- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

The Dying (No, Really) Of Liberal Protestantism

The Atlantic has a story up about the decline in religious conservatism [1] among younger Americans. I see no reason to dispute the data, however distressing I might find it, and in any case it’s no surprise. But I largely agree with the point Russell Moore makes in this passage from the story:

Not every conservative religious leader is sweating it. Russell Moore, the recently elected president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says he doesn’t put much stock in surveys like PRRI’s. He believes that the type of religion that survives and shapes cultures shows up in local congregations.

“Congregationally speaking, Protestant liberalism is deader than Henry VIII. While survey after survey shows a secularizing American population, this hasn’t helped the growth of liberal Protestant churches,” he says. “Where are the Unitarian mega-churches, the Episcopalian church-planting movements?”

Moore doesn’t believe religious conservatives, particularly Christians, are fading. But he does think they will be culturally marginalized in the future.

change_me

“We will seem increasingly conservative,” he says, “not because we are passing out voter’s guides but because we believe in such culturally incredible things as that every life matters, that marriage is a permanent one-flesh union of a man to a woman, and, above all, that Jesus of Nazareth is alive, and Lord.”

I’ve written about this before, in talking about Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace. It is undeniably true that affinity for religious conservatism has declined steeply among younger Americans, and that started in the early 1990s. The problem for liberal Protestantism is that the growing disaffection from religion among the young is costing conservative churches, it is not resulting in a gain for liberal churches. It’s true that younger Christians identify more with religious liberalism, but it’s also true that they tend not to affiliate with a church at all. This is what Moore means when he says that liberal Protestantism is “congregationally” dead.

This brought to mind a piece Matthew Sutton did a couple of years ago for Books & Culture [2], reviewing a book [3] by University of Washington religion professor James K. Wellman that compares top Evangelical churches in the Pacific Northwest with top liberal Protestant churches. From Sutton’s review:

Wellman’s study was driven in part by his interest in religion in the Pacific Northwest, a region that boasts the lowest per-capita church affiliation in the nation, with 63 percent of the population not affiliating with any religious institution. Furthermore, this is a region that is predominately urban, very educated, maintains a median income level above the national average, and has in recent years voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Overall, Wellman describes the region as “best delineated by a pragmatic approach that generally distrusts government, lionizes the entrepreneur, nurtures a libertarian and individualistic set of values, and seeks the preservation of the region’s resources and beauty.” All of these factors, Wellman believes, should guarantee the success of liberal Protestant churches. But they have not.

As Wellman set out to write this book, he planned to identify and compare successful liberal churches with successful evangelical churches. That proved to be difficult. Wellman identified and studied 24 “of the fastest growing evangelical churches in western Washington and western Oregon that had shown substantial growth in numbers and finances between 2000 and 2005.” He compared these with ten “vital” liberal churches—these were churches that had simply maintained their membership and financial status over the previous few years (although by the end of the study they hadn’t even done that). Only two of the liberal churches had grown, three had plateaued, and five had marginally declined, even as evangelical growth continued unabated. By every measure of “success,” then, evangelicals far outpaced liberals. So, rather than providing liberals around the country with a positive model of growth from the Pacific Northwest, Wellman ended up adding another chapter to the familiar chronicle of liberal Christianity’s continuing crisis. Furthermore, by focusing specifically on the Pacific Northwest, he actually demonstrated that the future of liberal Protestantism is even dicier than we have realized. In a region where liberal churches should be thriving, they are dying, and where evangelicals should be relegated to the margins, they are taking center stage.

How does Prof. Wellman explain this? According to Sutton’s review, Wellman says it has a lot to do with the fact that Evangelicals have a clearer sense of their community and mission. Evangelicals talk a lot about establishing a personal relationship with Christ, while liberals talk more about living by the values Jesus represented. And whereas liberals talk a lot about community, Evangelicals, Wellman found, do a lot more to create and sustain community. There’s also this:

Liberals are not happy about being the losers in the clash of Christian civilizations. In fact, according to Wellman, they are preoccupied with evangelicals: “Liberals tended to comment more frequently about evangelicals than evangelicals about liberals.” Liberal churches “felt directly tested by the numerical success of evangelical congregations, and frequently bemoaned this competition.” In many ways, liberals viewed evangelicals, who they insist on calling “fundamentalists,” as the enemy: “For liberals, the disparagement of ‘fundamentalists’ became a cliché throughout the study.” In contrast, evangelicals’ main enemy is secular society and liberal culture, not mainline churches. In fact, when asked about their co-religionists, evangelicals usually expressed pity about the challenges facing the nation’s mainline denominations (which probably irritates the liberals even more).

