How Liberal Protestantism Happens (and it’s even worse when it claims to be conservative)

When you ask the church to do something that it can’t, you have a problem.

Here is the premise for Mark Tooley’s brief for churches building community: Matt Yglesias.

Left leaning commentator Matthew Yglesias, who’s Jewish, tweeted today: “Think I’m becoming a Straussian/Putnamist who instrumentally wants to get everyone to go to church again.” Columnist Ross Douthat, who’s Catholic, responded: “Be the change you seek.” Yglesias retorted: “Not gonna sell out the chosen people like that! But I’m gonna go neocon and root for the Christians vs the post-Christians.”

Tooley then goes on about how much Protestant churches civilized America:

Churches and denominations were central to building America’s democratic ethos. They civilized and socialized the early frontier. They created a wider civil society supporting politics, education, charity and community building. Regular church goers have never been a majority in America. But churches as institutions were foundations and pillars of wider society that benefitted all. Typically savvy non religious people have recognized their centrality to American culture and civic life.

He even defends civil religion:

What critics of civil religion fail to see is that Christianity has a duty to society to help create the language and architecture for constructive civil life that benefits all. Christianity wants all to be fed, clothed, housed, provided health care, treated with dignity, given security, and equipped with the political tools to live harmoniously in peace. Christians seek the common good for all society, not just what directly benefits themselves. But this promotion of the common good certainly benefits Christians and itself witnesses to the power, grandeur and truth of the Gospel.

This is out of the playbook of Tim Keller on the church and social capital.

Tooley thinks that evangelicals and secularists fail to see the value that churches add to civil society:

Nondenominational Christianity and evangelicalism often lack this long history and self-understanding as cultural stewards. They often focus more exclusively on individual faith and spiritual needs sometimes from a consumerist perspective. Sometimes their adherents see themselves more as a tribe or a subculture than as parcel to wider society with wider responsibilities.

That could be the reason for some. But for others, the problem is that the social mission of the church is not only hard to find in Peter or Paul or Jesus (is that bar too high?), but also that when Protestants were best at creating social capital, they forgot about Jesus and the world to come. That’s why Machen was important. He saw what the social purpose of the church was doing to stuff like doctrine, preaching, evangelism, and missions.

The rejection of the Christian hope is not always definite or conscious; sometimes the liberal preacher tries to maintain a belief in the immortality of the soul. But the real basis of the belief in immortality has been given up by the rejection of the New Testament account of the resurrection of Christ. And, practically, the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the center of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.

Thus religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state. So it is looked upon by the men of the present day. Even hard-headed business men and politicians have become convinced that religion is needed. But it is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end. We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help. (Christianity and Liberalism)

How does Tooley think the mainline churches went off the rails? Some conservatives believe it happened because pastors let this world become as important as the world to come, not to mention that talking about otherworldliness with members of Congress and professors at Yale produces cringe.

But if you want to see Tooley’s argument salvage a Protestant liberal as a conservative, look at Geoffrey Kabaservice’s rendering of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who according to the New York Times combined the social gospel with 1960s activism (at Riverside Church, “an institution long known for its social agenda — he used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament”).  But liberal Protestantism can become conservative when it supplies social glue:

In doctrinal terms, Coffin was indeed a conservative, even an orthodox one. He retained the traditional Protestant liturgy, from the opening prayer to the confession to the benediction, resisting the wave of reform that swept over most denominations in the 1960s. His congregation sung the powerful old New England hymns. . . . The civil rights and antiwar activism of the 1960s seemed part of a much older American history when set to the hymn’s ominous, rolling cadences and the spine-tingling words of McGeorge Bundy’s ancestor, the nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell: “once to every man and nation / Comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of truth with falsehood, / For the good or evil side; / Some great cause goes by forever / ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”

If social ministry can turn Coffin into a conservative, even doctrinally orthodox Protestant, Tooley has some work to do.

Here’s maybe not the but a thing: civil society does not depend on Christians. Believers often make good neighbors, though you’d never know from evangelical scholars these days. Invariably, Christians take out the trash, support Little League, donate books to the public library’s book sale fund raiser, approve of taxes to support police and fire departments. They also vote, which can be an anti-democratic form of social behavior if the ballot goes for the wrong candidate. If civil society has declined in America, it is not because of churches or their members. Rotary, the Elks, and Odd Fellows have also faded in the fabric of American society. For a host of reasons, Americans don’t join a host of voluntary organizations any more. One hunch is the social world that the internet has created. Another factor may be the outgrown size of national politics in the attention of journalists, teachers, and even radio talk show hosts.

But even if the path to a health America went through the social capital generated by churches, the question remains: is this what Scripture teaches?

