Did the Liberals Win?

In Did Mainline Christianity Win in the End?, historian of religion John Turner looks at Matthew Hedstrom’s book, The Rise of Liberal Religion.

It is common knowledge that the so-called mainline Protestant institutions have declined over the last 50 years, while evangelical institutions are much stronger than they were in the middle of the last century.

Hedstrom raises the possibility that cultural influence matters more than institutional strength, and that the liberal Protestant approach to religion has fared much better there.

According to Turner, Hedstrom argues:

. . . that observers of American religion have been too obsessed with institutional strength at the cost of ignoring culture. . . . Liberal Protestants may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle. A trenchant quote from the sociologist Christian Smith: “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.” . . . Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas.

Institutional strength counts for a great deal. In surveys of American religion, evangelicalism is holding up much better than the mainline. Cultural influence accompanied by institutional decline sounds like a rather pyrrhic victory. Nevertheless, the reappraisal of liberal Protestantism by Hedstrom, Hollinger, and others seems persuasive to me. A few decades of political influence accompanied by a growing cultural irrelevance (not there yet) is also not exactly a triumphant narrative.

This is an intriguing way to look at the last century of American history and I can see some value in it. But if the idea of cultural victory cheers progressive Christians, it shouldn’t. There was a time when progressive Christianity led the culture forward, but that day has passed. For decades, “progressive” Christianity been chasing “progressive” culture, not leading it. For now, polite society is willing to accommodate religiously minded progressives as long as they play along. There may come a day when society is not so accommodating.

Personally, I no longer identify with either the liberal-progressive or the evangelical camps of American Christianity even though my own denomination has historical ties to each. It appears to me that neither has the deep roots necessary to survive in the coming spiritual desert.

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