Shock and outrage have been the only responses many Christians in Oklahoma have found possible over the past few years as they've read news headlines about the exploits of their more liberally inclined brethren in other parts of the country. Most notable were the congregations in the northeast where V. Gene Robinson was ordained bishop of the New Hampshire diocese of the Episcopal Church, making him the first openly gay priest ever elevated to such a position.
Also, some religious leaders throughout the nation have defied tradition and conservative objections by conducting marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.
While shock and outrage are the predictable responses from many churchgoers in the thoroughly conservative Sooner State, disappointment in their brethren's perceived intolerance and narrow-mindedness is the response of many others.
The two different responses are representative of two different influences at work within the American religious consciousness. While homosexuality and questions about the appropriate Christian response to it is the front on which the two sides most publicly clash, this and other controversies are only the most visible battles taking place within a larger cultural war between traditional conservative influences and more unconventional liberal ideals.
This ideological warfare is by no means limited to a single denomination, but in recent years has been in clearer focus nationally and locally in the Episcopal Church.
The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which was born as the Church of England during the reign of its founder, former "Defender" of the Roman Catholic Faith, King Henry VIII.
Since Robinson's ordination in 2003, many of the denomination's more right-leaning U.S. congregations have broken away and aligned themselves instead with the Anglican province in Nigeria rather than stand with Canterbury and their fellow Episcopals in endorsement of homosexuality.
Just weeks ago, Episcopal bishops rejected a demand by the Anglican Communion that they surrender some of their authority to conservatives beyond the borders of the U.S. church.
Also, a commission of dissenting Episcopal clergy and laypeople recently urged the rest of the church to "slow down" in its ordination of gay clergy and put a hold on same-sex unions until the Anglican Communion reaches a wider consensus on the issue, and called on those who ordained Robinson to apologize for having done so.
Leaders in the Episcopal Church haven't given any indication that they intend to acquiesce, though.
Rev. Stephen McKee of Tulsa's Trinity Episcopal Church said the problems didn't start with the ordination of gay clergy, however.
He explained that a similar schism occurred decades ago "over issues of the prayer book and women in ministry," leading a few formerly Episcopal congregations in the Tulsa area to break away, identifying themselves as simply "Anglican" instead.
Other denominations are also struggling with internal dissent over these and other controversial issues in recent years.
Tulsa's 2,600-member Kirk of the Hills church was also the subject of national headlines when it split from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) last year over related issues.
The congregation was one of the leading members of the New Wine Association of Churches, which is composed of about 200 theologically conservative Presbyterian churches and was formed in response to, among other grievances, the PC(USA)'s left-leaning stances on various social issues, such as homosexuality and abortion, as well as what NWAC members perceive to be departures from orthodox teachings.
"Mainline churches once were good stewards of Biblical morality. Now, in the name of tolerance, the tables have turned with mainline denominations serving as important support in favor of sinful lifestyles," wrote Kirk of the Hills co-pastor Tom Gray recently in his blog.
While these issues are leading to schisms in some congregations, alarm over what they see as the growing influence of liberalism is moving other church leaders to rally followers under the banners of ancient beliefs and traditionally held positions on social issues.
Pope Benedict XVI recently issued a document exhorting Catholics to stricter adherence to church teachings and to uphold certain "non-negotiable values" by opposing abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia, among other hot-button issues, and called on Catholic politicians to enact policies consistent with traditional Catholic teachings.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said she doesn't believe the patriarch's exhortation was an answer to any particular ideological trend within the Catholic Church, or to any ambiguity within the church's teachings.
"There is no question within Catholic teachings on issues like gay marriage, abortion or euthanasia," she said.
However, Walsh said the term "Catholic," by definition, "encompasses people of all different persuasions."
Some Christian leaders closer to home are also responding.
When asked to what extent he believes this trend toward liberalism is gaining ground in the U.S., Pastor Bruce Ewing, avowed conservative and senior pastor of Tulsa's Fellowship Bible Church, said, "I would say that it dominates and is increasing tremendously."
It began in great earnest with the Existential Movement, which took root much earlier but gained great prominence in the 1960s, and has been building momentum ever since, he said.
"It's really invading the evangelical movement today," added Ewing.
"I think it's very strong," McKee concurred when he was asked about the extent of the liberal influence on Christendom within the U.S.
Recent findings of the Pew Research Center seem to confirm the observations of the two clerics.
"In recent years, and particularly in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, politically liberal Christians have been more outspoken in their opposition to the political agenda of religious conservatives, arguing that they, too, are 'values voters' who place a premium on such traditionally liberal beliefs as social justice, opposition to war as an instrument of foreign policy, environmental protection and a more accepting view of gays and lesbians. This increasing visibility has led some commentators to announce the emergence of the religious left," reads a report issued last summer by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The research group reported that about a third of all Christians (32 percent) identify themselves as "liberal" or "progressive." Only a slightly higher percentage (38 percent) describe themselves as "born again" or "evangelical" Christians.
"However, these characteristics overlap for many people and are far from being mutually exclusive. For example, more than a third of evangelicals (36 percent) also describe themselves as liberal or progressive Christians," the report also read.
So, why is it happening? When Christianity has traditionally been a bastion of conservative values, why are many Christians making this shift toward liberalism?
