Among the most interesting memes floating around the blogosphere this summer is the will-liberal-christianity-survive-or-will-it-die-or-is-there-a-great-liberal-awakening-happening? meme. For those keeping score at home, Ross Douthat published a book and then wrote a much ballyhooed column for the NYTimes.
Then Douthat responded.
Now Scot McKnight has weighed in.
For those keeping score at home, Douthat is an avowed conservative and religious (Catholic) traditionalist. Butler Bass is a liberal Anglican who has, until her latest book, been a cheerleader for the sustainability of mainline denominations. McKnight is a left-leaning evangelical who has no truck with nor commitment to any denomination.
Here’s where I think they each score points:
Douthat notes that DBB “stacks the deck” when she argues in book and blog that conservative Christianity is dwindling, too. Douthat says this because DBB is linking the oncoming demise of conservative Christianity to the shrinking numbers in conservative denominations, like the Southern Baptist Convention. Here, I think, Douthat is correct. As has been noted time-and-time-again recently, Americans are deeply suspicious of organized religion, and nothing says organized religion like a denomination. But there are lots of non-affiliated churches, both large and small, that escape the surveys of denominational Christianity. And almost all of these non-affiliated congregations are conservative. Very few — like Solomon’s Porch — are progressive.
DBB responds to Douthat with a question of her own:
The real question is not “Can liberal Christianity be saved?” The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?
She goes on to ask, though not quite propose, that liberal Christianity just might be the savior of Christianity in America. One of the arguments she makes — and one that I’m dubious of — is similar to what Brian McLaren said to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) this summer: You have a head start on death, so you’ve got a head start on new life.
DBB is less sanguine about mainline Christianity than she used to be, which I think is right. I also agree with her that progressive theology has a foothold in certain parts of American Christianity, and it alone affords the possibility of a fourth great awakening.
Scot rightly points out that there are sociological and demographic factors that both DBB and Douthat fail to address: for one thing, liberal Christians tend to be more highly educated, more wealthy, and therefore have a lower birth rate. For another, the major themes of liberal Protestantism have been embraced by American culture as a whole. It reminds me of a trip I make to Scandinavia a few years ago — after being there, I wondered: If the government supplies everything that the (progressive) church offers, what need is there for the church?
So, now I’ll chime in. I think there are reasons that liberal Christianity often sucks, and I think that there are ways to remedy it.
1) Contrary to the Tea Party narrative, the US is the most “Christian” that it’s ever been: persons of Africa descent can sit at lunch counters with everyone else; women can vote; evangelists can stand on street corners and ply passersby with tracts. Liberal Protestantism is largely responsible for the freedoms we enjoy today, and we should trumpet that truth loudly. “If you love America” we should preach, “You should love the Congregationalists and Presbyterians and Anglicans and Unitarians and Quakers who built America.
2) Douthat basically equates “culturally and politically conservative” Christianity with “orthodox and theologically rigorous” Christianity. That’s the form of Christianity that’s growing, he states. The implication is that liberal Christianity isn’t producing vigorous theology. Progressives would argue vociferously, saying that they’ve got more theologians in more seminaries and universities than you can shake a stick at. Maybe they do, but no one gives a shit about the theology that’s coming out of progressive Protestantism.
By “no one,” I don’t mean me. I actually do care about and read progressive theology. But what progressive theologians have FAILED at is producing populist theology. In Scot’s post, he isn’t able to name a single populist progressive scholar on par with NT Wright.
A couple years ago, I was at a gathering of the “Top 40” liberal theologians in America. At one point, in a public session, one of them took me to task and said, “Do you know what the emergent church is lacking? Queer theory!” And I replied, “Do you know what percent of the church in America think that ‘not enough queer theory’ is the problem? 0%. That’s how much. 0%.”
3) Finally, mainline Christianity is committing suicide, plain and simple. By gathering every summer at their national conventions and killing each other with friendly fire, they are rapidly precipitating their own demise. No one gives a shit about the survival of your denomination.
By “no one,” I don’t mean the people who go to those meetings and fight and argue and vote. Those people care. But they can’t see the forest for the trees. No one back at home cares.
So the faster that progressive Protestants can give up on their denominations — like conservative Protestants did 20 years ago — the more likely they can turn things around before it’s too late.