Conservative Protestants and Pope Francis: 20 Questions for Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is a Methodist writer who serves as president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington D.C.-based conservative religious think tank that opposes political liberalism in U.S. Protestant churches. As director of the I.R.D., he oversees four committees which advocate for conservative social policies within the the Anglican Communion, Presbyterian churches, United Methodist Church and evangelical Protestants across denominations. A lifelong United Methodist, Mr. Tooley holds a B.A. from Georgetown University and worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) before joining the I.R.D. in 1994.

He is author of “Taking Back the United Methodist Church” (2010) and "Methodism & Politics in the 20th Century (2012)," both from Bristol House. His articles on politics and religion have appeared in appeared in The Wall Street JournalThe American SpectatorFirst Things, PatheosWorldChristianity TodayThe Weekly StandardNational Review OnlineWashington ExaminerHuman EventsThe Washington Times, TouchstoneThe Chicago Tribune and The New York Post. He also makes regular television and radio appearances.

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Mr. Tooley's latest book, "The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War," was published on July 14 earlier this summer by Thomas Nelson. On Aug. 24, I interviewed Mr. Tooley by email about the current attitude of U.S. Protestant conservatives toward Pope Francis as he prepares to visit the United States next week.

You’ve been director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Protestant religious think tank, since 2009. What have been some of your goals and accomplishments since taking over?

A major goal has been to warn Evangelicals away from repeating so many of the mistakes that sidelined once dominant Mainline Protestantism. So we focus a lot on the Evangelical Left’s push to make Evangelicalism look more like liberal Protestantism, i.e., going squishy on abortion and marriage, downplaying the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and pushing for a statist political witness that mimics the secular Left. We started a new program, Evangelical Action, headed by a young woman, Chelsen Vicari, to sound the alarm over the Evangelical Left, and to remind Evangelicals, especially the young, that their strength and hope depend on remaining faithful to a robust orthodoxy. Chelsen’s written an important book called Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith. 

What issues are you particularly concerned about in the mainline Protestant churches right now?

Most of the Mainline Protestant world is imploding. Of the seven historic Mainline denominations, five have officially surrendered on marriage and Christian sexual morality. They will continue to shrivel and become more inconsequential, even after 50 years of dramatic and continuous membership loss. But I predict in 20 years, when they are a shell of their former selves, a new generation of clergy and lay leadership will arise that will see the obvious wreckage of theological liberalism and advocate a return to orthodoxy.

The United Methodist Church is the one standout from the declining Mainline. It has held firm on its official understanding of marriage thanks to the denomination’s growing African membership, which is now at least 41 percent of the total and will soon become a majority. The Africans will transform this 13 million member growing global church. U.S. liberals in the denomination are furious but can do little to stop the emerging African majority, besides loud protests over the church’s ban on same sex marriage.

Since the mainline U.S. Protestant denominations entered full table communion and pulpit sharing with each other, there has been a steady drop-off in religious identification among their flocks—prompting leaders like Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (E.L.C.A.) to launch policies to reclaim a distinctive confessional identity. In your view, what have these denominations lost and how can they get it back?

Yes, the Mainline denominations by mid-20th century had lost their theological distinctiveness and became largely interchangeable with each other. Their elites celebrated this new epic as a victory for Christian unity and ecumenism, but it actually accelerated their demise. If being Presbyterian or Lutheran means little, then why join? Churches, or any human voluntary organization, only thrive if adherence has a meaning. The Mainline became boring by abandoning its own wonderful heritage.  

As you see it, what is the essence of Protestantism?

Properly understood, historic Protestantism stresses the authority of the Bible as God’s Word and the sufficiency of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.

What is unique or distinctive about your identity as a United Methodist within Protestantism and within Christianity more generally?

John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, claimed he was not a theological innovator and that he was only expounding apostolic Christianity. He was a faithful Church of England clergyman who never desired that Methodists leave the established church. But after the American Revolution he reluctantly empowered American Methodism to become a denomination. Methodism was wildly popular on the early American frontier and quickly became America’s largest church thanks to its pragmatic stress on revivalistic outreach to the otherwise unreached, and its stress on the availability of God’s transforming grace, including both salvation and sanctification, through Jesus Christ.

