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Final Thoughts on Saving (Liberal) Christianity

Thomas Whitley

I realize that this may be perceived as being a little late to the party, but I've still been thinking about Ross Douthat's recent NYT opinion piece in which he asks Can Liberal Christianity be Saved? I, like others, asked whether it really needs saving and Diana Butler Bass asked the broader question of whether Christianity can be saved, given the decline that liberals and conservatives alike are experiencing. I wanted to revisit Douthat's original piece, though, and ask whether he has it right. Douthat offers this piece of advice for liberal Christians:

Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.

So, is Douthat right? Is liberal Christianity going about it all wrong? This is where I think some statistics can be helpful. The Pew Forum's "Religion Among the Millennials" is quite helpful here.

Mainline churches seem to be consistently more moderate/liberal: for instance, 56% of mainline protestants say that homosexuality should be accepted by society (69% of ages 18-29, 54% of ages 30+) while only 26% of evangelical protestants say the same (39% of ages 18-29, 24% of ages 30+). Even with the mainline churches' increased acceptance of moderate/liberal social views attendance is declining rather rapidly. In a 2010 Pew survey they found that 58% of evangelical protestants responded that they attend services at least weekly while only 35% of mainline protestants said they did the same.

I think it's easy for some to respond (as many have) that obviously liberal churches like the Episcopal church and the PCUSA are going against God and that that is why their numbers are declining, while more conservative groups are seeing some growth (Mormons, for instance grew at a rate of 1.4% on 2001 and Seventh-Day Adventist grew at an astounding rate of 2.5%). Bass pushed against this in her HuffingtonPost piece:

Douthat points out that the Episcopal Church has declined 23% 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. Membership decline has no inherent theological meaning for either liberals or conservatives. Decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion.

Douthat gives her this point in his most recent response, but seems to forget this when he ends by criticizing liberal Christianity in its current form. His criticism is a response to Bass asserting that liberal Christianity has been experiencing a revitalization of late because of its return to such basics as Jesus' command to love your neighbor as yourself. All Douthat can see in liberal Christianity is individualism.

What is troubling about the way he views liberal Christianity is that, on the one hand, it is a generalization that often is not borne out, and, on the other hand, asserting that one's spiritual journey is ultimately a personal endeavor does not mean that that person cuts herself off from any sort of spiritual community.

Here is Douthat's conclusion:

As I tried to argue in my own book, this individualism has consequences that liberal Christians as well more traditional believers should find more worrying than cheering: Consequences for local community (because it’s harder to care for your neighbor when you don’t have a congregation around you to provide resources and support), consequences for society as a whole (because the declining institutional churches leaves a void that our insolvent government is unlikely to effectively fill, no matter how many elections the Democratic Party wins), and consequences for private morality (because an individualistic faith is more likely to encourage solipsism and narcissism, in which the voice of the ego is mistaken for the voice of the divine). Like many religious progressives, Bass has great hopes for Christianity after organized religion, Christianity after the institutional church. But I feel like we already know what that Christianity looks like: It’s the self-satisfied, self-regarding, all-too-American faith that Christian Smith and others have encountered when they survey today’s teenagers and young adults, which conceives of God as part divine butler, part cosmic therapist, and which jettisons the more challenging aspects of Christianity that the traditional churches and denominations, for all their many sins and follies, at least tried to hand down to us intact.

I've taken so much time before trying to put together a full response to all of this because I didn't want my response to be knee-jerk. I consider myself a liberal Christian who fully recognizes the difficulty that liberal Christianity has in reaching the broader world, at least when reaching the broader world is defined in a way determined by conservative Christians. I wanted to be able to offer a thoughtful, balanced response to Douthat that didn't consist of me simply being upset because he had criticized liberal Christians, and by extension had criticized me.

