Ross Douthat is telling stories again. He is a very good and compelling storyteller, which you can tell from the fact that he can tell (beg pardon) an old old story, and somehow it’s still fresh and interesting.
You probably know this story: it’s about a character called Liberal Christianity, and how it fatuously chased after every faddish cause that came down the pike in a misguided attempt to be relevant and popular. But then—oh, the irony!—it turned out that people who bothered with Christianity actually wanted churches that stood by timeless principles, and so they left. So sad! Now Liberal Christianity is left mostly alone, a victim of its own stinking desperation. For it has become, in his words, “flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”
After a while, it does wear on one to have to keep saying, “Pardon me, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.” But: Pardon me, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Complicating factors have a way of making a story less exciting to both reader and writer, though, so I shall try to put this in narrative form.
Remember the Sweet Valley High book The New Girl? For the uninitiated, it’s about a really obnoxious new girl named Brooke who is horrible to everyone. (SPOILER ALERT: She is actually hurting on the inside!!!!) Twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield invent a fictional third sibling—Jennifer, whom they take turns impersonating—as part of a scheme to get back at Brooke.
Yeah, so this is kind of like that, only in reverse: Instead of two people pretending to be three people, we have (at least) three characters being conflated into one. (Conflated by people who, honestly, should know better.) Because Liberal Christianity is, it turns out, not just one strand of intellectual and spiritual reflection, but at least three. So, to put a few distinct strands of liberal Christian thought into a Sweet Valley High-inspired, one-dimensional-U.S.-high-school pastiche, it would be like we had:
Mrs. Ernestine Peck, the lady who directs the morning bus traffic. She is wealthy enough that she doesn’t need the income, but she does this out of the goodness of her heart because she thinks kids today—with their fancy phones and their Facespace-or-whatever-it’s-called—need to see someone like her. Maybe it will inspire them to something better in life. Of course, it’s not really their fault. It’s the parents. They’re too permissive, and they work far too many hours, and they’re not reliable, and they don’t limit screen time, and even the liberal ones do activism all wrong. She and her friends marched, way back in the day, and this is the thanks they get! Mrs. Peck is the sort of person who sincerely can’t fathom why poor people don’t wear natural fibers; take up yoga; or cook fresh, organic, locally-sourced produce every day. Religiously, Mrs. Peck basically thinks that the more spiritually evolved you are, the more you come to resemble her and her friends: vague, spiritual, comfortable, and tastefully harrumphy. She likes hymns from the 1970s and is convinced they will appeal to “the youth.”
Zach Radix, an intellectually-serious-bordering-on-brooding student, who, from the time he could talk, has protested against everything that’s unfair. He knows that he caught some breaks, having been born a dude in a world that rewards being a dude, and having wound up with parents who can afford fancy camps and music lessons and whatnot. His older brother is gay, and Zach witnessed too many homophobic insults directed at his brother to think that so-called “traditional marriage” is an innocent concept. Zach runs the school’s chapters of Amnesty International and Men Can Stop Rape. Sometimes he’s the only one at the meetings, despite the hours spent putting up posters and pestering his friends. Turns out those two clubs are not as popular as, say, varsity sports, or the spring musical. But Zach isn’t doing this to up the numbers. Some things are more important than being popular. Zach attends a church that has been very public about being open and affirming of GLBTQ Christians. If that church ever considered muting its commitment in the hopes of appealing to moderates, Zach would be out the door. Too much is at stake to play nicey-nice.
Dr. Sally Tinker, the school counselor and student council adviser. Teenagers, you will be shocked to learn, do not always elect the best-qualified student council members. They are occasionally swayed by other concerns, like popularity. Rather than spend a lot of energy trying to convince teenagers to be more thoughtful about their elected representatives—not her place, and besides, there’s little chance of success—Dr. Tinker tries to get the best outcome possible for the very specific projects with which student council has been tasked. This takes compromise. She often finds herself saying things like, “I understand you don’t like Trixie. I’m not asking you to like her. I’m asking you to be on the decorations committee with her, which will involve only going to one meeting and hanging streamers. The rest is your own personal business.” Dr. Tinker attends a church that’s easy to get to, full of people she can relate to, where her kids like Sunday school, the music is nice, and the religious beliefs are given a soft sell. By the time Sunday rolls around, Dr. Tinker is exhausted and doesn’t want to be scolded or harangued.
These are three really different ways of being religious. Could you raise thoughtful criticisms of any of these? Sure. But if we’re going to talk about something called “liberal Christianity” (a phrase, by the way, that is too often expanded to simply include everything the critic doesn’t like) it will include all three of these characters, and their entrenched disagreements. You don’t get to posit liberal Christianity as a single system that’s meant to account for all of these ways of being religious, and then have your big gotcha be that—surprise!!—it doesn’t. You’ve just conflated your Wakefields, so to speak. Frankly, it gives the impression that you’re not arguing in good faith.
(Of course, if you were arguing in good faith, presumably you’d also take into account things like: 1) Demographic shifts that caused mainline Protestants to move away from the big expensive church buildings their parents’ generation had built, often along—d’oh!—streetcar lines. 2) The fact that religious attendance is down across the board, as is confidence in institutional religion. And 3) The fact that technological advances have made it more and more possible for someone to surround herself only with people who agree with her and confirm what she says. This made certain liberal endeavors—such as the practice of listening to your opponent as though you might have some basis for genuine conversation, and in any case you’re stuck with each other—seem a little outdated. More’s the pity.)
But if we’re going to talk about internal contradictions, let’s talk about the one where only certain things count as theological convictions. In his recent book Bad Religion, Douthat gives some hallmarks of the kind of grounded, stable, uncompromising, historically-informed Christianity he thinks is capable of standing on principle and enduring through time. Those hallmarks include belief in the incarnation, atonement, Trinity, virgin birth, everlasting life, and authority of Scripture. True Christians believe these things. Christian traditions that don’t espouse them amount to “pseudo-Christianities.”
Likewise, in this most recent column, Douthat claims that “the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause amid their frantic renovations and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.”
Aha. So there’s “defending something uncompromisingly to the world” on the one hand, and “changing historic Christianity to offer just secular liberalism” on the other? Nope, sorry. That framing won’t do. It’s a set-up, and I think we need to call shenanigans.
Witness! (Ahem.) “From what we know of him, Jesus resisted the self-important piety of the powerful, and stood instead with the ones they were oppressing, and in so doing revealed how God is. Therefore, I think following Jesus means doing the same in the very different context in which I live, and specifically resisting the institutional sexism and institutional homophobia which have informed so much of Chrisitian piety. This will mean that I can’t spin romantic and rosy tales about What The Church Has Always Taught. It may not be popular. But I believe it to be true.”
This is a theological claim about who God is and what Jesus reveals about God. It is a principle. It is one that it’s possible to hold, and defend, at great cost to oneself. It’s a claim around which communities can gather. You can teach it to your kids. Worship services can be constructed around it. It can, and does, inspire people to do things that are hard and unrewarding. You can care about it so much that popularity becomes secondary.
Douthat disagrees with it, presumably, but disagreement isn’t really the issue here. That claim does not simply factor out to secular liberalism without remainder. If he thinks it does, he needs to make that case. He needs to explain why his argument isn’t a circular one wherein “Real Christian convictions are A, B, and C, but liberal Christians say D, and therefore liberal Christians don’t have real Christian convictions.” And he might do well, moreover, to listen to why some people have found his checklist implausible. Unless “uncompromising” has truly come to mean just pronouncing what you know to be true, in which case I suppose there’s little point in attempting any sort of conversation at all. Back to stories, then.