The Death and Resurrection of the Liberal Church: A Response to Chris Hedges

The Death and Resurrection of the Liberal Church: A Response to Chris Hedges January 27, 2016

By Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen
Vice President of Applied Research and The Center for the Study of Theological Education, Auburn Seminary

Seminary Hill Farm, on the campus of Methodist Theological School of Ohio

Chris Hedges’ widely circulating diatribe about the bankruptcy of liberal Christianity—its churches and especially its seminaries—benefits from what late-night comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.”  It sounds enough right to sound like the truth, or at least the truth its author wants us to believe.

The premise of the article is that the liberal church, and by extension its seminaries, are killing themselves by jettisoning their radical stance on social, economic, and political issues. The loss of membership and cultural prestige had caused these institutions to fearfully push out “those endowed with this moral courage and radicalism.”

It is of course news to no one that the so-called Mainline Protestant Christian churches and their seminaries have experienced major declines in the past 50 years. Hedges’ article has a lead photo from The General Theological Seminary in New York City, which is the oldest Episcopal seminary in the United States, struggling as a result of the Episcopal Church losing half its membership over the past 50 years. This decline impacted the decision to sell off portions of historic campuses, narrowly avoiding closure. Our neighbor in upper Manhattan, Union Theological Seminary, as Hedges points out, is in the midst of just such a struggle. It is easy from the outside to critique General or Union, Hedges’ whipping boys, for their moves to secure a viable financial future. Union is on a beautiful and historic campus – but one that requires huge investment to maintain. It gives me pause when the difficulty of these decisions for the leadership elicits no sympathy from Hedges, and his reporting in other cases (that Andover Newton in Boston “recently shut down” or that two Lutheran seminaries in Pennsylvania “plan to merge”) is patently false.

Hedges (and some of his head-nodding readers) may be surprised to learn of the remarkable vitality and even growth within these same liberal traditions. Fewer students are coming to seminary with clear plans to serve as ordained clergy in congregational settings, because they are embracing a wide variety of vocational goals beyond the traditional focus of seminary education. The rising enrollment in M.A. programs fits this pattern. Schools attracting these seeker students (sometimes referred to as the “spiritual but not religious” demographic) have seen their average student age drop significantly, to the mid-twenties, as young people ask big questions in their exploration of meaning, purpose, and calling in the world.

Methodist Theological School of Ohio (MTSO), pictured above, is a case in point. MTSO was founded by leaders concerned with social—and especially racial—justice. In the past decade it has integrated its historic commitments to racial justice work with a deepening commitment to questions of ecological justice. Not only does it offer a concentration in Ecology and Justice, two years ago it launched an organic farm on its 88 acre campus, deepening the ecological justice commitments of the whole school, and its outreach to neighboring communities. Intentional partnership with minority urban churches and neighborhoods in Columbus are pushing back against urban “food deserts” by helping start urban farms.  MTSO is but one of a growing network of over 50 seminaries that are part of The Green Seminary Initiative.

The growth of racial/ethnic minority traditions is another major counterpoint to Hedges argument. Justo L. González, in his recent book The History of Theological Education, names the entrance of women and racial/ethnic minorities into theological education as the most significant shift of the past 50 years. González cites his own experience as a graduate student and then young faculty member with no Hispanic colleagues, and few books in Spanish or the history of Hispanic Christians in the Americas. Now, to his delight, there are more scholars of color, more organizations, journals, books and conferences led by scholars of color, than he can keep up with.

Hedges, for the sake of efficiency and impact, gives a simplistic reason for the death of the liberal church. The instrument of its “suicide” as he provocatively calls it is the church severing itself from its own radical voice. Citing Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse’s recent book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Hedges claims this “severing” came about due to 20th century Christianity’s capitulation to corporate interests which moderated its voice on issues of economic justice, war, racial justice, and any number of other radical causes.

The church’s decline (it can hardly be called dead) clearly results from a much more complex set of social factors. Frankly, one key factor is simply changing birthrates. What is not just wrong but dangerous is Hedges’ dismissal of the powerful justice leadership currently on the scene.

2016 is not the same nation in which his justice leaders of yesteryear – Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day or Abraham Joshua Heschel – shone bright. We are a much more diverse and pluralistic nation religiously and that has spawned a diversity of faith-rooted social justice leaders.

Some are more in continuity with 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights leaders, like they charismatic Rev. Dr. William Barber II, leader of the Moral Mondays Movement, while others like Eugene Cho, an Evangelical pastor of Quest Church in Seattle and a national leader on economic justice, represents a distinctly 21st century profile. Born in Korea, Cho comes from an Evangelical background but with an emergent, progressive, justice-oriented focus. Millennials, concerned with authenticity and public impact for good, are drawn to Cho’s package of deep spirituality and active concern for the world’s suffering.

Rev. Jennifer Crumpton, a graduate of Union, recently published her first book, Femmevangelical, “which seeks to empower young women with a modern, justice-centered view of the gospel.” Presbyterian Rev. Alison Harrington is spearheading the New Sanctuary Movement for immigrants, integrated into communities around the nation, but fearing deportation. Or inspiring progressive Christian leaders like popular author, Brian McLaren, who speaks across the U.S. and around the world on matters of social justice.

Liberal Christian leaders are also more likely to have interfaith instincts and partnerships. One of the prominent centers of theological education, the Graduate Theological Union, is being revitalized by the presence of a Muslim liberal arts college, Zaytuna, whose curriculum is deeply committed to justice education. Faculty member Dawood Yasin leads the experiential education component of the curriculum, leading students to #BlackLivesMatter protests in Ferguson and on environmental justice field trips to nearby wilderness.

I work at Auburn Seminary which supports an inspiring cohort of Senior Fellows. In addition to McLaren and Barber noted above, their are faith-rooted justice leaders and organizers, like Rev. Michael-Ray Matthews, a clergy organizer for PICO, one of three large and vibrant faith-based community organizing networks working across the nation. Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic sister with Network, stumping across the country with her Nuns on the Bus campaign to roust voters and Members of Congress of all persuasions to care about the plight of the poor.

It is worth noting that Hedges’ only offer of hope for the church is to embrace “Christian radicals who alone can infuse new life into the church.” Hedges’ own activism, and those of his seminary friends, has left the church for work in prisons and other contexts of social suffering. I applaud these important acts. But as acts of faith, there is an aching absence of any sense of God’s active involvement in the world, and perhaps that is the “truthiest” aspect of Hedges argument. He talks about churches, seminaries and faith leaders, but in the end seems to side more with critics of the church who simply point and say: “the Emperor has no clothes.”

Listen, the church, including the “liberal church,” is a big, sprawling, sometimes messy global endeavor. It is not perfect. And it has capitulated to capitalism and not just in obvious ways like the megachurch pastor Creflo Dollar and his fleet of Rolls-Royces.

But as Hedges’ own article concludes, the true headline for the liberal church in America is a story of resurrection, not suicide. The liberal church’s vital role in doing justice, powerfully, on the ground in community after community, is testament to the power of the Holy Spirit — the Spirit given to the church to empower it as it follows Jesus. Those of us still throwing our lot with “liberal Christianity” hope for less truthiness and more Truth.

Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen, a theologian and researcher on practical theology and theological education, is Vice President of Applied Research and the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York.

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