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July 17, 2012 10:25 AM Straw Crosses

By Ed Kilgore

I waited for a day to write about Ross Douthat’s latest bout of concern-trolling for liberal Christianity, because I don’t always write well when my knee is jerking uncontrollably, and I also wondered what others would say.

Here at PA over the weekend, Adele Stan pointed out the obvious: the customary conservative chuckling over the decline in membership of liberal Protestant denominations is getting a little dangerous since the same demographic afflictions are beginning to smite their own confessions (to his credit, Douthat notes that the real market-leaders in the American religious biz aren’t exactly offering his own idea of orthodox Christianity). She also has some sport with Ross’ assumption that it is “liberalism” rather than, say, the emergence of other life-options for women, that best explains the rapid drop in vocations to Catholic religious orders.

But as one might expect, it’s the primary targets of Douthat’s scolding, liberal “mainline” Protestants, who have conducted the most effective eye-rolling at this column. At Religion Dispatches, professor of theology Sarah Morice-Brubaker sits Ross down and explains that his idea of some sort of monolithic “liberal Christianity” doesn’t much exist. And moreover, she skewers his casual claim that liberal Christians don’t make serious theological claims rooted in Gospel and serious spirituality.

And in so doing, Morice-Brubaker gets to what I find most objectionable in Douthat’s take. Here’s the heart of his case against contemporary “liberal Christianity”:

What should be wished for…is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
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.

I read this and wonder if Ross Douthat has ever actually set foot in an Episcopalian Church, where each and every week, the Nicene Creed is recited, a Eucharist is celebrated (at least that is the trend that has accelerated under the “liberal” leadership of that church; less frequent communion is mostly the dying habit of more conservative, “evangelical” Episcopalians), scriptures are read, and there’s all sorts of talk about Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Ross is either ignorant about all this, or has the temerity to suggest that none of the people sitting on or kneeling at those pews mean a thing of what they say.

It never seems to occur to religious “traditionalists” like Ross Douthat that an equally grave charge could be aimed at Christian conservatives who are in perpetual danger of confusing worship of Jesus Christ with such entirely secular preoccupations as maintaining economic privileges and mid-twentieth-century ideas of family structure and sexual morality—not to mention the worldly interests of the Church itself.

Indeed, instead of lecturing “liberal Christians” about our alleged lack of serious spirituality and advising us on how to put more posteriors in the pews and more money in the coffers, perhaps Ross Douthat should spend his time proctoring conservative Christians who attend churches he actually knows something about, and whose growing tendency to conflate the Gospels with the agenda of the American conservative movement and the Republican Party could use some critical attention. Creating straw crosses and burning them down is a waste of everyone’s time.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • howie on July 17, 2012 10:39 AM:

    Well said. I just spent two weeks suffering through the Catholic Church's Fortnight For Freedom in which the clergy spent all its homily time whining about needing to have the religious freedom to be bigots and deny women health care.

    Our Archbishop is William Lori, one of the Congressional contraception experts. I now call him Boss Lori, because he runs a political machine, not an Archdiocese.

    Why am I still there? Because it isn't THEIR church and I'm not going to be driving out of it.

  • Greytdog on July 17, 2012 10:41 AM:

    Amen.

  • Josef K on July 17, 2012 10:46 AM:

    Reading this brings two lines of dialogue to mind:

    From the film The Mist: "People are fundamentally insane. Why do you think we invented war and religion?"

    From the tv series Babylon 5: "Religion and war are meant to serve the people, not the other way around."

    Given the proliferation of mega-churches and religious television, I'd say the first is proven, and the latter completely forgotten. Its sad, really, as the teachings of that young carpenter are really quite profound.

  • PaulW on July 17, 2012 10:47 AM:

    It's possible Ross thinks all liberal churches are similar to Unitarianism (which doesn't adhere to creeds or rituals such as communion).

    As a Unitarian, I'd suggest people like Douhat should attend ALL liberal Christian services first before passing judgment on them.

  • BillFromPA on July 17, 2012 10:48 AM:

    As a youth I was forced to attend Sunday School and church services with my Methodist parents, I've since recovered. At any rate I was exposed the the words and deeds of Christ, repeatedly, and as such it became obvious that Christ was a pacifist who was very concerned with the poor, whose only violent act was to flog the money-changers out of the temple, who tended to the lepers nad prostitutes of his day, who turned the other cheek and who forgave his executioners with his dying breath. How the greedy, hateful, self-satisfied, bloodthirsty mob which is the GOP managed to corner Christianity is beyond me, and why liberal Christians don't forcefully make the case tha Jesus was/is a texbook Liberal is more baffling.

