24Jul Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat: Diana Butler Bass

In recent days, conservatives have attacked the Episcopal Church. The reason? The church has just concluded its once every three-year national meeting, and in this gathering the denomination affirmed a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. Conservatives assert that the Episcopal Church’s ever-increasing social and political progressivism has led to a precipitous membership decline and ruined the denomination.

Many of the criticisms were mean-spirited or partisan, continuing a decade-long internal debate about the Episcopal Church’s future. However, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat broadened the discussion, moving beyond inside-baseball ecclesial politics to ask a larger question: “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”

The question is a good one, for the liberal Christian tradition is an important part of American culture, from dazzling literary and intellectual achievements to great social reform movements. Mr. Douthat recognizes these contributions and rightly praises this aspect of liberal Christianity as “an immensely positive force in our national life.”

Despite this history, however, 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 Christians experienced this decline sooner than their conservative kin, thus giving them a longer, more sustained opportunity to explore what faith might mean to twenty-first century people. Introspective liberal churchgoers returned to the core of the Christian vision: Jesus’ command to “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” As a result, a sort of neo-liberal Christianity has quietly taken root across the old Protestant denominations–a form of faith that cares for one’s neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful. This new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus’ injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life. These Christians link spirituality with social justice as a path of peace and biblical faith.

Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is–in some congregations at least–undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were “counter-intuitive” to the usual narrative of American church life.

There is more than a little historical irony in this. A quiet renewal is occurring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a twentieth century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now. Indeed, I think that the better story of contemporary Christianity is that of an awakening of a more open, more inclusive, more spiritually vital faith is roiling and I argue for that in my recent book, Christianity After Religion.
So, Mr. Douthat asks, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” But I wonder: Can Liberal Churches Save Christianity? The twenty-first century has yet to answer that, but I think we may be surprised.

6 Responses

  1. Martin Murray

    ‘A quiet renewal is occurring’. This is in line with this fresh take on the parable of the mustard seed Matthew 13:v31 which says it not about size or high profile.


  2. Steve Edward

    ‘Liberal’ churches lose membership precisely because they make no demands, including active membership of the church in question. This is clearly the reason that a decreasing number of nominal Anglicans have practised their religion for centuries in the UK and for decades in the, more religiously inclined, US. The decline in Catholic numbers is for the opposite reason – the fact that the Church makes calls for sacrifices of its members and challenges their apathy about God and His demands of them. The Pope has predicted a great decline in numbers practicing Catholicism and that should surprise no-one in this age in which ‘personal satisfaction’ is the prime mover in so many lives.

  3. Jim McCrea

    Wrong, Steve. Catholics are leaving the church in droves because they are tired of being treated as children – sheeple. The pew potatoes will stay through anything. But those who have been raised in and taught by the church to be adults in the faith with critical thinking skills will no longer tolerate being dictated to by self-selected, self-protecting, autocratic, clericalist males who, first and foremost, look out for their own priviliges and self-defined roles.

    The church has managed over the years to alienate large segments of the Catholic populations (labor, women, LGBT, divorced and remarried, etc.) To expect people to stand by and continue to be treated as second-class Catholics is nonsense.

    The pope and his loyalists are welcome to the smaller, purer church that they seek. I hope they can afford it!

  4. ger gleeson.

    Well said Jim.

  5. Steve Edward

    Jim, I am not a ‘pew potato’. However I am happy to be considered a Papal ‘loyalist’. Whatever the cost, I wish that those who cannot accept the Magisterium would admit to the truth (that they have ceased to be Catholic)and join a religious organisation that teaches things more palatable to them – there are lots to choose from.

  6. Joe O'Leary

    “I wish that those who cannot accept the Magisterium would admit to the truth (that they have ceased to be Catholic) and join a religious organisation that teaches things more palatable to them”.

    A clear illustration of this policy would be the Lefebvrites, yet Rome is very anxious that they not join another church or form their own church. Not does one ever hear the Pope saying to liberal Catholics who disagree with him on relatively minor issues: “If you don’t like my views, you can become Anglicans.” Of course a constant gripe of the ultra-orthodox is that the Pope does not issue enough anathemas. Indeed, the ultra-orthodox often end up denouncing the Pope as a heretic.

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