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Why I Don’t Fear Denominational Schisms

by Diana Butler Bass 01-23-2019
Protestant traditions are splitting over sexuality, as they did slavery, but this time it’s different.

IN THE DECADES before the Civil War, three of the nation’s largest Protestant denominations—Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists—split over slavery, biblical interpretation, and abolition. Historians have long claimed that these denominational schisms paved the way for a national rift. Once these Protestant churches failed to hold together, breaking into regional bodies of South and North, wrote C.C. Goen in Broken Churches, Broken Nation, “a major bond of national unity” dissolved and hastened America’s warring fate.

As the churches divided over slavery then, so they are dividing over sexuality and gender now. Many of the biblical arguments and hermeneutic approaches once used to support slavery are now employed to reject the humanity, gifts, and dignity of women and LGBTQ persons. If you read 19th century sermons or tracts from Southern Presbyterians, for example, you only need to swap out a few words and you have a blog about how the Bible doesn’t allow women to preach or gay and lesbian couples to marry. Mark Twain once quipped that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In this case, however, the similarities are so striking that history appears to plagiarize itself.

In recent years, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians have all faced contentious splits over these issues, and now the United Methodist Church—the largest mainline Protestant denomination—is struggling with the same.

History may plagiarize, but it will not repeat. These denominations aren’t as significant as they once were, culturally or politically. The Baptists not only split over slavery but remained permanently divided in Northern and Southern branches, then divided and divided again. The Methodists reunited in the 20th century, as did the Presbyterians. But for all their remarkable contributions, neither denomination regained its former status.

A Horizontal View

by Diana Butler Bass 09-24-2015
Excerpt: Grounded by Diana Butler Bass

JUDAISM AND CHRISTIANITY urge followers to seek heavenly things, to model their lives on heavenly virtues, and to have hope in heaven. In the New Testament, heaven most often appears as the “kingdom of heaven,” God’s political and social vision for humanity, an idea that Jesus uses to criticize the Roman Empire’s oppressive domination system. Jesus’s own prayer, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), seeks to align earthly ethics with the divine order of God’s own dwelling place. Heaven is an intrusive reality, the ever present realm of God hovering all around, sometimes even synonymous with God, as Marcus Borg writes. The Bible says the kingdom of heaven “has come near” (Matthew 4:17), and if heaven is nearby, so is God. Heaven is here-and-now, not there-and-then.

To speak of heaven, therefore, is another way to speak of the earth. But the vision for the earth that “heaven” presents is not in keeping with the world’s violence, oppression, and injustice; rather, it is an alternate vision of peace, blessing, and abundance, the world as God intended it to be. Heaven has been depicted as far away, unattainable in this life.

Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat

by Diana Butler Bass 07-16-2012
Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass

In recent days, conservatives have attacked the Episcopal Church. The reason? The church has just concluded its once every three-year national meeting, and in this gathering the denomination affirmed a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. Conservatives assert that the Episcopal Church's ever-increasing social and political progressivism has led to a precipitous membership decline and ruined the denomination.

Many of the criticisms were mean-spirited or partisan, continuing a decade-long internal debate about the Episcopal Church's future. However, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat broadened the discussion, moving beyond inside-baseball ecclesial politics to ask a larger question: "Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?"

The question is a good one, for the liberal Christian tradition is an important part of American culture, from dazzling literary and intellectual achievements to great social reform movements. Mr. Douthat recognizes these contributions and rightly praises this aspect of liberal Christianity as "an immensely positive force in our national life."

Despite this history, however, Mr. Douthat insists that any denomination committed to contemporary liberalism will ultimately collapse. According to him, the Episcopal Church and its allegedly trendy faith, a faith that varies from a more worthy form of classical liberalism, is facing imminent death.

When Religion and Spirituality Collide

by Diana Butler Bass 04-16-2012
Dan Kitwood - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams at Westminster Hall on March 20. Dan Kitwood - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the leader of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion, recently announced that he would step down by year's end. A few days later, the Church of England rejected a Williams-backed unity plan for global Anglicanism, a church fractured by issues of gender and sexual identity. The timing of the resignation and the defeat are probably not coincidental. These events signal Anglicans' institutional failure.

But why should anyone, other than Anglicans and their Episcopal cousins in the U.S., care? The Anglican fight over gay clergy is usually framed as a left and right conflict, part of the larger saga of political division. But this narrative obscures a more significant tension in Western societies: the increasing gap between spirituality and religion, and the failure of traditional religious institutions to learn from the divide.

God in Wisconsin: Scott Walker's Misguided 'Obedience'

by Diana Butler Bass 03-08-2011
As the stand off between workers and Governor Scott Walker continues in Wisconsin," target="_bla

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: Speaking for the Soul

by Diana Butler Bass 01-11-2011
The Sunday after Martin Luther King Jr. w

The Real Housewives of Proverbs 31

by Diana Butler Bass 08-10-2010
As a working mother who lives in the Washington-metro area, I admit that I was dreading Bravo's new program The Real Housewives of D.C.

Civility: The Problem of Being Nice

by Diana Butler Bass 05-18-2010
In March, I signed The Civility Covenant issued by the folks at Sojourners.

Is Western Christianity Suffering From Spiritual Amnesia?

by Diana Butler Bass 05-04-2010
In the 1990s, I taught history and theology at an evangelical college, a place where the students were serious young Christians.

Baseball, Tiger Woods, March Madness, and the American Soul

by Diana Butler Bass 04-08-2010
I'm not much of a sports person, but I have to admit that April 5 was a remarkable day for sports -- especially sports and religion.

Advent: Apocalypse Now?

by Diana Butler Bass 11-30-2009
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations caused by the roaring of the sea and the waves," proclaims Jesus in the gospel of Luke.

Psalm 109:8 -- A Prayer to Destroy Obama?

by Diana Butler Bass 11-17-2009
During the last few days, Psalm 109:8, a Bible verse in the form of a "prayer for Obama," has topped the Google trends chart: "May his days be few; may another take his office." Evidently, a bump

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition

by Diana Butler Bass 10-02-2009
This week, a friend sent me a link to a video from Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas titled "Taking the Hill." I thought it

Thou Shalt Not Abuse the Ten Commandments

by Diana Butler Bass 09-29-2009

ABC's Nightline has been running a series on the Ten Commandments in which they explore the issues and dimensions of each commandment in contemporary society.

Hope is a Verb

by Diana Butler Bass 09-09-2009
I was too young to remember President John F. Kennedy. My mother worked on his campaign and hauled her baby (me) along with her to pass out literature.

Defining 'Progressive'

by Diana Butler Bass 04-21-2009
"Progressive" has become the adjective of choice to describe faith communities with commitments to justice, serving the poor, and environmentalism.

A Christian Argument for Progressive Taxation

by Diana Butler Bass 04-17-2009
Wednesday morning, at 9 a.m. sharp, I took my tax payment to the local post office. When I handed it to the clerk, she said, "I hate tax day." I replied, "Not me.


by Diana Butler Bass 02-10-2009
In this week's town hall meetings, President Obama demonstrated an important aspect of his office: Pastor-in-Chief.

Postpartisan, not Bipartisan

by Diana Butler Bass 02-10-2009
I'm surprised that the media and politicians don't understand the difference between postpartisan and bipartisan.

Today's Guest Host at USA Today Faith and Reason Forum

by Diana Butler Bass 02-02-2009