A sociologist looks at Progressive vs. Conservative Christianity

In the context of a discussion about a growing movement of conservative Catholicism in England, Peter Berger–a giant in the field of sociology and an ELCA Lutheran–discusses some misconceptions about the appeal of progressive vs. conservative Christianity.  He says that “supernaturalism” increases a church’s appeal (despite Mainline Protestants’ [and I would add some ostensible conservatives’] attempt to appeal to the age by playing that  down by replacing the supernatural gospel with morality, self-help psychology, or politics).  He says that “sexual repression,” though, probably does dampen the appeal of conservative religion.

From Cardinal Newman and the Progressive View of the World | Religion and Other Curiosities:

A basic proposition is that Christian churches have a problem because they have not sufficiently adapted to modernity. Young people in particular are put off by the supernaturalism and sexual repressiveness of the churches. A strategic recommendation follows from this perspective: Churches will be more credible if they become less supernaturalist/more attentive to this world rather than the next, and less repressive in sexual matters.

How far do these progressive views stand up empirically? As to the basic proposition about the churches and modernity, one must obviously ask what one means by modernity. For most people, the word suggests science, and the “problem” for the churches then means that they should not deny established scientific facts. Most people don’t know enough about science to be greatly troubled by this “problem”, but it is probably not a good idea if a church latches on to a denial of facts about which there is a broad scientific consensus (which lay people have somehow absorbed in school and through the media). In America, Evangelical Protestants have this worry more than other groups, as in the still ongoing controversy over evolution.

However, if there is the notion that to be “modern” means that every supernatural dimension is eradicated from belief and piety, all the empirical evidence contradicts this assumption. Most of the world today is feistily supernaturalist in religious faith and practice—in America far beyond the Evangelical subculture. Mainline Protestant churches have gone farthest in such an exercise, which as early as 1963 my friend and colleague Thomas Luckmann, in his book The Invisible Religion, called “secularization from within”. It has taken three avenues: equating the Gospel with a benign morality (the American sociologist Nancy Ammerman called this “Golden Rule Christianity”), or a way of life conducive to mental and physical health (Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, pioneered this approach—she has presumably more sophisticated successors today who say that religion, no matter whether true or not, is good for you), or finally translate the Gospel into a political agenda (this could theoretically be of any ideological hue, but in recent decades it has been generally of the Left—Liberation Theology is prototypical for this).

The history of mainline Protestantism since the mid-twentieth century demonstrates that the excision of the supernatural from the Christian message is radically counter-productive, and in the long run disastrous. I think that the issue of sexual repression is a different matter: The sexual revolution that began in the 1960s and 1970s has had obvious libidinal gains, especially for young people, and the suggestion that one should roll these results back will meet, indeed does meet, with strong resistance. To the extent that conservative churches are seen as favoring such a rollback this is indeed a problem for them. On the other hand, there is a certain attraction to the countercultural opposition to all this liberated sexuality. I have recently read a fascinating study of so-called Virginity Clubs in which young Southern Baptist women vow to remain virgins until marriage and have annual ceremonies (accompanied by, no less, their fathers) to renew the vow. I take it that there is a certain market for this kind of thing; I don’t think that it is a very big market. Of course people on all sides of these issues have strong religious convictions. But if, as is done when the above recommendations are made, one simply thinks in instrumental terms—that is, in terms of institutional success or failure—a plausible strategy would be more supernaturalism and less sexual repression. I will not put this into a position paper for the Southern Baptist Convention.

One may want to be in tune with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Or, alternatively, one may have principled reasons for defying this spirit. In either case, it is a good idea to have a fairly accurate picture of just what this spirit is. The Anglican theologian William Ralph Inge (1860-1954), best known as a Dean of St.Paul’s Cathedral, drew a pithy lesson: “He who would marry the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower”.

About Gene Veith

I am a retired English professor and college administrator. I have written over 20 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.