The Rise of Liberal Religion

The Rise of Liberal Religion March 22, 2013

I’ve recently cracked open Matthew Hedstrom’s recently published The Rise of Liberal Religion. Hedstrom’s book is providing me with an opportunity to reconfigure my thinking and teaching on the respective trajectories of twentieth-century (and beyond) Protestant liberalism and evangelicalism.

In recent decades pundits and some scholars have made much of the post-WWII evangelical resurgence, coupled with a precipitous post-1965 mainline decline. For evangelicals, the post-WWII religious boom kept going for the rest of the century, whereas in terms of membership, the mainline segment of that boom rather quickly went bust. As long as the Republicans were winning presidential elections with the robust support of evangelical voters, it seemed that evangelicals had swept the field of Protestant religion in the United States. In my own scholarship, I’ve at least partly supported this paradigm. When I examined Campus Crusade for Christ in the context of other Protestant campus ministries, it seemed fairly obvious that evangelicals had outperformed their mainline counterparts. I’ve also taught the story of post-WWII American religion roughly along such lines.

After 2008, I thought obituaries of the Religious Right were very, very premature. Come on, Republican Party. If you want to win an election, you may as well try to ride that horse one more time. I know Romney performed better than McCain among evangelicals, but I still think it’s much easier for the Republican Party to win a presidential election with a candidate with fervent evangelical support (this requires the rather delicate trick of not scaring the daylights out of everyone else in the country). But in the long run, I tend to agree with Albert Mohler that evangelicals had better get ready for a sojourn in the political wilderness. I remember (but could not find to link) a splendid editorial by the Christian Century’s David Heim (some uncertainty about the author) from quite a few years ago (presumably before the 2008 election) wryly encouraging evangelicals to enjoy their moment in the political and cultural limelight because it would prove fleeting. In a short time, they’d be with their erstwhile liberal Protestant bedfellows in the scrapheap of political history. Very prescient. [Blogging has its disadvantages, but it does allow the most tenuously sourced allusions].

Enter Hedstrom. He argues (I’ve yet to get beyond the introduction and conclusion, so this is just a first impression of the basic argument rather than a careful analysis, and I’m using his introduction as a launching pad for more general reflections about the trajectory of American religion and culture) that observers of American religion have been too obsessed with institutional strength at the cost of ignoring culture, and he examines the role of middlebrow reading in shaping the religious and cultural sensibilities of twentieth-century Americans. Hedstrom’s primary focus is print culture, a subject that especially in its middlebrow forms has suffered from scholarly neglect.

Liberal Protestants may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle. A trenchant quote from the sociologist Christian Smith: “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.” One could turn to a host of other scholars to buttress Hedstrom’s contentions: David Hollinger and Leigh Schmidt immediately come to mind. Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas.

Institutional strength counts for a great deal. In surveys of American religion, evangelicalism is holding up much better than the mainline. Cultural influence accompanied by institutional decline sounds like a a rather pyrrhic victory. Nevertheless, the reappraisal of liberal Protestantism by Hedstrom, Hollinger, and others seems persuasive to me. A few decades of political influence accompanied by a growing cultural irrelevance (not there yet) is also not exactly a triumphant narrative. While I agree that the ideals of liberal Protestantism at the moment seem to have more cultural cachet than those of evangelicals, I have some reservations. For starters, it probably depends on where one lives. In northern Virginia, definitely. In southern Alabama, I wouldn’t be so sure. Finally, while broader trends in American culture might seem closer to the ideals of liberal Protestants than their evangelical counterparts, I think both groups simply now find themselves on the margins of an American culture that seems out of synch with either brand of Protestant Christianity.

Is it time to throw out my old lecture notes and begin again, with considerable more nuance and attention to broader cultural change?  Any thoughts?


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  • Walter Johnson

    I think this assessment basically is accurate. My one caveat is with the statement “Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas.” Doubtless, there is an embracing of religious pluralism and universal mystical religious experiences, but I do not “credit” this to liberal protestantism, but to other cultural factors. I’m not convinced that liberal Protestants, with their organizational decline, are exerting that much influence.