7 thoughts on “How Liberal Protestantism Happens (and it’s even worse when it claims to be conservative)

  1. Ding. I would add the demise of the “family wage” that could be earned by one breadwinner working 40 hours a week. That concept became a dinosaur well before the internet years. Now everybody seems to be working all the time.

    When I am out and I around, I pass by a nice, well built but not.large by today’s standards, two story brick home. The couple that lived there raised 4 sons, one my classmate. The husband worked a Steelworkers Union job at ALCOA Aluminum. The wife stayed home. They were pillars of the church I grew up in,. The father was a Scoutmaster for decades. I am sure they were active in other civic activities but that is all I remember. The children graduated from college, two have additional professional degrees, and they never had a dime in debt hanging over them on graduation day. They drove decent cars,but Chevys, not Buick’s, Pontiacs or Cadillacs, and as far as I know they never bought a used one. They had color TV before we did? The Steelworkers Union had gold plated Blue Cross coverage that was the envy of everybody else in town.. I think I remember two times they had to go out on strike.

    I am not an economic determinist, but who these days makes enough money working to have a life like that and have time left for Rotary or Church?

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  2. Reply to Mr. Merriman, not Dr. Hart: when we decided as a culture to make wives & mothers employed outside the home, we created a buyers’ labor market. Roughly double the candidates for the same number of jobs. Naturally, in real terms, wages went down. Maybe this does connect with Dr. Hart after all. Widespread acceptance of a genuinely Christian anthropology may be the precondition to a family wage.

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  3. To Mr. Reuter, been a while since I have read labor history, but most of the labor leaders whose names I recall from the national scene back in those days were Jewish. Around here there were some Christian Ministers who were vocal union advocates, some of whom supported organizing efforts in the very hard to organize textile industry. But they tended to be Fundamentalist Baptist types. Unions were very suspect in the Mainline churches in the South. Using contemporary terms like Christian anthropology sounds nice, but it doesn’t comport with any reality I knew.

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  4. I will add, to keep in the spirit of DH’s original post, that around here the first application I saw of the asocial Gospel was to race related matters, and they were largely late comers there. Souther History as a field is largely focused on race, deservedly so, but there was a real class divide in the South and for the most part the Mainline churches in my area just didn’t do very much for low wage or no wage folks. I never even heard the term Social Gospel until I went to college.

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  5. A big problem is being able to define what is conservative and what is liberal Darryl. You know this as an avid defender of the term “Reformed”. We might have to ask “conservative” to what? We see that Liz Cheney is claiming to be more conservative than Donald Trump? Who is right (more conservative)? Liberals of old at least claimed to be open thinkers and believed in free speech. Now they seem to want to control the narrative in the press and on Facebook as much as fundamentalists do. We face this problem in Christian circles as well. Who are more conservative fundamentalists or Reformed or Sandemanians or dispensationalists or evangelicals?

    Perception is a big thing too! If you get more press criticizing Donald Trump than you do abortion, homosexual marriage, high taxes, gun control laws, criminals being set free, and riots are you conservative? If a truly reformed Presbyterian spends all of his time criticizing you and Scott Clark, at some point people will think he is a system subscriber.

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  6. Re “Christian anthropology”: I was not talking about anything union leaders or members did or do as such. I have been a union member and don’t suppose I did anything different than what my nonchristian fellow members did. What I meant is that Christian anthropology leads to the belief that being a homemaker is a valuable and dignified calling. The loss of that belief in our culture at large led to the near-doubling of the labor pool without creating more jobs. Hence the end of the family wage. Of course, the heyday of the family wage was the immediate post WW II period when the U.S.A. was the only industrial game still running. Perhaps there was no way it could have lasted, whatever our anthropology (or whatever our unions did/didn’t do).

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  7. It is hard to argue changes in family dynamics haven’t affected civic orgs like the Elks, bowling leagues, and yes…. church activities. Such participation was enabled by the expectation that the husband had limited expectations at home. If the missus took care of the grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and kids while hubby was at work, it was easier to get free in the evenings to make it to the lodge. VBS was always more or less run by a combination of housewives and retirees. At our church “VBS” is now held on Sunday nights because the housewives work and the retirees are busy playing golf in Florida. Add to this changes in expectations for parental involvement with kids, and there isn’t much space for other stuff. As a kid my parents stopped”helping” me with homework sometime around 1st grade. Now my high schooler gets assignments that start, “you and your guardian….”. For us “travel baseball” meant riding our bikes to the park in the next neighborhood over to play the kids there. Now travel baseball, soccer, dance, gymnastics, basketball, etc… means spending every weekend driving kids across the state to spend all day Saturday and Sunday in tournaments. Such changes in family life have killed civic orgs for adults.

    I suppose a mass return to conservative Christianity could in principle reverse some of this insofar as it may come with a return to more traditional gender roles and more adult centric family life. But I doubt more widespread belief in the infallibility of scripture is going to move the needle.

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