Rather than resist the sweeping changes which began to aggressively challenge Christianity in the 1960s much of the historic Protestant church sought to “forge a new Christianity more consonant with the spirit of the age, one better adapted to the trends that were undercutting orthodoxy.” This approach would attempt to preserve the mid-century gains of the church by “adapting itself to the changing cultural circumstances.” Evangelicals, in the 1970s, insisted that more progressive Christians and denominations were adapting to the times in order to reach the culture. Progressive Christians saw these evangelicals as back-woods fundamentalists who resisted what famous theologian Harvey Cox had appropriately dubbed “the secular city.” In an April 1966 issue Time magazine’s cover story asked, “Is God Dead?” Time reported that Christianity was as strong as ever in America but the faith “was now confidently renewing itself in spirit as well as form.” The article suggested something far removed from the earlier neo-orthoodoxy of the 1940s and 50s by saying the church was becoming more sophisticated in its understanding of religion because it had “formulate[d] a new image and concept of God using contemporary thought categories.” A revision of major Christian truths was clearly underway and many mainline Christians celebrated this shift with great joy!
Behind all of this was the notion that Christianity would do best when it transformed itself “into a more secular enterprise, dedicated to building the kingdom of God in this life rather than preparing believers for the hereafter” (Bad Religion, Douthat). This emphasis drew upon radical theologians from the 1940s and 50s such as the Catholic Karl Rahner and the Harvard Protestant professor Harvey Cox. Books with titles like The Death of God (1961), The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (1966) and Secular Christianity (1966) became the rage by the mid-1960s.
Was the gospel in danger of being over politicized in the wake of the civil rights movement? Cox argued that this was not possible because, “What God is doing in the world is politics, which means making and keeping life human. Politics also describes man’s role in response to God. . . . Theology today must be that reflection-action by which the church finds out what this politician-God is up to and moves to work along with him.” What about the rapidly spreading sexual revolution? Cox, and a host of similar thinkers, saw no apparent threat to Christian sexual ethics on this front at all. They saw only liberation and a necessary change and reformation. These new freedoms, for them, “represent[ed] the true fulfillment of the New Testament, whose sexual teachings were actually far more open-ended than a cramped and narrow reading would suggest” (Douthat).
What was happening in the 1960s is now clear to see–moral and theological relativism was recasting Christianity to become just one of many equivalent religions. It seemed that Harvey Cox had only one great concern. He believed the church might not be able to keep up! “God’s reconciling work may be going on in them. It may not be. Most likely it is and it isn’t. Most likely is is occurring within them and also at many places outside them.” The real job of the church was to discern where God’s reconciliation was breaking in and then to identify the people of God with it. “For every accommodationist theologian eager to refashion Christian theology for an age of secular ambition, there were countless accommodationist clerics and laypeople eager to put this new Christianity into practice” (Douthat). The controversies over gay ordination and marriage began in the 1980s as a direct result of this ongoing shift in traditional Christian ethics.
Was orthodox faith being downgraded or rejected? Not overtly. One popular saying of the time was: “Creeds divide, deeds unite.” The idea expressed here is radical inclusion. Tear down walls built on theological ideas and replace them with a Christianity that was profoundly recast into modern forms. Eventually ecumenism was not about Christian learning to work with fellow Christian but rather about “interfaith” dialogue. Many concluded that the real problem in American Christianity was that the faith had turned too many people off. It was too rigid in its beliefs and practices. This needed to change and the sooner the better.
Behind all of this accommodation was a deep desire, at least on the part of most church leaders in the seminaries and many major pulpits, to achieve a deeper and more truly faithful expression of the real message of Christ. All of this left Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten exasperated. In a letter written to Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA Braaten argued that the great Lutheran theologians and creeds were now “marginalized to the point of near extinction.” What was created was an ecumenically tolerant faith that had very little to do with “archaic” Christian dogma. You could still recite the creed but you no longer needed to bother with actually believing it.
But this problem was not entirely a Protestant one. Vatican II was seen by many American Catholics as a marriage between American liberal ideals and Catholic orthodoxy. While there is clearly some truth to this idea there were American Catholics who were quickly embracing the same accommodationist spirit as their liberal Protestant counterparts during the same time period. This had a deleterious impact upon the Catholic Church in America over the next several decades. Douthat is quick to add that, “none of this amounted to a formal shift away from Catholic orthodoxy. However, a generation of Catholic leaders wasn’t entirely mistaken in claiming that there was a ‘spirit of Vatican II’ easing the Church toward even greater accommodation with the modern world.” This “spirit of Vatican II” is still the center of a mighty struggle that plays out in the modern Catholic Church and results in a deep struggle between bishops, clergy and Catholic universities. While some Catholics were outspoken radicals most of the real damage was done “through gradual transformations rather than revolutionary shifts” (Douthat).
More orthodox attempts to push back increasingly radical cultural changes had failed by the 1980s and 90s. Whether because of defeat or disillusionment the method of accommodation became “an appealing fallback position” (Douthat). It had the ability to be forever failing and forever being rediscovered. Ultimately this led to the most enduring progressive legacy of all–the quest for the “real [historical] Jesus.” The problem was that this Jesus may have been a new and improved Jesus for those who promoted this as a solution but their Jesus looked and talked more and more like the radical political and moral positions taken by the culture at the turn of the century.