Douthat on Liberal Christianity’s Death

Douthat on Liberal Christianity’s Death July 19, 2012

Earlier this week, Philip touched on Ross Douthat’s provocative — if not particularly original — NYT op-ed on the demise of the Episcopal Church, USA. As a member of the also rapidly dwindling Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the issues involved are both familiar and personal to me as well. (The PCUSA has lost about 20 percent of its members in the past decade).

Douthat’s essay was not simplistic, contrary to the otherwise rather effective rebuttal of Diana Butler Bass. He recognizes that many Christian groups, not just liberal mainline Protestant denominations, are struggling:

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.

Bass correctly warns that theological conservatism is not an antidote for everything that ails American Christianity. Still, Douthat is right that “if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed.” If Southern Baptists and the Missouri Synod Lutherans have experienced a halt to membership growth, the decline of many liberal churches has been catastrophic.

These sorts of debates tend to go around in circles. If one’s church is growing, it is easy to interpret that growth as a reflection of God’s approval and blessing. If one’s church is declining in numbers, it is easy to take a perverse pride in smaller numbers, interpreting them as the necessary cost of fidelity. It is remarkable that human beings can take pride in nearly any circumstance.

A few thoughts:

1. Both churches that are growing and those that are declining should eschew self-righteousness. Growth should, in a sense, be cause for celebration. If one believes in any message, it is wonderful to see others accept it. However, those churches that are growing today might be declining in ten years, and decline is never a cause for celebration.

2. There is no simple answer to the question of adaptation. For an extremely long amount of time (at least since the early-to-mid-nineteenth century), critics have insisted that Christianity needed to adapt to modern culture, ideas, etc. in order to survive. Douthat correctly points out the irony that those churches that most eagerly make such adaptations have declined catastrophically. Note the divergent path of mainline and evangelical campus ministries since the 1960s.

At the same time, I imagine that most churches that have thrived have made a substantial accommodation to modernity, both in terms of culture and theology, for better and worse. In terms of growth, it has long been the case that the most important forms of adaptation are cultural, not theological or intellectual. For instance, those churches that adopted contemporary forms of worship beginning in the 1970s were the ones that experienced the most growth.

3. I used to care a fair amount about denominational politics, and I used to have more time for them. Then I decided I really didn’t want to expend my spiritual energy on such matters. I care a great deal more about my local congregation (well, my past local congregations — we just moved and need to find a new one) than I do about my denomination. I know that I should care more, but at a certain point I just started caring less. It is much more important to me to attend a local church with faithful and thought-provoking preaching, faith-nurturing and fun children’s programs, and music that does not cause deafness.

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  • Scot McKnight

    John, you are right. Both liberals and conservatives have adapted and accommodated themselves to culture, so that liberalism’s decrease cannot be driven simply by accommodation (though I decry some of its accommodations) but I would like to suggest conservatism’s increase might be attributed in part to its accommodation. (Let’s not forget statistics and birth rates in this whole discussion.)
    Here’s my proposal: evangelicalism has accommodated itself to the majority culture, the populist culture, while liberalism has accommodated itself more to the elitist culture. Mark Noll is not alone in criticizing the lack of an intellectual culture among (p0pulist evangelicals) but no one — I can’t think on anyone — who criticizes the lack of an intellectual culture among the liberal churches. May I suggest that both are instances of accommodation, one toward the numbers.

  • Jonathan

    First, I think Scot makes good points (as is typical).

    I read Douthat’s piece as an easy riff from his book _Bad Religion. In the book (which I think is better than the reception it’s received in a lot of commentary), he points out a lot of the weaknesses of conservative Protestants. There’s a whole lot of weakness under the surface for American evangelical churches. Triumphalism is exactly the wrong tone to take. So, kudos on all 3 points.

  • Alex Pirie

    The whole liberal = elitist, conservative evangelicalism = the majority of us is bogus, at least theologically. The steady decline in one of the most socially elitist of the Protestant denominations has more to do with changing demographics than anything political or theological. If one were to look for evidence of the effects of social change on religious observance, you need look no further than Roman Catholicism which has zealously maintained its essential conservatism and has experienced a similar precipitous decline. I live in a city of 80K+ that 30 years ago had 7 RC parishes and 7 RC k-8’s and 2 RC high schools. We are now down to 3 parishes and 1 k-8 and 1 high school and, judging from the age of those attending Mass, will soon be down even more. Lots of RC identified people still live here, but if “lapsed” were a check off, that’s what most would say. One beleaguered pastor said to me, “they (gesturing in the general direction of the archdiocesan offices) just don’t get it!”

  • For Godsake, where is RELIGION in all this: where is metaphysics, religious experience, the supernatural? Every discussion I read about the demise of liberal Christianity seems focused on the conflict between social conservatives and progressives, between people who espouse different codes of sexual conduct, different social ideals and “values.” That’s not RELIGION: religion is concerned with metaphysics and the supernatural.

    It seems to me that liberals, like myself, who are interested in RELIGION, in mysticism, metaphysics and the supernatural, are squeezed out. “Liberal” churches, increasingly dismiss the supernatural and are positively hostile to religious experience—an “escapist” distraction, as they see it, from the business of promoting social justice and do-good work.

    I pay my dues. I contribute to Oxfam and other worthy causes, and if I wanted to engage in volunteer work I could find a lot of secular enterprises in which to engage. I don’t need, or want the Church for this. I want, and need the Church for RELIGION, and that is where the Episcopal Church has dropped the ball. If it doesn’t provide religion I don’t see any reason to bother with it. Why should anyone bother with church if not for RELIGION?

  • Steve Billingsley

    I spent a decade in ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church, don’t overestimate the state of intellectual culture in liberal churches – there may be the trappings of traditional liturgy preserved, but it’s mixed in with Oprah-style spirituality that “vapid” might be too kind of a word to describe.

  • Really the question is: “What is Religion For?” and the current disagreement between conservative evangelicals and liberals simply begs the question in assuming that the purpose of religion is to provide an account of how we should behave, what the Good Live is, and what it is that makes a good society.

    Religious liberals and conservatives disagree about the answers but don’t seem willing to ask the more fundamental question: is this what religion is for? Is religion a package of rules, or guidelines, for belief and behavior? And if It is, why should we bother with it? We’re smart, educated 21st century people and can figure this out for ourselves. We have no interest in either the conservative or the liberal answers because we are not looking for answers.

    If religion is to survive it, clergy have to stop pushing their bs on us, their idea of wisdom, and GIVE US WHAT WE WANT—not what they think we need or should want. Why should we take any notice of their boather? Their job is to act as trained monkeys doing the magic act. That’s what we’re paying for, and if they don’t give us the goods we’ll walk out and they can pay for their own bananas.

  • Alex Burgess

    Great post, John. I haven’t read Douthat’s Bad Religion yet, but it’s on my short list. He’s brilliant. Hey, I didn’t realize you’d moved. Congratulations on your new position!

    Btw, if you’re looking for a church in Northern VA, you must at least pay a visit to our old friend from the summer of 1993:!

  • B.B.G

    I grew up in the Anglican/Episc tradition and I found out that liberalism has nothing in common with christian orthodoxy.Jesus has been discard for a jesus with a small j. The bible has been chucked out the door and replaced with a gospel of unbelief.The pews are getting empty because they find its its a waste of time to go to church and believe in nothing.The conservatives have a different set of problems.