Ross Douthat’s ‘concern-trolling for liberal Christianity’

Ross Douthat’s ‘concern-trolling for liberal Christianity’ July 18, 2012

There have been a host of excellent responses to what Ed Kilgore accurately calls “Ross Douthat’s latest bout of concern-trolling for liberal Christianity.”

Kilgore was not impressed, writing:

Instead of lecturing “liberal Christians” about our alleged lack of serious spirituality and advising us on how to put more posteriors in the pews and more money in the coffers, perhaps Ross Douthat should spend his time proctoring conservative Christians who attend churches he actually knows something about, and whose growing tendency to conflate the Gospels with the agenda of the American conservative movement and the Republican Party could use some critical attention.

Daniel Burke points out several of Douthat’s factual errors and mistaken assertions about the Episcopal Church. Yes, several (nice job New York Times!).

And Rachel Held Evans responds less to Douthat’s article than to the ugly culture-war cheerleading it typifies, provokes and reinforces:

I was disheartened to see my Facebook and Twitter feeds light up with gleeful jeers from conservative evangelicals essentially saying, “let the liberals die!” followed by defensive responses from more progressive Mainliners reminding them, “we may be dying but we’re taking you with us!”

Evans writes that she feels “totally caught in between” these two factions of the American church. As an evangelical-in-exile myself, I emphatically second everything she lists as a reason she doesn’t “‘fit’ in the conservative evangelical church.”

I also agree with everything she includes in her second list. All of it. But this list doesn’t really describe what Evans seems to think it does.*

She offers it as a list of reasons she doesn’t “‘fit’ in the progressive, mainline church either.” Yet most of these attributes or preferences would fit in just fine in most mainline Protestant congregations. I grew up in the fundamentalist/evangelical subculture, and for the more than 30 years I spent in that world, I heard mainline Protestantism described in the same terms reflected in Evans’ list. But many of those stereotypes are only that — stereotypes. Evans’ list seems based more on the typical evangelical portrayal of mainline congregations than on those actual congregations.

“I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus,” she writes — suggesting that this sets her apart from the mainline Protestant churches. But those churches also believe in this very thing. And they’re not quiet or subtle about it either. Unlike evangelical churches, every single person in a typical mainline Protestant church affirms this belief out loud and in public every Sunday. Sure, there are exceptions — I used to work with one guy who thought Paul Tillich was “too conservative” — but they’re exactly that, exceptions. Most of the people reciting those creeds every Sunday do so because they believe them.

“I think doctrine and theology are important enough to teach and debate,” Evans writes as another reason she doesn’t fit in mainline Protestantism. I love discussing and debating doctrine and theology too, but I’ve found it much easier to do that in a mainline Protestant context than in an evangelical one, where you can debate doctrine and theology all you want — just as long as you don’t disagree with the requisite correct answers.

And as for teaching doctrine and theology, well, where is it being taught better? In seminaries? Or in “Bible colleges”? Or take a look at any of the denominational publishing houses. Browse the catalogs of the mainline Abingdon Press, Westminster/John Knox Press, Morehouse and Augsburg Fortress. Now browse the aisles of an evangelical “Christian bookstore.”

That’s not entirely fair, of course, there are also some solid evangelical publishing houses like Baker, Eerdmans and IVP. Those evangelical publishers produce some quality, substantive books on doctrine and theology — books by people like N.T. Wright (Anglican), Eugene Peterson (PCUSA), Miroslav Volf (Episcopalian), Bonnie Miller-McLemore (Disciples of Christ) and James Bryan Smith (UMC).

Hmm, it seems that many of the best-selling authors writing for evangelical publishers are mainline Protestants. That doesn’t seem to fit with Douthat’s theory/accusation at all.

Both Sarah Morice-Brubaker and James McGrath highlight a contradiction in Douthat’s argument against “liberal Christianity.” Douthat claims that mainline churches are shrinking both because they lack firm convictions and because they’re inflexibly committed to their liberal dogmas. It’s hard to see how both of those things could be true. One cannot, simultaneously lack all conviction and be full of passionate intensity.

