On December 3, 2008, a theologically conservative faction of the Episcopal Church announced that it was founding a rival denomination to be called the Anglican Church in North America. Why should anyone besides an Episcopalian care about this event? After all, American Protestants are famous for their entrepreneurial instincts, which often lead them to treat disputes as opportunities to set out in new directions. And then there's the declining importance of the Episcopal Church to the broader culture. Where it once formed the core of the Protestant "mainline," serving as an incubator for the nation's political and cultural elite, today its roughly 2.3 million members are increasingly marginal to the country as a whole.
And yet the schism in the Episcopal Church should matter -- as a sign of ongoing, and perhaps increasing, political and cultural polarization in America's churches. As sociologist Robert Wuthnow has noted, historical animosities between Catholics and Protestants began to give way in the latter half of the twentieth century to a new division separating politically liberal and politically conservative believers of every faith. Whereas differences in ethnic background and religious practice and doctrine once determined the religious identity of Americans, it is now far more common for this identity to be determined by one's position on issues tied up with the culture war: abortion, euthanasia, the breakdown of order and authority in the family, the banning of school prayer other public expressions of piety, the rise of a popular culture saturated with sex and violence, and the push for homosexual rights. To oppose these trends automatically places oneself in the traditionalist bloc within a given church, while reacting to them with resignation, indifference, or enthusiasm aligns oneself with modernist elements in the same church.
The Catholic Church in the United States has been riven by these disputes since the end of Vatican II over four decades ago. But so far, it has avoided outright schism. Protestant denominations haven't been so lucky. There is now a conservative branch of Lutheranism and a liberal branch of Lutheranism, a conservative branch of Presbyterianism and a liberal branch of Presbyterianism, a conservative branch of Methodism and a liberal branch of Methodism, and so forth. Until the last few years, it looked like the Episcopal Church might avoid this fate, in part because provinces in the church are normally defined by geography, not by theology. The church held together through controversies in recent decades about the ordination of women as priests and bishops. But the more recent decisions of several dioceses to bless gay unions and of the province's leadership in 2003 to ordain the openly gay Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire finally crossed the line in the minds of conservatives.
With 100,000 members, the schismatic Anglican denomination is so far quite small, though it may well grow if conservative dioceses around the country decide to take the option now presented to them and bolt from the Episcopal Church. But regardless of the numbers involved, the rupture in the church is historically significant and culturally troubling. The Protestant mainline that once ruled and to some extent united the nation continues its decline, split into squabbling factions facing each other across a cultural chasm. Arrayed on one side are liberals of every theological stripe; on the other are defenders of orthodoxy and tradition. The first views the second as ignorant bigots; the second sees the first as moral degenerates. Barack Obama may have managed to win 53 percent of the popular vote last month, but that doesn't mean the country's division into "red" and "blue" spheres of cultural influence has come to an end. Indeed, the split in the Episcopal Church indicates that it persists and may even be deepening.