Posted by: SteveInCO · Thermonuclear MAGA | 08 Mar 2012

Religious Polarization

I live near Colorado Springs.  Something that just happened here caught my attention.

In case this article disappears or goes into a paid archive or something like that, here’s the gist of it.  A Presbyterian church, founded in 1872 (one year after Colorado Springs itself was) has voted to leave the national Presbyterian congregation and join a new startup.

Sunday’s vote was the culmination of 10 months of work by church leaders to distance themselves from the mainstream governing body of Presbyterian church in the United States, which voted in May 2011 to allow openly gay ministers to be ordained. Singleton cited several other scriptural reasons for the split and said that the move has been “coming for a long time.

In order for the vote to have effect, it had to pass by 80%. It passed. In essence the oldest, most prestigious Presbyterian church has overwhelmingly decided to split from the national organization over the ordination of gay ministers. Even though individual churches were still free to refuse to do so.

It turns out that at least eight other Presbyterian churches in Colorado Springs are following suit:  Other congregations are staying, and they expect to get some increase in membership from the 20 percent or less of dissenters from those congregations that are leaving.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think a church should have a right to ordain whomever it wishes, and exclude what they wish. It’s freedom of association. (Admittedly I cannot imagine why a gay would want to be ordained in a faith whose guiding scripture disapproves of homosexuality–dare I say a homophobic faith–in the first place.) So I am not complaining about this action so much as interested in the dynamic here.

I see this as part of a wider trend. Christians are leaving “moderate” churches in droves. Sometimes en masse, in whole congregations. (Pun intended of course, what do you think I am?)  This group of upstanding citizens has decided they don’t want gays ordained by their church–presumably because they believe that God does not want them to be. In other words, “moderate” Christianity is not satisfying people, and it’s not satisfying them in droves.

Why is that? Perhaps because at a fundamental level, it’s not as consistent as fundamentalism. Ultimately every Protestant sect claims the Bible as authoritative. It claims we got our morality from the Bible. But in order to be moderate, you have to pick and choose what parts of the Bible you will actually pay attention to. Which means your real source of morality, or decider of truth claims isn’t the Bible; you are judging pieces of it by some other criteria.

This is a fundamental contradiction in one’s thinking. The moderate professes to base his worldview on the Bible, yet he/she must disregard certain pieces of it. Many go through their lives without confronting this head on. Others find themselves facing it, and they have two alternatives: 1) ditch the Bible or 2) embrace it wholeheartedly. But since the Bible is the root of their faith, 1) usually loses. Unfortunately.

What we are seeing in this country is a growing population of atheists and other forms of non-belief or very vague “spiritualism” belief. And a growing number of fundamentalists. Both groups are growing at the expense of the moderates. America is polarizing on religious grounds.

We’ve seen it happen in politics; it will probably be nastier in religion because these issues are fundamental, more so than politics.

Contentious times ahead.



  1. Perhaps the polarization will continue, and perhaps we are at the beginning of large war on civil rights stemming from religious intolerance. However, there are others who think that the seed of atheism as a movement of ideologies will unavoidably spread to the general populace due to observed patterns of adoption rates with other ideas with similar population penetration levels.

    My largest criticism with that theory is that we are living in unprecedented times of information flow, and self selecting media bias; but the idealistic humanist inside me likes to envision a society no longer governed by stone age morality , subjugation to supernatural myth, and divided by our cultural fantasies. If only we weren’t so concerned with polarization ourselves, it might actually get accomplished.

    • Well I do think _both_ the atheist and fundie/dominionist camps are growing, that’s why society is polarizing rather than being pulled in only one direction. The younger generation is less likely to go fundie than the older generations because they are less likely to accept any religious premises at all. But the older generations by and large are the ones who grew up Christian and are leaving “mainline protestantism” for fundamentalism in droves, because the mainliners are less consistent with the premises the older generations grew up with.

      Like I said, interesting times are ahead.

  2. Fundamentalist churches growing? That’s news to me. I don’t think so. This “splitting” that’s going, of specific fundamentalist churches splitting off from their “parent” organizations (sectarianism) are merely examples of the traditionalists of older generations reacting to how some of these church organizations are actually becoming a little more progressive. (The phrase ‘being dragged kicking and screaming’ comes to mind.) I believe the current surveys are showing that the younger generation is actually leaving the fundamentalist/evangelical denominations in higher numbers than ever before. These reactionary splits by these even more fundamentalist congregations are simply examples of predominantly older people – and because of this, generally speaking, they’re pretty much going to die out as that older generation dies out (or those who are still around will make some progressive changes at some time in the future just in order to remain existing and stay relevant). That’s my perspective.

    • I think Fundamentalism is growing as a percentage of Christianity, but that non-religion of various forms is also growing (so Christianity as a whole–including fundamentalism I hope–is shrinking). And I mentioned in an earlier reply to someone else I thought the older people were driving the fundamentalist shift, where it occurs.

      I guess our point of disagreement is over whether moderate churches are shrinking or not, either as a percentage of Christianity or in absolute terms. Though perhaps I am misreading you. Are you stating that the younger generations are leaving Christianity entirely or just jumping from fundamentalist/evangelical denominations to more moderate ones? (Or causing their existing denomination to become more “liberal” by encouraging the conservatives to leave?)

      One thing I am sure of is that movement is happening in all directions; it’s just a question of which direction has the most traffic.


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