Ross Douthat’s column on liberal Christianity has certainly garnered a lot of attention. Here are a few responses:
First, Steve Holmes, a British Baptist pastor, defines liberal Christianity:
What is liberal Christianity? The question is complex, of course. To give a fully adequate answer would demand reference to renewed confidence in reason, to a high estimate of the possibilities of human endeavour, married to a downplaying of the doctrine of original sin (at least as classically taught), to Biblical criticism, to the turn to history that affected theology as much as every other academic discipline in the early twentieth-century, and to other currents.
That said, most of these currents coalesce in popular expressions of Christianity into a fairly unified stream. So, as a broad approximation, liberal Christianity is Christianity that is acutely alive to the challenges to belief coming from modern philosophy. Kant’s denial of knowledge of the noumenal realm apparently made traditional accounts of revelation impossible, and the more-or-less simultaneous rise of Biblical criticism made traditional accounts of revelation profoundly precarious even if possible. Of course, every intellectually serious mode of Christianity has had to respond somehow to these challenges – this was the sense of Stephen Sykes’ announcement that we are all liberals today; the particular character of liberal Christianity has been to find a response in accepting the force of the challenges and seeing a profound need for doctrinal reformulation to meet them.
Douthat responded in a blog post:
Upon reflection “defining” was probably the wrong word to use, and I should have described the link between Christian faith and social reform as liberal Christianity’s most “influential” idea instead — and been clearer that I was talking specifically about the American context. Liberal Christianity begins exactly where Holmes says it does: In the faith’s encounter with the challenges of modernity, and the quest for a ground for contemporary belief that doesn’t just rely on rote appeals to the authority of scripture or tradition. However, this quest has gone in different directions in different times and places, and in the United States from the late-19th onward, it found its most important and enduring expression in the Social Gospel idea that Christianity would be vindicated in an age of science and skepticism to the extent that it confronted social evils as well as private sins, and made the kingdom of heaven more visible on earth.
In “A Response to Ross Douthat,” Craig Uffman says:
It is certainly true that the decline of the Episcopal Church is due in part to our embrace of women and gay persons. We lost 200, 000+ to schism since consecrating the first openly gay bishop, and likely many more to “just drifting away”. Folks for whom our actions are an offense voted with their feet. But that does not explain much of the decline, because the decline began after a Baby Boom peak in the 1950s, and it has a similar slope for all of the mainstream Protestant groups.
A better explanation is this: The decline of mainstream Protestantism coincides with what Charles Taylor has dubbed “the Age of Authenticity” and its accompanying “soft relativism” in which the prevailing Western ethos is to “let each person do their own thing; and we shouldn’t criticize each others’ values.” Taylor describes this age, which he particularly sees as reaching a turning point in the 1960s, in terms of the rise of “instrumental individualism, which is implicit in the idea that society is there for the good of individuals.” The “buffered identity of the disciplined individual moves in a constructed social space, where instrumental rationality is a key value, and time is pervasively secular.” Westerners “understand our lives as taking place within a self-sufficient immanent order,” an “immanent frame” in which individuals can “slough off the transcendent.” In other words, the last 50 years are characterized by the rise of subjectivity, distinct to the extent that the “social imaginary” of late modernity is radically more dominated by an interiority and immanent frame, with the individual at the center of ethical reasoning. Our losses are NOT due to our Christian liberalism. They are due to an epochal pivot in the social imaginary – like what followed Copernicus – which happened in our lifetime. They are not caused by how we do Church. But they are an effect to which the mainstream Protestant churches have struggled to respond fruitfully.
Nihilism is an elitist religion, however. You have to be smart to prefer Nietzche. And that’s why the Protestant denominations who historically have been constituted by the most educated of our citizenry are suffering losses disproportionately. We are relatively more vulnerable to nihilism.
On Sojourners, Diana Butler Bass responds:
Forty years later, in 2012, liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America’s most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss. The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination. Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations—it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.
Although he wasn’t talking about Douthat’s column, David Hollinger’s comments on the mainline seem relevant:
Ecumenical Protestants were way ahead of the evangelicals in accepting a role for sex beyond procreation and in supporting an expanded role for women in society. The ecumenical Protestants understood full well that the Jim Crow system could not be overturned without the application of state power, rejecting the standard line of Billy Graham and many other evangelicals that racism was an individual sin rather than a civil evil. The ecumenical Protestants developed a capacity for empathic identification with foreign peoples that led them to revise their foreign missionary project, diminishing its culturally imperialist aspects—and that led them, further, to the forefront of ethnoracially pluralist and egalitarian initiatives as carried out by white Americans. The ecumenical Protestants resoundingly renounced the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, while countless evangelical leaders continue to espouse this deeply parochial idea.