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The Rev. Anthony Robinson The Rev. Anthony Robinson
The Rev. Anthony Robinson is a minister in the United Church of Christ, author of 12 books, and president of Congregational Leadership Northwest in Seattle, WA.

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Douthat, Bass and Liberal Christianity

July 19, 2012

In his Sunday July 15 column in the New York Times Ross Douthat, focusing on the Episcopal Church in the U. S. asked "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" Later the same day popular author and commentator on church and culture, Diana Butler Bass, responded to Douthat on the Huffington Post, saying that Douthat had gotten it all wrong.

Who's right?

Douthat's argument is that the Episcopalians epitomize the core problem of liberal Christianity these days. Theologically there is, to reprise Gertrude Stein's tart phrase about Oakland, "no there there." That may be harsh, but he's onto something.

For many in the liberal Christian world ethics has eclipsed theology. That is, the focus tends to fall on what we should do and think, which cause we ought to support, and where to align ourselves in the polarizing Culture Wars. Ethics is surely one part of religion, but arguably not the most important or the primary part. That would be theology, our experience of and beliefs about God, what God has done and is doing. 

On the ground and in churches the difference is this: do we experience church and worship as mainly about rallying cries to do good, to support the right causes and shape up our thinking and behaving? Or do we experience church/ worship as a place of encounter with mystery, with the sacred, and with God, along with core convictions about God's nature and purposes?

Douthat argues that when the latter fades and the former predominates religious groups tend to lose vitality and wither. I think he's right. Bass responds that Douthat is reprising an old, and misleading argument, basically the one Dean Kelly popularized in the early 70's that conservative churches grow and liberal ones decline. I think she's right that Kelly's argument is simplistic and misleading. But I don't think that is the argument Douthat is making.

Bass points out that decline is not limited to liberal Christianity. Southern Baptists, Missouri Synod Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. are all also experiencing challenge and decline these days, ergo this is not a liberal problem. But it may be that conservative churches are making the same mistake as their liberal counterparts, that is turning church into a platform for conservative values (ethics) and political positions and reducing God to a champion of their already arrived at positions. I mean, if you're an average Catholic, how many sermons do you want to hear from your parish priest about abortion and gay marriage? Who knows, maybe God isn't as fixated on the American Culture Wars as we are? 

In his recent book, "Bad Religion," Douthat goes after both conservative and liberal Christianity in the U.S. today. He thinks both are a mess. So I'm not sure that Bass is right when she accuses Douthat of simply replaying the old "conservatives thrive, liberals decline" tape. He has more to say than that.

Two particular points in his recent column seem especially important. Douthat acknowledges the immense contribution of liberal Christianity to our nation's life and says that no one, including conservative Christians, ought rejoice in the diminished state of liberal Christianity. Second, Douthat notes the way that liberal church and denominational leaders have mostly been in denial about their real challenges. Many have bounced from one issue du jour to another without facing the systemic issues before the once robust Protestant establishment.

So I agree with Douthat that churches that lack robust faith and theology are neither particularly interesting or viable. But I also agree with Bass's contention that there are many newly vital mainline or liberal churches doing interesting and important things all across the country.

That said neither Douthat nor Bass pay much attention to some larger systemic and structural issues facing the mainline and liberal Christianity. I would note three such inter-related systemic issues.

First, mainline Protestant Christianity was, arguably, the de-facto established church in the U.S. for many years. Such churches stood proudly on the town squares of New England and at the center of downtowns in the Midwest and South. Today the religious environment, like everything else, is subject to rapid change and is much more competitive. By and large, the Protestant mainline has responded slowly and not that effectively to the challenges of dis-establishment. Responding to such challenges isn't easy (ask IBM or some of the legacy carriers, say Pan Am or TWA). Mainline Protestantism/ liberal Christianity has been slow to come to grips with its disestablishment and with the more competitive religious and spiritual environment.

Related to this is the question of leadership. For the most part churches that thrive have gifted, wise and appealing leaders at the helm and in the pulpit. And they don't just have one such person for a time. They have a series of gifted and competent pastoral leaders through time. Right now, mainline Protestantism has a shortage of such leaders.

There's a reason for this. During the 1970 to 2000 period the income of other professions, doctors and lawyers, doubled. Clergy salaries either stayed the same or shrank. And by the early 21st century, many seminary graduates were ending school with educational debts in excess of $100,000. The math doesn't work. Fewer clergy can support themselves, much less a family. And fewer churches can support a full-time minister. By some estimates, 70% of mainline Protestant churches are no longer able to support a full-time minister. There are other factors in the leadership challenge, but there is a challenge.

A third systemic/ structural issue is that the large majority of mainline and liberal Protestant congregations have been smaller membership churches, under 200. Such small congregations became less viable in the 1970 to 2000 period, chiefly for two reasons, the high cost of staff/ clergy health care and the rising cost of heating often energy inefficient church buildings. Congregations have tended to get larger. It's a little like what GM discovered in the recession. They had way too many small retail outlets in contrast to, say, Honda and Toyota, who had fewer larger retail outlets. The economies of scale don't favor the mainline, liberal Christian world as it has been structured.

So while I agree with Douthat that a theological vacuum is at the heart of the liberal Christian problem, and while I agree with Bass that there are many liberal churches that have renewed and are vital, there are also systemic problems that leaders have been loathe to face and address, including the challenges of disestablishment, of leadership, and the viability of small congregations. All these issues are a big part of the answers to the Douthat's question, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?"


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