The year was 1945. The war was just over and the religious right had started to cook in a way that this country hadn’t seen since the '20s. Youth For Christ, a teen movement initiated by Torrey Johnson and the young Billy Graham, was hot, hot, hot, offering up a stew for the kids made out of cozy conservatism, popular patriotism and a powerful elixir of spiritual gratification. The liberal journal Christian Century, after denouncing the bourgeoning fundamentalist movement, still had to admit that Youth For Christ was startlingly successful, bringing tens of thousands of young men and women into the fold each week. The fact that Youth For Christ “has gone so far as it has,” they wrote, “is proof that something close to spiritual famine exists among large sections of our population, including the rising generation, who are more hungry for faith than their elders. The churches are not feeding these starving people . . . they should do likewise, and better.”
That challenge was given to the liberal churches almost 70 years ago, but they failed miserably to meet it. Today’s liberal Christianity has become an exercise in niceness, its services intellectualized to the point of being secular. Seeking to ruffle no feathers and be the voice of reason and the champion of science, the liberal churches have lost their spiritual power and the power of the message they purport to speak. Christianity has a radical, counter-cultural potential, but liberal Christians have abandoned it for progressive politics and left the religious field to extremists.
A spiritual famine still exists in this country and in many parts of the world. We are hungry for meaning, since our work life and our community life have been sucked dry and bare by the capitalist machine. God is dead. Science is God. We hunger for meaning in a post-modern world of relativism, skepticism, humanism and deconstruction. What’s left of us and of everything but infinite crowds of particles floating about in an uncaring and meaningless void?
So, why are we surprised when extremists fill the gap? Leaving aside for now the rise of fundamentalism and violent religious extremism around the world, let’s just notice that here at home in the USA, those of us hungry for spiritual nourishment have been given a false choice: Either we can be secular and progressive or we can join the fundamentalist right. No wonder so many believers join the right! They want God! They want meaning and power and beauty and wonder. They want to be loved by their Creator. They want their lives, as one evangelical church put it, to be “on purpose and for a purpose.”
And today’s evangelical churches are punching their message home with a brilliant and vigorous new music, and with welcoming environments that give everyone who walks through the door a place to belong. It feels like home in these churches. They’re a spirit-pampering relief after the emptiness of the marketplace world, and if participants have to check their critical thinking at the door to get this relief, so be it.
The challenge is still out there. The mission bells are ringing. Where is the alternative for those of us who believe in the greater-than-human and in something more than a materialist and meaningless reality? Where is the power of the life force to be found? Who will feed these starving people . . . without adding to their portion the poisons of bigotry and hate?