Viewpoint: In the War Over Christianity, Orthodoxy Is Winning

In an age of secularization, religious traditionalism is surprisingly resilient

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Small wonder, given the harrowing times recently, that news about a long-running property fight over a picturesque church in northern Virginia escaped most people’s notice. But the story of the struggle over the historic Falls Church is nonetheless worth a closer look. It’s one more telling example of a little-acknowledged truth: though religious traditionalism may be losing today’s political and legal battles, it remains poised to win the wider war over what Christianity will look like tomorrow.

On April 18, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld an earlier court decision that a breakaway Episcopalian congregation (now called the Falls Church Anglicans) did not have rights to the historic church there. Instead, the court ruled, the property belongs to the same mainline denomination — the Episcopal Church — that the Falls Church Anglicans had voted to leave in 2006. What’s striking here is not so much the legal outcome, for earlier cases involving other breakaway congregations had also ended without any clear advantage to the rebels. It’s that this episode is exquisitely emblematic of today’s Christian moment.

First, there’s the fact of why the split occurred. Once upon a time, schism was the stuff of doctrinal issues — disputes over the sacraments, or grace vs. good works, or the theological like. Not anymore. The Falls Church dispute concerned something that neither Martin Luther nor John Calvin could have seen coming: sex. In particular, it was the elevation in 2003 of an openly gay bishop that was the last straw in what Falls Church traditionalists and others like them believe to be a rewriting of the Judeo-Christian rule book. So they broke away to become the Falls Church Anglicans, and they lost their real estate in the process.

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But their objections are being heard ’round the religious world, not just in the global Anglican community but also the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and other mainline Protestant churches. The sexual revolution has accomplished what even the fractious Reformation could not. It has divided Protestantism so deeply that traditionalist Anglicans now have more in common with traditionalist Lutherans or even Roman Catholics, say, than with the reformers in their own denominations. And as the proliferation of stricter Anglican churches of Africa go to show, this traditionalism has gone global.

A second fact embedded in this story also has worldwide repercussions. That traditionalist breakaway congregation in Virginia is larger than the one on the legally winning side — as in, much. Membership on the “losing” side, by one estimate, includes some 2,000 souls, as opposed to some 174 in the congregation moving in. And though exact numbers may not always be available, the larger trend is clear: this numerical division between traditionalists and reformers is also seen around the world. It’s the stricter Christian churches that typically have stronger and more vibrant congregations — as has been documented at least since Dean M. Kelley’s 1996 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.

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So, for example, the reform-minded Church of England has closed over 1,000 churches since 1980, with some later becoming discos, spas and mosques. The traditionalist Anglican churches of the Global South, on the other hand, are packed to overflowing and still growing fast. Within the Catholic Church, similarly, the most vibrant renewal movements — Comunione e Liberazione, Opus Dei, Juventutem — are also the most orthodox. Meanwhile, African missionaries from both Protestant and Catholic churches are being dispatched to the West in record numbers — in effect, re-evangelizing the very peoples who carried the cross to men and women of the subcontinent in the first place.

One explanation for the resiliency of religious traditionalism in an age of secularization is demographic. As Jonathan Last shows in his recent book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, if enough people over time decide not to be fruitful and multiply, eventually their churches will disappear. That’s because secular people have far fewer children than do believers. The flip side of that observation is equally suggestive. In the future, it is the believers of all faiths whose children will appear disproportionately in an otherwise increasingly childless world, as political scientist Eric Kaufmann showed in his 2011 book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?

As changing views on gay marriage, among others, go to show, secularization marches on. Traditionalists may be on the losing end of historic real estate, at least for now, as well as booed out of the public square for their views on sex. Down the road, though, they still look to possess something else critical — a growing congregation without which every church, after all, is just a bed and breakfast waiting to happen.