Two conservative manifestos say something about Protestant dynamics, news values


Conservative U.S. Protestants are particularly active in issuing manifestoes. That could reflect their feeling of increased defensiveness over against the broader culture, or their perception that Christian liberals provide mushy or erroneous messages so definitions are needed, or other factors.

Two recent pronouncements that have won support from hundreds of endorsers tell us something about news judgment on religious issues and about internal dynamics within U.S. Protestantism as churches prepare to mark the Reformation 500th anniversary on October 31:

(1) The August “Nashville Statement,” narrow in both agenda and in organizational backing, consists of a preamble and 14 articles in a “we affirm” and “we deny” format. It proclaims U.S. traditionalist responses to the moral debates over same-sex couples and transgenderism.

(2) The September “Reforming Catholic Confession” defines in 11 sections and a related “explanation” what a wide swath of U.S. evangelical thinkers view as the essence of Protestant belief and how to approach Catholicism after these 500 years.

As of this writing, media discussion of #2 has been limited to parochial outlets and a few social conservative Web sites, while by contrast #1 has won coverage and heated reactions across the spectrum of “mainstream media” newspapers, broadcasts and Web sites.

Alongside the old local TV news cliche “if it bleeds, it leads,” The Guy sees two other maxims: “Who cares about doctrine any longer?” and “If it’s sex, it’s sexy.”

While cultural liberals accuse the conservatives of being obsessed about sex,  it’s equally the case that they feel forced to actively confront new challenges, like it or not. Such statements are less about changing minds of outsiders than shoring up beliefs within the  in-group.

Commentators think the Nashville group’s most dramatic assertion is that it’s sinful “to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism” and this “constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.” Strong stuff, and obviously controversial -- and thus newsworthy.

Some used the occasion to take potshots at evangelicals for backing President Donald Trump, and indeed several prominent Trump defenders endorsed the statement. But a major leader of this project was the most potent evangelical voice in moral criticism of the president, Southern Baptist executive Russell Moore.

The Nashville endorser list is heavy with Moore’s fellow Southern Baptists and supporters of the “complementarian” Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which seeks to limit women’s exercise of authority in the church on biblical grounds.

Though Nashville has received ample media coverage, it merely reaffirms  what churches have said through the ages. The Guy proposes that there’s more long-term significance in the second text, the “Reforming Catholic Confession.”  It’s timely fare for journalists’ 500th anniversary articles, since a broad assortment of orthodox theologians have set out to define 21st Century Protestantism.

Note that this theological platform does not come from church bodies but an ad hoc assemblage. That reflects the ongoing parachurch-ization of the evangelical movement. It’s also significant that evangelicals rather than “mainliners” are taking the initiative to define what Protestantism believes in year 500.

Turning to the substance, these Protestants seek to be as friendly and appreciative as possible toward Catholicism. While avoiding some insurmountable  differences (papal government) and tiptoeing around internal Protestant disagreements (the Lord’s Supper), the signers are emphatic on the “Bible alone” as the sole source of authoritative teaching. On that “here I stand” tenet, the gulf of 1517 persists.

The new confession boldly claims that Protestants are “catholic” in the sense of being universal and embracing the historic faith offered in the Bible and early church councils before divisions erupted, for instance the ancient definition of Jesus Christ’s divinity.

On that, there’s a little evangelical fuss reporters might want to pursue. In recent times certain leading “complementarians” have been accused by evangelical critics of heresy in extending subordination between the sexes to that of the Son of God to the Father within the Trinity. (But didn’t The Guy wrote above “who cares about doctrine any longer”?)

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