Tag: liberal Christians

The Invisibility of Progressive Christianity

Church-You-Can-See-Through-10Every 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.

Let’s Talk About Sex?

nude-yabyum-ishA few months ago, Methodist pastor and blogger Allan Bevere wanted my viewpoint on the argument that the acceptance of same-sex marriage will lead to polyandrous relationships. (Allan doesn’t share that view, but is trying to answer that question.)

I have to admit that I haven’t answered Allan’s question yet.

It’s not for lack of trying.  I have thought about it.  But I haven’t been able to come up with an answer that says same-sex marriage is okay and polyandrous relationship aren’t- at least with what society and mainline churches have used as an argument.

The view that I have encountered from liberal Christians and liberal society as a whole is centered on a sense of equality.  As long as other people don’t bother us, then they are free to do what they want.  Being a soft libertarian, I think that’s the way I want to go.  Let people be.

But if that’s my answer, then I could also use that argument to support three people getting married as much as I could two members of the same sex.

The problem with the libertarian/equality viewpoint is that it can treat all forms of sexuality as equal if they don’t harm people.

Which is why I haven’t answered Allan yet.  I think the answer I could give Allan would come up short. Continue reading “Let’s Talk About Sex?”

Repost: Saving Liberal Christianity

The following is a post written in 2012.

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.
I bring up Allan’s piece because one of the things Progressive Christians have not been good at is thoughtful self-examination.  We are good at telling others what is wrong with them,, but when it comes with doing our own soul-searching, I think we come up incredibly short.
You see this in reaction to Ross Douthat’s column published over the weekend on liberal Christianity.  Douthat is a conservative Catholic, but unlike other conservative critics, what he has to say is not simplistic or vindictive as some have been.  Nor does he say that liberal Christians have to be conservative in order to see their memberships increase.  He starts by naming the problem with liberal Christianity as well as reminding conservative Christians that they aren’t the cat’s meow either:

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?

liberal-ChristianThe 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.

The Culture Wars and the Mind of the Modern Christian

Supreme Court Hears Arguments On California's Prop 8 And Defense Of Marriage ActI was at an ecumenical LGBT meeting several years back.  What we were talking about, I can’t remember, but I remember saying something about the Great Commission found in Matthew 28.  Accross the room from me was a middle aged man from Canada.  I could see him mouth the words “Great Commission” and he had this quizical look.  It was easy to realize that he had no idea what was the Great Commission.

Maybe they do things differently in the Great White North, but I was surprised this man didn’t know something that I considered basic knowledge.

When we think about the culture wars, we don’t really think about what happens when we place something other than Christ at the center.  Warriors are interested in winning the next battle.

The decades long fight over issues like abortion, homosexuality and the role of women have taken their toll on we Christians.  We get so focused on the disagreements, we start to forget why we gather.  We forget that this faith we say we are defending is important. It matters.  It should be making a difference in the lives of the faithful.

I think most of American Christianity has been affected by the culture wars and has left us all the poorer.  A professor at a Catholic university shares her experience:

About five years ago, I taught a course called Christian Beliefs at a Catholic university. During each class period, we would discuss a different topic that connected in some way to the ideas presented in the Nicene Creed. On the first day of class that semester, I gave the students index cards and asked that each fill his/her entire card, front and back, with as many responses to the following question as possible: “What do Christians believe?” I taught that course twice and have not since been assigned to teach another like it, but being the pack rat that I am, I kept those cards and flipped through them last week while planning an activity for my current freshmen. I had almost forgotten just how troubling the responses where…

As I perused these index cards last week, I was taken back to the shock I experienced as a second-year teacher reading the responses my class had provided. A few were easily predictable:

  • “Christians believe in Jesus.”
  • “Christians believe in Jesus as the savior.”
  • “Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins.”
  • “Christians believe that baptism washes away sins.”
  • “Christians believe you need to ask Jesus into your heart to go to heaven.”

But those accounted for such a small percentage of student responses. When asked “What do Christians believe?” almost every student in the class included at least two of the following on his/her list:

  • “Christians believe gay people are going to hell.”

  • “Christians believe gay people are sinners.”

  • “Christians believe gay people are pedophiles and shouldn’t be priests.”

  • “Christians believe that if you’re gay, you can’t have sex.”

  • “Christians believe that you have to choose to be straight if you love God.”

  • “Christians believe abortion is a sin.”

  • “Christians believe abortion is murder.”

  • “Christians believe in protecting unborn babies.”

  • “Christians believe you have to be pro-life.”

  • “Christians believe you have to vote pro-life.”

What saddens me is the reality that a group of young Christians in their late teens and early twenties—most of whom had been Christians their entire lives—were in need of such a basic introduction to their own religion. I see this need emerging again and again in my theology courses, but I’m less surprised by it now after having gained a few years of teaching experience.

Lest you think this is only affecting conservative Christians, “Sara” shares that liberal Christians have the same problem:

With some regularity, I encounter students who identify as liberal Christians but know only about Christian principles of social justice and little to nothing about the theology that undergirds those principles.

