It was easier being religious and political in the 1960’s. I’m not talking about the German Shepherds or the water canons. Statistics tell us more people attended church on a weekly basis. There was greater familiarity with the Bible in the wider culture. As such, when concerned clergy from a variety of faith traditions assembled to push for civil rights or oppose the Vietnam War, most of America understood what that meant. Jesus was opposed to war. The oppression of Galilean peasants by the Roman Empire reminded mainline Christians of voter registration drives in Mississippi.
How did this happen? People attended Sunday School and church. They listened to the sermons of clergy educated in mainline seminaries, many attached to large universities. These sermons were steeped in the traditions of German higher Biblical criticism which made it possible to look at the teachings of Jesus in a wider social context. What if, they asked, the Kingdom of God was right here and now? Perhaps Jesus’ commands to care for the poor, sick, and despised were to be applied to our world? Preachers, priests, and rabbis marched in Selma. People got it. When the men (and occasional woman, remember this was the 1950’s and 60’s) of God protested it meant something because the church was a respected institution in society.
I’m not sure people still get it. Much has changed in the way Americans attend church over the past fifty years. Sex scandals have decimated trust in Roman Catholicsim, even with the ebb and flow of Liberation Theology. Ageing congregations and changing demographics are altering the face of American Protestantism. Mainline denominations are shrinking, nondenominational churches are on the increase, and overall attendance in worship on Sunday mornings isn’t what it used to be. As such, basic religious literacy isn’t what it was at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
According to Steven Prothero, author of “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know”, most Americans don’t know the name of the first book of the Bible, mistakenly believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, and Billy Graham delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Not only are people not attending church, they’re not going to Sunday School or receiving what many people encountered as a “basic” Christian education for most of the 20th century. As Prothero notes, the illiteracy epidemic isn’t confined to Christianity. The same lack of knowledge can be found in Americans when asked about Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Despite our privileged positions on the inside, we clergy sometimes forget, “we’re not all that” anymore. The world doesn’t see us in the same way they did forty or fifty years ago. Our voice, while still audible, isn’t heard or understood in the same way it once was.
This brings me to the recent protests by clergy over the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. My fellow Duke Divinity Alumnus, Rev. Dr. William Barber and others were recently arrested on Capitol Hill protesting the Senate’s plans to repeal Affordable Care Act. Dressed in clerical shirts, stoles, and robes; they were a colorful bunch to be hauled in by the Capitol Police. Here’s my confession, my closet is full of black clerical shirts. I wear mine on Sunday mornings, when I perform baptisms, celebrate Holy Communion, and officiate at weddings. If I was going to get arrested, I might wear it then. But here’s the thing, do the people watching on television (ordinary Americans, people who support the ACA or even want it repealed) understand that these multicolored people are clergy, preachers, and ministers? Does it make sense to anyone that these men and women are women and men of the cloth? If religious literacy is at all time low, does it do any good for clergy to be arrested in clerical clothes? Does anyone care? Might it do more harm than good?
It looked great in the 60’s when every preacher wore a clerical shirt and everyone one you met on the street knew what those clothes represented. In 2017, does this help anyone relate the Christian church’s opposition to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act?
If most Americans think Joan of Arc is Noah’s wife, I can guarantee the imagery of rolling waters and justice from Amos is about as foreign to them as a mail order bride. Fancy preacher clothes aren’t going to help people who think Billy Graham delivered the Sermon on the Mount realize that doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God are not things Oprah said. Right now, we’re presupposing people fully comprehend all the prophetic, justice, and righteousness messaging that Martin Luther King took for granted-because he could. We can’t! The world does not get us. If the church wants to be prophetic (and it must be) America needs to go back to Sunday School. We can not pretend it’s 1964 and imagine we all share the same largely Protestant points of religious reference. That’s one more step on the road to religious irrelevance. The church has an important voice in this and other political debates. Our prophecy, however powerful, has got to have some context for it to be worth something. Otherwise, it’s just hot air.
Richard Lowell Bryant