In his July 15th piece in the New York Times, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" Ross Douthat argues that (what he calls) "liberal Christianity" is on the decline. I think the opposite may be true. "Liberal Christianity" may even be flourishing, in an evolved state, helped along -- in the industrialized world at least -- by fundamentalist (so-called) "Christianity" and the psychic despotism of today's Vatican. Conspicuous consumption of religion is not a reliable means of measuring the vitality of "liberal Christianity" because the truest indication of "liberal Christianity's" strength may be its willingness to reject the corruption of clerical hierarchies in favor of "throwing down" with the Christ of the streets. If it is to survive, Douthat argues, "liberal Christianity" will have to offer what "secular liberalism" (as he calls it) cannot. A worthy enough premise. But "liberal Christianity" already does that. "Liberal Christianity" is already offering what neither today's conservative Christianity nor secular liberalism provide: Christ -- without the ecclesiastical trappings.
To measure the vitality of "liberal Christianity" as one might measure the robustness of a business -- in terms of number of consumers, conversions, baptism and vocations -- is to miss the point of what a church actually is. Christians of all stripes do tend to agree that the ministry of Jesus was not focused on filling pews or increasing priestly vocations. Doing the work of Christ with Christ in mind is church. "Liberal Christianity" takes seriously the obligation to increase peace, serve the poor, love "the stranger," forgive the guilty, and protect the innocent, while maintaining structure for worship and teaching. The great majority of people who do "works of mercy" in the context of religious practice (what daily mass-attending Dorothy Day called them) do have prayer lives.
The worship lives of those I know who do social justice work in the context of their religious affiliations and practices do so with God in the forefront of their thinking and feeling. I worked for several years with a group of lawyers from a Protestant church who advised indigent people on housing, food stamps and free and low-cost medical insurance. This "liberal" Christian Protestant ministryoperated out of a Roman Catholic church. The Protestants were progressive-minded but were also far more conspicuously prayerful at the site where we offered free legal advice to clients that the Roman Catholics were.
This Protestant Church had a website instead of a church building, conducted Sunday services in rented space in a local school, and their church, except on Sunday morning, was focused almost entirely on doing social justice work for people outside of their church. On the face, this church might look like the kind of church Douthat erroneously imagines to be offering little beyond "what secular liberalism" offer, but Pro forma sacrament and groupthink are not what the orthodoxy-challenging Jesus on earth was after. The goal of Jesus was not to get crosses outside the courthouse and pleats on school girls. His goal was to teach us to love the marginalized, resist the urge to wage war, bring consciousness to our worship lives and to revere the prophets and tradition of the Hebrew Bible and to look to the Resurrection. My religious truth lies in the Roman Catholic Church, yet I am Christian enough to recognize that it is quite often churches which are short on rules and gothic flourishes that most succeed in being authentically "Christian."
I visited Rome earlier this month and spent a day and a half in the Vatican with my 17-year-old daughter. As we exited the Apostolic Palace, having just spent about 30 minutes sitting amid the flashbulb din of the Sistine Chapel, my girl quipped: "Just like Disney World, the end of the tour drops you off in the store." The art of the Vatican -- even despite the blundering fig-leaf campaign bastardizations -- moved me to tears, but I came away feeling uneasy about the moneylenders-in-the-temple aspect of St. Peter's Basilica. Conservative Christianity may offer much that secular aspects of social and political life don't begin to provide, but at what cost? The truth is "liberal Christianity" is a redundancy. If it's not "liberal," it's probably not "Christian." If it countenances greed, the making of war, the polluting of the earth, prejudice -- it is not Christianity.
Read "Can 'Liberal' Christianity Be Saved? It Already Is." in its entirety, on Indie Theology.