  • Mark Sadler

    Professor Turner, I found your blog because of my friend Tom Kidd (at Baylor). While I would not presume to direct your course material (especially since I am not familiar with your approach) I will share an observation I have concerning the religious shift in North America: It seems to me that the movement from conservative Christianity to the Liberal expression mirrors the political demand for tolerance; which, in turn, seems to be brought about by the 20th Century rediscovery of moral & metaphysical relativism. Just my 2 cents.
    Respectfully, Mark Sadler

  • John

    I think you may want to make some changes in your lecture notes. Working as I do at a major secular research university, I have been intrigued to see how flatfooted many, maybe most, evangelicals are when it comes to their Christian engagement with their academic disciplines and the culture in general. Many, if not most, evangelicals here, and especially in the culture generally, are nervous, to put it mildly on issues of science, especially on the age of the cosmos, the evolution of the cosmos and then of biological organisms.

    In short, for a short time the enthusiasm of the Jesus movement and activist evangelicalism brought into the fold many people. Now, however, the anti-intellecutalism that has plagued fundamentalism has been found to be baggage evangelicalism carries as well. Now the much greater educational and cultural sophistication of mainline Christianity is seen as an immense strength, though all these denominations have yet to rekindle lively interest in the Christian message.

  • Elesha Coffman

    I happen to have just read the introduction to Brooks Holifield’s _God’s Ambassadors_, which I’m teaching this semester, and he contends that clergy influence has always been tenuous in the larger culture but strongest in individual congregations. On that front, liberals are clearly facing difficulties that evangelicals are not. Does this matter for the construction of an overall narrative (or the composition of lecture notes)? If you accept Holifield’s argument, it was a pyrrhic victory indeed for liberal Protestants to “win” the ultimately unwinnable sphere of culture while losing the only sphere (congregations) that was ever really in play. Suggesting otherwise is conceding the point that culture matters more than churches do.

  • johnturner

    Thanks. I need to read God’s Ambassadors. Congratulations, meanwhile, on your forthcoming book about the Christian Century. I’m looking forward to it.

  • johnturner

    Thanks — very helpful.

  • johnturner

    Thanks, Mark. Good thoughts.

  • Not all conservative churches have the shaping of culture as their primary goal, or even a subsidiary one. Declaring winners and losers in a battle in which some theologically and socially conservative Christians do not even see themselves as participants makes the overall picture a bit more complex. Recognizing that there have also been (and continue to be) Christians who see themselves as theologically conservative but socially liberal also complicates any attempts at assessment.

    Generalizing about the spiritual landscape of Christianity in America is only slightly less challenging than generalizing about all the weather around the globe at any given moment. The variables one would need to track in order to really understand the interaction between various shades and stripes of Christians who currently inhabit our nation and the current political weather in the U.S. would make any meteorologist’s head spin. It’s fun to try to boil down the chaos into discrete and presumably trackable demographic groups (like “conservative” and “mainline”); I just think that the picture such a procedure produces inevitably fails to account for important data and makes hypothesizing a shot in the dark.

  • johnny davis

    Its Secularism that liberal Protestant thought that has won the short term victory in America.
    However, how they will play it in the end remains to be seen.
    In book three of Game of Thrones the Lannisters have triumphed over the Starks.
    But you can be prepared than at the end of book seven the Starks shall triumph over all!

