I should preface my next response to Rod Dreher by saying that, yes, I do read other stuff. I find occasion to troll around Ross Douthat’s columnist page and the blog of my old boss Walter Russell Mead, and I would recommend both of them. That being said, because I want to avoid politics like the plague and because Mr. Dreher is the least political, his work usually ties very nicely into what I want to write about.
Having said that, yesterday Mr. Dreher posed yet another question which I never expected to hear asked: Why do seminaries admit and churches promote pastors who do not appear to believe in God? This is something that I have wondered about myself, having known career clergy members who were theists on Sunday and Monday morning, agnostics by Tuesday, atheists by Thursday if not Wednesday, deists by Friday and then found their shepherd’s frock again on Saturday night.
This is particularly common within Mainline Protestantism, where God exists as a sort of numinous benevolence. Kind of like the Queen of Great Britain: Still technically allowing the Parliament to govern in her name, but not actually being party to the decision-making process. Religion, as many seminarians and clergy today probably think of it, is merely a catalyst to give moral weight to the cause for social justice.
But the social justice party are not the only ones who sometimes make God into a MacGuffin. For a lot of new ministers, it might not be so much about changing the world as surviving in it. For many congregations in Mainline Protestant parishes and Catholic diocese, the selection of the minister who leads their worship ceremonies is not up to them. Short of being a tenured professor, there are few jobs that have so much security. And even if the congregation leaves, the well-established mainline churches still feel that they can survive on their endowments for a few more decades.
Incidentally, during the brief time I thought about becoming a priest, I might not have been that far off from becoming this sort of seminarian: I once told a professor that I was not certain whether I had a vocation to be a shepherd of souls or was just there to find a decent wage. He looked at me sardonically over his glasses. “You’ll fit right in,” he said.
Dreher ends by asking why churches seem so enthusiastic to poison themselves; surely, they must know that people don’t want to attend churches where the ministers talk about social justice but don’t care about all of that Godsy-wawdsy stuff? I would agree with him that they are aware; but, at the same time, they probably do not have the energy or inclination to change it. They might not have the congregants, but they still have the buildings and the name brand–whether it is Presbyterian, United Methodist or Lutheran. For many people going into the ministry today, that is probably what matters most.