Seriously. You’ll not hear me say that very often about anyone, but in this case I think it’s justified. The ouster of Metropolitan Jonah has all the makings of a brilliant story. A high level church official, the highest actually, has been implicated in a cover up of a rape by a deranged priest. There is sex, alcohol, religion, and scandal, but all anyone can seem to talk about is an article Douthat wrote about the statistical decline of the Episcopal Church. Small newspapers in smaller midwestern towns are giving each other high fives at the downfall of the nominal Christian. Episcopal bishops repudiate the criticisms, Episcopal parishioners echo them, and Episcopal priests try to temper them. Meanwhile, emergent, missional, politically leftist, and every stripe of hipster Christian have launched an Occupy the Blogosphere movement to protest the caricature. How did Douthat do it? It has been outrageous, and I am clearly by no means immune. (I’ve even caught myself arguing in the comments of other articles with people clearly too riled to think straight.)
Considering how heated the discourse has become, a few clarifications and disclaimers seem to be retrospectively in order on my part.
The liberal-conservative continuum is a useful but not flawless tool for discussing contemporary Christianity. I endeavor to be very careful with the labels I use in describing Christian groups. A historical perspective has afforded me a wonderfully rich taxonomy with which to precisely categorize various manifestations of the faith as they have appeared repeatedly throughout history, and I am convinced that it is safe to talk about a “liberal” wing of Christianity and a “conservative” one that dominate the scene in the American religious landscape. Now there are important qualifiers there. First, only America is in view here. Talking about liberal and conservative Christianity in Africa would conjure completely different images if not, more likely, be entirely nonsensical. Second, liberal and conservative Christianity dominate but do not constitute the American religious landscape. There are many groups, some significant theologically and some powerful within small segments of society, that fall into neither group neatly. Any kind of binary system of categorizing Christianity will necessarily fall short. (Sorry, Byron Williams.)
Ambiguity is the mother of conflict. Much of the tension that has arisen in the wake of Douthat’s article has been a result of uncertainty about just what is meant by “liberal Christianity.” Some of this has been on the part of self-styled liberals misreading what is being said in an effort to serve their own agendas. Much of it has been on the part of conservatives who are so busy rejoicing in their arguments that they do not take the time to clarify them fully. Even Douthat is somewhat at fault. It has been rightly pointed out that liberal Christianity can and does thrive in ways beyond what can be measured by attendance in the Episcopal Church. Douthat, however, is very careful to limit his criticisms to institutional bodies that have embraced liberal Christianity. Thus, saying that the “spiritual but not religious” demographic (who are often embracing the label “liberal Christians”) yet grows is not to debunk Douthat but to confirm him. They are leaving the liberal churches because they have nothing left to offer. Additionally, many have complained that certain liberal church groups are continuing to grow, churches that cling to the traditional core of Christian doctrine but play free-and-loose with traditional Christian forms. Again, however, Douthat makes very sure to define liberal Christianity as theological liberalism, the marginalization (if not obliteration) of all theology and dogma in favor of left-wing social and political causes. Cf. Burklo. Churches that keep the faith and update the practice are the kind of liberal churches Douthat wants. Which leads me to…
The decline of liberal Christianity is nothing to be happy about. Douthat is careful not to gloat over the predicted demise of the Episcopal Church, and other conservative Christians should follow suit. The conservative church has always existed in order to temper the unbridled pursuit of progress as its own end, to sustain the truths which might be (and in many cases have been) discarded when they become inconvenient, and to continue the stress on holiness which has characterized God’s relationship with His people from its earliest recorded moments. What the conservative church needs to realize is that the liberal church has an important function as well. It prevents the rest of the church from embracing the fallacy that something must be done a certain way because it has always been done a certain way. It keeps the faith fresh, timely, and growing. And, perhaps most importantly, the liberal church has historically stressed social ethics as a counterpoint to the conservative church’s stress on personal ethics. Conservatives rightly have a problem with vulgarity, sexual libertinism, divorce, and substance abuse. Liberals rightly have a problem with war, poverty, oppression, and disease.
The two groups or, more appropriately, the two impulses within Christianity serve each other through their constructive tension. It is only when that tension becomes conflict that we see the kind of partisan infighting which is quickly coming to define every aspect of American life. So conservatives, put away the fireworks. The demise of a powerful liberal branch is among the worst possible outcomes for American Christianity. And liberals, there’s no reason to equate Douthat with sexists and racists. His article has the same purpose that my responses to Burklo did: to encourage the liberal branch of Christianity to recover “a religious reason for its own existence” and “consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.” Because I want a strong, vibrant, liberal voice among institutional churches. Otherwise, the Southern Baptist Convention gets to set the tone of the message, and I’m not ready for that.