  • ComradeAnon on July 17, 2012 10:57 AM:

    Another wad of "It's everyone's fault but mine" thrown against a wall. (Seriously, we're running out of walls.) I've only read the bits and pieces published here and at other sites, but I imagine he also means that liberal Christians coming to their senses would solve all political and economic problems too.

    Captcha: alec udntia. I KNEW they were involved!

  • c u n d gulag on July 17, 2012 10:58 AM:

    Conservative Christians are so involved with bending Christ and his teachings to their Old Testament beliefs in a stern and vengeful God, who loves to smite and make people suffer for their sins, that they forget Christ himself, and his teachings.

    The real Christ is too Liberal for them.

    So, they work hard to make Christ into his own vengeful warrior for himself.

    And, what I call, "Greed Theology," fits right into their ideology:
    Christ is rewarding the faithful for their faith to him and their own covetousness, with material wealth.
    This is a sick, sick, theology - having nothing to do whatsoever with Jesus Christ as he's described in The Bible.

    They're not really Christians at all - merely greedy fanatics for their own particular brand of religious obsession(s).

  • cmdicely on July 17, 2012 11:10 AM:

    a Eucharist is celebrated (at least that is the trend that has accelerated under the "liberal" leadership of that church; less frequent communion is mostly the dying habit of more conservative, "evangelical" Episcopalians)

    Actually, the weekly Eucharist is High Church/Anglo-Catholic practice. Both the Anglo-Catholic and evangelical wings of the Anglican Communion have liberal and conservative elements, but historically the High Church wing has been the more conservative wing overall. The present leadership may be both High Church and liberal, but its probably a mistake to equate the two things. (Although I suppose that may be changing if High Church conservatives are disproportionately leaving the Anglican communion entirely, perhaps to join the Roman Catholic Church, which wouldn't be surprising since they would be the most natural fit there.)

  • trog69 on July 17, 2012 11:15 AM:

    To 'howie' and those like him, who refuse to leave the church just because the hierarchy there wants to lead a more dogmatically Conservative congregation. I'm an atheist, but I do know that the many Catholics who work so hard for the poor and voiceless need our support. Good on ya for staying.

  • John B. on July 17, 2012 11:24 AM:

    This proud ELCA Lutheran just wants to thank you for this post.

  • revchicoucc on July 17, 2012 11:35 AM:

    I'm a liberal, progressive Christian pastor in the United Church of Christ. Mr. Douthat cites recent research on Millenial generation engagement and views on religion.

    I visit regularly with Millenials in my community. Their primary objection to involvement in religious communities is not "they're too liberal." Quite the opposite. They cite the mean-spiritedness and dogmatism of conservative and fundamentalist Christianity as the reason they don't want to have anything to do with the church. They simply don't want to be associated with such people.

    They specifically mention the anti-women and anti-gay positions of Roman Catholicism, and note the moral and leadership failure of the bishops to handle the sexual abuse scandal. The current expression of the Roman Catholic church, along with highly visible fundamentalist Christians, have painted all Christianity as judgmental, mean, hateful, and something which more and more people do not want to be associated with in any way.

    The stain painted on Christian faith by these hypocrites, heretics, and apostates cannot be easily removed.

  • Adele M. Stan on July 17, 2012 11:37 AM:

    Go, Brother Kilgore! It's amazing how in the space of less than 1,000 words, Douthat managed to pass on so much bad information and questionable moral judgment. It's heartening to read a response that defends the liberal Protestant tradition so passionately and adroitly.

  • Rich on July 17, 2012 11:37 AM:

    Douthat neglects the decline in evangelicals and their tendency to inflate their own numbers, but it's true that liberal Protestants as people, often don't believe in much of anything and I've rarely found much inspiration from liberal clergy. I suspect the decline in mainline denominations reflects finding seething better to do on Sunday.

  • cmdicely on July 17, 2012 11:44 AM:

    It never seems to occur to religious "traditionalists" like Ross Douthat that an equally grave charge could be aimed at Christian conservatives who are in perpetual danger of confusing worship of Jesus Christ with such entirely secular preoccupations as maintaining economic privileges and mid-twentieth-century ideas of family structure and sexual morality—not to mention the worldly interests of the Church itself.

    Well, it could be, except that empirically, conservative Christianity in the US isn't dying by the measures that liberal Christianity is. Now, since the charges of not offering anything that can't be gotten from secular political advocacy groups is at least as true of the right wing of Christianity as the left in the US, what that means is that the argument that Douthat, et al., make that that supposed problem explains the decline in liberal Christianity is vacuous.

    I suspect the real reason for the empirically measured decline is that the Right has been very succesful -- and aided by parts of the left -- in their efforts over the last several decades to sell the story that the fundamental divide in the country is between the religious right and the godless left. Its a lie that's been sold so effectively that its become true. Probably doesn't effect older people as much -- they don't see a conflict between liberal views and their religious faith. But young people are raised in a media and social environment which says that those two things are directly opposed, and so if they are drawn toward liberalism they naturally pull away from religion and vice-versa.

    perhaps Ross Douthat should spend his time proctoring conservative Christians who attend churches he actually knows something about

    Assumes facts not in evidence.