It seems as though Douthat’s real complaint is not that these churches lack conviction, but that he personally doesn’t like the substance of those convictions. Morice-Brubaker pounds this point home by offering one description of the firm core convictions of some “liberal Christians”:

“From what we know of him, Jesus resisted the self-important piety of the powerful, and stood instead with the ones they were oppressing, and in so doing revealed how God is. Therefore, I think following Jesus means doing the same in the very different context in which I live, and specifically resisting the institutional sexism and institutional homophobia which have informed so much of Christian piety. This will mean that I can’t spin romantic and rosy tales about What The Church Has Always Taught. It may not be popular. But I believe it to be true.”

This is a theological claim about who God is and what Jesus reveals about God. It is a principle. It is one that it’s possible to hold, and defend, at great cost to oneself. It’s a claim around which communities can gather. You can teach it to your kids. Worship services can be constructed around it. It can, and does, inspire people to do things that are hard and unrewarding. You can care about it so much that popularity becomes secondary.

McGrath agrees — both with her exposure of Douthat’s disingenuous argument, and with the substance of her formulation of a “liberal Christian” vision. In “Can Non-Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” McGrath writes:

Our core liberal convictions should lead us to stand on the front lines against injustice, and create meeting places where passion for our spiritual journeys is fostered. … There is a version of Liberal Christianity that it is easy to get excited about. And I am excited about it. Perhaps the time has come for all of those of us who see things in this way to unite, and to take back the identity of Christianity from the loud and prominent self-proclaimed spokesmen (yes, most of them are men) who have so managed to persuade the media and popular opinion that they represent “true Christianity,” that Liberal Christianity has come to be viewed as a half-hearted, half-baked mixture of the traditional and the cultural, which does justice to neither.

But that is not how things stand at all. Those who claim to be “Biblical Christians” are more prone than anyone to conflate their culture’s values (not all of them, to be sure, but many) with “what the Bible says.” And they are prone to miss that there has been liberal Christianity from the very beginning. When Paul set aside Scriptures that excluded Gentiles on the basis of core principles of love and equality, and arguments based on the evidence of God’s Spirit at work in them, he was making an argument very similar to that which inclusive Christians make today. The fact that his argument eventually became Scripture itself should not blind us to the fact that when he made his argument, his words did not have that authority.

Read those last two sentences again and let that sink in. It’s a difficult tightrope act to demand fealty to all of Paul’s conclusions while also rejecting the methodology that led him to those conclusions. This is a particularly tricky thing, again, for those of us who are gentile Christians. If the Apostle Paul had shared the particular “high view of scripture” insisted on by many evangelicals, then that category — “gentile Christians” — would exist only as an oxymoron.

A collection of other responses to Ross Douthat after the jump.

Nevermind the Bricolage: “Purposeless drivel and the Episcopal Church

Institutionally, well, if arcane bureaucracy is your thing, then by all means join an Episcopal church — they are so bogged down in polity and top-down structuring, on systems that were out-of-date 20 years ago at least and they are so reliant on the ‘magic-hands’ of the clergy — the continuing divide between those collared and those not — these are as much a problem for declining membership as a same-sex blessing — which I think is [frakking] great by the way — and while we are at it, let’s bring one on board for the transgendered too. But they still fight over unbelievably inane things — in England for instance, they can’t handle the idea of women bishops — for [frak’s] sake, really, for [frak’s] sake — it’s ridiculous.

The Episcopal church hasn’t abandoned the Bible … I would argue that it’s the Bible that guides them every bit as much as the conservatives or whomever else. I hate it when people use things like ‘scriptural authority’ or ‘unorthodox’ as a critique — just because someone comes to different conclusions doesn’t mean they don’t prize scripture — they just read it differently than you.

It’s not the Bible that’s the root of the problems facing the Episcopal church, in fact, that might be the least of their worries.

Mark Silk: “And what about non-liberal Christianity, Ross?

In fact, the only sizable portion of the American Christian population that is growing at all these days turns out to be the one whose members simply identify themselves as “Christians” or “non-denominational Christians.” They go to megachurches and smaller places specializing in a generic style of evangelical faith. When it comes to belief, they tend to be neither too hot nor too cold. You might call them lukewarm.

