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

‘Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?’ or How Rudolph Bultmann is killing the city of Detroit July 17, 2012

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.

"I’ve long found it strange and objectionable that the American Legion, like the Boy Scouts, ..."

Singing along to that star-spangled bummer
"Also I'd argue Birdemic isn't even that worse then most SyFy films, just with even ..."

Smart people saying smart things (1.22.19)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • 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.

  • newenglandsun

    “Those were the big changes that began at that time: the civil rights movement and the embrace of women’s equality.”

    Not if it is a Catholic talking about them. Catholic acceptance of civil rights has long since dated back to the ages. Goodness, how long ago? I mean, when a Catholic generally talks about Catholicism, they’re generally talking about more than just Roman Catholicism. There’s Syriac Catholics, Maronite Catholics, Greek Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, etc.

    Then there was the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day’s. You find Catholics of all nationalities and ethnicities from all various different parts of the world. Then you have the cultural accommodations made for the Franciscans, Jesuits, Benedictines, etc.

    Dean Kelley was a United Methodist. They ordained two black men in the late 18th century. So it apparently wasn’t the blacks being allowed in church that caused conservative churches to grow. And since 1956, they’ve allowed ordination of women (not that I consider that a women’s rights issue unless you’re a Protestant where the priesthood IS essentially a power-grab).

    So apparently isn’t talking about that either. Douthat, as a Catholic, will be referencing issues predominantly in Catholicism and won’t care about conservative Protestant denominations just to let you know for future references.

  • I wasn’t aware that there were any Catholic Churches that ordained women.

  • AlexSeanchai

    Depends how you define ‘Catholic’. I know some have, but promptly got penalized possibly to include eviction from the Church (I don’t recall the details, sorry).

  • newenglandsun

    There aren’t. At least not any Catholic Churches in communion with the Holy See (there’s the Liberal Catholic Church which might and the Eastern Orthodox Church considers itself Catholic and has thought about ordaining women but only as deaconesses). You may have misread. I was commenting on Dean Kelley when I mentioned ordaining women.

    The Catholic Churches in communion with the Holy See (Maronite, Armenian, Chaldean, Greek, Coptic, Roman, etc.) don’t ordain women because the priest represents Christ at the liturgy in the same way the bread represents the body of Christ. As such, they’ll never ordain a woman for the reason that a man represents Christ better since Christ was a man and Dorito’s will never be used at the Eucharist because bread represents Christ better than Dorito’s.

    My point though when I said “not that I consider that a women’s rights issue unless you’re a Protestant where the priesthood IS essentially a power-grab” is that I believe that sola scriptura Protestantism, where everything is based on what one interprets the Bible to mean, ordaining women makes sense as a women’s rights issues. In more traditional and historically based variations of Christianity (such as Catholicism) ordaining women doesn’t make sense since A) no one can change the official doctrine any way, B) a priest primarily serves and C) women have constantly contributed to the theology of the Church as nuns and as mystics so its not like the priest has the “be all say all” in the Catholic faith.

    Now, the Pope is the one that gives decrees on what is in bounds to believe but a lot of doctrines that the Pope has approved of (especially regarding Mary) have actually been drawn out by women and men.

  • AlexSeanchai

    And nonsense like this is why they say Christ came as a man because men wouldn’t listen to women. How about you, sir, listen to the women who are telling you that ordaining Catholic women IS a women’s rights issue?

  • newenglandsun

    Because it’s not a women’s rights issue. I find their arguments bogus. And I have no issue whatsoever listening to women. Something that you would have gotten if you had actually bothered to read what I wrote.

    Seriously, why would it be a women’s rights issue? Because it gives a women power in the Church? No. St. Theresa of Avila, St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Mary Queen of Heaven, these women weren’t ordained. Because a women can now change what the Church says? No. The Church runs on a historical tradition. If a women were to be ordained, she couldn’t give a theological opinion that Mary wasn’t the Mother of God or that the Trinity wasn’t real. She also couldn’t contend in favor of homosexuality either.

    “nonsense like this is why they say Christ came as a man”

    If it was “nonsense” why do they also tell us Christ was born of a virgin women who would be his mother? The only one speaking nonsense here is you. IDK now whether to laugh hysterically or slap myself on the face. You are bereft of any intelligence whatsoever. Are you an American or something?

