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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Down by the Riverside


When funds were being raised for the construction of New York's (Episcopal) Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, one of the most generous donors was John D. Rockefeller, a Baptist. Because of his generosity Rockefeller fully expected (naively, perhaps) to be named to to the Cathedral's board and was vexed indeed when snubbed by Bishop Manning, who informed him only Episcopalians would be asked to serve; that no Baptists need apply. Rockefeller, feeling ill-used, shook the dust off his feet and wallet, secured a better property a few blocks west and built his magnificent Riverside Church that overlooks the Hudson River.

Rockefeller lavished money on his church, erecting a towering Gothic edifice (protestants may detest Holy Mother Church's theology but they sure do love her architecture) with stunning stained glass, an enormous Hook & Hastings pipe organ (one of the largest in the world) and a carillon (also one of the largest in the world). He also provided (appropriately) a liberal endowment so that the Riverside Church would never want for funds (the management of the long-broke Cathedral of Saint John the Divine must surely rue their predecessors' snootiness but back then there were differences between mainstream protestant denominations and having a Baptist on board simply would not do).

Thanks to Rockefeller's munificence, Riverside Church flourished for decades, serving as a beacon to the liberal protestant establishment. Alas, however, not even a Rockefeller could found a protestant church immune to the troubles of our times and Riverside Church, although not ailing financially as far as I know, is now on the ropes, being torn apart by dissension. Yesterday, it was reported, the church's pastor of only two months, the Rev. Brad Braxton, quit, already beaten down and worn out by a lawsuit and quarreling among the parishioners.

You have to read between the lines of this account in USA Today but the essence of Riverside Church's woes seem to involve its demographics: for some years it has been transitioning from a liberal institution of mostly well-to-do older whites into a less liberal one of mostly less well-to-do younger blacks. Black parishioners now substantially outnumber whites and it appears many of them do not share the white parishioners' enthusiasm for left-wing activism and economic justice, preferring instead "evangelical and scripturally focused preaching." That, the Rev. Braxton was providing, to the bitterness and dismay (ironically) of the old white liberals who saw it as "a threat to Riverside's open and inclusive reputation" (and anybody familiar with the Episcopal Church these days knows what that means).

Not surprisingly, charges of racism are being lobbed and they appear to be justified. The USA Today article quotes a parishioner, Betty Davis, who served on the committee that hired the Rev. Braxton two months ago: "As soon as his name was announced, the attacks started. One of the things that some people are afraid of is that the church will turn black. And, you know, I really resent that." Well you should, Ms. Davis. You are discovering what many of us have discovered over the years, that liberals who profess openness and inclusion only extend it to those who agree with their political outlook. Not only are they not open and inclusive to minorities who do not share their point of view, they actively despise them and do whatever they can to drive them from their midst.

Time is on the side of Riverside Church's black parishioners, however. White liberals increasingly do not attend church anymore; why should they? Sunday mornings they can stay home, brew a pot of coffee and get the same gospel preached in liberal protestant churches simply by flipping to the Sunday Times editorial page (or even on the front page, now). It's much more convenient, leaves a smaller carbon footprint and best of all, in the case of Riverside Church, spares them having to associate with those dreadful minorities who actually take their Bible seriously.

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