Eric Blauer wants to know how liberal Christians are responding to Russell Douthat’s editorial on the decline of Liberal Christianity. Diana Butler Bass and the Rev. Winnie Varghese have given two very fine responses and I have a few observations of my own.
First, it is not liberal Christianity that is declining in the west, it is Christianity. Period, full stop. Roman Catholicism has remained stable entirely because of the influx of Latino Catholics. The estimates of people who call themselves ex-Catholics in the USA now runs to 30 million. The Southern Baptist Convention has lost something in the order of 3 million people in the past decade or so, more people than populate the entire Episcopal Church. It was two years ago or so that a Gallup Poll revealed that for the first time in our history less than half of the citizens of the United States identified themselves with a particular religion. The only denomination that is growing right now is the Mormons, and they are using the best method since conversion at the point of the sword went out of fashion, babies. Mormon missionaries are not good at recruiting people who were not previously LDS into their church, but the religious imperative to have children has continued to be successful in producing new generations of believers.
Second, the decline in mainline denominations, of which the Episcopal Church, my spiritual home, is one, predated the leftward movement that has become so prominent in recent years. In the Episcopal Church the decline began 10 years before we began serious discussions on Prayer Book revision, 15 years before the ordination of women, and nearly forty years before the ordination of an openly gay man as Bishop of New Hampshire. If we want to think in terms of cause and effect, the liberal reforms in the Episcopal Church might better be understood as a result of, rather than a cause of, the decline in numbers.
In reality however, in the face of systemic declines all over western Christianity, we need to admit to ourselves, if to no one else, that neither liberalism nor conservatism are responsible for the decline in Christianity. People are not saying in big numbers that their denomination is too liberal and therefore they will go to a conservative church, nor are they saying that their denomination is too conservative and therefore they will go to a liberal one. Anecdotally there are numerous examples of this, but they don’t explain the systemic nature of this decline. Rather, people are saying Christianity just isn’t relevant, and are not going anywhere at all.
Christianity has always had progressives and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives, and always will. Today, as when progressive Paul took on traditionalist Peter at Antioch, (and yes, that is how it was) the Gospel admits of many interpretations. The task of Christians is not to extirpate differing understandings of the meaning of what God has done in Christ, so that theirs alone triumphs, but rather it is speak in terms people today understand, and which liberate them to live full lives as beloved children of God. So to traditionalist Christians everywhere, may I simply offer the advice of John Donne, that famous English Divine: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”