Straw Crosses

I waited for a day to write about Ross Douthat’s latest bout of concern-trolling for liberal Christianity, because I don’t always write well when my knee is jerking uncontrollably, and I also wondered what others would say.

Here at PA over the weekend, Adele Stan pointed out the obvious: the customary conservative chuckling over the decline in membership of liberal Protestant denominations is getting a little dangerous since the same demographic afflictions are beginning to smite their own confessions (to his credit, Douthat notes that the real market-leaders in the American religious biz aren’t exactly offering his own idea of orthodox Christianity). She also has some sport with Ross’ assumption that it is “liberalism” rather than, say, the emergence of other life-options for women, that best explains the rapid drop in vocations to Catholic religious orders.

But as one might expect, it’s the primary targets of Douthat’s scolding, liberal “mainline” Protestants, who have conducted the most effective eye-rolling at this column. At Religion Dispatches, professor of theology Sarah Morice-Brubaker sits Ross down and explains that his idea of some sort of monolithic “liberal Christianity” doesn’t much exist. And moreover, she skewers his casual claim that liberal Christians don’t make serious theological claims rooted in Gospel and serious spirituality.

And in so doing, Morice-Brubaker gets to what I find most objectionable in Douthat’s take. Here’s the heart of his case against contemporary “liberal Christianity”:

What should be wished for…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.

I read this and wonder if Ross Douthat has ever actually set foot in an Episcopalian Church, where each and every week, the Nicene Creed is recited, a Eucharist is celebrated (at least that is the trend that has accelerated under the “liberal” leadership of that church; less frequent communion is mostly the dying habit of more conservative, “evangelical” Episcopalians), scriptures are read, and there’s all sorts of talk about Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Ross is either ignorant about all this, or has the temerity to suggest that none of the people sitting on or kneeling at those pews mean a thing of what they say.

It never seems to occur to religious “traditionalists” like Ross Douthat that an equally grave charge could be aimed at Christian conservatives who are in perpetual danger of confusing worship of Jesus Christ with such entirely secular preoccupations as maintaining economic privileges and mid-twentieth-century ideas of family structure and sexual morality–not to mention the worldly interests of the Church itself.

Indeed, instead of lecturing “liberal Christians” about our alleged lack of serious spirituality and advising us on how to put more posteriors in the pews and more money in the coffers, perhaps Ross Douthat should spend his time proctoring conservative Christians who attend churches he actually knows something about, and whose growing tendency to conflate the Gospels with the agenda of the American conservative movement and the Republican Party could use some critical attention. Creating straw crosses and burning them down is a waste of everyone’s time.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.