Why are the lukewarm churches growing? I’d like to see Douthat try his hand at that one.

Morgan Guyton: “Thoughts on the alleged demise of liberal Christianity

Churches gain and lose momentum for a variety of good and bad reasons. … So if liberal churches are declining because they refuse to conform to the worldly expectations of “focus on my nuclear family” suburbanites, then God bless them for being faithful. But if they’ve lost their mojo because their openness to questions and doubts is louder than their testimony of God’s deliverance, if their anxiety about causing offense has caused them to hide the cross and empty tomb under a bushel, and if their passion for causes is not anchored in a hunger for God’s kingdom, then the most merciful thing God can do is to crucify and resurrect them (as He needs to do with all of us).

See also:

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Please don’t take my quibble here as anything that might dissuade you from reading Rachel Held Evans’ terrific blog, or from reading her delightful and courageously honest book Evolving in Monkey Town. I’m also very much looking forward to her new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

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  • michael mcshea

    The New York Times, for a so-called godless Eastern Establishment liberal newspaper balances its output, they have room for one token Vatican toady like Douthat. His crusade against the corruption of our culture with the so-called theme of Pantheism in the movie Avatar is still much talked about in the Catholic Right blogosphere.  Funny how the RNC and the Vatican have daily talking point sheets that hacks like Douthat faithfully follow. About the only real faith, no spirituality, about the man.
    His attack on a so-called dying mainstream Christianity is a means to sell his latest hack book in which everybody but himself is a heretic. And I don’t know who to attribute the quote to but – it goes something like – he is the worst kind of Catholic, he is a convert to that particular religion. Holier than the pope and all that.

  • arcseconds

    FormerConservative got there first — well, as far as Rachel Held Evans goes.

    I find something unsatisfactory about her post that I can’t entirely put my finger on.  I’ve tried on FC’s blog, and I’ll try again here.

    Obviously I can’t take issue with her feelings, and to some extent I understand them and even sympathize.  And her suggestions don’t seem bad on the face of it.  Certainly there seems to be a lot of bad faith in terms of the ‘understanding’ people have of each other’s position.

    She’s also suggesting that there could be a lot of people who feel ‘caught’ between liberal and conservative Christianity, and I’m sure that’s true too.

    Where I think she goes wrong, is that she appears to think that the people who are dissatisfied by the current options form a coherent group, dissatisfied for the same reasons, and this could be addressed somehow by following her calls, and also maybe (although she doesn’t say this explicitly) by offering a kind of ‘third way’ option. 

    She may be right about it, but I think it’s unlikely.  Even the quotes that she’s gathered herself don’t look as though they’re necessarily agreeing on exactly what they’re finding undesirable about both sides.  The comments show even greater diversity beneath the superficial agreement.

    I mean, take Tina’s comment:

    I’m very frustrated.  I am just so tired of all of the “issues”
    surrounding Christianity.  I just want to be a Christian.   Period.

    I imagine she’s someone who just wants to go to Church, sing a few hymns, hear a sermon in the same vein as the ones she’s always heard, and not be bothered with doctrinal issues, church politics, national politics, scandals, theological debates, inter-denomination friction, etc.  I could well be wrong about Tina (I just made this up right now), but these people definitely exist.  They’re not going to necessarily be happy in RHE’s new world of ‘diverse faith communities’, ‘arguing better’ and ‘being ourselves’.

  • arcseconds

    The other thing that has me scratching my head is RHE’s desire for doctrine.   Presumably she’s not going to be happy with just any doctrine.   What I think she’s getting at here is that she wants some firm theological meat in her church, and finds (or thinks) that liberal churches skirt any discussion of doctrine.  But I’m not sure that her desires are really compatible here.

    You can have these things:

    *) strong doctrine, belief is transparent, orthodox community
    *) strong doctrine, freethinking community, beliefs hidden 
    *) weak doctrine, freethinking community, belief is transparent

    what I mean by ‘transparent belief’ and ‘hidden belief’ is that people are either open about what they believe or keep it to themselves.

