Every so often, I’ve heard an argument that goes like this: “the press only talks about the Christians vs. the gays as if all Christians are against being gay. Don’t they know that there are Christians who support gays?”
The frustration comes from being ignored by the wider culture, especially the media. When we think of Christians, we are more likely to think of evangelicals or Catholics, but never liberal Protestantism. This has long been a problem. Some, including former evangelical-turned liberal Christian Randall Balmer, think there is a conspiracy afoot inspired by groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy.
I will agree that liberal Protestantism does get ignored in society. While groups like the IRD tend to go after liberals, I don’t think they have as a big as an impact as we would like to think. I think that there is something else going on, something that we in progressive churches are doing to ourselves and it is this: I believe we are so uncritical of socially liberal society that we blend into the woodwork. In essence, when you say the same thing the wider society says, you tend to cancel yourself out.
I’ve been think about that after reading Ross Douthat’s latest piece for the New York Times. In this essay, he focuses on Pope Francis and the hopeful revival of liberal Christianity. Could it happen? Douthat says yes, but it has challenges:
But there are deep reasons why liberal Christianity has struggled lately, which a Francis-inspired revival would need to overcome. One is the tendency for a liberal-leaning faith to simply become a secularized faith, obsessed with political utopias and embarrassed by supernatural hopes, until the very point of churchgoing gradually evaporates. (It’s not a coincidence that the most resilient of left-leaning religious communities, the African-American church, is also the most frankly supernaturalist.)
The other is religious liberalism’s urge to follow secular liberalism in embracing the sexual revolution and all its works — a move that promises renewal but rarely delivers, because it sells out far too much of scripture and tradition along the way.
The first tendency is one that this pope’s example effectively rebukes. However “left” his political impulses may be, they are joined to a prayerful and devotional sensibility, an earthy, Satan-invoking zeal that has nothing arid or secularized about it.
The second tendency, though, is one that Francis has tacitly encouraged, by empowering clerics and theologians who seem to believe that Rome’s future lies in imitating the moribund Episcopal Church’s approach to sex, marriage and divorce.
I don’t agree with everything Douthat says here, but he is on to something. Douthat says that religious liberals have sold out to the sexual revolution and that has cost it in many ways.
And I think he’s right.
Now before the pitchforks come out, I should explain. Being gay, I am thankful of having a church and denomination that welcomes me. The sexual ethics I grew up with was not something I would share with others, at least the ways it was taught. The problem is this: liberal Christianity asks nothing of us when it comes to our sexuality. It never asks how we should live as Christians when it comes to sex. It never asks when abortions are necessary and when it is morally questionable, it just follows the line that comes from secular feminists. It talks about same sex marriage as “love wins” but doesn’t ask what is marriage for as Christians.
I’m not urging that we create a lists of dos and don’ts when it comes to sex. But like so much of the modern liberal church, we don’t think theologically about sexuality. What liberal Christians have done is just tacitly accept what the wider liberal culture has accepted with out thinking about it critically.
So, if a journalist is writing a story and he or she has a choice to talk to either a liberal pastor who supports abortion on demand or the local abortion rights activist, they are going to go with the activist. Why go to a pastor who will say the same thing when you have the real thing?
I will say it again: I am not advocating for liberal Christians to give up their support for a more liberal attitude towards sexuality. What I am calling for is to start to think about the whys more often. We need to be thinking theologically and not culturally.
Having been trained as a journalist, I can tell you that writers want to get an interesting angle and we don’t have one. And part of the reason is that liberal Christianity has lost or squandered it’s theological tradition. In it’s place we have used culture-talk or politics, which make us sound like the Democratic Party at prayer. If that is what we are, then I can see why people would rather stay in bed and get some extra sleep than go to church.
If mainline/progressive/liberal Christianity, especially the Protestant kind, wants to stand out more, then it needs to be a unique voice in society instead of an echo.