From R.R. Reno:
In his column in the New York Times, Ross Douthat chronicles the decline of liberal Protestantism.
The Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations were once pillars of the WASP establishment, providing religious leadership and inspiration in nation-defining events such as the civil rights movement. Now? Well, these Christian churches have so thoroughly embraced the social mores of our secular elites that they’ve lost a great deal of their distinctive purpose. Why go to church when you can get what you need by reading the editorial pages of the New York Times?
The self-destruction of mainline Protestantism is an often told story. But Douthat makes an important observation.
If liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity—that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion—has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.
I would go a step further. The decline of liberal Protestantism has played an important role in the political polarization of America. By and large, the secular Left has come to dominate the Democratic Party. One effect has been to drive religious voters toward the Republican Party, turning our political life into one of the primary places for working out a struggle to define the future of American culture. It’s because institutions like the Episcopal Church have become irrelevant that there are few moderating forces at work on the Left today.
The decline of mainline Protestantism has meant the decline of Christian influence over American elite culture. No Christian (or Jew or Muslim, for that matter) ought to celebrate the end of liberal Christianity. It hasn’t meant the end of liberalism, only the end of a religiously and morally serious liberalism. That’s been bad for America, and bad for religious Americans.
Now (ReformedMind speaking) I wan to comment on Reno’s otherwise proper warning. It’s true that Christiam moralism has good implications for a culture, even if it comes from theologically liberal people. But the decline of Protestant liberalism is surely a warning to conservatives not to tinker with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. We ought not celebrate when a once gospel preaching denomination loses its way. But we should be happy that fewer people sit under the preaching of a false gospel. Recall the words of Paul the Apostle:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” – Galatians 1:6-8
I do agree, however, that political polarization is both a consequence and perhaps a cause of losing the theological center. However, though we must lament a culture losing its moral bearings and reverence for God, we must welcome whatever the sovereign God may be doing that ends in the purification, sanctification, and discipline of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Professing Christians must not place themselves in between unbelief and belief, an option that theological liberalism foments. That’s a lukewarm position to be in and we know what God says about that (Rev. 3:16; perhaps that’s what God has been doing to Christian liberalism for the past century?).