    What RHE sounds like she wants though is strong doctrine, a fairly freethinking community, and transparent belief.  That’s going to be a lot more difficult.  Theological arguments with the pastor over tea and biscuits after every service? I get the impression RHE is wanting people to be ‘passionate’ in their beliefs, which I suppose rules out the ‘at most one God’ Anglican and the athiest Catholic.  If you’re passionate about theological belief and want doctrine taught, why would you stay with a church where you don’t agree with the doctrine?

    Well, maybe you’d stay for other things that are important to you, of course.  what I’m getting at here is that a congregation ends up being a matter of tradeoffs and RHE doesn’t seem to be acknowledging that.   The reason many liberal congregations are light on the theology is a perfectly reasonable tradeoff – they have diverse beliefs within their community, and they don’t want to alienate anyone.  That aligns completely with all of RHE’s other wants, it seems to me.

  • j_anson

    Uh, the Episcopal Church ordains women bishops. Our presiding bishop is a woman. I grant you, we are awfully fond of our liturgy and our pretty buildings. It’s kind of our thing: we’re the church for people who like that sort of thing. I guess we could try to go all UCC, but you know, there’s already a UCC.

    Er, anyway, though, that aside, interesting post as always!

  •  The Episcopal Church in America has women bishops, but the Church of England does not (even though the current official head of the Church (i.e. the Queen) is a woman)

  • As a progressive atheist, I’m almost tempted to see Ross Douthat’s argument as a win/win; I mean, if progressives want to leave their church, that is…fine with me.  More than fine with me, actually.  I mean, if you want to stay, that is fine too, I’m not trying to hate, I’m just saying that IF you get the feeling that maybe the bodily resurrection of Christ sounds more like mythology & less like fact, then well, you can leave.  You don’t have to stay.  & if you want to stay because you value the ethical lesson of that myth that is okay too.  But leaving is also fine.  If you value the ritual & community, you can stay, but you don’t have to.  I dunno.  I’m comfortable with the Slacktivist direction of overlapping secular progressivism & sacred progressivism, but I’m even more comfortable with…plain old secular progressivism.

  • Tonio

     Here’s my response over at FC…

    RHE reminds me of the 1960s phenomenon of old-school liberals
    who didn’t like the New Left and were scared of the hippies. While they
    were uncomfortable with the draconian police tactics used against
    dissenters, they were reluctant to deem these as unnecessary. Their fear
    led them to subconsciously buy into the authoritarian assumptions
    pushed by their opponents.

    Similarly, RHE seems very ambivalent about doctrine, disliking much
    of it yet fearing that loosening it would cause Christianity to fall
    apart. That’s the “give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile” attitude
    toward human nature embodied in the conservative evangelicalism she
    criticizes. She doesn’t seem to realize that “the Gospel is about more
    than being a good person” is really that movement’s strawperson. If
    she’s right that it’s more than that, and more than about being saved
    from hell, than what is the Gospel in her view? She risks defining it
    out of existence.

  • Keromaru5

    “what is the Gospel in her view?”
    Well, personally, I agree with her that there’s more to the Gospel than being a good person.  For me, the Gospel is God joining himself with human nature, including all our faults and limitations, and inviting humanity to participate in the divine nature.  I’d elaborate more, but it’s a lot to unpack, and I don’t really have the time.

  • friendly reader

    Thank you for this post! My own reaction after reading RHE’s post (I usually like her a lot) was, “What kind of mainline churches have you been to?” I don’t mean to substitute in another stereotype here, but her description of a liberal, mainline Protestant church sounds a hell of a lot more like the Unitarians than most actual liberal mainline churches.

    I mean, my parents’ church had three adult Bible studies going every week during education hour (in addition to Sunday school and confirmation), not to mention book groups, prayer circles, and the-under-30-crowd-getting-together-at-a-bar-monthly-to-talk-about-life-and-religion group that I participated in while I was living there. And we’re ELCA, which to my understanding is considered pretty liberal and mainline.

    So, yeah, I guess she’d like to be Lutheran…? I’ve met quite a few people who switched to our tradition after being disappointed in others (Catholic, Nazarene, Pentecostal…).

  • Chunky Style

    Perhaps this is a point Rachel hasn’t quite put her finger on: belonging to a church that does the work of Christ.  Lively discussions of minutiae are a good thing, but feeding the hungry, with an emphasis on making sure they are better off for your ministrations, might be the piece that is missing.