Methodists are distinct for building interconnected networks of vibrant congregations bound together by common faith in Jesus Christ and dedicated to transforming society through the power of the Gospel. American Methodism inherited from its mother, the Church of England, a deep concern for the nation and for societal holiness. Much of the American democratic ethos, and the fabric of civil society, is traceable to Methodism. 

As a political conservative and United Methodist, how do you feel about Pope Francis?

I pray for his ministry, appreciate his passion for the Gospel, understand that as pope he of course cleaves to Christian orthodoxy, including the orthodox understanding of marriage and family, and that he naturally will stand against abortion, euthanasia and other secularist assaults on the sacredness of human life. Some of his statements, perhaps mostly adlibbed, seem to, however inadvertently, enliven the hopes of liberalism that the Catholic Church will change or deemphasize some of its important teachings. These statements create unnecessary confusion. 

As to politics, I’m concerned about his seeming endorsement of climate change ideology and activisms. It’s not clear if he fully appreciates that the greatest material hope for the world’s poor is for continued global economic growth, not failed redistributionist policies that perpetuate poverty and foster oppression.

You were educated by the pope’s religious order, the Society of Jesus, at Georgetown University. Where do you agree the most with Francis?

I only had one Jesuit as a teacher during my four years at Georgetown! Of course I agree with the pope about the imperative of spreading the Gospel, and about the vital importance of upholding the sacredness of all human life, and of upholding natural marriage and family as central to any just society.

As a Methodist and political conservative, where do you disagree most strongly with Pope Francis?

As mentioned above, the pope’s encyclical, "Laudato Si'," apparently guided by unfortunate European counsel, essentially endorsed the ideological assumptions of the secular environmental movement. If its warnings were seriously heeded, much of the poor would remain permanently poor, as economic growth surrenders to ultimately Malthusian and Luddite fears about market-driven economic expansion. Contrary to the encyclical, I pray for a day when the poorest people in Africa and south Asia not only all have electricity but also all have air conditioning, which is one of the greatest God-inspired inventions in human history! 

In mainline U.S. Protestant denominations, political conservatives tend to attend evangelical services while political liberals tend to be more “high church” in their worship. How have these factions reacted to Pope Francis, who is both liturgical and friendly to evangelical Christians?

I’ve seen at least one poll showing that U.S. Evangelicals are the religious demographic least enthusiastic about the pope. Fifty years ago that would have been true based on old Protestant fears and Catholicism. Now it’s true because many conservative Americans see the pope, fairly or not, as a liberal at least on some issues.

Liberal Protestant elites like the pope’s social statements about economics and the environment and his sometimes seeming openness to amending traditional church teaching. But ultimately they can’t fully embrace him because he will uphold church teaching on human sexuality, which is the main cultural issue for liberal Protestants.

What can mainline Protestants learn from Catholics in the United States?

They can learn to be more global and catholic and not U.S. centric. Mainline Protestantism imploded because it forgot its catholicity in favor of surrendering to the liberal commanding heights of American secular culture. Essentially, liberal Protestantism thinks most of the historic church and most of world Christianity is wrong about key Christian teaching, with only Western liberal Protestant elites in the right. They’ve become very parochial and isolated but they don’t realize it because they are aligned with secular Western culture and assume they’re on the right side of history.

What can U.S. Catholics learn from mainline Protestants?

Catholics can learn what NOT to do! Don’t go wobbly on doctrine and distinct identity. Catholicism can only grow by being enthusiastically Roman Catholic. A watered down church is an inconsequential church that is boring even to the people who supposedly like diluted religion.

On the positive side, historic Mainline Protestantism created a great, free, lawful, tolerant and prosperous society that delivered hundreds of millions from poverty and oppression across several centuries. There’s no other accomplishment like it in human history.   

