09/29/2015 03:42 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

Ross Douthat and the Shocking Misunderstanding of Liberal Christianity


In other news, the Pope visited the United States last week. You might be forgiven for not being aware of this fact. It’s been pretty hush-hush, a quick but discreet papal expedition onto American soil. The Pope slipped in and out of three major American cities over the past few days largely unnoticed.

But a few people have paid attention to the Pontiff’s presence among us, wanting to observe his impact on American politics and theology. Not many, mind you, but a few.

Ok. So, a veritable crap-ton of people have been closely parsing the Pope’s every word, scrutinizing his every gesture. Who would he infuriate more, the liberals or the conservatives? Would he be overtly political--at least in the partisan sense with which we’re most familiar? Everybody it seems has had an opinion on Pope Francis and what his message portends for our own political and theological discourse.

One commentator’s take on the significance of the Pope’s visit jumped out at me, though. New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Ross Douthat, offered his own appraisal not only on the significance of the Pope’s visit, but also on the sad state of liberal Christianity, which Douthat apparently believes needs an infusion of papal vitality if it is to avoid extinction. The Pope’s emphasis on things liberals like--compassion for immigrants, a desire to confront the stewardship issues of global climate change, a renewed commitment to the poor and the marginalized, opposition to capital punishment--apparently gives liberal Christianity a slight ray of hope that it may yet sidestep a rather banal slide into non-existence, an eventuality Douthat seems pretty well convinced is fairly close to a fait accompli.

Having said that, it’s important to point out that Mr. Douthat says he thinks a reinvigorated “religious left” is a good thing, since it makes for a more interesting religious discourse. Though one wonders how such a revitalized discourse with liberal Christians is possible, given the fact that the things liberal Christians care most about are precisely the things, according to Douthat, that have caused the “steep decline” of liberal mainline Protestantism. That is to say, how is it even possible that doubling down on the things that Douthat says are killing liberal mainline denominations is a path to a reinvigorated theological discussion?

But perhaps even more importantly, Douthat’s diagnosis of liberal mainline decline is problematic. Put simply, he attributes the cause of the decline of liberal mainline Protestantism to its liberalism. In other words, liberal denominations and their congregations are face-planting because they hold liberal views, views that in Douthat’s mind seem to be nothing more than baptized versions of secular liberal politics. But in this assessment Mr. Douthat makes the common mistake of confusing correlation with causation. Just because my dog barks at every sunrise does not mean that the sun rises in response to my dog’s (terribly inconsiderate) barking. And just because mainline denominations have tended to be more liberal while experiencing decline, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re declining as a direct result of their liberalness. If only liberal denominations experienced decline, such an analysis might carry more weight.

Unfortunately, what the liberalism-is-killing-mainline-protestantism trope fails to take into account--and why it ultimately fails as a definitive explanation of decline--is the fact that conservative Christianity over the past several years has also begun to see steady membership decline. Liberals and conservatives, Protestants and Catholics are all having to come to terms with an increasingly secular landscape. Aspiring to be more like Ross Douthat’s vision of Christian orthodoxy, in other words, is no longer a hedge against decline, if it ever really was.

Additionally, when Mr. Douthat charges that liberal Christianity is always in danger of simply becoming “a secularized faith, obsessed with political utopias and embarrassed by supernatural hopes,” he seems to lack a certain sense of irony. Douthat fails to point out that conservative Christianity tends to be beholden to its own political utopias, whether an atomized Pietism that assumes a special claim to being America’s “true” religion or a Reconstructionist theocracy that believes the country will be better off with God (or at least God’s proxies) at the helm. That conservative Christianity’s political utopias place more emphasis on “supernatural hopes” only makes them more metaphysical, but not necessarily more orthodox.

But what really strikes me as egregious about Mr. Douthat’s analysis is his concern about “religious liberalism's urge to follow secular liberalism in embracing the sexual revolution and all its works.” He claims that liberal Christianity's wannabe-ism on this issue “promises renewal but rarely delivers, because it sells out far too much of scripture and tradition along the way.” In this sentence Douthat makes an assertion in two parts, which is meant to serve as a cautionary tale to those Catholics who are tempted to take seriously this Pope’s “tacit encouragement” to cut the gay folks some slack by being insufficiently censorious on the issue of sexuality. And this should be of concern, Douthat believes, because Pope Francis is unwittingly opening up the Catholic Church to the same future as the “moribund Episcopal Church.”

Let’s look more closely at Mr. Douthat’s fear. He contends that an evolving view of marriage and divorce that includes legitimation of a role for same-sex participation in the institution is a bad idea because, though it promises renewal (by which I take him to mean in this context a resurgence in church membership), such an evangelism strategy doesn’t work. I want to challenge what seems to be the implicit assumption Douthat makes, namely, that religious liberalism’s evolution on sexuality is merely a cynical ploy to stanch the bleeding caused by an exodus of members. What Douthat fails to consider, however, is the extent to which liberal Christianity’s views may be evolving not because liberal Christians think an embrace of lax sexual mores is the next sure-fire marketing campaign, but because liberal Christians actually believe that such an evolving view of sexuality is a more faithful expression of God’s will that justice should characterize our common life and that all humans should have the chance to flourish and reach the potential with which God created them.

As for the charge that sympathy for such a sexual revolution doesn’t work to renew the church “because it sells out far too much of scripture and tradition along the way,” I find such an assertion slightly puzzling given the fact that it’s the same argument used by slaveholders against the abolition of slavery. It’s also the same argument religious leaders used to deny women the vote. It was also an argument used against the idea that schools should be integrated and that people of different races ought to be able to marry one another. A casual reading of church history reveals that a theological precedent is a binding precedent … until it’s not.

Ultimately, religious liberalism is fueled less by the question, “Will a certain theological position help us avoid losing members?” than by the more interesting question, “Is a certain theological position faithful to our best understanding of the unfolding reign of God?”

What Ross Douthat can’t quite seem to wrap his head around is that liberal Christians are liberal because of their faith, not in spite of it.