  • Inigo de Ona

    So you win a war but no longer exist as a viable organization. You call that a victory? Pyrrhic at the very best, a defeat if evaluated properly. So what if people in society in general find you and your beliefs inoffensive, which seems to be the level of interest by the coastal cultures of this country in mainline Christianity. If they do not believe, show up in church for worship, and give of themselves to the church but merely tolerate it because your beliefs are so watered down they offend absolutely no one, what do you really have? If the Christians of late antiquity had molded themselves to the decadent Greco-Roman of that era, Christianity would never have advanced beyond a small cult. Mithra, the Gnostics or Manicheans or perhaps the Zoroastrians would have prevailed.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Your argument is that liberals have won the political culture but culture is not all political.
    Sociologist of religion Peter Berger came up with an intriguing concept of what he called a cognitive majority. In academia, TV media and movies, in government agencies, and public schools, liberal culture dominates. That is partly because liberalism has an affinity for modernity. But a cognitive or symbolic majority is not a numerical majority. The conservative mega-churches are still strong despite some high profile mega-churches folding such as Robert Schuller’s in Orange County, California.

    Liberalism ends up vacuous even to many liberals. Read headlines where I found this article today. Liberal economist Megan McArdle is asking why economists promote education and not marriage for social mobility? And recently, sociologist Peter Berger pointed out that the families who lost young children in the Newtown mass murders were comforted mainly by conventional conservative religion not by the oxymoronic atheistic-religionists who live in an academic ghetto.
    Liberalism dominates liberal culture. As soon as it has to go out to what sociologists call Middletown — or Main Street — they no longer are listened to. There still is a large segment of people in the cultural middle who are too busy with jobs, little league, soccer, home schooling, taking care of elderly parents, etc. to even tune in to mainstream liberal media or their ghetto-ized but elite churches.
    It is the Pentecostal form of Christianity that is winning over the culture in most of the world, especially South America and Africa. Now missionaries from those areas of the world are coming here to proselytize. In the U.S. liberal politics dominates media and academia and politics but that is not where most people live their daily lives. And the working class and underclass may embrace liberal politics but attend conservative churches and oppose gay marriage. Which all goes to say, we live in a pluralistic society where there are many forms of culture.

  • Bill

    Interesting, but I would question the concept of a “liberal Protestant victory.” The latest trend in religiousity is of course the “rise of the nones.” (It is not yet clear whether this is a blip, or the mark of a major cultural shift.) It seems hard to distinguish between a “liberal Protestant victory” and plain old irreligiosity. (A sad commentary on liberal Protestantism, perhaps.) But if people are simply walking away from Christianity altogether, I’m not sure how one can score that a victory for any Christian denominations.

  • Jim D

    Don’t the moral decisions of liberal Protestant Denominations seem to follow the culture rather than lead it? I am thinking specifically, decisions make by ELCA Lutherans and various Methodist Churches about abortion, along with the place of homosexuals in their Churches and in their Clergy.

    The decisions made by those Denominations strike me as defensive ones made in order to slow the loss of membership rather than proactive ones. The principal of charity requires me to say that moral conviction factors into their decisions, but I doubt that it is the primary factor. Is there any proof that I’m wrong?

  • Evangelicalism grew because, first, Billy Graham put a positive face on it after the Skopes disaster, and second, because those advocates of traditional values were shaken by the 1960’s and went to evangelicalism for religious support. Mainline denominations declined because of the “birth dearth” which accompanies affluence. Baptists and evangelicals will be seeing this as well in the coming years. One thing that so-o-o-0 doesn’t matter? Organizational or institutional strength.

  • Tim

    I would tend to agree with you if the mainline protestants set out to support gay marriage, hedonism, and a lesser emphasis on Jesus Christ. The mainline denominations would never have supported these ends, even in 1960. To count a movement successful, we must first look at their original goals. I do not believe the three items listed above were where their leaders wanted to go. This being true, how can we count the present day culture as a mainline success?

  • Gary Selchert

    It is difficult for me to think of mainline protestant churches as leading or persuading my (babyboom) generation. Mainline protestant Christianity however seemed very much persuaded and led by its own (younger) clergy who were far more comfortable with the relaxed theological and sexual inclinations of the surrounding culture than with the traditional strictures of Evangelical Christianity.

