Is liberal Christianity doomed?

A debate about the causes of decline in churchgoing overlooks some key structural issues, such as undersized churches.
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A church on Lopez Island, Wash.

A debate about the causes of decline in churchgoing overlooks some key structural issues, such as undersized churches.

Last Sunday, July 15, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat asked “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” focusing his inquiry on the Episcopal Church in the U.S. Later that same day historian and author, Diana Butler Bass responded to Douthat with a piece at the Huffington Post, saying Douthat had gotten it all wrong.

Douthat’s argument is that the Episcopalians epitomize the problem of liberal Christianity, which is that from a theological point of view there’s no there there (to employ Gertrude Stein’s memorable turn of phrase about Oakland).

While this may be a bit harsh, he’s onto something. In many liberal denominations it's all about ethics; that is, how people should behave, what causes they should embrace, which side in the culture wars they should support and so on. Ethics is certainly one part of a religion, but arguably not the most important or even the primary part. That would be beliefs and teaching about God, or faith and theology.

On the ground, in church or temple life, what this comes down to is something like this: Is church mainly about hearing rallying cries to do good or to join political causes, or does it involve an experience of mystery, or the sacred, or a reality greater than ourselves, along some core convictions about that larger reality? Douthat’s argument is that lacking the latter and being only the former, religious groups tend to wither away. I think he’s right.

Bass responds that Douthat’s argument is no more than a reprise of an old, and false, thesis which boils down to “conservative churches grow while liberal ones decline.” Along with Bass, I think that argument is simplistic and wrong. But that’s not the argument Douthat is making.

Bass points out that decline is not limited to liberals. She notes that the Southern Baptists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, and the Roman Catholics are also declining, so it's not just a liberal problem. She’s right on that score. But the reasons for their declining may because the more conservative groups are increasingly making the same mistake as the liberal ones by turning religion into a platform for, in their case, conservative values, ethics, and politics (how many sermons about abortion or gay rights do you want to hear from your parish priest?) instead of an encounter with the mystery, the sacred and, well, a God who is not — here’s a surprise — chiefly interested in America’s Culture Wars.

In his recent book, Bad Religion, Douthat goes after both liberal and conservative forms of Christianity in the U.S., which suggests he’s not simply, as Bass argues, rehashing the old “conservatives grow/ liberals decline” thesis. Douthat, a conservative thinker, argues that both are a mess.

Douthat makes a couple other points that are terribly important. One is that no one should rejoice in the decline of a liberal Christianity that in its better days and with a more robust theology contributed immensely to our national life (think colleges and universities created by the hundreds, hospitals and social welfare agencies by the thousands, not to mention a rich intellectual inheritance and tradition, personified by people like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich). One day we may wake up to notice that we’ve lost something precious.

Another important point he makes is that liberal leaders have long been in decades of denial about their reality. This, I can testify, is true. In my own denomination, the liberal United Church of Christ, leaders for 40 years now have embraced the issue du jour, without looking honestly at the systemic issues.

But neither Douthat nor Bass comes to grips with the systemic issues facing liberal Christianity. While I agree with Douthat that liberal churches absent religious content aren’t very interesting or viable, and while I agree with Bass that there are some bright exceptions of congregational renewal and vitality here and there in the liberal Christian world, there are some tough systemic issues that neither address.

First off, a key issue facing historic (and mostly liberal) Protestantism is that for many years, say 1870 to 1960, this was the de-facto established church of North America, reigning on the town squares of New England and in the downtowns of the Midwest, and to a lesser degree, the Northwest. It’s tough for any established body (ask IBM or any of the legacy airline carriers such as Pan Am) to adjust to rapid change and dis-establishment. Mainline Protestantism has been slow to come to grips with its dis-established status and with the newly competitive religious/spiritual marketplace.

A part of this is the leadership question. Mostly congregations thrive when they have gifted, competent, wise, and appealing people at the helm and in the pulpit. For some time now, mainline Protestantism has failed to attract the needed number of such folks.

And there’s a reason for this. While in the period between 1970 and 2000 the incomes for lawyers and doctors doubled, the income for clergy stayed what it had been or declined. Meanwhile, most would-be clergy came out of seminary with an average educational debt of well over $100,000. When you do the math, you find fewer and fewer mainline clergy can actually support themselves or a family. Or to put it another way, fewer and fewer mainline churches (by some estimates only about 70 percent) can support a full-time minister. That is a structural and systemic issue, one of those that liberal leaders have been loath to face honestly.

Another structural issue is that the large majority of liberal Protestant churches have been small in size, that is under 200 members. In the 1970-2000 period, the smaller church has become significantly less viable for two reasons: the high cost of health care for church staff and clergy, and the rising cost of heating a church. The result is that larger churches are more viable and churches are getting larger. This, again, is a systemic issue that denominations have been slow to face. Just as the Mom and Pop grocery store is mostly a thing of the past, the neighborhood church, at least those that lack parking, is in a tough spot.

So, I agree with Douthat that liberal churches need to discover a religious reason for their own existence (not just an ethical one). But it's not just that. It is also coming to grips with dis-establishment, figuring out how to provide an adequate supply of gifted leaders, and facing the economics of scale that affect all sorts of operations including schools and churches.

All of these systemic issues are part of the challenge facing liberal Christianity in the twenty-first century.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.