Churches Gone Progressive

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:

Religious orders: straightforward secularization.
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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.allanbevere.com Allan R. Bevere

    “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.”

    Bingo! Spot on, Scot!

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Funny, my comment was going to be, “sounds like someone is a stick in the mud” and then I read your last sentence “Douthat’s chp on Accommodation is best understand as a complaint against theological drift.”

    But the odd thing to me about this, is that he has all of that status quo thinking, then defends it in church attendance which is inherently accommodating by definition.

  • Jason Lee

    “the problem is birth control and birth rates among mainliners and Catholics.”
    ->Yes, fertility is a big part of it, but the research literature is not by any means settled on that being the only big factor. Recent research shows that behavioral strictness and theology also play a major role. Eg, see “Testing the Strictness Thesis and Competing Theories of Congregational Growth” at http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~dvolson/Papers/ThomasOlson2010.pdf

    “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!”
    ->That’s what Smith said in his book, SOULS IN TRANSITION.

  • Robin

    “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.”

    What I am hearing when I read that is that Mainstream American culture is the natural by-product of progressive mainline Christianity…that all progressive Christianity has to offer the modern world is a carbon copy of itself.

    Was that your intention, 21st century America is the end result of progressive Christianity. How do actual progressive Christians feel about that sentiment?

  • Diane

    DRT,

    If I understand what you’re saying, I would agree that looking at attendance figures as a measure of church health is itself accommodationist.

  • Doug Peters

    “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.”
    You make it sound as if {the [ideals of the] mainline church being indistinguishable from the ideals of the culture} is grounds for the claim that {a departure from classical Christian theology is not a major factor in the decline of those denominations}. How is that again?

  • Scott Gay

    Loyalty, legitimate authority, and sanctity are the conservative ideals. The results of neglecting them are betrayal(of family and nation), subversion(of tradition), and degradation(of actions). People’s care and fairness make tremendous gains. But without incorporating the conservative ideals they come with unintended consequences. Talking about theological drift may make sense on this blog, but to most it must be spelled out in terms of the values that they uphold.

  • JohnM

    If I identified as a progressive Protestant I’d be demanding you take that back! But then on second thought, were I a progressive I shouldn’t have a beef with the status quo anyway. :)

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Diane, that is exactly what I am saying.

    I also find the seeming equivalence of progressive=accommodationist to be disturbing. One can be progressive without being accomodationist, and I certainly view myself as a progressive, and certainly not an accomodationist.

    Per the all knowing Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_Christianity

    Progressive Christianity is the name given to a movement within contemporary Christianity characterized by willingness to question tradition, acceptance of human diversity with a strong emphasis on social justice or care for the poor and the oppressed (often identified as minority groups) and environmental stewardship of the Earth. Progressive Christians have a deep belief in the centrality of the instruction to “love one another” (John 15:17) within the teaching of Jesus Christ.[non-primary source needed] This leads to a focus on compassion, promoting justice and mercy, tolerance, and working towards solving the societal problems of poverty, discrimination, and environmental issues.

    Accommodating implies a motivation to change for the sake of popularity, while progressives are not doing things because they are popular, though they may be. But just because something is popular does not make it wrong either.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    My last paragraph would be more clear as follows:

    Accommodating implies a motivation to change for the sake of popularity, while progressives are not doing things because they are popular, though the things they do may be popular. Just because something is popular does not make it wrong, or accommodating.

  • http://www.theologoholic.wordpress.com Joseph Morgan-Smith

    I agree with your assessment, Scot, that the mainline has become “so relevant there is precious little difference between those church traditions and culture!” But I agree also with Douthat’s thesis that accommodation has contributed to our (I’m a mainliner!) decline. What do you think of the overarching thesis that makes sense of both arguments: that the mainline, because of its accommodationist strategies, has entered into a new competitive market? The mainline used to have to compete only with Catholics and Evangelicals, but if you can do the same thing at the Sierra Club that you can do in church, why bother joining both? Just as relevant as everybody else is irrelevant.

  • http://questorpastor.wordpress.com/ Dennis Sanders

    Point of clarification here. I haven’t read Douthat’s book yet (though I intend to soon), but I don’t think the two of you disagree as much as you might think. From what I’ve heard from interviews with him, I don’t think he’s saying that mainline decline was because of liberal politics, but because at some point there was no difference between going to church and working for your local Democratic Party. That to me is a way of saying what you just said about mainline decline and that is we ( and I am a pastor in the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ) have become indistinguishable from the wider culture. Douthat might be placing his emphasis on politics, but it seems that he is really coming from a similar place; that is, that mainline churches stopped being salt in the world and and when the church and the world are the same, there’s little need to for church.

    Dennis

  • http://www.kingdomroundtable.blogspot.com Dru Dodson

    And across the aisle, what happens when evangelicals parrot the Tea Party, and church attendance is motivated by preserving “conservative American values”, and conversations in the church lobby sound like the conversations during the mixer at the local Republican Party get together?

  • Tracy

    At the time of the first Gulf War I remember someone noting that every single mainline Protestant denomination opposed it, but that 92 percent of the American people supported it. That number included vast majorities in the pews of the mainline church. Just not their hierarchies.

    Douthat way overstates his case. I don’t believe people fleed the mailine because they wandered in to find all that liberalism. At a few churches, sure, but travel through the countryside, check out rural and suburban congregations. They are full of conventional, moderate, middle class people.

