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The Collapsing Protestant Empire

 |  NCR Today

First, Billy Graham's son gets stiffed by the Pentagon.

Then President Obama pencils in Elena Kagan as his nomineee for the Supreme Court lineup and guess what? Another non-Protestant.

Things are looking gloomy in Reformation Land. The numbers have been dropping steadily in most of the old denominations and evangelicals aren't doing much better. Particular congregations show signs of life; the larger structures generally don't.

The nation's religious identity is obviously shifting, for better or worse, farther from the legacy of the Pilgrims toward a genuine hodge-podge of traditions where nobody is in charge.

This comes as bad if not surprising news to the old guard of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Southern Baptists. The torch seems to be passing from them to nobody in particular right before their eyes.

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While many Protestant leaders are resigned to this turn of fortune as appropriate to democratic pluralism, others warn that the loss of Christianity's exclusive grip could cost the nation its soul.

Count Franklin Graham among the alarmists. Last week the son of Billy and heir to his father's evangelistic crusade erupted in rage when the Pentagon barred him from conducting its "National Day of Prayer" services. The Pentagon said Graham's invitation had been rescinded because of the preacher' recent anti-Islam attacks.

Graham, who resembles an earlier Burt Lancaster and, in turn, calls to mind Lancaster's portrayal of "Elmer Gantry," was incensed by this rejection, warning Obama that booting him out in order to placate Muslims was inviting destruction.

His snit was displayed publicly for the few days leading up to the morning of prayer breakfast when a disgruntled Graham and a few followers did their prayer/protest across the street. Despite the spiritual forces both within and without the famous hexagon, nothing levitated.

Graham's outburst would have been unimaginable coming from his father, a temperate and good natured man who never had reason to doubt that Christians, and Protestants in particular, had anything to worry about as unofficial chaplains of the nation.

Graham's rejection and Kagan's nomination indicate that there are fewer privileges granted to the old Protestant establishment than ever before, even in token form. It seems to me this trend comports well with the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

But it's a hard perch to give up. America's Catholics have their own troubles with credibilty these days, but even in the throes of scandal they have received a bigger piece of thee American pie in the past few days and are in a relatively good, if not favored, place.

Few if any Christians can feel very good these days about the difference their presence makes in the culture of the United States. Most do little more than rubber stamp various expressions of materialism and self-fulfillment. But Catholics at least have gained ground since World War II. For many Protestants, however, the trajectory has been heading downward since the 1960s. There's a clear threat to titular supremacy that no amount of evangelical hyper activity can banish.

Maybe it's time for the establshment of a Protestant Conservancy where tourists can come to see real live Quakers and Disciples of Christ. On the other hand, the currently-aligned Supreme Court would probably never allow such a thing.

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