"People are disillusioned with the hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance they see in the church," answered Bishop Carlton Pearson of Tulsa's New Dimensions Worship Center.
He said people are turning away from conservative church teachings in response to the child abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church and other branches of Christianity, as well as the recent fall of Ted Haggard, leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, who was an outspoken denouncer of homosexuality until his own homosexual activities and drug use were brought to light.
"These things have caused a lot of people to question their position and why they believe it," said Pearson.
The story of Pearson's questioning of his own position on the doctrine of hell and his subsequent fall from evangelical favor was the subject of a recent segment on NBC's Dateline.
Soon after Pearson began preaching his "Gospel of Inclusion" to his tens-of-thousands of congregants in response to what he claimed to be a revelation from God that hell doesn't exist as Christians have traditionally believed, the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops declared him a heretic, fellow evangelicals like Haggard and Pearson's former mentor Oral Roberts denounced him, and his congregation left him.
Pearson has since gathered a new flock to him and preaches a message less focused on upholding doctrine and more on including all different stripes of people.
He and his congregants count themselves among "about 40-50 million new-thought, progressive Christians" Pearson said there are in the U.S.
"It's becoming increasingly popular to be 'liberal,' he said.
Leaders on the other side of the debate, of course, have different ideas about why liberalism is gaining such ground.
Ewing agrees that it's largely due to the failure of conservative church leaders, but it is their failure to successfully impart knowledge of Christianity's origins and foundations that has made churchgoers susceptible to liberal influences.
"We have a generation of people who are less informed," he lamented. "Frankly, I think Christianity as we know it today would be unrecognizable to the 1st century church," added Ewing.
McKee, who describes himself as "left of center," naturally doesn't see a rise in liberalism as necessarily a bad thing.
He explained, though, that he doesn't believe the liberal influence manifests itself so much as conservatives converting into liberals as it does through them becoming more active and aware regarding issues important to liberals.
"They're starting to pay more attention," said McKee. "I see more conservative evangelicals are caring more about the outcasts of society--they're taking seriously societal needs."
Even McKee, though, sees potential dangers in going too far "sliding into that social justice part of it."
He said, "The difficulty with us is that, if we're not paying attention, we soon become a social service agency with no sense of Christianity."
McKee's cautionary remark touches upon objections raised by conservative leaders like FBC's head preacher.
"(Liberalism) is philosophically good as an attempt to be more inclusive, but when the casualty is the very essence of what Christianity should be, it becomes a wolf in sheep's clothing," said Ewing.
While he applauds many of the fruits of liberals' social activism, the churchman said its "roots are in some form of compromise" of the "core teachings of Christianity."
One of those "core teachings" is the authority of the Bible, which Christians traditionally base on having been "inspired by an infinite, eternal and all-knowing God," said Ewing.
As such, it contains strong prohibitions against homosexuality, among other practices, which he said liberal Christians typically ignore or distort in order to conform the religion to their political views, which leads to "the church losing any consistency, because the values of a culture change from generation to generation."
"It starts a domino-effect," warned Ewing. "Where do you stop compromising in your attempt to make Christianity more compatible with a narcissistic society?"
"We think Scripture is timeless as well, but it's defined culturally and we try to take it in the context of when it was written," said McKee in response to the concerns of conservative leaders like Ewing.
"That was a law written for a group of people a long time ago. As a Christian, I look to Jesus and ask, 'What would his response be?' There are a lot of laws in (the Old Testament) that Jesus thought very well of, but I can't believe he was favorable to all of them," he added.
"For Jesus not to love and respect the Old Testament, he sure quoted it a lot," said Ewing in response to arguments like McKee's. "Take the Beatitudes, for instance--that whole thing was a continuum of Old Testament law, and Jesus had the same anger toward unholiness; his intolerance of sin was such that he was willing to die on a Roman cross to destroy it."
"It's a very powerful, truthful story, but it's not literal," said McKee of the biblical accounts of Christ's sacrificial death on the cross and subsequent resurrection.
McKee's non-literal approach to Christianity is something he has in common with John Shelby Spong, retired bishop of the Newark, N.J. diocese of the Episcopal Church.
If Liberal Christianity had a pope, it would likely be Spong, who is an internationally renowned speaker and author whose growing bibliography is a long list of controversial best-sellers, including Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, Why Christianity Much Change or Die, Sins of the Scripture, and A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born.
While Spong is regarded by many as the world's foremost champion of liberal Christianity, in a recent telephone interview he took strong, almost scolding exception to use of the word "liberal" to describe him.
"That's a political word and it is totally out of place in a theological debate because it distorts the issue," said the annoyed cleric.
Rather than "conservative" or "liberal," Spong said more appropriate categories would be "fundamentalists" on one side of the debate and "those who pay attention to biblical scholarship" on the other.
(In this writer's defense, however, later in the interview Spong pointed to "red states" and "blue states" as bastions of "fundamentalist" and "scholarly" Christianity, respectively, so use of the word "liberal" couldn't have been too far off.)
"There's no such thing as a fundamentalist biblical scholar because fundamentalists have no earthly conception of how the Bible came about," he said.
Next Week: What Is Truth? It depends how you define it, according to John Shelby Spong. Local ministers respond.
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