On the heels of what I wrote late last week on the pitfalls of Progressive Christianity, there has been a flurry of articles on the future of liberal Christianity. I want to start off with a piece by Allan Bevere who wrote the following last Friday:
In recent years evangelical Protestantism has been going through a soul searching, questioning some of its cherished political and hermeneutical positions that have become so intertwined with evangelicalism. An increasing number of evangelicals are re-evaluating some of their “sacred” views on Scripture and science and politics. I think that has been a good thing. But I must say, I have not seen that same kind of soul searching among mainline Protestants. It cannot hurt to wonder if we always have it right. It cannot be a bad thing to remember that perhaps our views are not always biblical, but rather the opposite side of the same modern coin we share with those who are evangelical. Perhaps Dennis and John are beginning an important self-critical conversation that we mainliners need to have. If this is the start, I welcome it.After all, the unexamined life, politic, and theology is not worth embracing… and it’s not good for the soul… or the church either. An adjective is meant to describe a noun, not get in the way.
Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.
Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)
Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.
Douthat then expresses what he wishes to see Liberal Christianity do in order to revive itself:
What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
The reaction to Douthat’s article among some notable (and not so notable) progressives has been…interesting. In some ways, it reflects exactly some of what Douthat said was of the denial taking place in liberal Christianity: a belief that somewhow we are the church of the future. Church Scholar Diana Butler Bass wrote a response to Douthat’s article that basically said that liberal Christians might save Christianity itself. I think in some ways she misinterprets what Douthat is getting at and instead responds with some worn rejoinders to the issue:
…Mr. Douthat insists that any denomination committed to contemporary liberalism will ultimately collapse. According to him, the Episcopal Church and its allegedly trendy faith, a faith that varies from a more worthy form of classical liberalism, is facing imminent death.
His argument, however, is neither particularly original nor true. It follows a thesis first set out in a 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing by Dean Kelley. Drawing on Kelley’s argument, Douthat believes that in the 1960s liberal Christianity overly accommodated to the culture and loosened its ties to tradition. This rendered the church irrelevant and led to a membership hemorrhage. Over the years, critics of liberal churches used numerical decline not only as a sign of churchgoer dissatisfaction but of divine displeasure. To those who subscribe to Kelley’s analysis, liberal Christianity long ago lost its soul–and the state of Protestant denominations is a theological morality tale confirmed by dwindling attendance.
That was 1972. Forty years later, in 2012, liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America’s most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss. The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination. Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations–it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.
Douthat points out that the Episcopal Church has declined 23% in the last decade, identifying the loss as a sign of its theological infidelity. In the last decade, however, as conservative denominations lost members, their leaders have not equated the loss with unfaithfulness. Instead, they refer to declines as demographic “blips,” waning evangelism, or the impact of secular culture. Membership decline has no inherent theological meaning for either liberals or conservatives. Decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion.
The real question is not “Can liberal Christianity be saved?” The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?
The thing is, I don’t think Douthat was saying that conservative churches are doing all that great. In fact, he has been critical of conservative churches as well, not only in this column, but in his most recent book, Bad Religion. Butler Bass then goes into the standard but-the-conservative-churches-are-shrinking-too argument that is true, but covers up the fact that liberal churches are still declining. It’s a nice argument and one that makes those of us in declining mainline churches feel good about ourselves and kind of snicker at all those conservative churches. There are problems with conservative Christianity and there is a decline taking place there as well, that doesn’t erase the fact that we have a problem that has to be taken care of. My own take at a glance is that the two wings of Christianity are losing members for different reasons. Among conservatives it might be the problem of intolerance towards LGBT persons. Among liberals the problem seems to be that we have compromised the basics of faith (concept of sin, Christ’s divinity) and overemphasized social and political issues to the point that people realize that they don’t really need to go to church to care about the environment of gay rights.
I think Progressive Christianity has some great strengths. However, we do a crappy job of self-examination. We never allow ourselves to think that somehow what we do and how we do it might possibly be wrong. We are unwilling to think about what we might have done wrong and how to correct for fear that we will become some kind of clone of the Southern Baptists.
Self-examination doesn’t mean we have to stop being progressive Christians. It doesn’t mean throwing out everything. But it does mean seeing what might be hurting us and putting aside our egos to in order to see if we are the best church we can be. When liberal Christians start doing this, then we can be on the road to saving Liberal Christianity. Until that happens, we will keep whistling down the road towards irrelevance.