Mainline U.S. Protestants tend to be politically liberal, with more conservative elements defecting to Catholicism or evangelical Protestant groups. In particular, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has steadily amended its Book of Discipline to look more and more like the political platform of the Democratic Party. As a political conservative, what is your role in this denomination?

Methodism became liberal in in its governance nearly 100 years ago. It’s not a new development, although many members still don’t fully realize it. And local church culture often remained orthodox despite the modernism that captured seminaries and church agencies.

Since college, for nearly 30 years, I’ve worked for the renewal of my denomination. God’s surprise in this process has been that the renewal has come from the growing church in Africa, where there are about six million United Methodists, and several hundred thousand new adherents every year, even as the U.S. church loses nearly 100,000 members annually. We’re dreading and looking forward to next year’s governing General Conference, where liberals will lose in their efforts to overturn the church’s prohibition on same sex unions and homosexual clergy. We’re hopeful that we can win on some pro-life issues and transition the liberal U.S. church bureaucracy to become more global and orthodox.

Pope Francis will visit the United States in a few days for the World Meeting of Families and several other events. If you could tell Pope Francis one thing about Protestantism in our country, what would it be?

Protestantism/Evangelicalism is highly diverse and entrepreneurial and nobody speaks for it—which is both a weakness and a great strength. Most collaboration and ministry between Catholics and Protestants/Evangelicals should occur at the local church level, not at denominational levels or through senior prelates.   

As you see it, what is the main difference between Protestants and Catholics in the United States?

According to many polls, Evangelicals as a whole in America are actually more Catholic than most Roman Catholics in terms of their core theology and social views! Mainline Protestants are more mixed, but churchgoing Mainline Protestants are still more orthodox as a whole, whatever their denominational elites say.

What do U.S. Catholics and Protestants have in common?

Orthodox Catholics and Protestants agree on the ecumenical creeds, on marriage, on human life, on transcendent truth. Liberal Catholics and liberal Protestants of course largely agree on a post-modern reality that rejects or minimizes transcendent truth in favor of a privatized, therapeutic reality.

If you look at the current U.S. Supreme Court makeup and at various political indicators, it sometimes feels like Catholics have become the dominant social force in our nation today, supplanting the old WASP elite that continues to decline. How would you characterize the role that mainline Protestants, once the ruling force in our politics and society, now play as a minority voice in the United States? 

Mainline Protestant elites still don’t realize how inconsequential they’ve become. Many still pretend they have the prestige they had in 1960. Some try to justify their decline by claiming all religion is in decline. But mostly I think liberal Protestants will stay in their own receding ghetto and will feel satisfied that even as they lose numbers, they have “won” by aligning with secular elite opinion on key cultural issues. From their perspective, losing a million members was worth winning on same sex marriage.

In academic theology, there has been a growing trend among U.S. Catholic and mainline Protestant theologians to write in an ecumenical style without any confessional perspective. How do you feel about that?

Much of that trend probably has good intent, but it’s ultimately problematic and unhelpful to true ecumenism. Ardent Calvinists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Baptists and Methodists, unapologetically rooted in their own respective traditions, are likelier to have more meaningful conversations and collaborations with zealous Roman Catholics than will Protestants with diluted identities.  

What do you want people to take away from your life and work?

I hope my work and the 34-year work of the I.R.D. illustrate the importance of a vibrant Christian witness in America that is committed to orthodoxy and to a just society rooted in law, where religious liberty for all is protected.

What are your hopes for the future?

I pray for a Christian revival in America that resembles the Methodist revivals of England in the 18th century and in America in the 19th century. Postmodern secularism is vapid and offers no foundation for meaningful life or for a vibrant, free and lawful society where the weak are protected and the strong are productive. 

Any final thoughts?

There’s so much confusion among Christians of all stripes about God’s vocation for government. The Catholic Church has a very rich tradition on this topic that is much needed right now. Too many Christians see government and politics as salvific. But the state was ordained by God for much more limited purposes, primarily to protect the public order, including the church’s work. We need more public theologians to examine and explain these issues to a wider audience.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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