With the beginning with the Reformation in the sixteenth century and the disestablishment of the Roman Church, the interlocking networks of aristocracy and ecclesiastical authority began to deteriorate. By the eighteenth century, a class of wealthy businessmen were on their way to becoming the new aristocracy in nations like England and her colonial offspring. The business elite became prominent in Protestant Churches. However, the business elite had a considerable degree of autonomy from the authority of the church institutions. The church was looked to for spiritual matters of life but its input on enterprises like science and the economy were increasingly unwelcome. These practical aspects of life in material world were the domains of pragmatic rationalism about which the Church had little to say.
Karl Marx’s famous statement that “religion is the opiate of the masses” was not totally unfounded. The Churches gave increasingly secularized business interests an air of legitimacy. In societies without state supported religion, the business elite often became the central source of financial stability for church institutions. Even in societies with state supported religion, the interests of business and politicians (with authority over churches) were often closely aligned. This relationship, built on a division between spiritual and material worlds, was part of what made the acceptance of slavery so easy for Protestant Churches.
This is not to say that there were no seeds of the gospel at work within the Church institutions of the time. One need only think of William Wilberforce and his campaign against slavery in England, or the Wesleys and their work among the poor, to see that not everyone accepted this bifurcation between the spiritual and the material.
The Europeans brought their state churches to America but the much more egalitarian environments of the frontier tended to democratize religious experience and institutions. The frontier churches rejected establishment sensibilities about the role of religion if for not other reason that there was no establishment on their frontiers to promote establishment values. The religion became much more individualistic and experiential. This tension between establishment loyalty and individualistic evangelism actually led to denominational splits among groups like the Presbyterians.
However, as the frontier shrank and what was once frontier became thoroughly settled, the churches quickly became the legitimizing force for the new establishment in communities. The new establishment was dominated by the business elite. Once again, new reformist movements sprang up to challenge the compromises churches had made with the secular (materialistic) influences of the day. For instance, folks from the Holiness Movement, which emerged in the last half of the nineteenth century, saw themselves as challengers to what they believed were secular and materialistic influences of the wealthy business class that had caused the church to neglect “the least of these” in society. One holiness denomination that emerged out of this late nineteenth century milieu was the Church of the Nazarene. The name was based on the passage in the gospels where it was asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It was an explicit attempt to identify with the outcast and poor, just as John Wesley had done with the Methodist a century earlier (Nazarenes were mostly a Methodist offshoot.) However, many would say that the Nazarenes have been following the same path as the Methodist toward compromising respectability.
Scholars in the sociology of religion call this the sect-to-church phenomenon. As the “church” type denomination becomes more accommodated to culture it gives birth to reform movements. These reform movements often find their efforts blocked by powerful institutional forces. Reform minded people leave the institution to establish a sectarian movement that culminates in the formation of new institutions or “sects.” Over three or four generations these highly devoted reformers tend to be successful in expanding their numbers but as they become larger and older it becomes more difficult to maintain broad adherence to the original reformist values. Furthermore, because of the members relatively ascetic lifestyles and attention to personal morality, the members of these groups tend to rise in prosperity and become increasingly influenced by other members of society in their social class. They become evermore like the establishment, thus making the journey from being a sect to being a church. This gives rise to a new sectarian reform impulse and on the story goes. The tension at the center of this sect-to-church dynamic is Jesus paradoxical instruction to “be in the world but not of it.”
At the end of the nineteenth century, free market capitalism was virtually a given in American culture and in Church institutions. In the last half the nineteenth century, the only real options were capitalism or some form of feudalism. Socialism emerged on the intellectual scene in the 1880s but didn't capture any real interest in America. Capitalism was self-evidently preferable to the people of the day. Church and sect alike took the system as a given. There were reform efforts like the enactment of child labor laws around the turn of the century and the anti-monopolist trust busting movements of the early twentieth century. Still, these movements viewed capitalism as a given and socialism was still a wild-eyed fantasy except in certain intellectual circles.
The moral debates centered more on personal morality in business rather than questioning the nature of the structures themselves. Evangelical reform minded leader William Jennings Bryan, often caricatured as the buffoon who defend the creationist position in the scopes monkey trial, was motivated in his anti-evolutionary zeal largely because of the Social Darwinian implications he feared would infect the economic and political spheres of life, reducing human beings to animals instead of being valued as image bearers of God. Businessmen’s bible studies focused on evangelizing the business community became a major phenomenon in the early years of the twentieth century.
With the catastrophe of World War I and the rise of communism in Russia at the end of the second decade in the twentieth century, theologians and scholars began to seriously question the world order, especially in Europe. The Church was believed to be complicit in fostering the worldview that had brought such destruction. The culture wars of the 1920s and the global economic collapse of the 1930s only intensified this disillusionment. Totalitarian socialism was now a real alternative. How would the church respond?
The liberal wing of Christianity, having largely “demythologized” the faith moved in a parallel pattern to the secular modernist of the day and turned toward a type of universal humanism. Proclamation was abandoned in favor of dialog. Humanity ceased to be fallen according to the “old myths.” Humanity was merely corrupted by deceptive and destructive institutions. Eliminate the evil influences of these institutions and redistribute adequate resources to all humanity and the innate nobility of humanity would come shining through. By building institutions that transcend denominational and religious boundaries (Federated Council of Churches, National Council of Churches, and World Council of Churches) and by developing global political institutions (League of Nations and the United Nations) oppressive institutions could be conquered and the innate divinity existing within all humanity would be liberated. God morphed from being the God revealed in scripture to being the divine something-or-other behind all human experience. The quest in theological circles became the quest for connection with the divine something-or-other.
How do we discover the divine something-or-other? That varies depending on who you ask but what is agreed upon is the need to deconstruct what has traditionally been known as the Christian faith. Once we have removed the falsehoods of historic Christianity, the secret to the truth will emerge. Marxist and Liberation theologians believed they found the answer in identifying with the poor. Only through struggle against oppression can we come to the truth. Some feminist theologians believe it is only through the experience of the divine feminine that we can access the truth. Others take a more New Age approach and encourage us to seek the truth that lies within us. We are to become one with the world. In some circles, that has led to the deification of the environment. It is argued that we need to surrender the idea of being created in God’s image and become one with nature. What all of these have in common is the pursuit of a secret spiritual truth apart from the revelation of God in scripture and testimony of the Church.
This quest to discover hidden spiritual truths has led to a number of responses in terms of how we relate to the material world. Some opt for a life of licentiousness. The material world is disconnected from anything of spiritual value. Why not do whatever feels good? There are no consequences. Others may be less hedonistic, exercising self-restraint and deferred gratification, but the aim is a sense of self-actualization in this life and it generally avoids probing too deeply into eternal questions. The spiritual world and the afterlife will be what they will be, and we will deal with it when we get there. Some have opted for a type of asceticism, believing that forgoing materialistic pursuits will somehow bring them closer to common humanity, to nature, or both. In doing so, they will come closer to the God who is behind our illusions. Some have opted for a pan-everythingism where God is in everything and everything is God. Here the key to spiritual truth is the absorption of humanity into the material world (or elevation of everything into the spiritual world) and the negation of humanity’s divine image bearing quality. The scripture and teachings of the Church merely become resources we each individually draw upon to support us in our materialistic pursuit. The eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem becomes a symbolic aspiration instead of an inevitable future.