Sutton, who is a Washington State history professor, says the trends Wellman identifies in the Pacific Northwest are similar nationwide. I don’t know how this plays out among Catholics, either regionally or nationally, whose ecclesiology is quite different. But studies of Catholics have shown that the more committed one is to going to mass regularly, the more theologically conservative one tends to be. The future of American Christianity, then, looks to be a smaller church overall, but a more theologically conservative one. It’s interesting to read that Wellman, an ordained Presbyterian minister, started his study sharing many liberal Protestant criticisms of Evangelicals, but ended up in a different place. He didn’t come to agree with Evangelicals, but did develop a degree of respect for them and how their mission-mindedness that he hadn’t had before.

117 Comments (Open | Close)

117 Comments To "The Dying (No, Really) Of Liberal Protestantism"

#1 Comment By Jim On July 26, 2013 @ 6:24 pm

MBrown says:
July 26, 2013 at 3:33 pm
Jeffersonian,

A Roman Catholic church cannot be evangelical. It may share some superficial characteristics with what we see as “typical” evangelical churches (contextualized worship and preaching, a more personal/emotive component to devotional life, and emphasis on proselytizing), but it cannot be evangelical. Specifically, the evangelical understanding of substitutionary atonement and Biblical authority as standing above and apart from tradition and dogma rule out the possibility of an evangelical Catholic church.

I say this not to demean Roman Catholicism (though I am an evangelical protestant in the PCA), but to clarify how the term “evangelical” is to be properly understood and applied.

One other thing, MBrown, your doctrinal definition of the word “evangelical” is a bit misleading, and also (at least to my mind) evidence that you share the apologetic strain of the PCAs that I have met.

On the first point, I would feel much better if you had capitalized the term “Evangelical” to denote the doctrinal belief shared by some Protestants that you defend. Small-e evangelical is simply the word that means one who evangelizes (i.e. spreads the gospel). Granted, not every sect or denomination that calls itself e/Evangelical means what you mean, leading to the confusion. I would liken it to the term “General Baptist”, which I just recently learned has a specific doctrinal meaning rather than my prior assumption that it meant something like “vanilla Baptist” or “non-denominational Baptist” or some such.

On the second point, you are setting yourself apart from an older tradition.

Again, I’m not making a value judgment – apologetically-oriented sects/denominations are often far more knowledgeable about doctrinal matters and the Bible than traditions that are less-apologetically oriented.

#2 Comment By Savia On July 26, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

MmBrown,

There are Roman Catholics who are Evangelical. In the sense that they are more open to evangelizing.

It’s like the Alan Hawkins joke. “You were led to Jesus, by a Catholic?”. “I didn’t know that was supposed to happen.”

This is what RC’s mean by Evangelical, though you might have a different view on this issue.

#3 Comment By Savia On July 26, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

“On the ground, Catholicismis a liberal mainline denomination.”

Thursday. I have come across two kinds of Catholic progressives. Those who want to move beyond Jesus and those who don’t. Some priests and nuns would shock even those who commonly consider themselves to to be liberal in the church.

#4 Comment By Annek On July 26, 2013 @ 7:49 pm

Jeffersonian, EliteCommInc1., skrifari,

Thanks for your responses to my questions. They were very informative, and I plan to look at the books that were recommended to me!

#5 Comment By isaacplautus On July 26, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

@ MIkeS

You’re right. The JS was merely trying to popularize what the “higher criticism” German theologians began in the late 19th century. The problem with the Jesus Seminar was they presented their findings as scholarly consensus, which just isn’t true. N.T. Wright and Garry Wills have both written pretty formidable critiques of the Seminar.