  • Alexandria

    I believe the change in our culture has more to do with the rise of secular humanism in part because of the allowance of such feelings by the flexibility and self-doubt of Liberal Protestants. Like the Catholic Church, Evangelical Protestants stand firm on a set of beliefs that they in general can all agree on because they take the Bible literally and consider the precepts in it non-negotionable. This allows them some cohesion and a strict platform that does not shift with the ties.

    “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

  • Dennis N Arashiro

    The fundamentalist fear is that once one questions the literal truth of even one statement in the Bible, it all comes tumbling down like a house of cards–and they’re right! Liberal Protestantism ends up looking ridiculous in defending the truth of any Christian doctrine when it accepts some things as literal and others as metaphorical, picking and choosing whimsically. That’s why I embrace Unitarian Universalism, which is the ultimate destination of liberal thought, where each individual is his or her own minister and church.

  • You posit something really interesting, John. Here are a couple questions for you that might put this whole “rise” you observe in a different perspective (I put “rise” in quotes not because I disagree (or agree) with it, but because it seems still up for question among some people):

    How would you describe the state of Christianity in Protestant European areas which haven’t seen a strong Evangelical movement? Say, Scandinavia (Lutheran), Scotland (Calvinist), or the northeast Netherlands (mix Evangelical/Lutheran). In all these places, there’s been a liberalization of the national church — more so in Scandinavia, less so in Scotland — and a marked decline in church attendance. Indeed, Sweden is sometimes described as “post-Christian”. So I’m wondering this: let’s say there is a general cultural shift in functioning industrialized democracies toward a political demand for tolerance (which others might associate with moral relativism). The mainline Christian church there has either caused or followed these trends — it seems up for debate. But in either case, the outcome seems to be fewer and fewer people attending church or claiming a belief in Christianity (23% of Swedes claim belief in God). Does that mean that there is some kind of natural movement, in modern Western democracies, from strong Christian practice, through to liberal Christianity, and ultimately to a small percentage of people claiming Christian adherence or even theism? Or do you expect some kind of Christian revival in these European examples? And if so, why?

    (Thinking about the liberalization of Protestantism in Europe, I’m reminded of the Bishop of the European branch of the US Episcopal Church, who has written that “God Does Not Exist”, but also explained “Why I Am Not An Atheist”. At the Huffington Post he has explained what precisely he does believe, with quite a few twists and turns of wordplay, which I am probably too slow to follow.

  • johnturner

    Great thoughts, Erik. I think there is very little reason to anticipate any kind of Chrsitian revival in Europe. But it’s been 15 years since I’ve spent anytime there, so my guess is worth pretty little.

  • David Bliss

    I began life in the more mainstream protestant church of my parents, then moved to evangelicalism, and finally converted to Roman Catholicism. The main point of this article seems to imply that liberal protestantism has driven the culture. I could not disagree more. In my opinion, the liberal protestant churches merely followed the culture. I totally agree with Rod Dreher’s thesis that the individualistic self-expressionism characteristic of late modern society is fundamentally incompatible and irreconcilable with Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and certain branches of protestant christianity (like evangelicalism). I believe that is because the (narcissistic) individualistic self-expressionism characteristic of late modern society is fundamentally incompatible and irreconcilable with Jesus Christ Himself. For me, better to endure the wilderness or even the desert than betray Jesus Christ.

  • Emma Kaeding

    As liberal Protestant groups become more and more identical to those for whom religious belief has no influence on their lives, one may see the two groups merging to appear to be a majority or certainly a dominating minority. But what does that prove? The Protestant Episcopal church in the US becomes every day more and more like the Anglican Church in Ireland — lots of beautiful buildings but no congregations. With 700,000 average Sunday attendance for the Episcopalians, it says something that the Assemblies of God have a ASA of 1.7 million. At one time no so long ago, the Episcopalians had three times the membership of the AG. A church without members is a failure no matter how successful it has been in absorbing the secular culture around it. A lot of these liberal Protestant Churches seem to get their moral values from the New York Times or the TV talk shows so it cannot be a surprise that people spend Sunday morning with the NYT and the talk shows. But what they increasingly lack is a connection to a religious belief in the Bible. A church whose leadership, if they were honest, would say ‘we don’t really believe in any of this stuff but give us your money anyway” is probably not destined to survive.

