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Back & forth: Douthat responds to Diana Butler Bass

Back & forth: Douthat responds to Diana Butler Bass

Heated debate continues this summer on the future of the church, liberal and otherwise. In his latest NY Times column, Ross Douthat responds to the response he got from Diana Butler Bass to his column, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” Under the headline “Is Liberal Christianity Actually the Future?” he writes:

Bass is right to see a broader ebbing of traditional Christian faith and a broader weakening of Christian institutions as the most important religious story of our times. She’s right that there’s no evidence that “infidelity” to Christian orthodoxy directly explains church decline: Many of the most successful preachers and religious bodies in the United States are offering messages that diverge in stark and significant ways (See Osteen, Joel, among many other figures) from the doctrines that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and many Protestants have traditionally held in common. And (as I said in the column), she’s right that there’s no reason for conservative Christians to feel remotely smug about the likely fate of bodies like the Episcopal Church. Overall, “can Christianity be saved?” is a question that American believers of every political and theological persuasion should be wrestling with today.

But with all of that said, the distinctiveness of the liberal churches’s decline —its depth, duration and seeming irreversibility — remains an incontrovertible fact. Yes, two generations after the Episcopalians and United Methodists and other bodies like them entered a long swoon, denominations like the Southern Baptists are experiencing some reversals, and the post-1970s evangelical revival seems to have hit a kind of demographic ceiling. But it would take literally decades of decline for conservative churches to come close to sharing liberal Protestantism’s current sickness-unto-death. Consider the following statistics (taken from Rodney Stark’s “The Churching of America”): In 1940, for every 1,000 churchgoers in the United States, 224 belonged to one of four major Mainline bodies (United Methodists, PCUSA Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Congregationalists), while 77 were Southern Baptists. By 2000, the Southern Baptist share of the churchgoing population equalled the share of those four more liberal churches combined — not because SBC growth was extraordinary (though it was significant), but because the liberal churches’ decline was so astonishingly steep. The fact that the SBC has struggled in the period since those numbers were published tells us something important about the challenges facing even conservative churches. But five years of declining membership is simply not the same thing as a multigenerational (and perhaps accelerating) collapse.

What’s more, Bass stacks the deck somewhat by comparing liberal and conservative denominations, since much of conservative evangelicalism’s post-1960s gains were concentrated in nondenominational churches rather than bodies like the SBC, and the growth of nondenominational congregations continues apace today. Some of these congregations, it’s true, are more theologically and politically liberal than the evangelical norm, in the style of “emergent church” figures like Brian McLaren and hip pastors like Rob Bell, and to the extent that liberal Christianity seems to have any kind of future at the moment it’s more likely to be found in the liberal wing of evangelicalism than in the faded Mainline. But overall, most of the vitality and growth in American Protestantism is still concentrated in congregations that are culturally and politically conservative, if not necessarily orthodox or theologically rigorous. And meanwhile, alongside the nondenominational category, the other fast-growing form of American Christianity is of course Mormonism — which obviously isn’t an orthodox form of the faith, but clearly isn’t anything like a self-consciously liberal or progressive form of Christianity either. (Per Stark’s numbers again: In 1940, there were roughly three Episcopalians for every Mormon; now it’s roughly the reverse.)

He has a lot more to say. Check out the piece in its entirety.


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tobias haller

@John, excellent point. It might be helpful to take a look at all sorts of cultural realities and compare their decline and geographic distribution since the 1950s. Bowling is a good one. How as that institution thrived, and is it tenpins, duckpins or candlepins? What is the most successful “sect”?

The rise and fall of the Drive-In Movie might also be a good analysis, or just Cinema itself. Does the Multiplex reflect the rise of the Megachurch? And the death of the art house or the neighborhood movie theater?

Raw number with no relation to cultural change tell us very little.

John B. Chilton

@tobias “the importance of churchgoing as a cultural reality that has been maintained in the South better than in the North”

Great point, Tobias. My experience has been that in a church that has a thriving “Wednesday Evening” gathering of a meal, fellowship, worship and study there is a virtuous circle where Sundays and Wednesdays reinforce themselves and strengthen the church. Bowling alone varies geographically.

tobias haller

One thing that Douthat seems to miss, esp. in his comparison of the SBC and the Mainliners, is the importance of churchgoing as a cultural reality that has been maintained in the South better than in the North. A more accurate comparison, then, would be between mainliners and sbc in the same state or region — I know when I was in Memphis last year I saw a level of churchgoing in all sorts of churches that many in the North would envy. Averaging what is essentially a cultural phenomenon over the whole country is not going to give an accurate picture.


The back and forth of healthy discussion theologically is wonderful. Debate between Christians is part of our heritage since the time of Peter and Paul. Each split in the church has seen the church grow stronger. Ultimately at the very core we must remember it is not our church, our parent’s church or even our grandparent’s church, it is God’s.

We have to move from the advertising of General Motors, “Not your grandfather’s Chevrolet”, to a simpler and purer belief. God is within us, around us, above us, and below us, always.

We cannot breathe without taking God’s breath into our bodies, letting it out to share with others. Afterall when Jesus died for us on the cross and breathed his last breath into the world, his spirit was shared with us, trapped within our atmosphere forever.

The debate will go back and forth. People will pick sides. They will line up their supporters to hold them up as right and the other wrong. Jesus would walk into the circle and look at both sides and probably share as he did with the Ephesians, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” ~ Ephesians 2:14-16.

As John Wood says in his text for Christian youth, “The writer of this letter to the Christ-followers in the town of Ephesus reminds them that Christ has “reconcile[d] both groups to God in one body.” It’s not us-versus-them, because both sides need reconciling to God. And through Christ, we can bring peace in the midst of division. It doesn’t matter what group you’re in. You need it just as badly as the rest.”

As far away as the time was that this was shared with early Christians, it is as true today and will be always. The church is not ours,its God’s. Amen

Stephen J. Robin

Rod Gillis

In a sense both Ross Douthat and Dianna Butler Ross are both right and wrong all at the same time. I don’t see a wide gap between their respective points of view. A lot of ink is being spilled here over nuance.

All creed based faith traditions are struggling with a credibility problem in Western Democracies. The center piece of Christianity is the myth of a dying and rising messiah. It’s a proclamation that is found to be increasingly unbelievable–no matter which brand is making it. So called “liberal” churches which prioritize some sort of (virtual) stand alone social ethic in place of the christian myth reinforce the wider public’s notion that what Christianity has to offer is untenable. It’s probably the reason why “liberal” churches are eroding faster than conventional ones.

Really, if “mainstream” Christianity cannot under gird its call for social ethics with a clear ground in an “ultimate concern” the game is over. In this regard, liberal churches would do well to look at the long view embedded in the sweep of Catholic social teaching. Both the prospects and the challenges in the latter outline the parameters of any potential successful future for institutional churches.

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