‘Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?’ or How Rudolph Bultmann is killing the city of Detroit

So Ross Douthat thinks the Episcopalians are doomed and that “liberal” Christianity in general is doomed.

If you want to use up one of your few monthly no-paywall tokens at The New York Times, you can read it here: “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?

That headline, like Douthat’s theme, is familiar territory for anyone who’s read anything about mainline Protestantism over the past 40 or so years, and Douthat isn’t breaking any new ground here. (He even starts out with the standard Spong-as-bogeyman maneuver.)

Diana Butler Bass offers a good summary of Douthat’s basic argument. Actually, Bass offers a good summary of Dean Kelley’s argument from 40 years ago, when Kelley was arguing the same thing as Douthat, except in 1972, when it was still possible to argue this with a spark of originality:

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.

Yes, the Episcopal Church and its cousins in mainline Protestantism ruined themselves in the 1960s by becoming “overly accommodated to the culture” and loosening their “ties to tradition.”

The remarkable thing about Kelley’s argument is that he didn’t simply mean those phrases as elaborate euphemisms for “welcomed black people” and “stopped hating on women.”

I mean, that is what those murky, muddled phrases have to mean, if we’re talking about American mainline Protestant churches in the 1960s. Those were the big changes that began at that time: the civil rights movement and the embrace of women’s equality. But those changes aren’t the focus of Kelley’s argument.

From Kelley to Douthat, the conservative critique has been that mainline Protestantism is in decline due to “liberal theology” and to liberal liberality and to being a bunch of liberal-ish McLiberalingtons.

But this is anachronistic. The “liberal theology” these critics blame as the cause of this decline was around for many decades before the decline began. If you want to argue that mainline Protestant decline began in the 1960s, then you have to trace it to a cause that also began in the 1960s — you have to look at what changed in the 1960s. And what changed was that white mainline Protestant churches began to embrace the civil rights struggle begun earlier in the black church, and that mainline Protestantism began questioning the presumed secondary status of women.

Those like Douthat who are determined to see membership declines as evidence of apostasy tend to ignore another huge change in American society, one that is also closely related to the civil rights movement: America has become far more suburban.

In 1950, cities were the centers of population, political power and resources, and the biggest and most influential churches were located there. Over the following half-century, population, political power and resources have left those cities behind, moving out to the suburbs. One consequence of that flight to the ‘burbs is that the churches based in those cities, like the cities themselves, have become smaller and less influential.

That must be because of liberal theology. Just like liberal theology is the likeliest explanation for the declining population in places like Philadelphia and Detroit.

In 1950, Detroit had a population of 1.8 million. Today it’s less than half of that — 714,000. Obviously, this is due to liberal theology. Rudolph Bultmann and John Shelby Spong are slowly killing Detroit.

Diana Butler Bass skewers Douthat et. al. for using differing weights and measures:

Douthat points out that the Episcopal Church has declined 23 percent 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.

So when “liberal” churches decline, it’s due to their sinful liberal theology. When conservative churches decline, it’s due to a sinful culture turning its back on the truth. Heads I win, tails you lose.

It’s clear from that double standard that if the Episcopal Church were to grow 23 percent in the next decade, we would then see a Ross Douthat column condemning this growth as further evidence that Episcopalians are “overly accommodated” to a sinful culture.

  • Scott

    Good exchange.  I particularly like the messy description.  I left a more rigid denomination half a century ago and eventually became an Episcopalian and even more eventually, a priest.  I love the messiness of engagement and, yes, struggle with Scripture, theology, and the world.  I love the messiness of seeking truth and hungering for the holy — and falling sort over and over again, but the effort is the thing.  Of course, I don’t always agree with GC –it is a human institution made up of fallible humans like me.  But I must say the master;ly the Presiding redirected the budget toward mission away from structure is appealing and I look forward to the messiness of seeing how it plays out.


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