  • Philip Jenkins

    I actually agree with the earlier comment about “Don’t the moral decisions of liberal Protestant denominations seem to follow the culture rather than lead it.” Yes, there is clearly harmony between the ideas of those denominations and broad currents in the wider culture. But in how many cases is there clearly an influence FROM the thought of denominations rather than their acceptance or importation of the commonplaces of educated liberal society?
    As an obvious example, look at women’s ordination debates in the 1970s. The move to women’s equality clearly began in the mainstream culture, in that case on the radical fringe, and rapidly became social orthodoxy. That was the point at which liberals within the churches pushed hard for women’s ordination. Obviously I am not saying that the ideas are wrong because of those origins, but the fact that liberal denominations accepted them does not mean that these churches have somehow placed a stamp on wider society. Rather, they have gone along with the current, or (to change the metaphor) received a stamp. I have not read Hedstrom, but my observation hardly suggests that “Liberal Protestants may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle.” HOW exactly?
    Also I really don’t think that the themes you mention – broad religious toleration and individual mystical experience – derive particularly from the major liberal denominations, as much from the host of small sects from the eighteenth century on, which were often very heterodox. To adapt a famous legal phrase, in America, the cults are the laboratories of democracy. (I discussed that in my book MYSTICS AND MESSIAHS)
    Anyway, I have no wish to criticize the Hedstrom book without reading it, but that’s a quick response to your thoughtful essay. (As I read the reviews of Hedstrom, it seems to be a really useful and wide-ranging study, and all success to him).

  • Philip Jenkins

    Just to clarify the argument before someone denounces me. I do understand the distinction between liberal Protestantism as a general theme or current, as opposed to particular denominations, and my comments here are mainly about the denominations. But I’m not sure how far the remarks would also apply to liberal Protestantism more generally, as outlined for instance by Leigh Eric Schmidt’s RESTLESS SOULS (which you reference). If I was looking for the origins of some of these once ultra-radical ideas that are now social orthodoxy, I’d look more broadly across the religious spectrum.
    And just to muddy the waters: how many of these now-triumphant liberal ideas are rooted in liberal Jewish theology and social thought, rather than Protestantism of any shade?

  • Daniel M

    I have only read reviews of Hedstrom’s book, but it seems that the thesis as I understand it is true beyond doubt: individual experience has been elevated above revelation. That this worldview has utterly triumphed in the broader culture can be easily verified by perusing any best seller list of religious books, even one narrowed to evangelicals. Whatever intellectual strength a position touching on faith or morals might have, it
    will be totally vitiated if it hurts someone’s feelings, and hooted down derisively if it is based on revealed truth.

  • DL Jorgensen

    While mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in Europe continue to decline in terms of active participation, there are significant increases in number of members and participation in these same churches in Africa and Asia. The growth of Fundamentalist churches in Latin and South America is now accompanied by a revival (irony not intended) of the Catholic faith in these areas. The US appears to be the pot in which the next religious stew is being prepared.
    The waning influence of the institutions of the mainline Protestant churches is being filled to some degree with the rising influence of Evangelical and/or Fundamentalist Protestant and Orthodox Catholic churches. While Orthodox Judaism is in agreement with them in many of their social beliefs, their influence is very small. Reform Judaism is becoming the Jewish equivalent of what the Unitarian Universalists are to Christianity. We also find in 2013 that about 20% of the adult US population self defines as “no religion.” What this means for future religious, social, economic and political movements is hard to determine in a specific form. However, for the near term, I think it is clear that for the American culture we will find two conflicting outcomes. On one hand, more tolerance of what was 20 years ago “unacceptable”, more social/economic/religious association with “my group” vs. less with those who disagree with me, greater flexibility in defining families, a hardening of the front lines – I’m right and until you agree with me, I will treat you as a non-human, and a greater flexibility in defining what is a “good person.” On the other hand, we will find more Evangelical/Fundamentalist Protestant and Orthodox Catholic participation with the accompanying adherence to what used to be called traditional values, more study of the Bible, a greater emphasis on the traditional family, and a hardening of their front lines, too – they would say in self defense. It is my view the results of this battle will define America, not just religious America, until the next major upheaval in 30-50 years.