  • Sue

    If the mainline church was so successful at infusing its ideals into mainstream culture, so much so that the mainline church became “too relevant,” wouldn’t then the same thing happen if the Evangelical church were successful at infusing its values into mainstream culture?

    By this logic, all of the organizations lobbying for the right to life, the sanctity of marriage, and other traditional values should fold up and go home, for their success inevitably will lead to the demise of their churches.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    1. If the church is in decline because of birth-rates, whatever happened to evangelism? Actually, the mainline churches were just the beginning of church decline that seems to be across the whole board or spectrum of Christianity today. Conservative churches could sit back and speak about the decline of liberal churches and the non-denominational/independent churches could claim more mega churches and talk about the decline of denominational churches. It seems like this has caught up with everyone from my perspective. Many churches may not be losing members as much as they are losing attenders (people don’t show up at church as much as they used to which puts the whole of church attendance into a downward spiral).

    2. I noticed in a recent study that the gift of evangelism has gone from its low 5 percent to now 1 percent. Is there less people God is giving this gift to or does this say something else about evangelism in our churches today?

    3. The cult of relevance seems to be a problem in both conservative and progressive churches. I don’t see how one group demeaning another helps. There are glaring logs in each groups eyes!

    4. Maybe there is more a shift from people going from conservative Christianity to liberal Christianity on this list but I have always sensed a trend of people belittling fundamentalism as if the very term is all bad whereas liberal or progressive is good or needs defending while I don’t really see people coming to the defense of fundamentalism. Just something I have noticed for the brief time I have been on Scot’s excellent blog.

  • Jason Lee

    Tracy (#14) makes some interesting points that also came to my mind, to which I’d be interested in hearing responses.

    For one thing, it’s probably the case that CERTAIN aspects of mainline protestantism have become the cultural air we breathe. But other aspects are minority orientations, partisan orientations …the main point is that they are not at all mainstream American culture.

    Tracy also brings up the issue that a lot of mainline prot churches aren’t really all that liberal. Many are moderate or even sort of conservative.

  • CGC

    Hi Tracy, Jason, and all,
    Certainly one can find all kinds of people, especially moderate or conservative people in mainline churches. Maybe the problem is the great exodus for some and decline in others is hierarchies out of touch with their people and sending more liberal leaders to their churches is more the problem than the idea that all people in mainline churches are somehow liberal (obviously some, and most in some cases are not).

    In regards to accomodation, I want to know what churches today have not accomodated themselves to the culture? (outside of some monestaries and Almish communities).

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    Has the Catholic Church really gone “progressive”?

    It seems to me that it is swinging more conservative in the 21st century, in the wake of Pope John Paul and now Pope Benedict. And American Catholics seem to be even more to the right of this conservative shift. A departure from Catholic Worker heyday and Vatican II.

  • http://www.allanbevere.com Allan R. Bevere

    Dennis #12 writes,

    “…at some point there was no difference between going to church and working for your local Democratic Party.”

    From one mainliner to another… well said!

  • Tom F.

    Does progressive politics lead to church attendance decline?- Maybe. If the church is identical to surrounding culture, it becomes hard to see why its crucial to go. But of course, this just suggests that the church shouldn’t be identical to current culture. You could (easily) make the argument that the church should be very different from the surrounding society, in both radically “progressive” and radically “conservative” ways, at least as viewed by the culture. So its not progressivism per se, that is the issue, its the church becoming redundant when it is identical to certain progressive strains. (The church become redundant in a different way when it is merely equivalent to upholding the status quo or seeking to retrench against the societal change.)

    The theological drift question is a valid one, and what has been outlined here is worrysome for mainline denominations. I guess I would identify as a “progressive”, but I wouldn’t subscribe to any of the theologies Scott listed here. I confess I don’t understand some the embarassment about being basically orthodox that many of these authors mentioned here do. What I don’t understand, and what seems like it is a bit unfair, is the implication that progressive politics means that you will end up jumping the track theologically.

  • http://RankinFile(steverankin.wordpress.com) Stephen Rankin

    I’m not sure I see the logical fallacy, Scot. Your comment about Douthat’s mapping (if I’m following) implies that he’s indulging in category mistakes, perhaps, and so he attributes cause to the wrong sources. But I may not be following you.

    Regarding accommodation: I am a mainline Protestant, always have been, though I have hung out with evangelicals all my adult life (and consider myself one in the Wesleyan vein). I went to a mainline seminary. Liberal theology by definition is accommodationist. And, in light of the commenter’s wiki definition of “progressive” above, the accommodationist tendency is buried within the definition. I thus think Douthat’s basic thesis is sound.

  • Patrick

    This thesis reminds me years ago reading Lewis Grizzard’s comments right before he died about the Church. He lamented how it had been co-opted into a big, compromised nothing and missed the real Church atmosphere he was raised in.

  • http://www.crosspointechurch.tv Pastor Yorba Linda

    No church should end up being so progressive that it becomes difficult to differentiate its actions from political motives.

  • Calvin Chen

    A bit of a correction that I believe your former colleague Soong-Chan Rah would make, as well.

    “the problem is birth control and birth rates among mainliners and Catholics.” I think the problem is birth control and birth rates among *white* mainliners and Catholics ;-)


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