THE BLOG
01/31/2015 07:40 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2015

'Charlie Hebdo' and Our American Churches

I have waited to write this column until reason has hopefully had time to replace the outrage that quite naturally encompassed the entire free world. I am referring to the Charlie Hebdo incident. When it first happened I did not think I would comment about it, as there was more news coverage about it than most of us wanted. But I realized many Americans do not really understand what the French magazine Charlie Hebdo is all about. As I thought more about the entire matter, I realized it has relevance to a topic that I have given much thought to and have written about it--a topic that, in my opinion, has to do with American church history. So I decided to address the subject in this blog.

Just to refresh memories, on January 7, 2015, two masked gunmen forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical periodical in Paris. Using assault rifles they shot and killed eleven people and wounded several others while shouting "Allahu Akbar" (Arabic for "God is [the] greatest"). Upon leaving, they killed a French National Police officer who was outside. The gunmen identified themselves as belonging to Al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen, which took responsibility for the attack.

Most Americans do not speak French and ponder the significance of the magazine's title: Charlie Hebdo. Keep in mind that Charlie Hebdo is a weekly satirical magazine that focuses on world events. As I understand it, Hebdo is short for "hebdomadaire," meaning "weekly." And Charlie is from "Charlie Brown," the central character of the comic strip, Peanuts.

At first, I thought the magazine's controversial and provocative satirical cartoons and covers focusing on Islam had, perhaps, gone too far. But then on Sunday, January 11, something happened that changed my mine. An interview of Gerard Biard, the magazine's new editor replacing the former editor who was assassinated on January 7, was broadcast on NBC's "Meet the Press." Biard was interviewed by Chuck Todd, moderator of "Meet the Press," the day before. The interview was recorded and broadcast on Sunday.

In this interview, the new chief editor of Charlie Hebdo defended the magazine's controversial depictions of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, saying that the magazine ridicules religious figures only when faith gets "entangled" in the political world: "We do not attack religion, but we do when it gets involved in politics." Speaking through a translator, Biard continued, "If God becomes entangled in politics, then democracy is in danger."

Much has been written about the steady demise of Mainline Protestant churches, which started in the mid-1960s, and the loss of membership has accelerated since the mid-1970s. Being an ordained minister of one of those churches, the United Church of Christ, I am naturally concerned. And the words of Gerard Biard bring to mind some history about the Mainline churches.

There are seven primary Protestant denominations that make up what is popularly referred to as the Mainline churches, the first being the largest, and so forth: United Methodist Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA); Presbyterian Church (U.S.A); Episcopal Church; American Baptist Churches USA; United Church of Christ; and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Many of these churches lost their original identities in mergers; for example, the Congregational Christian Churches merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ.

The word "Mainline" was derived from an outlying area of the City of Philadelphia called the "Main Line." It was a collection of affluent towns built along the old Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. At one time the great majority of people living in this area were members of the churches now referred to as Mainline Protestant churches.

The members of these denominations played major leadership roles in nearly all aspects of our country's history, including politics, business, science, the arts, education, medical care, senior care, and care for the indigent and homeless, especially children. But things have changed. Every year since the early years of our country until the mid-1960s the membership of each of these denominations increased. Every year since about 1975 the membership of each of these denominations has decreased, and now at an alarming rate.

A strong case for the loss of membership of these churches may, at least partially, be attributed to their increased involvement in controversial political issues such as Vietnam, pollution, gun control, campaign finance laws, climate change, political correctness, and the Middle East. And many have become involved in supporting particular candidates or particular ballot issues. It is interesting to note that frequently there is a gap between what the average church member believes the position of the church should or should not be on such issues as compared to the views of the leadership of these denominations. That may well be one of the primary reasons for the steady loss of membership.

As a young minister in my first pastorate, I took an active side in a national election. Although most of the members of the congregation supported the candidate I backed, one member in particular was opposed to him. Sadly, his wife died of an unrelated illness soon after the election. He considered me to be his bitter enemy, and I was absolutely no help to him in his urgent need of pastoral care. In fact, he asked the minister of another church to officiate at his wife's funeral, and he left our church soon after that. As hard as I tried, I was unable to bridge that gap.

From that time forward, I never actively supported a particular candidate or party in any election, and I never actively supported any particular ballot issue. From the pulpit, I did, however, always encourage people to take an active role in politics and to vote. I relied on what Jesus said in Mark 12:17: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. (RSV) I always voted in elections, but I never revealed to my family members how I voted.

At another time the committee appointed by a church to interview prospective minsters asked if I was a Democrat or Republican. I refused to answer the question and told the committee why. The committee selected me anyway, and I had a very successful ministry there.

Let's not mix religion and politics. We need gifted leadership in both government and religion. I strongly recommend that the individual members of our Mainline Protestant churches dedicate themselves to becoming the talented and ethical political leaders our country and the world so badly need. And if our denominational leaders and our seminary administrators and faculty, who train our local pastoral leadership, were to concentrate more on religion and less on politics, the membership of our Mainline Protestant churches might just begin to stabilize. Gerard Biard may have given us some very practical and helpful advice in reminding us of the danger of mixing religion and politics.