Liberal Christianity in the US and Britain

Ross Douthat’s July 15 column on the decline of liberal denominations produced some discussion on the definition of liberal Christianity. Douthat defined it as focused on social reform, while British Baptist pastor and theologian Steve Holmes took a more philosophical view, arguing that liberal Christianity essentially bases itself on the idea that the “human experience” can be spoken of in the singular (and thus the various religions are ways of interpreting this experience). Holmes also makes two arresting observations in his post. First, that Anglican liberals tended to support British imperialism, eugenics, and racism, before taking a turn that is more recognizably “liberal” to Americans in the 1960s and after with support of the sexual revolution, “racial equality,” and environmentalism.* He believes that this comes from liberal Christianity’s tendency to follow the culture in which it is embedded. Secondly, this tendency has become a weakness in the postmodern age. The section in italics reflects my emphasis:

This also explains the reason that the, heretofore extremely successful, liberal tradition of Christianity is currently in meltdown. It is not difficult to see that the idea that true notions of the divine can be derived from an examination of universally shared human experience is vulnerable to at least two, apparently devastating, lines of criticism: the claim that human experience is no guide to reality (a claim made classically by Feuerbach in his Essence of Christianity, and forming the basis of neo-orthodox criticisms of liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century); and the claim that there is no universally shared human experience to serve as a basis for the argument. This latter line has become extremely powerful in contemporary theology. The early liberation theologians developed a postcolonial critique of such claims: supposed accounts of ‘normative’ human experience are in fact an attempt to force others to conform their experience to norms created by white male Europeans. The explosion of contextual theologies demonstrated the power of such a criticism in contemporary culture: every proposed account of shared human experience is, on this analysis, a hegemonic attempt to impose a false consciousness on others. So African-American women properly refused to be assimilated to the project of feminist theology, seeing the accounts of human experience offered as too white, and properly refused to be assimilated to Black theology, seeing the accounts of human experience offered as too male. Instead, they constructed their own narration, womanist theology. (The great womanist theologians are poets, not just theologians: Emilie Townes somewhere entitles a chapter ‘To love our necks unloosed and straight’ – why can’t I write like that?!).

The effect of all this is to make classical liberalism – ‘we all feel like this, so…’ – culturally incredible. For two centuries, it caught the mood of a culture which believed in metanarratives; for the last two decades (or more) the culture has been incredulous towards metanarratives, and so has been profoundly unreceptive to classical liberalism. Today, liberalism sounds like cultural imperialism; when it tries not to, it simply sounds incoherent. (The best example is also the obvious and tedious one: White, metropolitan, Western culture regards the acceptance of gay/lesbian relationships to be an ethical imperative; the churches of sub-Saharan Africa (to give only one example) see the matter differently; one may be affirming of gay/lesbian people by dismissing the moral intuition of Black Africans, but not otherwise. To claim that gay people and Nigerian people share moral intuitions, or to claim to be simultaneously attentive to gay people and non-Western people, alike appear simply incredible.)

This observation fits with my own, less informed sense that pre-1950s liberal theology seemed much more grounded and Christian, even though deficient, than its current form. This seems to me a good explanation of why this is the case.

Douthat’s response, through which I became aware of Holmes’ post, grants the point on the definition, but contends that liberal Christianity has been different in the American and British contexts:

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. Indeed, the historical importance of their role explains why many religiously-literate Americans today still simply conflate ”liberal Christianity” with “the religion of Christians who are politically liberal.” That’s far too broad a definition, certainly, and one that gives theologians hives with its capaciousness. But it’s also one that reflects the lived reality of American politics and religion for long periods of the twentieth century….

Some of [what Holmes says about British liberal Christians’ mirroring of British culture] maps on to the American experience: The United States, too, had its liberal Protestant imperialists and eugenicists, and of course we have our liberal Christian environmentalists today. But the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement are both absent from this story (in this country, liberal Christians were arguing for civil rights long before the 1980s), and when you lose them you lose a huge part of liberal Christianity’s direct impact on American religion and public life, not to mention its second-order impact on movements (from WWII and Cold War-era neo-orthodoxy to post-1970s neoconservatism) that were both its critics but also to some extent its practical heirs. Nor, in turn, can you understand the point that the intellectual historian Gary Dorrien makes in the essay that my column quoted, about how the leading liberal Christians of the American past often managed to ground progressive politics on “a gospel of personal faith” expressed “in biblical terms,” rather than just on the kind of ecumenical appeals to “shared human religious experience” that are more characteristic of, say, liberal Episcopalianism today. (I think of Bayard Rustin’s line about M.L.K., which I quote in my recent book: “I was always amazed at how it was possible to combine this intense, analytical philosophical mind with this more or less fundamental — well, I don’t like to use the word ‘fundamentalist’ — but this abiding faith.”) Such a biblical and even dogmatic grounding was possible, I think, precisely because in the American landscape the specific cause of social reform was often more central to the self-definition of religious liberalism than the general prioritization of personal experience that came in with Schleiermacher.

The end of Holmes’ post includes an update in response to similar comments from Alan Jacobs:

UPDATE: Wesley Hill kindly pointed me to some comments made by Alan Jacobs of Wheaton (@ayjay) on Twitter, to the effect that in the above I wrongly conflate American and English (sic…) liberalism, ignoring the profound effect of Rauschenbusch had in redefining US liberalism. This seems to me a very fair point in terms of my account of liberal ethics in ‘so what point 1′ above, which I accept is rather parochial and based on UK examples; I think my broader point, ‘if you have to come up with a one sentence journalistic definition of the heart of liberal Christianity, what would it be?’ stands; Rauschenbusch provided a compelling narration of a particular set of religious experiences – pastoring in Hell’s Kitchen for him, but of course wider for others – that gave the US conversation a particular shape (just as the experience of the 1914-18 war gave the European conversations particular shapes – very different in Germany and the UK), but I think the heart of the issue remains the same.

*This is just a broad characterization of “liberal” and “conservative,” I realize. Even the word “liberal” has been used differently in American and British politics, I believe. And I also realize that liberal denominations in America supported eugenics and imperialism. And racism is not an essentially “conservative” position either, although certainly some conservatives have been racists along with people of different persuasions.

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