The crisis and opportunity of liberal Christianity’s failure

17 Jul

Writing in the New York Times recently, Ross Douthat noted the trials and tribulations of liberal Christianity today.  (Hat tip: DG.)  He focused particularly on the American Episcopal Church:

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

But not exclusively; he also noted the challenges facing other strains of liberal Christianity as well:

Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

He has a warning for conservative Christians, though; first noting (though not mentioning it by name) evangelicalism’s weaknesses (since who else besides evangelicals could he be talking about here):

The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.

He then, after discussing liberal Christianity’s problems, warns conservative Christians not to be smug:

But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence.

I agree with him that we ought not be smug (since we’re not without our own problems, certainly), and also that the heart of the Social Gospel movement that has animated much of mainline Protestantism for over a century (and which has had a similar ‘liberation theology’ counterpart in Roman Catholicism), in emphasizing the need to care about and for the less-fortunate in our society, has been a net positive force in society, and that Christianity, properly understood, ought to offer a critique about how society is run, not just as regards morals and life issues but also quality of life issues, and not be “too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good”.

Where I differ, however, is with his not wishing for liberal Christianity’s extinction; I don’t see that it is doing any good whatsoever any more; certainly no net good not outweighed by its attendant ills, especially since in its embrace of post-1960s progressives’ focus on identity politics – feminism, gay rights, and racial and ethnic politics, they have moved far away from caring about the workers, and the economically and socially less-well-off in society; like their secular counterparts, they have all but abandoned their focus on them, notwithstanding occasional lip-service now and then.  And, in championing wicked, totalitarian ideologies like gay rights – which seeks to silence those who disagree, witness how they have treated conservative Christians – and feminism – witness societal misandry, and all that has flowed from it, along with the culture of easy divorce, also championed by liberal Christians – it can be fairly argued that today, they are far more on the side of injustice, than they are of justice, however unwittingly (I’m feeling generous here, so I’ll give them that much).

And I see no reason why conservative Christianity can’t, in addition to its laudable (insofar as it goes) critique of society’s moral failings as regards sexual morality and life matters, take up the cause that liberal Christianity has abandoned: caring about the plight of the workers, and the unemployed, the poor, etc.  Indeed, it can be argued that, as regards politics, conservative Christianity has perhaps focused too much on purely moral and life issues, and not enough on quality-of-life-while-here-on-Earth issues, perhaps as an overreaction to liberal Christianity’s taking up such causes, noting that the mainline churches ended up largely abandoning the Faith altogether; perhaps conservative Christians have been too fearful of a similar outcome, and have run too far the other way…  But now is a time of opportunity for conservative, i.e. faithful, Christianity, to take a broader view of society, and make up for previous missed opportunities.  If I were really hopeful, I might even dare to dream that they may even consider championing not only those forgotten by liberal Christianity’s over-emphasis on identity politics (i.e. the economically disadvantaged – to which group, by the way, I would add the ever-shrinking middle class, which is being squeezed out of existence, as the gap between rich and poor widens, and as all manufacturing jobs are exported to China and Third World countries with lower wages), but also those hurt most by policies resulting from liberalism and feminism, i.e. men, as a group; and maybe even consider the societal impact of unbridled immigration, legal and illegal, and related ‘national question’-type issues.  I won’t hold my breath, but there is an opportunity there, if we Red Pill conservative Christians could get the eyes of our Blue Pill fellow conservative Christians opened.  (Maybe, eventually, if our civilization doesn’t collapse first, that is.)

Douthat notes:

As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”

But which group is it today that still devotes time to Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship; who is it today who still strive, however imperfectly, to live their lives “in the context of a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions”?  It’s not liberal Christians; it’s conservative Christians, whatever else their / our failings may be.

Thus, I see no reason for us to wish for a revival of real faith amongst liberal Christians, instead of hoping for a revival instead amongst conservative Christians.  Writing in the early 20th century, already, J. Gresham Machen called liberal Christianityanother gospel“, and that is even more true today than it was in his day; having abandoned their commitment to the truth of Scripture entirely, in favour of whatever causes progressivism deems important at a given time, I fail to see how liberal Christianity could ever “recover” a “religious reason for its own existence”, or that it even deserves to do so, at all.

No; let the heretics and apostates die off / out; let us (including the faithful within liberal denominations) then take up the better parts of their inclinations, born back in the days when they were indeed still much more faithful, and add them to our own.  That would be my wish, and prayer.