  • AlexSeanchai

    Get your head out of your ass before your eyes turn brown.

    A female pope couldn’t change the church in any of the ways that male popes have historically been able to? Why, pray tell, is that? And how are we to achieve ‘female pope’ without first ‘female priest’?

    What does Mary’s hypothetical virginity have to do with the price of peas in Persopolis?

  • newenglandsun

    “A female pope”

    You do realize that the word “pope” means “Father”, right? Do you call your male parent “mother” and your female parent “father”?

    Sorry, ran out of breath LMAOing.

    Change the Church doctrinally? No. Missionally? No. As one ignostic once told me before I made the decision to enter into the Catholic Church, “Well, anyone who thought they could join the Church and change its doctrine must not know the structure or history of that institution.”

    Sorry, still laughing uncontrollably. You never did answer my question as to whether you were American, oh, wait…never mind, you did! Green Day time!

  • AlexSeanchai

    Why do you assume I have one male parent and one female parent? I refuse to confirm or deny.

    You do realize that historically the masculine term ‘mankind’ and the gender-neutral term ‘humanity’ have been synonymous, and that historically the masculine pronoun ‘he’ has been used whenever someone needs a gender-not-specified pronoun, yes? Now, there are very good reasons why that’s a misogynist trend, but: Why should the masculine term ‘pope’ not also be gender-neutral at need?

    Pope Francis sure seems to be changing the Church. Not very fast, I admit–doesn’t help that when he says things like “atheists are also saved” everybody under him backpedals the statement in a hurry–but he’s certainly trying. Why are you so damn insistent that the glass ceiling preventing women from being in a position to change the Church must remain unbroken? And why are you so damn insistent that it’s not a women’s rights issue?

  • newenglandsun

    Haha What?!? Those things have always been apart of the Church’s teachings.


    The Church even emphasizes in the Catechism that there are people who are not Catholics who are in some partial communion with us and the Pope does contend that there is a catch to this.

    “Why are you so damn insistent that the glass ceiling preventing women from being in a position to change the Church must remain unbroken?”

    There isn’t a glass ceiling on this. There’s a glass ceiling on people turning the Church into a purely human institution. Changing it to kowtow to the demands of secular humanists would do just that. And don’t forget the women contributors to theology. St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Hildegard of Bingen are considered Doctors of the Church (which means they’ve contributed to the flow of the Church’s tradition). I wish more women would contribute honestly but it’ll more likely be an Eastern Catholic woman who does so again due to the dominant Western decline into anti-intellectualism. Someone like another Mother Theresa.

    “And why are you so damn insistent that it’s not a women’s rights issue?”

    Because it’s not. Re-read everything I have said and you will find why I don’t believe that.

    You want to hear something funny. My older sister (a very strong feminist) and I pretty much tore our relationship over the Summer because I was trying to be a committed feminist and failing. Now that I started attending a Greek Catholic parish, our relationship has actually gotten far better.

    One more thing before I gotta go…

    “Why should the masculine term ‘pope’ not also be gender-neutral at need?”

    Why? Because the Latin phrase for “mother” is “mater” and the Latin phrase for father is “papa” translated “Pope”.


    “You do realize that historically the masculine term ‘mankind’ and the gender-neutral term ‘humanity’ have been synonymous,”

    That depends what you mean by “man”. In Hebrew, there are two distinct Hebrew words that are translated as “man”. Adam is the gender neutral. Ish is not. These are basic grammatical rules.

    “that historically the masculine pronoun ‘he’ has been used whenever someone needs a gender-not-specified pronoun, yes?”

    Like when Han Solo refers to the Millenium Falcon as a “her”, right? Sorry, laughing again.

    I’m getting tired of this debate right now and it really isn’t important so don’t expect me to respond any more. Maybe you could create an account on a Catholic forum or something and bring your questions there. I really would like to continue this conversation because you’re really funny and are giving me some good laughs but I really have to go now.

  • AlexSeanchai

    Which brings me back to my initial point very nicely: you only listen to women when you like the things they’re saying. Which is a fuckwitted position for a self-proclaimed feminist to be in.

    I do so hope you stick the flounce.

