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The Dying (No, Really) Of Liberal Protestantism

The Atlantic has a story up about the decline in religious conservatism 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 […]

The Atlantic has a story up about the decline in religious conservatism 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.

“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, reviewing a book 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.