About three years ago, I noted Christian Smith’s (via Peter Leithart) contention that liberal theology has enjoyed cultural success while losing its institutional strength. Mark Edwards’ two–part interview of Matthew Hedstrom, author of The Rise of Liberal Religion, reminded me of this point. Hedstrom brought up Smith (and other scholars in Part I), and Part II contained this exchange:
ME: The very title of your book suggests a kind of liberal cultural ascendancy. How does your work intersect with the idea of a “mainline” religious establishment that crumbled during the 1960s and 1970s?
MH: I’ll start with an extreme argument and backtrack from there: liberal Protestantism, at its very core, wants to achieve its own extinction, or at least its own irrelevance. Postmillennial theology desires the Kingdom of God on earth, and believes that human beings, with divine grace, can achieve it. The idea is to redeem the culture—redeem the world—through full participation in it. This is in contrast to a bunkered fundamentalism that aims to save souls but otherwise remain safely removed from a corrupt and corrupting world.So, from this vantage point, cultural success and institutional decline should go hand in hand. And in many ways they have. The liberal focus on ethics, progress, and this-world salvation means religious liberals can achieve their righteous ends by working for the Peace Corps or Amnesty International or the Human Rights Campaign, or through social work or psychological counseling, or through cultural efforts like literacy promotion. If saving souls is your metric, you’ll do that work through churches or parachurch ministries. But if redeeming the culture and world is your goal, many more avenues are available for doing your religion. Most scholars of American Protestantism seem to have implicitly accepted the terms of the debate offered by religious conservatives, and look only at church life as a measure of religious vitality.Now the backtrack. The categories of course are not this neat. Religious liberals care about church life, including the saving of souls, however that might be understood; and religious conservatives have done immense social and cultural work (for good and ill, I’d add). The whole Religious Right stands in contrast to what I have presented, in a way. But I think the larger, basic point remains: institutional decline and cultural victory can go hand in hand, and in this case, I think, have.My book is not primarily political, so I don’t write much about the ways religious liberal impulses have been sublimated into social and political activism, though it does come up here and there. My story is more about culture and spirituality—the term I use, along with spirituality, is “religious sensibilities”—and so I argue that book culture was a critical mechanism for the broad dissemination of liberal religious sensibilities, especially psychological, mystical, and cosmopolitan spirituality.