    I am drawing a huge distinction between making a big showy display of Christian works and actually helping the needy.  The other year I read the account of someone who, as a teenager, traveled with his youth group to Mexico to build houses for the poor.  The end products were shoddy and pretty much un-live-in-able, none of which seemed to matter to most of the teens and their youth pastor, all jazzed up about how they’d done something in the name of God.  Now, sending actual talented carpenters and contractors to guide the teens, as well as making sure the teens had enough experience to be of some use … that might have done some good.  Funny how none of that even occurred to anyone before the trip, or after.

  • Shane

     That’s my big problem with most teenage mission trips.  It’s more for the experience for the teens than helping those in need, physically and spiritually.  It’s vacation spirituality. 

  • friendly reader

     The youth trip I went on, the mission people assigned us to helping take down derelict houses rather than build them. That was probably to avoid these kind of problems.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    That’s my big problem with most teenage mission trips.  It’s more for the experience for the teens than helping those in need, physically and spiritually.  It’s vacation spirituality.

    Reminds me (as most everything does) of a Louis CK joke:

    “Yes you went to Guatemala on a school trip, and they told you that you helped, but you totally did not help. You were a WAY bigger pain in the ass, you got a picture of yourself on Facebook with a shovel, and they got screwed. They hate you now.”

  • walden

    She offers it as a list of reasons she doesn’t “‘fit’ in the
    progressive, mainline church either.” Yet most of these attributes or
    preferences would fit in just fine in most mainline Protestant

    I had the same reaction to her list.  I felt like saying, come on down to my mainline church…or the one (different denomination) I attend on vacation in a rural community…you’ll feel right at home.  Well, maybe not 100 percent….neither of them goes in for swaying back and forth and “just” asking for Jesus to “just” be with us.  They are into the “moving” of the Holy Spirit, though.   Mainline folks care a lot about theology, understanding the bible. 

  • Tonio

     While I wouldn’t expect you to unpack that, it does conflict with what I see as the purpose of religion – the individual’s relationship with the rest of the human race and with other individuals. Chunky Style’s point is a good one. It suggests to me that the minutiae that Evans sees as causing conflict is really about one side treating Christianity as maintaining a tribal identity rather than doing the work of Christ.

    For any comic geeks, the tribalism that Fred has been condemning is the Booster Gold version of evangelism.

  • I was worried about whether the New York Times would be able to find someone to replace Bill Kristol ecause it can’t be easy to find someone as consistently wrong about everything as Kristol is, but it looks like I shouldn’t have worried. Still I admit that there was a certain comfort in Kristol: no matter what he predicted, you knew the opposite would occur.

  • TheFaithfulStone

    I am utterly bewildered by people saying that Episcopalians don’t do theology.  What Episcopal church do these people go to?  Are they confusing doctrine with theology?

    The best I can think of is that perhaps we’ve looped around to doing too MUCH theology.  Maybe theologically liberal people like myself are playing the same kind of roll that the haters and the bigots play in the Southern Baptists – normal people don’t want to hear that they have to hate their neighbor in order to join the club, and they don’t want to hear that the Virgin Birth isn’t actually a factual story in order to get to the good stuff about salvation and grace.

    I can understand that, but on the other hand, TEC is no more going to kick you out for believing the accounts of miracles are historical accounts than they are going to kick me out for not believing that.  (If you convert to Islam, we might have to have a talk, though.)

  • TheFaithfulStone


    I grant you, we are awfully fond of our liturgy and our pretty
    buildings. It’s kind of our thing: we’re the church for people who like
    that sort of thing. I guess we could try to go all UCC, but you know,
    there’s already a UCC.

    Ha.  It’s probably that kind of lax attitude toward doctrine that makes people nervous though.

  • Keromaru5

    “While I wouldn’t expect you to unpack that, it does conflict with what I see as the purpose of religion – the individual’s relationship with the rest of the human race and with other individuals.”
    That’s part of it, but not all of it.  It’s also about the person’s–and the group’s–relationship with God, which is supposed to affect the way one behaves toward others.  Christ said to love one another as he loved us, so I see that as part of the process of union with him.