  • mountainguy

    I don’t know why you put evangelicalism along with roman catholicism and orthodox christianity when you say:
    ” the individualistic self-expressionism characteristic of late modern society is fundamentally incompatible and irreconcilable with Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and certain branches of protestant christianity (like evangelicalism).”
    As I have experienced, evangelicalism, while not necesarily nasrcisistic (anyway, they have some pastors looking like pop stars… and living like them), is quite individualist, and not just for their soteriology.

    I agree that individualistic self-experssionism characteristic of late modern society is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus.

  • Whoa. John Turner and Philip Jenkins in the same thread. Awesome.

    Put me down also for “Don’t the moral decisions of liberal Protestant Denominations seem to follow the culture rather than lead it? ” Find a parade and stand in front of it. Liberalism is still basking in MLK and 1964, but the laurels get tattered after 50 years—something like gay marriage was needed to replace it.

    Who did the heavy theological lifting on the Protestant Mainline’s jumping aboard the homosexuality wagon? Jody Bottum has an interesting explanation*: nobody. The Mainline has largely abandoned theology for cultural relevance and sentimentality.

    Intellectual community may be even more decisive. Over the past thirty years, Mainline Protestantism has crumbled at the base, as its ordinary congregants slip away to evangelicalism, on one side, or disbelief, on the other. But it has weakened at the head, too, as its most serious theologians increasingly seek community—that longed-for intellectual culture of people who speak the same vocabulary, understand the same concepts, and study the same texts—in other, stricter denominations.

    All these themes appear in the open letter the elderly Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten wrote in 2005 to Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop of the Mainline branch of Lutheranism, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is, in its way, a terribly sad document, as he notes how the Lutheran Church in which he was brought up “has become just another” Mainline church. “I must tell you,” he explains to Bishop Hanson, “that I read all your episcopal letters that come across my desk. But I must also tell you that your stated convictions, punctuated by many pious sentiments, are not significantly distinguishable from those that come from the liberal Protestant leaders of other American denominations.”

    There used to be a distinct Lutheranism that he understood, Braaten writes. He learned it “from Nygren, Aulen, Bring, Pinomaa, Schlink, P. Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Pannenberg, Piepkorn, Quanbeck, Preus, and Lindbeck”—a roll-call of once famous Lutheran thinkers—“not to mention the pious missionary teachers from whom I learned the Bible, the Catechism, and the Christian faith.” All that “is now marginalized to the point of near extinction.”

    Indeed, Braaten insists, the church’s “brain drain”—the parade of contemporary Lutheran theologians, one after another, joining other denominations—is caused by this loss of any unique Lutheranism: “While the individuals involved have provided a variety of reasons, there is one thread that runs throughout the stories they tell. It is not merely the pull of Orthodoxy or Catholicism that enchants them, but also the push from the ELCA. . . . They are convinced that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become just another liberal Protestant denomination. . . . They are saying that the Roman Catholic Church is now more hospitable to confessional Lutheran teaching than the church in which they were baptized and confirmed.”

    As an epilogue, we see the evangelicals and the Catholics unifying at last in the 2009 social-traditionalist manifesto, The Manhattan Declaration. But likely too little too late. OTOH, 2-Kingdoms types such as J Gresham Machen and Darryl Hart were never sanguine about Christianity getting too close to culture anyway, and they have a point, for it could be said that whatever beneficial effect Mainline Protestant religion had on the culture, the culture’s effect on the Protestant religion was greater, and not necessarily to its benefit.

