What Happened to Liberalism?

What Happened to Liberalism?

Written by Matthew S. Miller |
Tuesday, May 31, 2022

We have not yet deprived liberalism of one of its most effective criticisms—namely, that conservative Christianity tends to focus on personal salvation and doctrinal precision to the unnecessary exclusion of concern for the poor and the problems of the world.

As a formal movement embedded in mainline seminaries and denominations, American Protestant liberalism has been on the retreat for the better part of two generations now. Outflanked by more progressive strands of liberation and postmodern theologies on the one side and a resurging conservative Christian orthodoxy on the other, liberalism’s once commanding public voice has been reduced to a pleading whimper. Protestant mainline denominations, once the mainstay of American religion, have seen their numbers steadily plummet. As of 2017, “self-described mainline Protestants composed just 10% of the American public,” a statistic further diminished by the fact that of these, “barely a quarter actually attended church.”[1] By such measures, liberalism appears to be dead, or nearly so. But is it?

If we equate liberalism with its institutional form – the kind that took up residence at Harvard in the nineteenth-century, put forward nationally renowned theologians who labored to make Christianity credible to the modern world, published leading journals and Sunday School curricula shaping the thought life of a generation, and was heralded by celebrated pastors like Fosdick – then the bell tolled for liberalism long ago. In his massive trilogy tracing the history of American liberal theology, Gary Dorrien relays the accepted narrative: “In the nineteenth century it took root and flowered; in the early twentieth century it became the founding idea of a new theological establishment; in the 1930s it was marginalized by neo-orthodox theology; in the 1960s it was rejected by liberation theology; by the 1970s it was often taken for dead.”[2]

We would be mistaken, however, to equate liberalism exclusively with its established, institutional form, just as we would be mistaken to equate Gnosticism singularly with the official movement of self-styled Gnostics that early Christianity defeated. Though the published works of gnostic theologians were entirely lost long ago, the impulse of their thought has persisted to the present day (as Phillip Lee and others have demonstrated).[3] In the same way, liberalism in its institutional form has suffered an outward defeat, but that does not mean liberalism itself has been vanquished.

The heart of liberalism has proven to be not its institutions, but its ideological core. That core was clearly identified by J. Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism, in which Machen pointed to liberalism’s (1) naturalistic approach to religion, (2) appeal to human experience (and ultimately individual experience) as a final authority, and (3) exclusively imperatival message. On this last count, liberalism jettisons the grand “indicative” of the Gospel – that is, the announcement of the great things God has done in Christ for sinners (think Romans 1-8 or Ephesians 1-3) – and is thus left to traffic exclusively in commands and aspirations (imperatives). In one of his most profound statements, Machen announces, “Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.”[4]

What happens when we look for liberalism’s ideological core of naturalism, the authority of experience, and the imperatival mood? We find that liberalism has outlived the decline of its institutional citadels. Notre Dame sociologists Christian Smith and Patricia Snell write, “[A] historical nemesis of evangelicalism, liberal Protestantism can afford to be losing its organizational battles now precisely because long ago it effectively won the bigger, more important struggle over culture.”[5] Put another way, if institutional liberalism is effectively dead, ideological liberalism is more alive than it has ever been. Where do we find it?

The Ideological Core of Liberalism in Liberation Theologies

As a formal school of thought, liberal theology took a back seat to a host of liberation theologies arising with Latin American and black liberation theologies in the 1960s and, in the decades that followed, with feminist and gay rights liberation theologies, among others. In one sense, the projects of liberal theology and liberation theology are quite different. Liberal theology privileges the voices of the scientific and cultural elite in its aim of making the Christian faith more credible to the modern world. Liberation theology, on the other hand, privileges the voices of the marginalized and oppressed (it often maintains that “the cry of the oppressed is the voice of God”) with the aim of raising select themes of the Christian faith in protest against the modern world. That is why liberation theologies position themselves as a rejection of liberalism.

But beneath these above-ground differences, liberation theologies borrow and build upon liberalism’s substructure. Both liberalism and liberation theology see men and societies as facing their problems without the help of heaven—everything is interpreted and remedied naturalistically, within what philosopher Charles Taylors would call the “immanent frame.” Moreover, both place the seat of authority in human experience. Harold O. J. Brown, former professor at RTS-Charlotte, emphasized the underlying connection: “Because this standard [of liberation theology] is drawn from human feelings and experience—although limited to those of a particular group or class—liberation theology also resembles classic Protestant liberalism after Schleiermacher: it has made human feelings and human sensitivity a source of divine revelation that can be placed alongside Scripture.”[6] Finally, both sound their messages entirely in the imperative mood, whether that is the call of liberalism to “end war and poverty,” or the call of liberation theology to “resist oppressive power structures.” If Machen had lived to critique liberation theology, he would only have needed to add an appendix to Christianity and Liberalism rather than write a new book.

The Ideological Core of Liberalism in Progressive Christianity

Second, the core features of liberalism abide in the many leading voices of self-styled “progressive Christianity.” Granted, the term “progressive Christianity” is quite vague. Some define it as liberal Christianity that adopts certain insights and accents of liberation theology. Others find that progressive Christianity is a large umbrella term under which self-identified Christians who prefer egalitarian approaches to marriage and ministry and who support the LGBTQ+ movement can publicly identify (often without having to do the hard work of examining whether these commitments are actually compatible with their other theological positions).[7] Progressive Christianity lacks the established tradition and formidable theological giants that liberal theology in the first half of the twentieth century boasted—liberal theology was a disciplined school of thought, while progressive Christianity consists mostly of a patchwork of blogs, social media influencers, and authors of easy-read books (think Rob Bell). Roger Olson’s observation that progressive Christianity is a kind of “halfway house” between fundamentalism and liberalism seems apt: “Some get stuck there, but some move on to the ‘left’ into liberal Christianity without understanding that tradition.”[8]

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