    It also has a lot to do with my relationship with myself.  I’m very prone to anxiety, and I find the more contemplative and mystical forms of prayer comforting and calming, a way to cut through the turmoil inside my own mind and give my brain a rest.  And according to the great mystics of the historic Church, this is how the individual comes toward God, by cultivating internal quiet and laying egotism and materialism aside so that one can focus and listen, the way Elijah did in the mountain.  

    It’s not very easy to explain.  I just see my ideal faith as very holistic, working on an individual, social, and theological level.

  •  It’s not that much of a win-win for Douthat’s political rivals. Part of the strength of the religious right in the US is that they can claim a monopoly of all American Christianity, and convince politicians and the media that all nominally Christian voters (that is, about 80% of the population here) back the right-wing economic and social policies. Douthat is trying to reinforce this perception by suggesting that liberal Christianity is defective and on the decline and that the right-wing version of Christianity is the main and only valid form. If he and those like him were to actually succeed, it will be a serious blow to progressivism because politicians are going to feel even more pressure to kowtow to a group that they think has a lot of influence over 80% of the electorate.

  • j_anson

    @BringTheNoise – That’s true, but… they’re not the same church. The Episcopal Church has ties to the Anglican Church (we’re all part of the Anglican Communion) but as is obvious from the fact that we ordain female bishops and they don’t, their fights are not necessarily our fights. It’s a little odd to make the statement that Episcopalians fight over a lot of stupid, hidebound stuff (which may well be true!) and then cite as your example a fight that would indeed be stupid and hidebound but which we *aren’t actually having*.

  • No, I understand the crude pragmatism of it, I’m just saying that a long term decline in Christianity is okay with me. Dropping that 80% isn’t something I’m sweating, if the exiles are becoming secular humanists or something.

  • The_L1985

     Even the UUs have study groups.  They just have freethinker groups and Pagan groups alongside the Christian Bible study ones.

  • Jessica_R

    Speaking of trolling, I think the Pro Life movement is just fucking with us now,

  • This concern trolling about the demographic downfall of ‘liberal’ churches does have a long history. The implication of course is that tolerance is by nature flaky trendy and weak and therefore doomed to fail.  And of course the larger implication is always that authoritarian religion and conservatism in general are on the brink of their final Borg triumph and just one final push from never being challenged by needling modernity again. 

    What the trolls always ignore is that having no religion at all isn’t perceived to be as radical as it used to be, so that many who may have chosen a liberal church in the past are choosing this option instead.  The larger truth remains that White male Christian dominance of American culture is on its way out.   Forming barricades of perfectly unified absolute belief in the institutions of authoritarian churches or the Republican party can only pester this long-coming wave, not roll it back.   

  •  That’s true. I guess the impression I got from Douthat’s original article is that liberal churches are falling and conservative churches should be positioning themselves to catch the people who are leaving. I do suspect a lot of people are leaving liberal churches because they’re leaving the faith altogether, but he seems to think that he can capitalize on that.

  • wallflower

    This is what “caught in the middle” is for me:

    My daughter has high-functioning ASD.  She doesn’t look like a disabled kid, and she isn’t a kid who has no chance of having an independent life, but she does need special support for social and behavioral issues.  

    I am not a person who has an easy time making myself social with strangers.  Oh, I can make small talk.  I’m a great acquaintance.  I’m just not the sort of person who can make herself part of a community quickly. 

    I had a church home for awhile, where over a number of years I formed relationships and took part in church life.  I enjoyed it.  But after I had my daughter, it got harder and harder to keep going as her behavioral problems became evident.  We got to the point where I felt unable to send her to Sunday School, and I stopped attending altogether.  My husband does not attend church.

    I frequently think of trying to find another church “home”, but I don’t know whether I have the “spoons” to do it.  I’m not sure if I am in shape to try to put myself in any sort of community, liberal, conservative, what have you, if all it means is that I am standing alone against the wall of the parish hall dealing with my kid and tongue tied, watching church community go on without me. 

