Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ross Douthat: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?

"Liberal Christianity" in this case means the Christianity represented by the so-called mainline denominations: Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ being the primary examples. There are, of course, conservatives within those groups and liberals found in other denominations. In any case, it is the viability of these American Christians that the New York Times’ designated conservative columnist Ross Douthat wondered about in an op-ed piece earlier this summer. 

It was prompted at the time by yet another story of mainline denominational decline, even as that same denomination was engaging in a favorite mainline exercise: rearranging its theological, liturgical, or organizational deck chairs. In this case the subject was Christian conservatives’ favorite denominational whipping boy, The Episcopal Church USA. This American expression of the Church of England is, of course, the epitome of cultural religious self-importance. As a result, its numerical decline and internal divisions have made it an easy target and the object of more than a little schadenfreude among Christian conservatives.

Theology has never been Anglicanism’s forte, so while its attempts to reshape itself for the modern world have been sincere and determined, they have often been flat-footed. Thus, Douthat’s critical summery is not so far off. The denomination's changes, he writes, have left it

flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes. 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.

As Douthat goes on to point out, this is not a unique experience for Episcopalians. “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.”

Douthat does not write off liberal Christianity, however. He is well aware of the valuable role it has played in promoting social justice. He is also aware that the conservative Christianity that has risen during liberalism’s decline has often been “theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.”

Thus, rather than wishing its demise Douthat hopesthat liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence.” Amidst their attempts to modernize their denominations, liberal church leaders need to “consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.”

The decades-long numerical decline of liberal or “mainline” denominations is indisputable. The causes, however, are not nearly as simple or clear as Douthat would have us believe. Membership in these churches peaked in the late 1960s and early 70s. If there was an ideological trigger for their decline at this time, however, it was a reaction against the social and political involvement Douthat seems to champion. Most of the theological change came later, at least partly in response to membership loses already evident.

Recent declines within American Christianity have also never been restricted to so-called liberal churches. For example, the decline of moderate and liberal Lutheran churches has been matched by the shrinking of the much more conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. It is widely recognized that overall Roman Catholic membership would have declined had it not been for Hispanic immigration. Recently, more traditional conservative denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention have been reporting flat or even moderately declining memberships.

Then there is the ambiguity of the liberal-conservative distinction. As Douthat says, many successful conservative churches have embraced the so-called “prosperity gospel” which often downplays or avoids much traditional Christian teaching and doctrine. Thus, Joel Osteen’s preaching packs a former NBA arena in Houston and draws a global TV audience in the millions, yet many of his strongest critics are conservative Christians because he avoids taking firm positions on many of their litmus test social and theological issues. On the other hand Robert Schuler, a prosperity gospel pioneer, has lived to see his church empire collapse into internal acrimony and bankruptcy.

Conservative churches, also, have not been above conveniently adapting to social change. As divorce rates climbed and became socially acceptable, it quietly disappeared as one of the favorite topics of hell-fire preaching—especially when the preacher himself was divorced.

There is growing evidence that conservative churches are finding themselves behind the curve in another area of rapid social change: acceptance of homosexuality. As gays and lesbians have become increasingly open about their sexual orientation, like everyone else conservative Christians are finding themselves with growing numbers of gay friends, co-workers, and family members. Many are finding it difficult to accept their church's judgment of people they personally know and like. Many younger evangelicals are challenging their congregations and denominations to change their theology and policies and the voices of some elder leaders are beginning to join them.

The changes in American Christianity over the past forty years have caused much head scratching among both church leaders and more disinterested academic observers. While there is still no agreement about what is going on, simplistic and argumentative explanations like those of Ross Douthat have been generally dismissed. Instead, from the duration and depth of the change, from the research I have seen, and from my own lifelong experience within mainline Christianity, I would say that the decline of American Christianity is more about sociological and demographic change than unfaithfulness or failure of church leadership.