  • newenglandsun

    “Which brings me back to my initial point very nicely: you only listen to women when you like the things they’re saying.”

    Yeah, same way I treat men. If you’re an idiot, I’ll treat you as one. If you’re not, I won’t treat you as an idiot. Such a “fuckwitted position” I take indeed.

    “self-proclaimed feminist”

    *USED* to be. Glad I’m not any more. Now I’m only just opposed to having women’s genitals removed.

  • AlexSeanchai

    What happens when someone says something true but unlikable?

    How does one go from believing women are fully human to believing women are subhuman?

  • AlexSeanchai

    Oh, and points off for not sticking the flounce.

  • dpolicar

    “Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. Mankind. Basically, it’s made up of two separate words—‘mank’ and ‘ind’. What do these words mean It’s a mystery, and that’s why so is mankind.”

  • AlexSeanchai

    I dunno what you’re quoting but I think I like it.

  • dpolicar

    Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey

  • AlexSeanchai

    I’ll check it out, thanks

  • You do realize that the word “pope” means “Father”, right?

    You remind me a lot of another person who rolled on in using overliteral meanings of words to try and claim they were in the right on a matter.

  • I remember those from the days back when I used to watch SNL. :D

  • Daniel

    Seriously? Calling a woman a male title makes you laugh uncontrollably? I’d advise you never to watch any Kenny Everett then. You might rupture something if you actually see a man dressed as a woman.

  • newenglandsun

    “What happens when someone says something true but unlikable?”

    We digest it and swallow the pill toughly. I’ve read feminist writings and they’re full of rants with very little truth.

    “How does one go from believing women are fully human to believing women are subhuman?”

    I still believe that they’re fully human. Just not in the same language that you want. I’m really unphased by feminist arguments seriously. They’re all rants and they aren’t convincing.

  • newenglandsun

    You don’t call women “Mr.’s”.

  • AlexSeanchai

    If you believed I’m fully human, you’d be a feminist. That’s what ‘feminist’ MEANS. Someone who holds the radical idea that women are people.
    You’re not, so clearly you don’t. Fuck you.

  • newenglandsun

    Oh, okay. Then I’m a feminist. Just not your variety obviously.

    I’ll be this type of feminist.


    You really think saying “fuck you” is going to phase my opinions or change it?

  • AlexSeanchai

    “Difference feminism”, asserting as it does that genitals are destiny, is an attempt to appropriate feminist terminology without admitting to feminist ideals. Fuck that.

    Nah, I’m just trying to express my feelings toward someone who thinks the fact that I possess a uterus overrules any other possible thing about me. Who, incidentally, is talking quite a fucking lot for someone who promised to leave. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

  • newenglandsun

    My final words before I go. You make me proud to be a difference feminist :)

  • AlexSeanchai

    Whereas you merely remind me of how depressingly far feminism has to go.

  • P J Evans

    Mrs is the same as ‘mistress’. WTF do you think ‘mistress’ came from?

  • AlexSeanchai

    For some reason I’m reminded of Ani DiFranco lyrics. “I am not an angry girl, though it seems I’ve got everyone fooled. Every time I say something they find hard to hear, they chalk it up to my anger and never to their own fear.”

  • What on God’s green Earth is a “difference feminist”?

  • AlexSeanchai

    Far’s I can tell, synonymous with ‘complementarian’.

  • That is a complete non sequitur, since the form of address isn’t even universal, it’s a linguistic and cultural convention. In French, it would be Monsieur (M.) or Mademoiselle (Mlle).

  • Oh, one of those gender essentialists trying to hide the fact. Gotcha.

  • AlexSeanchai

    Or Madame, which I believe abbreviates to Mme.

  • Right, I forgot one. (bonks self on head)

  • Sorry, still laughing uncontrollably.

    You should probably see someone about that. It sounds kinda pathological.

  • Carstonio

    In the broad sense, no culture or ideology should define roles for people based on sexual identity. But in particular, making that identity a requirement for a leadership role is even worse. A voluntary organization has the right to set such a rule, but that doesn’t make the rule moral or just. The only real basis for the qualification is a cruel belief that one sex or gender is better than the other.

  • Daniel

    The other day I heard a kid accidentally call his mum “Dad”. I had to be chemically sedated eventually, it was hilarious.