  • reynard61

    “Speaking of trolling, I think the Pro Life movement is just fucking with us now(…)”

    It certainly brings to my mind the question: How many abortions could be *avoided* if the money being collected to build that architectural atrocity was instead used for contraception and teaching women how to avoid unwanted pregnancy in the first place?

  • Tricksterson

    Speaking as a non-Christian (ex-Catholic, present eclectic pagan) whyshould there be more to the Gospels than being a good person?  It seems to me that everything beyond that is extraneous at best.

  • Tricksterson

    Not quite apropos but close enough

  • arcseconds

     Moreover, declining church membership is an international trend in European-majority developed places.   The question perhaps is not so much about why American church attendance is declining, but why it hasn’t declined as much as it has in other places.

    I think it’s inevitable that Christianity will end up being a minority in the States, too.

    There are increasing numbers of people who have never been to church, except maybe for weddings and funerals.  What is going to bring them in for the first time? The second? Still be there a year later?

    That depends on the individual, and there may be a small few who will be enticed by doctrine and a strict moral code, but I reckon Douthat is playing a loser’s game.   There’s a way greater chance that a church that doesn’t give lectures on mad-sounding metaphysics every Sunday morning and rail against the evils of drink and women, but rather has a diverse congregation who focus on being nice to one another and everyone else where theology is kept to books and palour-room conversations (and is more of an optional extra) is going to be able to attract and retain secular folk in the future.

  • JonathanPelikan

    It’s the same crap that separates out liberal christianity here on patheos into its own separate category, right? I remember lots of folks weren’t too happy about that when we moved over here (and still aren’t.)

  • friendly reader

     Just noticed this post again… This is going to be a very personal, subjective post, and I know many people don’t feel this way about worship, but this is my take.

    I get really sick of people from non-liturgical traditions treating the liturgy like some superfluous thing that we should ditch to be more spontaneous or “contemporary.”

    The liturgy is a pivotal part of my worship experience. It’s poetic, it’s theologically dense, it ties me in with a greater Christian community, the Body of Christ, throughout time and space who have been reciting the same liturgy. The one we use in the Lutheran tradition (and I believe it’s similar to the Anglican one) is a structured escalation that begins in confession, passes through absolution, receiving the Word of God in scripture and then culminates in receiving the Word of God in bread and wine in a final communion with God. This pattern is a spiritual battery-charger for me, and I miss it if I have to skip a week due to work or illness. Even if the sermon is lousy or the hymns are too hard to sing, the liturgy is there for me.

    I couldn’t be a part of a non-liturgical tradition. It’s essential to my worship experience. If every church on the planet ditched it in some attempt to be “modern,” I’d become a stay-home Christian, because attending church would become meaningless to me.

    Now, I don’t have a problem with people updating the liturgy to less droning music or making the language less archaic and more comprehensible. That’s exactly what the ELCA did with its most recent edition of worship book, and boy did it piss off some gray-hairs. Nor do I think that churches shouldn’t, if they have multiple services, offer multiple forms of worship, some liturgical and some not. But man, I will cry should the day ever come we ditch the liturgy altogether.

    And I know that this might mean that liturgical traditions could potentially shrink, but I take a big-tent view on Christianity. We can have different traditions and still be Christian and still work together. But we shouldn’t all be one traditionless blob of generalized Christianity either. We’ve got differences, let’s embrace our own distinctiveness while accepting the differences in others.

  • friendly reader

    Note: by “stay-home” I mean “stay home on Sunday morning” not “wouldn’t participate in other Church activities, like service opportunities or Bible study.” Just to be clear. Church is more than the worship service (or service of Holy Communion, as we call it).

  • “Theological arguments with the pastor over tea and biscuits after every service?”

    Er… is that weird? That kind of thing was part of both the Lutheran and the liberal Baptist/Mennonite/Quaker churches I went to. Coffee and donuts though, not tea and biscuits.

    It reminds me of the sorry excuse for Bible study I went to with a friend in a Pentecostal church. The pastor had us read completely unrelated passages from the Bible out loud, then informed us what they meant, then sent us on our way. I don’t know what that was, but it sure didn’t look like Bible study to me.

