Monday, July 24, 2023

The lions roar no more. . .

With the death of Pat Robertson a few months ago, it occurs to me how many of the lions whose names dominated Christianity in America have been silenced by death and how different things look today because of that.  Growing up in the 1950s, I did not realize that America was soon to be shaped in politics and religion by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Bakker, Billy Graham, D. James Kennedy, Robert Schuller, Charles Stanley, Adrian Rogers, and so many others.  These were household names along with a few others from a slightly earlier time, notably Archbishop Fulton Sheen and the voice of Walter A. Maier.  Now most all of them are dead.  They roar no more.  While you might think that others stepped up to take their places, that is not quite true.  There were other names though not so well known and they never caught the American imagination like these did.  In fact, some of those who might have been lions never quite grew up or did not live in the limelight as long or as loud,  Instead, we have the remains of their mighty religious empires.  From Bill Hybels to Rick Warren to Joel Osteen to Andy Stanley and so many more, their moment in the sun has not endured the way those of a previous era did.  Some of them ended up as poster children for things that were done wrong --- Hillsong and Mars Hill.  It makes you wonder if there will ever again be Evangelical and/or charismatic (small "c") leaders like there were.

It occurs to me as we look at the age of our current American President and the age of his primary rival that we are finding hard to replace these two figures with new, younger individuals who garner the same following.  No one but a fool would deny that his age is a very large factor in the choice of people to cast their ballot to Biden.  It is equally unlikely that Trump will saunter off the stage without a fight.  So we seem destined in some way or another to see these two political figures continue to occupy the prominent positions in party and power -- for good or for ill.  What strikes me as interesting is how this is also mirrored in other institutions and settings.  

There was an era in which national figures arose who commanded the devotion, respect, and following of more than a locale or a region.  Yes, some of them were lightening rods of conflict but even then the households of our churches knew their names, knew who they were, knew what they stood for, and knew what was at stake in choosing leaders.  I fear that this time has passed.  It bodes ill for our future.  There are as many people who think that Francis is not their pope as those who warm to him.  Archbishop Welby's tenure has seen the influence of the West diminish and his own office become a minor one.  Can anyone name the leaders of the Methodist Church or Presbyterian?  Does anyone know the name of the President of the Southern Baptist Convention?  It could be that the reason incumbents get re-elected has as much to do with the lack of known choices as it does who those incumbents are or what they have done.  This is certainly something to consider in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  In my own particular sphere, the Missouri Synod has shown moderate discontent with its leaders but those who opposed him struggle to find a viable candidate who can gather a following.  This year has offered such a potential opponent many opportunities to question the decisions made and positions taken by our leaders but such a person has not taken the Synod by storm.

National leaders are always a mixed blessing.  Some are flawed individuals who foist their weakness upon those who elect them.  On balance, however, we have been blessed more than cursed by such large figures in the past, even recent past.  It has not hurt Christianity when orthodox figures gained such prominence and it has hurt us when we appear to be divided by many anonymous individuals.  I think back to 1958 when TIME magazine featured on its cover Franklin Clark Fry as a national leader of significance from Lutheranism but across America.  It was a heady time but who cannot look back on that moment without a little nostalgia for the moment when Lutherans were more united than they are today and were considered a force to be reckoned with across the face of Christianity in America?  Yes, it is certainly a reflection of our secularized culture at war with orthodox Christianity but it is also a symptom of the disease that still afflicts us -- we tend to tear down our leaders more than raise them up and we tend to be suspicious of those with prominence more than admiring of them.  There was a time when you knew where churches stood because of the character of their leaders.  Today is not that time and I for one am sad about that.

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