For nearly a century, conservative Christians have seen the mainline Protestant decline as a sign of God’s judgment on liberals for hitching their wagon to the spirit of the age. That’s also a subtext of New York Times editor Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The threat of heresy has always been an opportunity for the church to clarify and articulate its convictions. Yet in the past, even heretics were clear in their teaching, Douthat explained in an interview: “But instead, precisely because the heresies we actually have tend to be anti-hierarchical, vague about doctrine, and much more individualistic and do-it-yourself and self-consciously easygoing than some of the past heresies you’re referencing, it’s harder for people to clarify what’s actually at stake in religious debates—both for Christianity and for America as a whole.”
Liberals used to justify their losses by referring to their cultural impact. This strategy has reappeared in recent weeks, even as mainline denominations are slashing budgets and the Episcopal Church is selling off its headquarters in the heart of Manhattan. Diana Butler Bass defends liberalism as the best hope for reviving Christianity.
The Rt. Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, former dean of the venerable National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., has offered a similar argument:
What Douthat sees as a rising tide of liberalism increasingly weakening the mainline churches is in fact a tidal wave of social change washing over the face of Christianity in North America. To put it simply, Americans are in many cases finding in their churches little of the spiritual sustenance they once did. Many have lost confidence in the institution itself, and are too often finding little in church services to win them away from Sunday morning jogging, gardening, and soccer leagues.
In response to these responses, Mr. Douthat has qualified his analysis while holding to the basic plot: namely, that liberal Christianity—for all of its political and social influence—has emptied the faith of its content.
It’s an argument that J. Gresham Machen made in the 1920s, with his controversial book, Christianity and Liberalism.
Yet Dean Lloyd makes a good point:
A nation that once went to church on Sunday turns up far less. A culture that emphasizes personal fulfillment, consumer savvy, high entertainment expectations, and impatience with the demands of organizations, does little to encourage the patience required for life in local congregations. And, crucially, many churches have become so at ease in the American establishment that they have lost their sense of urgency for nurturing strong personal faith in their members. The churches have much to learn in this time of transition, and the good news is that the learning curve is now sharp and many are in the game.
It’s true, as Bass and Lloyd observe, that conservative churches are facing decline as well. Secularization is wider than card-carrying liberal Protestantism. The culture of personal fulfillment that he mentions encompasses conservatives as well, and evangelicals have excelled at marketing to this cultural instinct. It points up the fact that it’s as easy to secularize churches by identifying with popular culture as it is by linking them up with the trends of high culture. Liberals pioneered the strategy of marketing a watered-down “faith-experience” with a craving for cultural acceptance, transforming the radical news of sin and grace into therapeutic categories of personal and social well-being. To the extent that evangelicals follow that course, albeit with different cultural agendas, it too will find its relevance operations irrelevant to those who can find entertainment, politics, and advice for their self-help life projects elsewhere.
But what exactly does it mean to be “in the game”? Apparently, it is to continue to shape the left wing of the culture wars. It is not theology that matters, but vital spirituality. Like Professor Bass, Mr. Lloyd believes that the core of genuine faith is morality: love of God and neighbor. This is not just the law that Christians have always seen as essential, but the gospel. And now wonder that this is all that’s left after successive denials of the historic Christian faith. Bass and Lloyd cite the social and political legacy of liberals, from the civil rights movement of the 60s to the gay rights movement of today. “The real issue will not be which churches are conservative and which are liberal, but which are spiritually alive and which are not.”
Being “in the game” for liberals has always meant cultural clout. In this respect, ironically, liberalism has more invested in “Christendom” than in Christianity. Long before the modernist-fundamentalist controversy, American Protestantism sought to be the soul of a Christian America. In many ways, liberal and conservative Protestantism today represent twin offspring of American civil religion—albeit different political wings. Liberalism does not have a gospel, but our response should not be smug self-confidence. As I argued in Christless Christianity, many of the same trends that corrupted mainline Protestantism are alive and well in evangelicalism today.
With all due respect to Dean Lloyd, being “in the game” from a Christian perspective has to do with the faithful preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and the spiritual and temporal care of the saints. To begin with, there has to be a gospel to answer the deep crisis between God and humanity that reflects itself in the crisis between human beings. Only the incarnate God can save us, by his life, death, and resurrection. Take this away and there is no reason for the church to exist. Delivering this message—to lifelong believers as well as to those “far off” is the mission of the church, as it reaches out, draws in, and grows up in ever-widening circles. With this gospel, even the little church in the wildwood is on the field in the middle of God’s action. Without it, we’re not only out of the game, but playing for the other team.