In recent days, conservatives have attacked the Episcopal Church. The reason? The church has just concluded its once every three-year national meeting, and in this gathering the denomination affirmed a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. Conservatives assert that the Episcopal Church's ever-increasing social and political progressivism has led to a precipitous membership decline and ruined the denomination.
Many of the criticisms were mean-spirited or partisan, continuing a decade-long internal debate about the Episcopal Church's future. However, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat broadened the discussion, moving beyond inside-baseball ecclesial politics to ask a larger question: "Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?"
The question is a good one, for the liberal Christian tradition is an important part of American culture, from dazzling literary and intellectual achievements to great social reform movements. Mr. Douthat recognizes these contributions and rightly praises this aspect of liberal Christianity as "an immensely positive force in our national life."
Despite this history, however, Mr. Douthat insists that any denomination committed to contemporary liberalism will ultimately collapse. According to him, the Episcopal Church and its allegedly trendy faith, a faith that varies from a more worthy form of classical liberalism, is facing imminent death.
His argument, however, is neither particularly original nor true. It follows a thesis first set out in a 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing by Dean Kelley. Drawing on Kelley's argument, Douthat believes that in the 1960s liberal Christianity overly accommodated to the culture and loosened its ties to tradition. This rendered the church irrelevant and led to a membership hemorrhage. Over the years, critics of liberal churches used numerical decline not only as a sign of churchgoer dissatisfaction but of divine displeasure. To those who subscribe to Kelley's analysis, liberal Christianity long ago lost its soul--and the state of Protestant denominations is a theological morality tale confirmed by dwindling attendance.
That was 1972. Forty years later, in 2012, liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America's most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss. 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.
Douthat points out that the Episcopal Church has declined 23% in the last decade, identifying the loss as a sign of its theological infidelity. In the last decade, however, as conservative denominations lost members, their leaders have not equated the loss with unfaithfulness. Instead, they refer to declines as demographic "blips," waning evangelism, or the impact of secular culture. Membership decline has no inherent theological meaning for either liberals or conservatives. Decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion.
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.
There is more than a little historical irony in this. A quiet renewal is occurring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a twentieth century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now. Indeed, I think that the better story of contemporary Christianity is that of an awakening of a more open, more inclusive, more spiritually vital faith is roiling and I argue for that in my recent book, Christianity After Religion.
So, Mr. Douthat asks, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" But I wonder: Can Liberal Churches Save Christianity? The twenty-first century has yet to answer that, but I think we may be surprised.