Liberals and Christian Tradition
It began with Douthat taking potshots at the Episcopal Church (USA) in a recent NYTimes editorial. He points to a 23% decline in Sunday attendance over the last decade, and concludes with a sneer:
Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.
Diana Butler Bass fired back over at HuffPo, pointing out that it is mainstream Christianity that is in decline, not only liberal churches. Among other examples, she notes:
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.
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.
Absolutely. For example, I’d point to the missional church movement, a pan-ideological phenomenon that centers on the common Christian call to service. We are Church FOR others, not as a substitute for Christian spiritual practice, but as part of a holistic vision of Christian living.
Douthat was also addressed by Jay Emerson Johnson, (one of the drafters of the Episcopal Church’s new blessing for same-sex couples,) over at peculiarfaith.com: “I am socially and politically liberal because I am theologically and religiously conservative.” His thoughtful post recognizes the disconnect between the common use of labels like “liberal” and “conservative,” and points to the deep Christian theological roots of progressive ecclesial causes, citing as examples both the EC(USA) new blessing materials and the social justice work of those progressive Roman Catholic nuns who are under fire for not embracing the bishops’ largely (but not entirely) conservative culture-wars agenda. The issue, he concludes, is not that there is insufficient traditional theological grounding for progressive theological positions, but that progressives have been insufficiently evangelical about proclaiming it.
I say, Amen! It does seem that Catholic progressives have been so eager to build bridges with broader society, (iow, to use “natural law” kinds of arguments,) that we’ve sometimes neglected to connect our stances sufficiently to specifically Christian resources, like the example of that scandalously progressive guy Jesus. You know, the fellow who violated religious law when compassion demanded it, who hung around with unrighteous types, who commanded us to serve our neighbor, and who never demanded a doctrinal accounting before inviting others to join his crew.