Why Protestant Liberalism is Dying: Ross Douthat on the role of the social gospel

The recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church is getting a fair bit of attention in the media these days, both because of the convention’s decision to recognize transgender persons as eligible for the ministry, and because of the 23% decline in in the denomination’s membership in the past decade. From one perspective the attention seems silly. Fewer than 700,000 people sit in the pews of Episcopal churches on a typical Sunday morning, and the true legacy of Anglicanism in the United States is passed on by those Anglican churches who affiliate with various African or Latin American dioceses, not by the Episcopal Church. What’s more, there are numerous Evangelical denominations and associations with far more practitioners than the Episcopal Church, but who receive far less media attention.

But the Episcopal Church is interesting both because it has been a pillar of American society for centuries (it was the denomination of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and the state church of many of the original United States, after all), and because its decline is typical of that of mainline Protestantism in general. The disintegration of the Episcopal Church in that sense reflects disintegration of mainstream liberal Christianity.

In his widely read column in the New York Times Ross Douthat argued on Sunday that Protestant liberalism is incomprehensible apart from its most prominent feature in the American context, the social gospel. Douthat writes, “The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.”

Suggesting that social reform is the defining idea of liberal Christianity brought some criticism, as Douthat acknowledged in his Monday blog post. The commitment to social transformation was a basic feature of 19th Century American Evangelicalism and it was this Evangelicalism that gave birth both to the social gospel and to fundamentalism. So Douthat now qualifies his point.

Upon reflection “defining” was probably the wrong word to use, and I should have described the link between Christian faith and social reform as liberal Christianity’s most “influential” idea instead — and been clearer that I was talking specifically about the American context. Liberal Christianity begins exactly where Holmes says it does: In the faith’s encounter with the challenges of modernity, and the quest for a ground for contemporary belief that doesn’t just rely on rote appeals to the authority of scripture or tradition. However, this quest has gone in different directions in different times and places, and in the United States from the late-19th onward, it found its most important and enduring expression in the Social Gospel idea that Christianity would be vindicated in an age of science and skepticism to the extent that it confronted social evils as well as private sins, and made the kingdom of heaven more visible on earth. Certainly other theological traditions, Catholic as well as evangelical, have linked personal conversion and social reform; certainly liberal Christianity can’t be reduced to that link and that link alone. But for a long time, from the era of Walter Rauschenbusch down to the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., the liberal churches had good reason to see themselves as the primary custodians of a socially-engaged Christianity.

Douthat dances around the issue, but a basic issue in view is whether we are talking about the transformation of all of life into the kingdom of God – a basic tenant of Protestant liberalism – or whether we are talking about the transformation of all of life according to basic standards of justice in accord with Christ’s kingship over all of life – a basic tenant of classic Christianity. Insofar as Protestant liberalism and the social gospel remind us that all things are reconciled in Christ, and insofar as they remind us how much Jesus cares about justice and about the concrete physical welfare of human beings, they highlight what is basic to orthodox Christianity itself. But insofar as they confuse human efforts in this direction with the realization of the kingdom itself Protestant liberalism introduced the rot to its own foundation.

If the gospel of the kingdom is primarily about secular (i.e., temporary) politics and culture then the inevitable result is the secularization of Christianity. What makes Protestant liberalism foreign to orthodox Christianity – and what doomed it from the start – was its refusal to recognize that the transcendence of Christ over all of life includes his judgment of all human affairs. Jesus will return one day to judge the living and the dead, and it is only on the far side of the resurrection of believers that all things will be transformed into his kingdom. Christians have always maintained this belief while stressing that all of life is nevertheless to be lived in obedience to Christ’s lordship.

Douthat is right to stress that Protestant liberalism is indistinguishable from the social gospel. He is wrong to brush over the way in which it distinguishes Protestant liberalism from traditional Christianity.

The fact is, the social gospel remains prominent not simply in the mainline churches. And as Mark Chaves demonstrated in his recent book American Religion: Contemporary Trends, while the mainline churches may be dying, that does not mean liberal ideas are dying. Many of its most basic ideas and commitments have been embraced throughout the broader Evangelical and Catholic worlds, including Douthat’s own point of emphasis, the social gospel. In that sense many Evangelicals seem prepared to head down the same path as tread by the Episcopal church in the past one hundred years.

I’m not suggesting Evangelicals should stop talking about the importance of social reform. But I do worry when they – along with Ross Douthat – confuse that reform with the gospel itself. For those inclined in this direction, let the Episcopal Church serve as a warning. When the church stops focusing on the eternal kingdom of God that is found only in Christ, it is beginning its own death march.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 18, 2012, in Episcopal Church, Social Gospel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why Protestant Liberalism is Dying: Ross Douthat on the role of the social gospel.

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