Liberalism redivivus

In light of recent comments on this blog, and the wider discussion going on in the blogosphere about Brian McLaren’s new book, Peter Leithart’s recent comments about liberalism seem relevant:

Demerath writes that the widely reported decline of liberal Protestantism may in fact signal its “wider cultural triumph. . . . Liberal Protestants have lost structurally at the micro level precisely because they won culturally at the macro level.” Smith adds, “liberal Protestantism’s core values – individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the authority of human experience – have come to so permeate broader American culture that its own churches as organizations have difficulty surviving.”

Smith’s research team found that “individual autonomy, unbounded tolerance, freedom from authorities, the affirmation of pluralism, the centrality of human self-consciousness, the practical value of moral religion, epistemological skepticism, and an instinctive aversion to anything ‘dogmatic’ or committed to particulars were routinely taken for granted by respondents.”

In academic theology, old style liberals are increasingly hard to find. But that doesn’t mean the threat of liberalism has withered away. The views that Richard Niebuhr summarized as the heart of liberal theology in 1937 are still alive and well: “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” It seems that liberalism’s history belies its own disbelief in resurrection: Just when we were putting the finishing touches on the post mortem, behold, it lives!

And why? That’s hard to say, but my guess is that “conservative” churches haven’t posed much of an alternative to liberalism over the past couple of centuries. Smith’s team provides a bit of evidence in support of that theory. They found that “most Catholic and Jewish emerging adults . . . talked very much like classical liberal Protestants” and “evangelical Protestant and black Protestant emerging adults even talked like liberal Protestants.” When “conservatives” are drinking deep from the same keg of modernity as “liberals,” it doesn’t matter much if conservatives can still, barely, walk a straight line.

For those of us who don’t identify with liberalism a good question for ourselves might be: what kinds of activities and teachings would be necessary to sustain non-liberal churches?