  • Pollysi on July 17, 2012 11:46 AM:

    Oh for the good old days when the Episcopal Church was known as "the Republican Party at prayer."

  • hells littlest angel on July 17, 2012 11:49 AM:

    Republicanism minus nastiness equals Ross Douthat equals dipshit.

  • David Carlton on July 17, 2012 12:44 PM:

    Among the many things I found tiresome about Douthat's column was his utter lack of understanding that the salient quality of Mainline Protestantism over the last generation of so hasn't been "liberalism," but division turmoil. Just as politics has gotten more polarized, so has Protestant Christianity--and the polarization has come *within* denominations [One also sees the proliferation of parachurch organizations and "think tanks" funded by rich guys seeking to exploit the turmoil to their own advantage, but I digress]. Thus, one can argue that much of what we're seeing [not all, TBS] isn't "liberal decline" so much as conservatives losing intradenominational battles and choosing to leave.

    Furthermore, the notion that the liberal side in these conflicts lacks theological seriousness is hogwash. I've been engaged for some years in my own denomination's [Presbyterian Church (USA)] struggle over GLBT ordination, and if anything I've found the liberal side [which, TBS, is mine] more theologically serious than that of the opponents, who rest their case on appeals to scriptural authority that they themselves slough off whenever it's convenient. Finally, even now those in the PCUSA who've fully embraced inclusion have done so at a cost--the disruption of an institution to which they are devoted and of longstanding personal friendships. That people like Douthat think they're doing this just to be faddish is insulting; they're doing it because they believe their faith demands it. Until he understands how they come to that conclusion--instead of dismissing faith that isn't his as no faith at all--he has nothing worthwile to say. And that's a shame--because there's just enough real insight in this column to suggest that he could be a reasoned voice.

  • steve on July 17, 2012 12:50 PM:

    In fact, Catholicism is losing ground in all the Western World. It's main source of growth is Africa, and to a lesser extent, Asia. In Africa, it is growing because it preaches the gospel of prosperity, and also preaches that Jesus is the biggest, baddest witch doctor of them all, and if any of those local witch doctors give you trouble, He will kick their butts. This is the "conservative" gospel which is responsible for the current growth of Catholicism. It is not widely publicized, as it is heresy and blatant expedience. But it's better than suppressing information about child molestors.

  • Steve P on July 17, 2012 1:17 PM:

    Let me know when Garry Wills brings his Collected Works to lil' Ross's Wikipaper fight.

  • E.Hatt-Swank on July 17, 2012 1:19 PM:

    Beautifully said, Ed! Your writing is eloquent and righteous.

  • mb on July 17, 2012 2:12 PM:

    "She also has some sport with Ross’ assumption that it is “liberalism” rather than, say, the emergence of other life-options for women, that best explains the rapid drop in vocations to Catholic religious orders."

    At the risk of nit-picking or, even worse, defending Douthat, I'd suggest that "liberalism" had a lot to do with the "emergence of other life-options for women." To which I say, "Hooray!"

    I'd also be happy, as a liberal, to accept any and all responsibility for diminished church attendance.

  • Anonymous on July 17, 2012 2:19 PM:

    David is correct. My denomination, ELCA (Lutheran) has wrestled with LGBT issues for years and eventually gone to the side of inclusion, recently accepting LGBT clergy in committed relationships, which meant that some members and even some churches have decided to leave the denomination.

    Did the organization "go liberal" in order to bring in younger members? No, it did so because it was the correct and Christian thing to do. I'm sure it's the same with the Episcopal and other denominations. My specific church has had a few people leave; OTOH, we have many new members, many young families and older members. We also have a few other subsets of people who use our building that are not members but whose ministries fit in well with ours, such as Head Start, AA and NA, and our own garden/orchard (much of the food is put into our food pantry - open to all - and others needing food assistance). The latter group, in particular, consists of many, many young people who have no interest in attending services but are quite spiritual and want to help others. The more ways that churches can involve people outside their own membership, the more they will grow and thrive.

  • cessy on July 18, 2012 3:24 AM:

    These girls are sexy. I saw many pretty and charming women on agelover. C¨°M. If you take a search, you may get a big surprise.

  • pastordan on July 18, 2012 9:15 AM:

    Been saying this "demographic winter for the liberal mainline" has been baloney for years now.

    One thing you might point out, Ed, is how thoroughly drenched in feel-good therapeutic language many evangelical churches are. From what I can see, an even deeper problem than their conservatism is their shallowness.