Anyways, this is a debate that would probably be better for a different thread.

#6 Comment By JonF On July 26, 2013 @ 9:02 pm

Re: Was there a time in the US in which a middle class white collar type needed to be seen as a church-goer in order to get and keep a job and be seen as a respectable member of the community?

I doubt it. The Village Atheist is an old figure– but accepted by his neighbors as a bit of an eccentric as long as he did not make himself obnoxious. And for a real world example, my paternal grandfather, though not atheist, was not a church member and seems not have suffered one bit of neighborly disapproval on that account.
For that neither Abraham Lincoln nor several of the Founding Fathers were church-goers.

There’s an old saying that one does not discuss sex, politics or religion in polite company. This points to the reality that America has long relegated religion to the private sphere of things, and employers did not usually nose into their employees church affiliations.

#7 Comment By William Dalton On July 26, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

I, too, am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

“Overall, Wellman describes the region as “best delineated by a pragmatic approach that generally distrusts government, lionizes the entrepreneur, nurtures a libertarian and individualistic set of values, and seeks the preservation of the region’s resources and beauty.” All of these factors, Wellman believes, should guarantee the success of liberal Protestant churches. But they have not.”

The liberal Presbyterian Church has little to appeal to those attached to a “libertarian and individualistic set of values”. It is decidedly communitarian and socialist and propagates these values as zealously as evangelicals do the hopelessness of those who die without Christ.

“In many ways, liberals viewed evangelicals, who they insist on calling “fundamentalists,” as the enemy: “For liberals, the disparagement of ‘fundamentalists’ became a cliché throughout the study.” In contrast, evangelicals’ main enemy is secular society and liberal culture, not mainline churches.”

Presbyterian churches that grow and prosper have done so almost entirely by filling their rolls with refugees from evangelical, “Bible believing” churches. They identify their demons as arising from the oppressive teachings of evangelicals and they welcome ministry that reassures them in that belief. In contrast, evangelical church growth, and especially its leadership, comes primarily from those who fled the pews of mainline churches, believing that they have capitulated to secular society and liberal culture. For evangelicals, what is going on in mainline (oldline?) churches is only a subset of their concerns. For Christian liberals, the proclamation of the heresies of the evangelical churches IS their concern.

#8 Comment By MBrown On July 26, 2013 @ 10:17 pm

Savia,

It is fine that some RC’s consider themselves Evangelical because they evangelize, but that is simply an incorrect understanding of the meaning of the term.

#9 Comment By Thomas Sm On July 26, 2013 @ 11:02 pm

MBrown,

At its most basic, “evangelical” refers to a style or emphasis in approach, with reference to the Gospels (the Greek word for which is “Euangelia” – “good news”, as some Protestant Bibles are named). It need not refer to “sola fide” or any other theological doctrine of the Reformation, much less Calvinism.

That said, Catholics can have an evangelical approach, but cannot be limited to a discussion of the Gospels (and still be theologically Catholic). Many Protestants can, so in that sense Catholics are less evangelical.

There is a factual (or logical) error, however, that cannot be chalked down to theological differences:
“Specifically, the evangelical understanding of substitutionary atonement and Biblical authority as standing above and apart from tradition and dogma”

—It does not matter how you cut it, what denomination you are, what theology you profess, etc., you cannot take Biblical authority “above and apart” from tradition because the formation of the Biblical canon *depends on* Church tradition.

Substitutionary atonement, likewise, derives from Catholic dogma, and is neither taught in the Orthodox Church nor obviously apparent in the Bible. Even if you throw out Catholic dogma, this doctrine can only be logically derived from the Bible, which thus depends on some theological tradition. In the Reformed case, substitutionary atonement is still borrowed from Catholicism, via Calvin the lawyer’s prejudice for neat, legal syllogisms.

#10 Comment By MBrown On July 26, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

Jim,

Fair point. I should clarify that I’m talking about the term Evangelical, as a particular stream within Christianity, rather than evangelical, as a disposition. Capital E versus lowercase e. In the same sense that, though I believe in one holy, catholic church, I am not a Catholic.