The sad truth that I have learned over the years, is that churches are more and more resembling our political zeitgeist instead of trying to be followers of Jesus. We place emphasis on who can or can’t get ordained, who can or can’t get married and so forth than we do on learning about the Trinity. We have fights about the minimum wage, but don’t talk about baptism or evangelism. To echo a recent column by David Brooks, most churches in the US are “streamlined,” a place that places more emphasis on utilitarian things over spiritual ones:

Human nature hasn’t changed much. The surveys still reveal generations driven by curiosity, a desire to have a good family, a good community and good values. But people clearly feel besieged. There is the perception that life is harder. Certainly their parents think it is harder. The result is that you get a group hardened for battle, more focused on the hard utilitarian things and less focused on spiritual or philosophic things; feeling emotionally vulnerable, but also filled with résumé assertiveness. The inner world wanes; professional intensity waxes.

The life of the church, the questions we have about God, each other and ourselves are pushed aside for the latest news or controversy. Being that I’ve been around the mainline/progressive church, I have seen churches where political issues get upfront and spiritual questions are pushed aside.

I’m not saying that we should not talk about social issues; but we need to be careful that we don’t sacrifice our interior life in the process.

Some Thoughts on the Frank Schaefer Case

frank schaeferI haven’t followed the news about Methodist minister Frank Schaefer as closely as I should have.  For those who know even less, Frank Schaefer faced a church trail for going against the Book of Discipline by marrying two men (one of who happened to be his son).   What I do know about the affair has led me to ask a few questions and make a few statements:

So much for diversity. Many liberal Christians (myself included) love to talk about how wonderful diversity is and how much we have to strive for all kinds of diversity: gender, racial and ethnic.  The problem is that most liberal Christians tend to think that people of color share the exact same views that they deem important.  Then they meet reality.  The United Methodists are not as much a national body, but a world-wide body, made up of folks from everywhere.  African Methodists are growing in number and they don’t have favorable views of homosexuality.  North American Methodists are not growing and liberal Methodists are a small fraction.  What this all means is that the rules on sexuality aren’t changing any time soon and no amount of protest is going to change that, at least not immediately.  Diversity is a good thing, but the downside is that the person with a different skin tone might also have different views that you might not agree with.

Laws for Me But Not for Thee.  Being a gay man who just recently got (legally) married, I totally side with the good reverend on this matter.  That said, I am bothered by those on “my side” that seem to want the church to just throw the Book of Discipline aside and follow the law of love or something like that.  I don’t come from a creedal background, so on some level, I just think these things are sort of silly.  But the fact is, other denominations are set up around certain documents that govern their way of life.  The Book of Discipline is the way the United Methodists order their life together.  You can’t ignore the Book of Discipline just because you don’t like what it says.  You might think that the ruling on homosexuality is silly, but the fact remains it is there.  This doesn’t mean that my side of the isle must simply submit to what is considered an unjust law. There is a lot of room for civil disobedience, but people have to admit that they are breaking the law and be willing to face the consequences.  You can’t wish away a law you don’t like.

What About the Love? I can understand defrocking someone if they have committed a grave sin, such as child molestation.  I don’t understand the drive to not simply say that Rev. Schaefer violated church rules, but to humiliate him.  What about restoring a fallen brother or sister gently and in love?  Can we disagree without being mean? There really was nothing Christian about the sentence and it was rather cowardly too: they left it up to Schaefer to decide if he wanted to admit wrong or give up his ordination.  Please.  If you’re going to make someone “an example” at least have the guts to be upfront about it.If progressives are at fault for being too loose with the Bible and/or books of order, then conservatives tend to be guilty of using these tools for organizing as ways to exclude and shame.

The Center Cannot Hold. My time with the Presbyterians have had me thinking about two people, a man and a woman in their 80s who served the church in various functions.  The man is liberal and the woman conservative.  What was interesting about both is that while they had their views and held to them, they also had a belief in the institution, the thing that bound them together.  Because they had this thing called the Presbyterian Church (USA) in common, they were able to function with some impartiality, trying to solve problems for the good of the institution.  We no longer have that today, not in Washington or in our churches.  Institutions, especially the church, have been weakened.  In it’s place has risen the tribe, a group of people who share common concerns and views that is suspicious of those who are different from them.  We see this in our politics, but it is also rife in our churches.  Tribalism doesn’t give people the benefit of the doubt, but instead sees the different as a threat.  What has happened with Schaefer is all about tribes than it is about church.  The conservative tribe wants to make an example of the pastor, while the progressive tribe sees this as proof positive that the opposition is exclusive and backwards.  Tolerance takes a backseat when it comes to the tribe, whereas in the institution, tolerance is a bedrock rule, because you can’t have people aim to something higher than base pursuits if they see the person next to them as evil incarnate.  I don’t know how to heal the wounded center in American Christianity.  We are engaged in a zero-sum game with the other side and demand nothing short of total surrender.

The Schaefer case is on one level about gay rights, which I totally support.  But it also holds up how we as Christians in the United States fall so far short of being Christ in the world.