Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Miers and Her Church

Inevitably, Harriet Miers' religious views are going to get some scrutiny in the very near future, particularly since the initial reaction to her nomination from Christian Right leaders was significantly warmer than that of other conservatives. So far, all the press seems to have figured out is that she spent many years as a devoted member of a "conservative evangelical church" in suburban Dallas, and that she was raised as a (apparently nonobservant) Catholic.

I did a little quick research last night on Valley View Christian Church, and also happen to know a bit about the tradition it comes from, so I thought I'd share this analysis for future reference. Keep in mind that I am at best an amateur Church historian, so this account may well include errors, though I profoundly hope it gets the big issues right.

VVCC is an independent "Christian" church aligned with the conservative wing of the Campbell-Stone "Restorationist" tradition. It's closely related to the conservative quasi-denomination, the Churches of Christ, and more distantly related to the mainline protestant Disciples of Christ.

[IMPORTANT NOTES: the term "Restorationist" is occasionally applied to "Reconstructionism" or "Dominion Theology," a scary theocratic movement of recent vintage. It has no connection whatsoever with historic "Restorationists," or with Harriet Miers. And no one should confuse the conservative "Churches of Christ" with the "United Church of Christ," a very liberal denomination created by the merger of the Congregationalists with German Reformed Churches in the 1940s].

"Restorationism" is a distinctly American religious tradition, a product of the Second Great Awakening on the midwestern and southern frontier, largely under the leadership of Thomas Campbell and Barton Stone, both former Presbyterians who were troubled by denominational and intradenominational rivalries. The basic idea of "restorationism" was a systematic effort to return to what its adherents understood as the practices of the Primitive Church, rejecting "human" creeds, theological traditions (Protestant and well as Catholic), and sectarian denominations, with Scripture, and especially the New Testament, serving as the only source of authority in all matters.

Ironically, under the leadership of Thomas Campbell's son Alexander, the restorationists created their own denomination (albeit a loosely organized, congregationally-based denomination with a strong commitment to ecumenism), the Disciples of Christ, which grew most rapidly in the Midwest and Southwest. Their most distinctive feature was an insistence on weekly communion (most evangelical denominations, following the Calvinist practice, had long detached communion from regular Sunday worship and observed it irregularly) along with a continuing hostility to theological speculation or creeds.

Eventually, and roughly at the same time that the Fundamentalist Controversy broke out in the larger Protestant denominations, a significant minority of conservative Disciples, especially in the South and Southwest, drifted out of the Disciples, most affiliating with the new Churches of Christ but others simply becoming "independent Christian" congregations like VVCC. While conservative Restorationists maintained the traditional Disciples belief in biblical inerrancy (echoing Thomas Campbell's famous slogan: "Where Scripture speaks, we speak; where it is silent, we are silent") other factors distinctive to restorationists were more important, particularly an insistence on adult baptism by full immersion and rejection of the Disciples' gradual acceptance of musical instruments to accompany singing in church. But the most important contributor to the split was the conservatives' belief that restorationists were the "one true church" replicating the Primitive Church, which, given their anti-credal and anti-denominational biases, paradoxically made them increasingly sectarian and preoccupied with "scripturally sound" doctrine, especially in matters of worship.

Little has changed in the Churches of Christ and their "independent" satellites in the last century, aside from their rapid growth.

Most conservative restorationists dislike the label "fundamentalist," mainly because the fundamentalist movement in the larger denominations involved theological arguments alien to their own tradition. But they certainly share the fundamentalist position on biblical inerrancy, with an important twist: the tenet that "where [Scripture] is silent, we are silent" has made conservative restorationists much less likely to get involved, at least as a group, in battles over matters like abortion where there are virtually no direct Scriptural references, especially in the New Testament. Indeed, a 1998 article in Restoration Quarterly excoriated Churches of Christ for lagging behind other conservative evangelicals in full-throated commitment to the anti-abortion cause.

What complicates this question is the conservative restorationist hostility to denominational order, formal doctrinal statements, and other "litmus tests." These are not Southern Baptists who insist on examining their clergy and staff in search of heresy; they have few formal organs for pronouncing anathemas even if they wanted to; and much of their literature focuses on controversies like whether to use one or two cups at communion, not quasi-political topics.

And this formal silence is characteristic even more of "independent" congregations like VVCC. Even if 90 to 100 precent of conservative restorationist clergy have convinced themselves the Bible does speak to the abortion issue, the gay rights issue, the school prayer issue, and other cultural matters that may come before the Supreme Court, few would know it outside their individual congregations.

So: what does all of this mean in terms of "the religious question" as it relates to Harriet Miers nomination? The obvious answer is that like other aspects of her philosophy, the influence of her religious beliefs on her judicial thinking is ultimately a mystery so long as she and her friends and associates decide to keep it that way.

A Washington Post profile on Miers reported that Valley View Christian Church occasionally screens Focus on the Family films, and has anti-abortion literature available in the vestibule. That kind of circumstantial evidence is probably the only kind that will turn up. Like Harriet Miers herself, her faith tradition doesn't supply much in the way of "paper trails" on the subjects that may affect her confirmation or rejection.
-- Posted at 6:14 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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