Ross Douthat has a case to make — against what happened to the churches in America in the 60s and 70s. He thinks they went progressive — his term is “accommodationist” — and he doesn’t like it, and after I sketch his complaint and evidence in his book Bad Religion, I will push back a bit against his argument.
Does progressive politics lead to church attendance decline? Have mainline and Catholic churches become the voice of progressivism? Or is progressivism the result of mainline and Catholic impact on culture?
First, his beef is with the mainline churches. The big point is that the churches thought they were becoming increasingly detached, irrelevant, and out of step with modernity — so they adapted and accommodated themselves to culture. The mainline churches developed a “secularized” faith. He thinks the surge was essentially a break from NeoOrthodoxy of Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr and a revival of the social gospel.
Church work became politics — at the national and social levels. A major voice was William Hamilton; then there was Teilhard (though a Catholic), but the distinguished voice of the accommodationist, progressive trend was Harvey Cox in his famous The Secular City. Themes of shift: sexual revolution, moral and theological relativism. The Bible, he says, is for “imaginative urbanity and mature secularity” (88). I remember the days of Harvey Cox’s book, and Douthat’s perception is what I remember.
Another voice: James Pike — three wives, one progressive shift after another, denial of classic Christian doctrines (virgin birth, divinity of Christ, Trinity, morals etc). Then to Spong and he finds the major theme to have become inclusiveness: women (ordination), racial minorities and immigrants, cohabitation, divorce, homosexuals … the seeker, the doubter, the lukewarm believer and the agnostic. Even non-Christians. It was thought that Jesus was an inclusive person; so the mainliners wanted to follow in Jesus’ wake.
Second, his beef is with the Roman Catholic church in America, and Douthat is Catholic. Rahner and Vatican II … Teilhard de Chardin … Gaudium et Spes … and the Catholics, like the mainliners, became increasingly political and, at the same time, developed a more democratic theory of church authority. He finds problems in:
Universities: academic freedom (the “Land O’Lakes” statement) … and as a non-Catholic I have never been able to understand how the Dean at Notre Dame could have been an evangelical (Nathan Hatch).
Seminaries: sexual laxity and he sees a development of “gay subcultures” (97).
Liturgy: not just Latin but more free form, more rejection of traditional forms and themes and theology. Liturgy had to be hip and political.
Catechism: adapted and accommodated. He sees an emphasis on self-actualization.
The thing that is clear: the Catholic church has become increasingly more progressive.
His contention: the more progressive (or accommodationist) the more decline in attendance/numbers. The Catholics blamed the hidebound hierarchies, but Douthat — and he has a point here — contends the progressives were in control and their strategies of accommodationism didn’t work. Instead of watching how the mainline was decreasing the Catholics kept pushing for accommodations.
There is a market for accommodationist Christianity — both mainline and Catholic. It just isn’t a large market.
Douthat makes a logical fallacy: he maps accommodationism/progressivism in theology, liturgy, politics and morals. He contends the accommodationism explains the decrease in numbers. The evidence, however, if he would be examine the studies, suggests that theology or cultural postures aren’t the problem: the problem is birth control and birth rates among mainliners and Catholics. See Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, The Truth about Conservative Christians. (See here, a series I did back in March and April of 2007.)
In fact, to the degree the mainline and Catholic churches accommodated themselves to Western liberalism and progressivism and to the political process, in fact, to the degree they convinced the public to become more and more progressive, those church traditions have actually “won” the game. They are not less relevant; they are so relevant there is precious little difference between those church traditions and culture!
So, as I see it: Yes, there is clearly a significant progressive shift in both mainline and Catholic Christianity, though the shifts are different. Yes, this shift increasingly moved church work into political action and social justice and the social gospel. Yes, there are clear signs of departure from classic Christian theology. But, No, I’m not convinced this is a major factor in the decline in numbers and, in fact, I’m more convinced that the mainline church especially is indistinguishable from the ideals of American, Western liberal culture.
In other words, Douthat’s chp on Accommodation is best understand as a complaint against theological drift.