What Douthat's final response has shown me, though, is that no matter what I will be offended, at least to some degree, by his remarks, but that the offense I feel is not because he's right about the demise of liberal Christianity. Rather, my offense is twofold: 1) I am offended at how poorly he seems to actually understand liberal Christianity apart from looking at demographic numbers and, 2) I am offended that even after commentators such as Bass have offered their insiders version of what liberal Christianity Douthat still has the audacity to dismiss everything they have said and define liberal Christianity as nothing more than "self-satisfied, self-regarding, all-too-American faith . . which conceives of God as part divine butler, part cosmic therapist, and which jettisons the more challenging aspects of Christianity" that his type of traditional Christians have at least tried to preserve.

My experience is, of course, limited, but having grown up and worked in very conservative churches and having since moved to more liberal churches I have seen tiny liberal churches do more to help others than I ever saw massive conservative mega-churches do with 100x the resources. I've seen these liberal churches care more about me as a person than many of the conservative Christians I was supposedly very close with - and they were never solely concerned with whether I had said their prayer to accept Jesus into my heart. However, what I also know is that the various bad experiences do not translate to all conservative Christians. So, the "friends" that I had who asked me how I could call myself a Christian after sharing certain beliefs with them do not represent everyone who is a conservative Christian.

Moreover, I could offer scores of anecdotes about just how "self-satisfied, self-serving, [and] all-too-American" conservative Christianity is, but I realize that that does nothing to help the situation, but instead only works to further drive a wedge between two socially-defined groups.

So, I want to do two things to close. First I would like to take up Douthat's original challenge to consider what I would defend and offer to the world uncompromisingly.  For starters, I would wholeheartedly defend the practice of encouraging questions and encouraging people to find their own answers. Is this relativistic? Of course, but don't forget what Paul wrote in Romans 14.5: "Let all be fully convinced in their own minds." I would uncompromisingly offer to the world a religion that does not condemn those who are not like me and who may not believe exactly as I do; namely, a religion that is not so arrogant as to think I am the sole possessor of Truth and that can at least entertain the possibility that I may well be wrong on anything or everything I believe. I would also offer to the world a religion that maintains intellectual, historical, and scientific integrate when reading its holy scriptures, a religion that studies the social and cultural contexts of the ancient texts we revere and that does not have to engage in revisionist history-making or pseudoscience to try and keep these texts from seeming to have gotten something wrong. I would offer a religion that has a strong enough ethical foundation that it has no hesitation in proclaiming that genocide is evil and wrong, even when an ancient text says its God commanded just that. I would offer a religion that values the whole person for who they are and not with an agenda of "saving" them. Simply put, I would offer a religion that is based on an ethic of love and not on dogma and theological correctness (if there even is such a thing).

Second, I would like to explain to Douthat that a contemplative spirituality, which many liberal Christians find meaningful but many conservatives shy away from, does not make one's spirituality "self-satisfied" and "self-serving." Instead, it causes one to do more inner searching. Further, liberal Christianity seems to take huge strides away from individualism when it recognizes that "sin" does not just happen at the individual level, but also happens (and I think more often happens) at larger levels, wherein we offer collective confessions, recognize the systemic sins present in our country's economic and legal systems that disproportionately harm the poor and minorities, and understand that sharing our resources (which many conservatives have grown fond of calling "socialism") is presented as a model in Acts 2. I am not saying that there are no "self-satisfied" and "self-serving" liberal Christians, but to label the whole movement is such is wrong and offensive.

Finally, all of this talk has focused on numbers and I think that is the wrong perspective. Do the trends show that all organized religion is declining is this country? Absolutely. But I ask, why does that concern me? Except for the selfish reason that I want my wife to continue to be able to find employment on church staffs, why should I care that church attendance begins to increase again? I understand Douthat's point about lower numbers meaning a lack of resources to help those in our communities and I think that is a valid one. However, I also think that the more we move away from institutionalized religion the better we will be. It is institutionalized religion that covered up the sexual abuse of children. It is institutionalized religion that tries to force a specific "orthodox" perspective on others. It is institutionalized religion that uses its position of authority to try to influence our elections. It is institutionalized religion that uses its money to discriminate. it is institutionalized religion that disallows dissent. It is institutionalized religion that works to protect the institution at the expense people. I think we'd be just fine with a little less of this type of religion. So, if a more personal and private spirituality comes with a little less theological rigidity, then sign me up.