Mainstream liberal Protestantism is dying, with a decreasing number of people bothering to go to their churches anymore. This is ironic because, in many ways, the message of those liberal congregations is now widely shared among our cultural elite: be tolerant of all; be progressive; don’t worry about the supernatural; conform to the culture. But though the cultural elite has embraced the social gospel of liberal Protestantism, hardly any of them bother with liberal churches.
Ross Douthat, himself a conservative Catholic, argues in the New York Times that those who are liberal politically and culturally should start attending a liberal church. Even out-and-out non-believers in the supernatural will experience little conflicts with their beliefs. And there are benefits to church attendance that would be good for them.
Douthat says that it would be good for the cause of liberalism to be grounded once again in some kind of church. Liberalism, to have an impact, needs an institutional home. He also throws out this priceless line, referring to recent tendencies: “Liberal Protestantism without the Protestantism tends to gradually shed the liberalism as well, transforming into an illiberal cult of victimologies that burns heretics with vigor.”
Read what he says, excerpted and linked after the jump, but then consider: Why is it that liberals tend not to go to liberal churches? Can you have the benefits of going to a church without holding to its beliefs? Why is mainline liberal Protestantism in such a state of decline? What happens to a Christianity purged of its supernatural elements?
From Ross Douthat, Save the Mainline – The New York Times:
. . . .For the sake of their country, their culture and their very selves, liberal post-Protestants should find a mainline congregation and starting attending every week.
One reason they don’t is that some of what those congregations offer is already embodied in liberal politics and culture. As the sociologist N. J. Demerath argued in the 1990s, liberal churches have suffered institutional decline, but also enjoy a sort of cultural triumph, losing members even as their most distinctive commitments — ecumenical spirituality and a progressive social Gospel — permeate academia, the media, pop culture, the Democratic Party.
But this equilibrium may not last, and it may not deserve to. The campus experience of late suggests that liberal Protestantism without the Protestantism tends to gradually shed the liberalism as well, transforming into an illiberal cult of victimologies that burns heretics with vigor. The wider experience of American politics suggests that as liberalism de-churches it struggles to find a nontransactional organizing principle, a persuasive language of the common good. And the experience of American society suggests that religious impulses without institutions aren’t enough to bind communities and families, to hold atomization and despair at bay. . . .
Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.
Do it for your family: Church is good for health and happiness, it’s a better place to meet a mate than Tinder, and even its most modernized form is still an ark of memory, a link between the living and the dead.
I understand that there’s the minor problem of actual belief. But honestly, dear liberals, many of you do believe in the kind of open Gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.
If pressed, most of you aren’t hard-core atheists: You pursue religious experiences, you have affinities for Unitarianism or Quakerism, you can even appreciate Christian orthodoxy when it’s woven into Marilynne Robinson novels or the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
You say you’re spiritual but not religious because you associate “religion” with hierarchies and dogmas and strict rules about sex. But the Protestant mainline has gone well out of its way to accommodate you on all these points.
I appreciate that by staying away from church you’re vindicating my Catholic skepticism of that accommodation … but really, aren’t you being a little ungrateful, a little slothful, a little selfish by leaving these churches empty when they’re trying to be exactly the change you say you wish Christianity would make?
Photo of Occupy Wall Street sign by David Shankbone, Flickr, Creative Commons License.