*Update / Post-Script: I am not advocating that conservative Christians take up political liberalism or any progressive politics, I must hasten to add; but, I am thinking, for example, we would do well to not automatically side with big business, and unthinkingly buy into their policy prescriptions; moreover, perhaps those of us who are politically involved could start a debate within the conservative movement, as to how, besides non-political, private charities run by churches and the like, we could articulate, in the political sphere, a way of improving the lot of those less well off, and concerns for workers’ jobs, not to mention men’s issues, etc.  I am convinced one can do so, without going socialist or liberal, even.  I think we would do well, to consider doing so.

Just a thought.


Posted by on July 17, 2012 in religion, spirituality


10 responses to “The crisis and opportunity of liberal Christianity’s failure

  1. infowarrior1

    July 19, 2012 at 2:47 am

    I wonder what is your view of this particular evangelical christian ministry:

  2. Will S.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:54 am

    Whoa; that’s a long video! I’m not familiar with them, but looking at the YouTube page hosting that vid, it appears they’re quite uncompromising; if so, good on them.

    And yes, wolves in sheep’s clothing, are exactly what liberal Christians are, and have been, notwithstanding that they have had some good effects, and have articulated some things rightly. The biggest problem is, they ended up keeping the ‘Social’, but abandoning the Gospel…

  3. Will S.

    July 19, 2012 at 3:46 am

    From their YouTube page for that vid:

    Liberal Christianity or Theological Modernism is a broad term which basically refers to a movement within American Protestant denominations to stress the social role of Christianity, as in the Social Gospel of the early 20th century. This movement is characterized by a lack of emphasis on or denial of the plenary Divine inspiration and authority of the Bible, and commitment to doctrinal purity. Prevalent Biblical themes such as repentance from personal moral sin, hell and damnation for those who reject Christ, His blood atonement and His future literal reign are minimized, or militated against. In 1937, H. Richard Niebuhr summarized their basic gospel message as preaching that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

    Theologically, Liberal Christianity stresses a basic continuity between man and God, emphasizing the immanence of God rather than His transcendence. It tends to see religious knowledge emerging from research and the use of reason, as superior to Biblical revelation. Thus the liberal idea of religion as a personal relationship with God is one which is not necessarily bound to a Biblical doctrinal basis. This stands in in contrast to salvation resulting from faith in the Biblically substantiated gospel of grace, and in conformity with orthodox theological beliefs.

    The most influential liberal Christian theologians were 19th century Germans: Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl.

    Schleiermacher emphasized that religion was a personal relationship with God, and downplayed historical Christian doctrines such as the doctrine of creation, doctrine of Incarnation, doctrine of eternal life, etc.

    Schleiermacher sought to re-establish the importance of Christianity using Christian religious experience rather than scientific knowledge. Ritschl revised Schleirmacher’s idea and tried to re-establish their authority using Kant’s idea of moral experience and in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

    Doctrines that did not relate well to religious experience or moral experience tended to disappear.

    Liberals view the Bible as the witness of God rather than the word of God. Rather than the Bible being wholly inspired by God, many liberal Christians believe that the Bible was the work of numerous editorial redactors – homophobic ones in cases where pro-homosexual writers wish to see homoeroticism positively portrayed between Bible characters – or even that certain parts of the Bible that do not agree with liberal theology are later additions that do not belong in the Bible at all. In extreme cases, some liberal Christians even engage in politically correct censorship against those who quote Bible verses that tend to disprove a liberal Christian position. It may also esteem other books as works of God as well as the Bible. Some liberal Christians argue that correct Christian doctrine is whatever each individual believer deems it to be (a sort of “make it up as you go” religion”).

    Most of those within mainline denominations evidence beliefs and its effects which are at variance with Biblically based historical Christian faith. Two issues usually indicative of liberal denominations are support for abortion and homosexuality. An example of this is as follows. Churches that ordain openly gay clergy & bless same-sex unions & ordain women clergy are: African Methodist Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church USA, Episcopal Church, American Baptist Church & United Church of Christ.

    A spot-on analysis; nothing to argue with, there…

  4. Wintery Knight

    July 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Since we are talking about Episcopalians, I want everyone to know about this debate between evangelical William Lane Craig and Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong:

    It’s fun to see Spong try to defend his liberal views against an expert.

  5. Will S.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Interesting, perhaps, WK, if one desires to put oneself through the hassle of listening to an idiot like Spong; for my part, I can’t be bothered. I’ve read some of his babble in the past, and I know what sort of fool he is…

  6. Will S.

    July 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm


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