Change of Heart: Who says American churches can’t change?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Change of Heart
Radio Priest Father Charles Coughlin

At his peak, Father Charles Coughlin reached up to 30 million Americans each week. In the 1930s, he preached in favor of Adolf Hitler as a bulwark against Communism and he railed against Jews who he said were behind the Russian Revolution. Even after Kristallnacht in 1938, Coughlin went on the air still backing the German regime and suggesting that Jews themselves bore some guilt in the violence against them. He was not forced off the airwaves until after Germany invaded Poland in late 1939.

In 5 parts, this special OurValues series examines American churches’ changing attitudes on homosexuality and same-gender marriage. Many readers have asked us to gather in one place the latest findings on these issues by researchers and scholars, including the Pew Research Center, the Barna Group and the Public Religion Research Institute. In response, we are pulling together the latest data from these groups and other scholars. We invite you to read along and especially urge you to share these columns with friends.

We begin by looking at the basic question: Can American churches make major changes in the basic values they preach?

Answer: They can. And, they have many times. Here are a few examples—

SLAVERY—At the eve of the Civil War, about 150 years ago, pastors nationwide preached that slavery was entirely consistent with the Bible. After all, hundreds of Bible verses seem to approve of the practice. Even among the majority of Northern congregations, before the Civil War, abolition was not a popular cause. But today? No legitimate church in America preaches in favor of slavery and evangelical churches are active in popular campaigns to end modern-day slavery in the world.

RACIAL-ETHNIC PURITY—At the start of American involvement in World War I a century ago, some of the most famous preachers in America supported the eugenics movement and called for the forced sterilization of millions of Germans to wipe out their population (as documented in Philip Jenkins new book). Now, after the Holocaust and other genocides, no church in America would stand for such preaching that encourages wiping out entire populations.

ANTI-SEMITISM—On the eve of World War II about 80 years ago, anti-Semitism was common in American churches and leading preachers, especially the infamous Catholic “radio priest” Father Coughlin, whipped up so much anti-Jewish feeling that U.S. policy slowed the flow of Jewish refugees trying to escape the Third Reich. Even a written plea by Anne Frank’s father to escape to America was held up in the prevailing American antipathy toward European Jews. Anti-Semitism remains a problem around the world, but no legitimate American church preaches this hatred—and evangelical churches have become some of the strongest American supporters of the state of Israel.

ANTI-CATHOLICISM—Fifty years ago, anti-Catholicism was so rampant in America’s Protestant churches that a household name like the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, founder of Guideposts magazine, could feel confident leading a national coalition of pastors opposing John Kennedy’s election because he was Catholic. Peale warned the nation, “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.” Since then, anti-Catholicism hasn’t entirely vanished, but evangelical leaders now widely embrace Catholic allies nationwide.

What other basic values have changed in American churches?

What has changed in your lifetime?

What has changed in your church?

Care to read more?

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Comments: (1)
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Comments

  1. debbie valencia says

    I am encouraged when churches are of mixed ethnicity, sharing mixed music and leadership, and when younger ones are fully participating, volunteering their gifts during the worship service. I know we still have very much segregated congregations, it does not have to be that way.