But, then, I would have thought that was obvious, or else the entire discussion would be irrelevant. The point remains, “Evangelical Roman Catholic” is an oxymoron.

#11 Comment By Turmarion On July 26, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

Thursday, re liberal and conservative religion:

A conservative Christian might believe in a literal Hell, demons, pitchforks, shooting flames, hellfire and brimstone, and a majority of the human race damned for all eternity.

A less conservative Christian might believe in a Hell along the lines of The Great Divorce–solely self-imposed eternal separation from God, but bad enough for all that; and might be unsure as to how many are there.

A liberal Christian might think that there is no eternal Hell, but that all are eventually saved.

Now any of these might be held with any degree of commitment from burning, passionate fervor to “meh” indifference. The point is this: the fervor and certainty with which one holds any of these beliefs has zero correlation with whether any one of them is actually true. That’s what I was saying, and all your snark about eeevul librul religion is totally irrelevant to that point. The believer in hellfire and damnation may hold his beliefs with greater passion and certainty than the universalist; but that has not a whit to do with which is right.

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On July 26, 2013 @ 11:32 pm

It is fine that some RC’s consider themselves Evangelical because they evangelize, but that is simply an incorrect understanding of the meaning of the term.

MBrown channels Church Lady channeling Humpty Dumpty. “When I use the word Evangelical, it means exactly what I choose it to mean.”

Looking at what’s available on-line from the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, American version, the ORIGIN of the word is ” late Middle English: from ecclesiastical Latin evangelizare, from Greek euangelizesthai, from euangelos (see evangel).” Thus, evangelism has been part of Christian tradition predating even the Roman Catholic establishment and the formal patriarchate of the Orthodox church, but certainly infused both.

The definition includes, but is not limited to, the definition Brown insists upon:

“adjective

>of or according to the teaching of the gospel or the Christian religion.
>of or denoting a tradition within Protestant Christianity emphasizing the authority of the Bible, personal conversion, and the doctrine of salvation by faith in the Atonement.
>zealous in advocating something.

noun

a member of the evangelical tradition in the Christian Church. ”

A Roman Catholic can be evangelical, as can a Lutheran church that still formally teaches that Rome is the Whore of Babylon.

Thus, an evangelical Roman Catholic is one who engages in evangelism, that is, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who have not yet heard, or not yet accepted it. The meaning of the adjective is rather expansive.

Even the meaning of the noun refers to a tradition in the “Christian Church.” Since Erin Manning has freely acknowledged that Protestants are Christian, I see no reason to be boorish and deny that Roman Catholics are also. Besides, its true.

#13 Comment By Chris 1 On July 27, 2013 @ 12:13 am

Ronald Reagan was, and Nancy Reagan is, Presbyterian.

#14 Comment By Jeffersonian On July 27, 2013 @ 1:22 am

Actually, I’ve met people, including a couple of priests [one was an Orthodox], who were actively born-again/evangelical as you or I would understand it, but for various reasons [usually family or cultural] either now attend a Catholic/Orthodox parish or never left Catholicism/Orthodoxy. Not many, but they do exist. To me, it takes more than a little mental gymnastics to mix the two, but they’ve worked it out in their heads and hearts, somehow.

#15 Comment By James Kabala On July 28, 2013 @ 12:07 am

Siarlys Jenkins: No, no, no, MBrown is right and you are wrong. It is actually his opponents who are taking the Humpty Dumpty approach.

#16 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On July 30, 2013 @ 12:44 am

If you say so James Kabala. Care to elucidate? Or are you indulging in friendly sarcasm, in which case, please forgive my insinuation. As H.L. Mencken used to write to each and every critic, “Dear Sir, You may be right.”

#17 Pingback By Why the Young Religious Right Is Leaning Left On October 20, 2015 @ 3:31 pm

[…] Well, if they're doing what the article suggests it'll be all downhill from there for em'. The Dying (No, Really) Of Liberal Protestantism | The American Conservative The Atlantic has a story up about the decline in religious conservatism among younger Americans. I […]