Because church issues so easily become contentious it’s easy to lose sight of the basic reality: more people are leaving churches and fewer people are joining churches. There are a number of factors almost certainly involved. There is evidence that singles and couples without children have less interest in belonging to a church and that segment of the population been growing. Until just recently, our population has been increasingly mobile, inevitably resulting in more fluid church membership roles. New research shows that people in personal or economic distress are actually less likely to be a part of church communities, probably because of the difficulty of maintaining relationships based at least in part on previous states of being (marriage, employment, etc.). Whatever religious needs they meet, churches also fulfilled important past social functions (finding friends, spouses, employment, etc.) which many people no longer need or are meeting in other ways.

All of these sociological issues circle around the more fundamental question which Douthat points to at the end: do people still have a religious need that liberal churches can meet? For a growing number the answer seems to be no. In fact, this has probably been true for longer than we realize but successfully meeting people’s social needs kept churches from realizing it. Now that has changed and such churches’ pews are increasingly empty and remaining members increasingly elderly.

The reality is that liberal/mainline churches stopped believing their own founding religious story a century or more ago. It is what religious modernism and liberalism have been about. Intellectual developments since the Enlightenment have led the church to realize Christianity didn’t fall from heaven fully formed but has a history like every other human endeavor. Its discovery of other religions made it aware that many of its ideas are not unique or very original. Scientific knowledge has made impossible almost any literal understanding of basic Christian teaching. Preachers can no longer speak coherently about heaven or hell, judgment and salvation, or an after-life. Church members’ conceptions of God now have little to do with traditional biblical views or theological teaching. More often they are of a vague, guiding and comforting, "presence" of almost embarrassingly childlike quality. Few Christians can state even basic orthodox church teaching, let alone confess it.

Recently I left my congregation to move out-of-state. Thus, I am temporarily “unchurched” and have visited the two local ELCA Lutheran congregations of my denomination. One is moderate sized, with a middle age and older congregation. The other is small, somewhat younger, but can support only a part-time pastor. Neither congregation could be described as thriving; both are smaller than they once were.

At both congregations I was welcomed warmly at each visit, sometimes almost uncomfortably so. Both used traditional Lutheran liturgy with user-friendly, in-house produced booklets. Sermons (by the parish pastors and guests) were fair and the hymn selection fair to poor. In each instance I found myself wondering how a visiting non-Lutheran would experience all this, what would draw them in in the first place, and what would entice them to come back or join such an organization. Working a normal “9 to 5” job, I am very aware of the value of my limited free time and how choosy I am in allocating it. How much time, if any, would I give to “church” and, if I did, what would I get in return?

In the end, I think Douthat’s challenge to mainline churches is actually the right one: what is the religious reason for their existence? With most of their social functions gone, mediocre worship and preaching centered on antiquated and/or nonsensical theology is often all that churches have left. The “renovations” that Douthat decries have often been silly, and certainly ineffective, because they only served to redecorate a theological structure that actually needs rebuilding from the foundation.

The decline of liberal churches is understandable and even appropriate as they have become organizations functioning primarily to maintain themselves. While Douthat’s answer to this crisis is the wrong one, his framing of the problem is correct. What is to be the religious function of mainline churches? What remains to be seen is whether awareness of the mainline crisis will ever lead these churches to realize they have lost their reason for existing, and that if they don’t find a new purpose soon they will become only the latest chapter of religious history.

1 comment:

Michael_SC said...

As a supporter of the Westar Institute (the Jesus Seminar people), I receive their periodic magazine. In the latest issue, they report some membership statistics based on an online survey of members: some 65% of the members are 60 years old or more. (I'm a young'un in my mid 50s). This data item is consistent with your point, that a modern engagement with religion and the Bible is apparently not appealing to many younger people. I guess most people who want religion go for the 200-proof version of the evangelicals; and those who don't need organized religion, and can get their community elsewhere, don't attend church. Liberal religion has a healthy dose of ambiguity and tolerance of different viewpoints (which is its appeal to me) but apparently that is not strong enough for most of those who want religion. So in the end, your question stands as the most relevant one: what is the religious purpose of liberal churches? My own answer would be, to serve the needs to those of us remaining who want religion informed by modern thinking, and where we don't have to pretend to hold a 16th century worldview during 10-11 AM on Sundays. If that appeals to a dwindling number, that is a real shame, but I see no option but to continue as a witness.