    The abyss stares back at you.


    Good stuff.

  • Mark Edwards

    The greatest strength of Hedstrom’s book is that he moves beyond the old stereotypes of liberal Protestant beliefs and politics and focuses more on their practices. What emerges is less a self-confident “establishment” unaware of its decline and more a forward-looking project by persons anxious to yet Christianize America. It’s a great read and wonderful contribution to the cultural history of religion.

  • edward killilea

    Sad really
    Your major premise is not only wrong but sad. Secular society is not nor will it ever
    be moral. It will not be Christian.

    Lutheran church in my town 8-12 members beautiful church empty.
    Part-time female “priest” leads this congregation.

    Episcopal church is now a AA meeting and a day care center. Archie “Call me Archie
    Ed not Rev or Father” left the ministry then return now gone again don’t think there
    is a mass/service

    Presbyterian church now has an ex- catholic nun as minister ~25 on Sunday. This church
    had a vibrant congregation and teen attendance.


    They stand for nothing. There is no “Chariots of Fire” belief. Where is our Shadrach or our Daniel.
    The idea that abortion, homosexual marriage, homosexuality, euthanasia, etc are just a different moral choice is wrong and sad.

    I think one should keep it simple.

    Re-read “The Screwtape Letter”:” The Great Divorce” One can sin and still get to walk on the grass but one only walks on the grass with courage. Otherwise the bus awaits. Screwtape is constantly whispering “unfair unfair You have a right to … so come here so You can live in freedom! besides those people. Really! are not like us just un-sophisticated bigots.

    The real question is: What are you willing to die for?

    Most of are early Christian martyrs died for refusing to eat food sacrifice to the gods.

    How many of us will do the same when challenge? Or do we have really no belief that can be challenge since we are always ready to be sophisticated, open, giving no offense, no judgement

    ed killilea
    kearny nj

  • You don’t think most people watch a lot of TV?

  • Jim D


    Thanks for the link to that excellent article- “The Death of Protestant America.”

  • Theodore Seeber

    I think you’re declaring the cultural struggle far too soon. It’s only been 5 generations. 3 generations post 1973, easily the high point politically for liberals in general.

    In the last 20 years especially- conservatives have been OUTBREEDING liberals about 3 to 1.

    Almost none of those kids are able to vote yet- but I can’t believe they’ve entirely missed the way their parents were derided and discriminated against for having large families and being heterosexual.

    The revenge of the conservatives is yet to come.

  • Matt Hedstrom

    Thanks John for prompting this lively discussion — it’s all I can hope for from my book. Just a few small points: the arc of the book is from a liberal Protestant story in the 1920s (with a backtrack to about 1900) that by World War II has become a Protestant-Catholic-Jew story, and then ends in the 1950s leaving us with a post-Protestant liberal cosmopolitanism, ready for the turmoil of the 1960s. So I am not at all arguing the the mainline won in any way — certainly not in an institutional way — or that mainline Protestants today are drivers of the culture. The real driver I see is consumer capitalism, which facilitated the individualism of a psychologized mysticism on the one hand, and the marketplace for books on the other (consumerism and media facilitating religion *happening* outside of church). Liberal Protestants thought in the 1920s and 1930s that they could harness these cultural energies for their own ends; for a brief while, perhaps, they did. But by the postwar period this was no longer tenable and mystical and psychological spirituality had become unmoored from its Protestant foundation. In that sense it’s as much a tale of failure as of cultural victory.

    One last point: I try to distinguish not between liberal Protestantism and, say, liberal Judaism or Catholicism, but between what I call laissez-faire liberalism and social/ethical liberalism. Neither may be Christian, per se, but they seem to me to be the key strands in popular religious liberalism in the 20th century.

  • Cheers, JimD. One cannot know America without knowing Protestantism: Protestants know little about it except their own sect and little of that; to non-Protestants, it’s all one big undifferentiated soup.

