To start out, Douthat wrote Bad Religion in which he, amongst many other things, chronicled the death of progressive Christianity.
He then wrote a Sunday column for the NYT about the death of liberal Christianity.
Next, a handful of responses appeared.
Matt Anderson offered this Oliver O’Donovan-influenced response:
If O’Donovan is right that liberalism “treats the moral questions of the age as moral certainties,” then it means Ross’s suggestion that liberal Christians should pause amidst their renovations to consider “what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world” will not have an audience that could consider it and still hold on to the core principles of liberalism as such. As Stephen Holmes puts it, “Giving priority to personal experience will inevitably lead to the embracing of an ethic that reflects the general ethic of the culture to which (the majority of) the denomination’s members belong.”
Yes, it does. But it also makes self-critique problematic, for to do so is simply to call our experience into question and judge it according to a standard beyond it. The strong self-congratulatory streak among younger evangelicals is as good a sign as any that we are fast down the liberal trail.
Of course, O’Donovan’s theological analysis should be offset with Ross’s social observationsabout the decline of mainline Protestantism’s prestige. After all, the moral intutions to which the mainline Protestants have sought to appeal are not any moral intuitions. They have saved plenty of scorn for conservative ones, after all, some of which doubtlessly count as those included within “the world” that O’Donovan says is at the heart of the liberal theological affirmation. The broad theological point needs to be more narrowly circumscribed so that it takes into account the institutional influence that mainline Protestants once enjoyed, an influence that the “change or die” narrative must perpetually remind the world of for its transformational force.
Diana Butler Bass argued that Douthat’s got it all wrong:
The real question is not “Can liberal Christianity be saved?” The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?
Liberal Christians experienced this decline sooner than their conservative kin, thus giving them a longer, more sustained opportunity to explore what faith might mean to twenty-first century people. Introspective liberal churchgoers returned to the core of the Christian vision: Jesus’ command to “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” As a result, a sort of neo-liberal Christianity has quietly taken root across the old Protestant denominations–a form of faith that cares for one’s neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful. This new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus’ injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life. These Christians link spirituality with social justice as a path of peace and biblical faith.
Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is–in some congregations at least–undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were “counter-intuitive” to the usual narrative of American church life.
David Koyzis responds at Evangel.
Thus far, the liberal approach has succeeded in emptying the pews, despite the rhetoric of inclusivity. As it turns out, a church whose message is indistinguishable from that of the larger culture and refrains from calling to repentance and conversion quickly finds itself becoming redundant. Why bother getting up early on sunday morning for such thin spiritual gruel? Bass may be correct in noting the presence of vitality in some liberal congregations. But mere liveliness can be found in a variety of settings, including workplaces and garden clubs. It’s not an argument for the church as such.
The “conservative” approach may be winning more people at present, but long-term prospects remain in doubt. Many of today’s most successful mega-churches are heirs of the 19th-century “New Measures” revivalism of Charles Finney which places an emphasis on the use of clever techniques, including the notorious Anxious Bench, to elicit huge numbers of “conversions.” If Michael Horton‘s analysis is correct, Finney himself appears to have held to a moral example view of Christ’s atonement. The “conservatives” may be standing unknowingly on the same shaky ground that is failing to support the liberals.
What if the church were to subordinate concern for numbers, budgets, and social and political causes to the primary imperative of biblical faithfulness? What if it were to place its concern for bringing in converts within the larger context of the call to live the new life in the power of the Holy Spirit? The church might be smaller or larger than it is today. Its members would not be ignoring social and political issues; in fact they might increase their engagement with these. But they would do so along lines that recognize the clear authority of God’s written word over the whole of life. They would be pursuing not just personal moral effort, nor social justice as understood in a narrowly ideological sense. They would seek instead to advance the kingdom in all its fulness through unwavering fidelity to the cause of Christ, consisting of properly oriented – dare I say “converted” – labour, leisure, liturgy and life.
Steve Holmes, of St. Andrews in Aberdeen, offered a particularly interesting response:
That said, Douthat’s piece seems to me to be built on a fundamental misapprehension; he asserts that ‘the defining idea of liberal Christianity’ is ‘that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion’ and laments the possible loss of this idea from American national life. As a definition of liberal Christianity, this is astonishingly misdirected; indeed, it might better serve as a definition of classical Evangelicalism, which was, and increasingly is again, precisely about the combination of personal and social transformation in the name of the gospel. Someone might attempt a historical account in which this evangelical holism was lost in both directions, with conservatives holding on to the need for personal conversion and liberals holding on to the need for social transformation, but I don’t see this as being in any way plausible; classical evangelicalism was already defined against a liberal tradition, that had its own clear intellectual position, and that in turn rejected the evangelical position. Further, it does not hold even in relatively recent history, at least in the UK (I suspect it does not in the USA either, but my knowledge of the history there is less sure): in the face of mass immigration from the West Indies in the 1950s, for instance, the mainstream liberal churches were fairly uniformly racist; the reactions of evangelical churches were mixed, but at least some did in fact open their doors and welcome their new black neighbours.
To which Douthat wrote a reply:
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. Certainly other theological traditions, Catholic as well as evangelical, have linked personal conversion and social reform; certainly liberal Christianity can’t be reduced to that link and that link alone. But for a long time, from the era of Walter Rauschenbusch down to the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., the liberal churches had good reason to see themselves as the primary custodians of a socially-engaged Christianity. Indeed, the historical importance of their role explains why many religiously-literate Americans today still simply conflate ”liberal Christianity” with “the religion of Christians who are politically liberal.” That’s far too broad a definition, certainly, and one that gives theologians hives with its capaciousness. But it’s also one that reflects the lived reality of American politics and religion for long periods of the twentieth century.
I need to give further thought to the discussion Holmes, Anderson and Douthat are having over the nature of liberal Christianity, but I did want to interact a little with Bass’ reply.
In the first place, it’s worth noting that most of the growth in evangelicalism is not happening in denominations, but in independent mega churches. And saying that the SBC is shrinking is hard to prove with any certainty. The SBC has been… let’s say “fudging on” their membership roles for decades – it’s possible that they’re simply trying to make their membership roles better agree with what has long been true. Which, of course, points to the problem with arguing from statistics like that. To some degree, you have to, but you need to be careful not to leap to conclusions.
A couple other points: In the last 15-20 years, evangelical institutions and a few networks of churches have made major strides. Sovereign Grace Ministries and Acts 29 are just two of these groups, both of which are church planting networks that have experienced a lot of growth in recent years. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is also growing (slowly, but we are growing). Our campus ministry, Reformed University Fellowship, which is only about 20 years old is also growing. We added 62 new interns this year and launched four new chapters of RUF.
What’s more, the last 15 years have seen two evangelicals rise to chaired positions in the Notre Dame department of History, another evangelical become the President of Wake Forest University, Baylor University’s rise as a major evangelical research university, Wheaton’s Alan Jacobs’ rise to prominence with multiple releases with Oxford Press, the creation of the Torrey Institute at Biola University, James Davison Hunter’s continued work with the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia, the emergence of Houston Baptist as another evangelical academic hub, the creation of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers, the creation of Books & Culture, an evangelical version of The New Republic or some similar publication, and the rise of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.
Point being: There is no shortage of people predicting the decline of evangelicalism. And seen one way, those predictions don’t appear completely off base. But when you look at the health of our top institutions and the increased presence of evangelicals in culturally elite places, those claims look increasingly tenuous.