Mainline Protestantism’s Pyrrhic Victory?
John Turner, writing on the First Things blog, says liberal Protestantism might have won the intra-religious culture war after all. Excerpt:
Liberal Protestants may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle. A trenchant quote from the sociologist Christian Smith: “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.” One could turn to a host of other scholars to buttress Hedstrom’s contentions: David Hollinger and Leigh Schmidt immediately come to mind. Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas.
Institutional strength counts for a great deal. In surveys of American religion, evangelicalism is holding up much better than the mainline. Cultural influence accompanied by institutional decline sounds like a a rather pyrrhic victory. Nevertheless, the reappraisal of liberal Protestantism by Hedstrom, Hollinger, and others seems persuasive to me. [For Evangelicalism,] A few decades of political influence accompanied by a growing cultural irrelevance (not there yet) is also not exactly a triumphant narrative.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is pretty much deinstitutionalized mainline Protestantism, is it not? If the purpose of the church is to convert the world, and the world is converted to your idea of who God is and what God expects of us, haven’t you won? Aren’t we living in liberal Protestant utopia, in which the withering away of the church is a sign of its final victory?