Where Protestants Part Company

Last week’s vote by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to bar anyone who is sexually active outside marriage from becoming a clergy member — effectively prohibiting the ordination of homosexuals — involved more than a dispute over gay rights.

The decision highlighted the growing divide between North and South in American Protestantism and the declining significance of denominational distinctions. In the case of the Presbyterian Church, northern presbyteries on both coasts voted heavily against the ban on gays in the clergy, while those in the Southeast, Texas and Southern California solidly supported it.

These regional divisions, of course, are nothing new. The Presbyterians and Baptists both split in two over the Civil War, and the Scopes trial in 1925 was only the most famous battle in a decadelong conflict between mostly Northern theological liberals and mostly Southern fundamentalists.

Back then, however, denominations still had significant doctrinal differences. Presbyterians, for example, believed in the doctrine that the ”elect” were predestined for salvation and that all others were doomed to hell. Methodists believed that it was possible for anyone to fall from grace.

But such distinctions have faded. Since the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, theological liberals of every denomination have found that they have more in common with one another than with the conservatives in their own denominations. Responding to the research of biblical scholars and the ”historical Jesus” movement, they have de-emphasized doctrine.

Meanwhile leaders of the religious right have preached that salvation depends on believing the correct dogma, even as they have succeeded in reducing the considerable doctrinal distinctions that once divided evangelicals, fundamentalists and charismatics.

As a result, American Protestantism is in the midst of a major shift. It is being split into two nearly antithetical religions, both calling themselves Christianity.

These two religions — the Church of Law, based in the South, and the Church of Love, based in the North — differ on almost every big theological point:

Christian identity. In the Church of Law’s view, the only true Christians are those who evade God’s wrath by subscribing to correct doctrine, heeding Jesus’s ”great commission” to evangelize. The Church of Love is generally loath to deny the name of Christian to anyone who claims it, and sees Christianity as a commitment to Jesus’s ”great commandment” to love God and one’s neighbor.

Satan. The Church of Law believes Satan is a real creature from whom only true Christians are protected. The Church of Love sees Satan as a metaphor for the potential for evil that exists in each person, Christian or not, which must be recognized and resisted.

The Bible. The Church of Law reads the Bible literally and considers it the ultimate source of all truth. The Church of Love views the Bible as an inspired but human document that must be read with a critical understanding of its historical and cultural contexts.

The battle within Presbyterianism over gay ordinations, then, is simply one more conflict over the most fundamental question of all: What is Christianity?

The differences between the Church of Law and the Church of Love are so monumental that any rapprochement seems, at present, unimaginable. Indeed, it seems likely that if one side does not decisively triumph, the next generation will see a realignment in which historical denominations give way to new institutions that more truly reflect the split in American Protestantism.

THE NEW YORK TIMES, 5 April 1997