The Decline of Liberal Christianity and a Warning for Conservative Christians

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote this past weekend on the question of whether or not liberal Christianity can be saved. Though for the last few decades some so-called experts have insisted that classical Christianity cannot continue in our increasingly pluralistic society (think John Shelby Spong’s “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”), reality has frustrated their arguments.

While nearly all denominations, including my own Southern Baptist Convention, have been trending downward in measures of membership and participation, the pace at which the liberal mainline denominations are shrinking is staggering. The attempts to increase the fold by being culturally relevant and socially progressive have utterly failed. As Douthat wrote:

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

Douthat goes on to lament the surrender of classical Christian convictions (like the divinity of Christ and need for personal redemption) within these denominations, and he pointedly suggests that they ask if there are any doctrinal issues they would uncompromisingly defend. Apart from these theological convictions, the church has no purpose that cannot be achieved by liberal government and culture and will fade out of existence.

Lest we more theologically conservative Christians be puffed up, we should consider one of the reasons that Douthat hopes for a revival of liberal Christianity:

But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

Would you, my theologically conservative brothers and sisters, consider some tough questions with me? Is it possible that American Evangelicalism is conservative more because of political ideology than doctrinal conviction? How might we discover whether our doctrine rightly shapes our politics or whether our politics dangerously drives our doctrine?

I have some ideas that would require a blog post of their own. The point I want to make here is that we should be very careful of the direction of influence between our faith and our politics. The truth is that if the liberal denominations died off, many benevolence ministries to the poor and needy would die, as well.

The gospel really should “spur social reform as well as personal conversion.” Could conservative Christians be guilty of limiting the gospel’s implications because they would find themselves involved in activities that do not fit neatly on the center-right side of our American political spectrum? It’s not enough to say no to big government liberalism without providing our own solutions to issues such as hunger, racism, and other social causes.

Do we believe that the gospel touches these issues (all issues, really)? We should. I was recently talking with someone who is extremely informed on issues of genocide around the world. It was great to have a conversation in which I could ask questions to probe the issue and get a better grasp of what is happening in the Sudan and Burma. I also asked what the most effective things Americans could do to end the genocide might be. The answers were fascinating and dealt mostly with imposing these sanctions or supporting that governmental leader.

Those are good things to know. Christians should be informed enough to understand these issues. But we should also keep in mind that the real answer to stopping genocide (and racism and war and hunger) is the gospel. God must change hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. God must shine light into darkness, bring the dead to life. So how are we addressing these social issues with gospel faith?

One final thought. What if the American Evangelicalism that, compared to the liberal mainline denominations, appears to be going gangbusters is doing so well not because of biblical conviction and spiritual growth, but because it fits better with our cultural values and social mindset?

Just as liberal Christianity is dying now, so “conservative” Christianity could one day die. I’m not talking about the true Church of Jesus Christ, which not even the gates of hell will prevail against. I’m talking about the moralistic, politically-baptized brand of Evangelicalism that depends on the same consumerism as the rest of our society. If our culture undergoes a radical shift–brought on, say, by a long-lasting economic decline or a fundamental change in the size and scope of government–and if the culture were to no longer have the same sort of political alignments that we have today, and if we were to lose the affluence that we currently enjoy, how would a church built on these platforms survive? It wouldn’t.

Would the faith of our people crumble if our nation were to look like Europe or, God forbid, pass away? I fear that many have so wedded patriotism and religion that they would be overcome with doubt and despair if the America in which they hope no longer existed.

In such a world, many of our churches would die, just like the liberal churches are, and for the same reason: slowly and steadily, over many years and for reasons that seemed right at the time, we let the gospel take a back seat to social issues (mostly a defense of “morals” and “values”).

I am not writing this thinking this post will solve anything. I just think that we, I, need to be reminded pretty regularly that our citizenship in heaven is the one that is permanent, the kingdom of God is the only kingdom that will endure forever, only the shed blood of the risen Jesus saves from sin, and any church that forgets these things probably needs to die.

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