    The historical relation of the Protestant sects to each other [competition, suspicion], their unity against the common enemy [the Roman Church] and the Mainline’s eventual absorption by the secular culture isn’t the “death” of Protestantism, but mostly because of the rise of the fundamentalist &/or evangelicals.

    [Bottom: “Puerto Ricans, Jews, and Episcopalians each form around 2 percent of the American population,” runs an old joke from the sociologist Peter Berger. “Guess which group does not think of itself as a minority.”]

    And so I find the fundie/evangels and the Catholics uniting via the Manhattan Declaration vs. the Established Mainline American Liberal Church [whose denominational differences are no longer distinguishable] fascinating. Christianity is really funny and ironic sometimes.

    Cheers to Jody Bottum, one of my Top 10 bookmarks.

  • Mark, can it do it without a muscular theology? Reducing Christianity to Beatitudism has never got it done: human nature is too complex and too venal.

    Onward Kantian Soldiers!

  • Frank Schaeffer

    Great article and comments, I only fault all concerned for presenting the journey from evangelical to liberal or mainline as about ideas and theology only. I think this presumes a level of sincerity that is not there much of the time. The evangelical institutions will be changing in a mad scramble to keep membership up as I point out in “Within 10 Years You’ll See Articles Supporting Gay Marriage in Christianity Today Magazine” here on Patheos. I put the link to this article in mine.

  • Jim D

    Here are a couple of links you might find interesting;

    Retired Bishop Herbert Chilstrom was the first Presiding Bishop of the ELCA Lutheran Church and here is a letter he wrote in order to complain about Lutheran Churches leaving his Synod;

    He wrote in the last paragraph— “But I am also relieved. Now those of us who remain in the ELCA can get on with our primary mission of telling everyone — everyone — Jesus loves you. You are welcome in this church.” –That statement, at least to me; represents not only Liberal Protestantism’s core belief, but also its only real theology.

    Chilstrom also went after the Catholic Archbishop of St Paul MN because of a gay marriage vote; I find this article interesting because Chilstrom doesn’t seem to consider gay marriage a religious issue.

    He states in the letter— “When those statements reach our national assembly, they require a two-thirds vote for approval. But no one’s conscience is bound by those statements. Dissent is fostered and welcomed.” This sounds, at least to my ears; that everyone’s own conscience is the major arbiter of moral decisions. I’m no theologian but wouldn’t this be heresy to Luther, Calvin and obviously to the Catholic Church?

    I don’t want to pick on Chilstrom; I just think that his points are very representative of a secularized Christianity. Do they have any reference points other than popular culture and personal conscience?

    –However, I am still optimistic about the future of Christianity, even as large numbers of Protestant Denominations decline or continue to move toward Unitarian like beliefs. Mainly, I have hopes for Catholic and Evangelical cooperation. It is already happening in Argentina; Catholics and Evangelicals obviously have theological differences; however in an increasingly secularized society I am guessing that cooperation will become increasingly necessary.

  • LisaLynn1961

    Which is more important – that the organized Protestant religions do well and have stronger organizations or that the ideas and values held by those churches is embraced by the largest possible percentage of humanity? The concern with church attendance and offerings, General Synods and holding onto a pastorship have nothing to do with the essence of spirituality or the ultimate purpose of religion. My father was a minister in the Reformed Church. For years a main topic of discussion in my family has been religion. We four siblings have been all kinds of Protestants/Christians, Buddhist, Wiccan, atheist, agnostic & Taoist and we’ve learned from all of them.My father battled constantly with his Consistory. They were mostly old. He always said they didn’t want to be challenged, they wanted to be told they were going to heaven. Yet they were his bosses. How can someone be a shepherd to a flock that he also has to please as an employee? Organized religion is a business like any other. The rise and fall of individual franchises has no impact on the spiritual life of those who have left it behind. Liberal Protestant churches taught us to think for ourselves and we did. That’s really not a bad thing.