TO HELL WITH SIN
When 'being a good person' excuses everything.
By Katherine A. Kersten This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Sept. 17. 1999
Note from IMARC. This article is interesting in that it seems to illustrate the impact of the feel good
psychology of this century on vital Christianity. Even men with good and noble intentions, like Dr. Dobson, have bought into this fraudulent concept. It is in our public school systems as well as many Christian schools. We call it by many names like "self esteem," or "positive self concept." Churches like the United Methodist Church makes feelings and emotions the fundamental point of their theology. To them the concept of sinful man is laughable. Ms. Katherine A. Kersten in her investigation into the Minnehaha United
Methodist Church and Kathleen Soliah saw the consequences of such social psychology in liberal Churches. The sad part is that this social feel good psychology is finding its way in many Bible Believing Churches too.
Little Minnehaha United Methodist, Church, located in a comfortable older neighborhood of this
big Midwestern city, has been in the news a lot lately. It is the church of Kathleen Soliah, a
former member of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army. For 23 years, Soliah evaded charges
of conspiracy to commit murder, stemming from her alleged attempt to kill Los Angeles police
officers by planting bombs under two police cruisers in 1975. In June, the FBI arrested her in St.
Paul, living the life of an upper-middle-class housewife under the name of Sara Jane Olson.
Minnehaha Church quickly leaped to Soliahs defense, proclaiming its "unconditional love." The
church spearheaded her bail campaign, raising $1 million in one week. Church representatives
acknowledged that the charges against Soliah were serious. In essence, however, they argued that
any crimes she may have committed were 'canceled out" by her good works as a community
volunteer-like reading to the blind and working at a center for torture victims. (Her trial is
scheduled for early next year in Los Angeles.)
The media that descended on Minnehaha Church after Soliabs arrest described it as a "liberal,
social activist" church. On a recent visit, I expected to see signs of the sort of left-wing religious
activism that I supposed was necessary for the uncritical embrace of a former bomb wielding
terrorist-say, dog-eared posters celebrating the Central American "liberation" movements of the
1970s, complete with bandoliers and clenched fists. Or maybe a sign-up sheet for an upcoming
"Eco-Justice" rally at City Hall.
What I saw was the opposite of what I expected to find. True, there were trappings of the modem
liberal church: a sign pronouncing Minnehaha a "hate-free zone," an advertisement for a camp
where children learn to be "earthsavers" and "peacemakers."
But the most extraordinary thing about Minnehaha Church was how ordinary it was. Overall, it
gave the impression of a busy social-service center, a neighborhood hub offering something for
everyone. Staid-looking elderly couples socialized in the foyer, discussing-one suspected-the
upcoming rummage sale and block party. In the library, I found a book by Billy Graham,
prominently displayed. Racks of brochures offered health tips for senior citizens: how to choose a
good nursing home, how to prevent household falls. The bulletin board announced the doings of
the Boy Scouts and Overeaters Anonymous.
The service, too, had little of the left-wing rhetoric I had expected. It consisted mostly of
inclusive "happy talk." Instead of a creed, or a prayer of repentance, it began with an open-ended
Call to Worship: "God loves a cheerful giver. Why not give it a try? ...So help me God, Im
willing to consider anything and everything." Pastor John Darlington assured newcomers that
Minnehaha "accepts people where they are and exactly for who they are." Much of the service
was devoted to a youth group, whose members enthusiastically described their experiences
during a social-action project in Appalachia.
I left Minnehaha scratching my head, and frankly disappointed. Why had I seen no gun, nothing
that seemed to account for the churchs zealous defense of Soliah, an accused felon? Could it be
that a church need not be on the radical fringe to be tolerant of evil? Can such tolerance creep
just as easily into a church whose theology resembles nothing so much as a Hallmarkcard?
Thirty years ago, the psychologist and scholar Philip Rieff shed light on this question in his
classic work. "The Triumph of the Therapeutic." traditional Christianity, Mr. Rieff observed,
made great moral demands on believers. Its goal was salvation; consequently, it exhorted
believers to "die to self," repent of sin, and cultivate virtue, self-discipline and humility.
Today, however, wrote Mr. Rieff, "psychological man" is rapidly shouldering Christian man
aside as the dominant character type in our society. For psychological man-the offspring of Freud
and his ilk-life centers not on the soul but on the self. Psychological man rejects both the idea of
sin and the need for salvation. He aspires to nothing higher than "feeling good about himself."
Mr. Rieff summarizes it this way: "Christian man was born to be saved; psychological man is
born to be pleased. The difference was established long ago, when 'I believe!, the ciy of the
ascetic, lost precedence to 'one feels, the caveat of the therapeutic."
One would expect that, with the rise of psychological man, American churches would begin to
empty. Quite the contrary suggests Mr. Rieff. Psychological man seeks to enlist all institutions in
his service. "Independent from all gods," he is drawn to "any faith that lends itself to therapeutic
use." By draining faith of doctrinal content, psychological maxi reduces religion to; a
free-floating spirituality. He can embrace any faith, so long as it makes no real moral
demands-consoles but does not judge.
In churches like Minnehaha, this process is far advanced. From what I could- see, Minnehahas
primary focus is not on God and the demands of salvation but on man and his earthly needs. The
church focuses on healing, affirming and consoling-on accepting others "for exactly who they
are." Largely drained of doctrine, Minnehaha strikes the observer as little more than a club for
good works, a kind of Red Cross with a steeple on top. What fills the hole at the center, where
the Christian moral code used to be? An ethic of conspicuous compassion, where "being a nice
person" excuses everything.
At churches like Minnehaha, the cathartic personal story is a therapeutic centerpiece. Such
stories-often marked by pathos and self absorption-jostle around the altar in endless procession,
replacing the tenets of the old faith. Rather than guiding and instructing, they stir pity or
indignation, or elicit emotional "commitment"
The saga of Kathleen Soliah lays bare the all-too-human underpinnings of the modem therapeutic
church. From Minnehahas perspective; it seems, Soliah is not a sinner in need of forgiveness and
atonement but a "patient" in need of nonjudgmental care. To determine what justice requires in
her case, the church maintains, we need only consider her personal story-the heart-tugging tale of
a revolutionary turned "community volunteer"and soccer mom, who is now the victim of a cold
and impersonal Justice system. In the churchs view, Soliahs individual circumstances should take
precedence over universal principles of justice.
Minnehaha Church provides a cautionary tale of how the world of bake sales and Boy Scouts can
co-exist with the uncritical embrace of a woman accused of attempted murder. The unsettling thing is that Minnehaha is not an aberration. Like as not, its the church down the block.
Ms. Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.