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Saving Liberal Christianity

Ross Douthat says the suicide of the Episcopal Church is not something religious conservatives should be smug about. Historically, liberal Christianity has done America a lot of good, he says. Excerpt:

What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”

Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that per haps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.

Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.

He’s right, but the only thing I see the Episcopal Church offering uncompromisingly to the world is a commitment to affirming and embracing homosexuality. They won’t even stand on the Eucharist; last week, the General Convention voted to make it available, as a matter of policy, to non-Christians.  [UPDATE: As several of you have pointed out in the comments, this proposal was not adopted. Apologies for my misreading. — RD]

More broadly, there doesn’t seem to be any need for liberal Christianity as it defines itself today. Why not? Because since the 1970s, activist liberalism itself has become preoccupied with issues of sex and personal autonomy, as opposed to economic concerns. And liberals have pretty much won that argument. As the liberal Jesuit priest Tom Reese told Time magazine:

But the familiar progressives-versus-Vatican paradigm seems almost certain to be undone by a looming demographic tsunami. Almost everyone agrees that the “millennial generation,” born in 1980 or later, while sharing liberal views on many issues, has no desire to mount the barricades. Notes Reese, “Younger Catholics don’t argue with the bishops; they simply do what they want or shop for another church.”

Reese’s remark reminds me of a liberal Catholic friend with whom I used to discuss theological issues. We never got anywhere because we couldn’t agree on a basis for discussion. I would point out that the Catechism teaches X on an issue, from which follows Y and Z. He would say, “But I don’t believe X” — and yet genuinely see no reason why the Church teaching X should have anything at all to do with his belief or non-belief in X, or why this had anything to do with whether or not he was a Catholic in good standing. There’s no arguing with that.

This is a problem not just for liberal churches, but for all the churches in our place and time. But it’s a bigger problem for liberal churches, because they offer no meaningful sign of contradiction to the modern world, and therefore no compelling reason to get out of bed on Sunday morning. If basic Christian doctrines can be abandoned willy-nilly, then where is the fixed point? The conservative churches are losing people too, and, if Putnam & Campbell’s research and analysis is correct, will continue to lose them, in large part over the issue of homosexuality. Young Americans find historic Christian teaching on sex and sexuality to be impossible to believe. Yet — as I’ve said many times — the churches that embrace modernist principles on sex (straight and gay) are not benefiting in terms of membership. The Millennials, broadly speaking, just don’t see the point of organized religion.

Organized religion will survive, somehow, though in a reduced form. Pope Benedict is right: the church of the future will be smaller, but it will be more committed to the faith. This is a small r-reformation that all the churches will unavoidably go through. The ones that come out the other side will be the churches that, however imperfectly, hold on to something timeless and solid in the Christian faith.

UPDATE: Note this comment from the thread below:

I thought about posting to the ‘Loyalty Oath’ thread, but I think it’s even more appropriate here. Having taught Catholic CCD for a good long time now, I can confidently say that dioceses or parishes aren’t trying to make catechists more faithful; they’re responding to an increased orthodoxy among catechists and parents of CCD children. The old-guard loopy liberal DREs [Note to Non-Catholics: this means Director of Religious Education, i.e., Sunday School superintendent — RD] and their followers are mostly gone, as are the parents who would drop off their kids for CCD but not attend Mass themselves. I no longer have students who last went to Mass at Christmas. Because the Boomers were the last generation who wanted their children to receive the sacraments, even though they weren’t practicing themselves. Their kids are gone, and the children of the Gen-Xers didn’t replace them. My students now are almost entirely hispanic, plus the homeschooled or privately schooled children of dedicated Catholics.

As recently as ten years ago, it was conventional wisdom that CCD was liberal, heterodox at best and ignorant at worst catechists teaching children who knew nothing of the faith. Today the DRE and catechists are much more likely to be orthodox – conservative if you will – and the children from practicing families. The parishes that change to meet this reality – and a promise of fidelity from the catechists looks like one way of doing that – will do better.

I literally quadrupled the attendance of my combined 3rd/4th grade class by sending a note to the parents of the 2nd graders (the required First Communion year), informing them that my class would be rigorous, orthodox, clearly presenting Catholic doctrine, and requiring parental support at home. Ten years ago, that would have gotten me a little meeting with the DRE and the quiet support of some parents but the louder opposition of most.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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