.