  • arcseconds

     No, theological arguments aren’t weird, what I thought would be odd is the combination of strong doctrine in the official services combined with a congregation that includes open displays of independent theological thought.

    What I had in mind was something more like your bible study, except after being told in no uncertain terms what the Bible means and the class is over you get to argue with the pastor. 

    That’s what I figured RHE means by wanting strong doctrine — well, maybe not exactly like your bible study, that sounds a bit extreme even for what I’d understand by ‘strong on doctrine’.

    In my admittedly rather limited experience of such matters, churches which have the most open discussions about theology after the service also tend to be the ones that are light on official dogma coming from the pulpit.  That also makes sense: I would expect any institution with a strong official line to also tend to squash obvious displays of dissent.

    Also, I don’t think it’s impossible, I just think it would be a difficult thing to do.

    Would you describe your churches as strong on doctrine? I understand that Quakers have very little in the way of official dogma or established hierarchy, so I’d kind of expect them to be not very doctrinaire…

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    See, I understood the phrase “strong on doctrine” to mean teachings with some weight behind them, that are taken seriously and that need to be grappled with. I don’t call “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” to be strong doctrine. But neither is “basically try to be a nice person”.

  •  To paraphrase the GIRAT, “saying that Quakers have very little in the way of official dogma or established heirarchy is like saying that the Great Wall of China is long.”

  • Todd Elgie

    Those of you interested in a scholarly look (read, a ton of footnotes) check out The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy.

    From the Amazon description: In The Churching of America, 1776–2005, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark once again revolutionize the way we think about religion. Extending the argument that the nation’s religious environment acts as a free market economy, this extensively revised and expanded edition offers new research, statistics, and stories that document increased participation in religious groups from Independence through the twenty-first century. Adding to the thorough coverage of “mainline” religious groups, new sections chart the remarkable development and growth of African American churches from the early nineteenth century forward. Finke and Stark show how, like other “upstart sects,” these churches competed for adherents and demonstrate how American norms of religious freedom allowed African American churches to construct organizational havens with little outside intervention. This edition also includes new sections on the ethnic religious communities of recent immigrants—stories that echo those told of ethnic religious enclaves in the nineteenth century.

  • It sounds to me like your Bible Study pastor was very lazy. :O

  • Robert Burke

    For ascendency, see .  Maybe there is a higher Christian way, something Paul called Christ-in-You.  Maybe there is a way to get there.  Just maybe.

  • Jesus Christ

        The Episcopalians have, according to the fairly “progressive” ‘Christian Century’ (an article in a Fall 2011 edition), lost one-fourth of their attenders since 2002.  According to the Episcopalians themselves their membership has a median age of 58 and they themselves say it’s rising.  After forty years of preaching “Celebrate our Diversity!”, the non-White, non-Middle/upper middle class membership of their church is, again according to their own statistics, barely 5% in the USA (i.e. not in their Haitian or Honduran churches). 
      Which means, again according to their own writers, that about half of their present membership is going to be dead in 20-25 years.  Most of their churches have an average Sunday attendance of barely 90, a number that’s not quite enough to have everyone chip in and pay the pastor.  Over a third of their churches are “troubled” financially, often spending their endowment funds to maintain old buildings which might cost tens of thousands of dollars to bring up to code just to sell in good enough condition to make something for putting them on the market.
       If anyone can spin this as “on the threshold of growth” and “this provides us with exciting new opportunities to grow”, he’s either delusional or lying.  Ultimately, schadenfreude aside, Douthat got a lot wrong in detail but the prognosis was accurate-Mainline Protestantism is doing badly and pathetic “Tis but a fleshwound!” defensiveness and pitiful attempts to use it as an attempt to blame the Fundiegelicals for taking pleasure in “progressive” decline simply miss the point.  The truth of a statement is not a function of its origin.

  • Jesus Christ

      Your religion is shrinking away faster than a pizza in front of Michael Moore; the Fundiegelicals are one generation away from the same fate.  I am an atheist-you deserve each other.  Everytime a church gets sold, I smile.  What  a presumpteous waste of time to tell me how to vote and live based on someone invisible and inaudible!  Lock “progressive” theologians in with Robertson and let them fight it out; leave the rest of us in peace.