The cultural footprint of liberal theology

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’ twopart 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.
This is an interesting counterpoint to the decline of liberal Christianity which is often a subject of discussion. Also, I realize that Hedstrom’s characterization of postmillenialism doesn’t work for orthodox postmillenialists who see the church as continuing, not fading away, as the gospel spreads throughout the earth.


  1. 1. Mark Edwards (ME):
    Why would anyone choose to study religious liberals in our conservative times? What drew you to this general topic?

    Matt Hedstrom (MH):
    Ah, but that’s the thing — we don’t live in conservative times, at least when it comes to the actual religious beliefs and practices of most Americans. I have been taken by the idea of the “cultural victory” of liberal Protestantism, […] we need to get outside of church if we want to really understand American religion.

    Excellent rejoinder. I agree that it’s essential to judge religion by actual beliefs and practices, rather than by attendance. I see the latter as part of the effort to contain religion.

    After reviewing some of the characteristics, I also wonder if the modern political term “liberal” doesn’t derive more from liberal Protestantism than classical political liberalism.

    Matt Hedstrom (MH): […]
    I tell the story in the book of a librarian from Newark, New Jersey, who came to the American Library Association meeting in 1919 for help, because so many patrons were coming to her asking for religious books after attending a Billy Sunday revival. After a few years of study the ALA began to issue lists of recommended religious books for public libraries, and at the top of the list were books by Harry Emerson Fosdick. Cultural power matters.

    I don’t know much about their theology, but I take it that Fosdick is quite a bit more liberal than Sunday, meaning that the ALA pushed their perspective here?

    Hedstrom says he doesn’t address politics much, but I can’t help but consider the significant political contributions which not only succeeded in containing conservative Christianity as religion apart from the state, but also succeeded in embedding liberal Christianity into the state and growing it.

    I also appreciated Hedstrom’s perspective on how liberal Christianity dovetails with secularism. From a bird’s eye view, it is tempting to see a single driver, when it is usually a confluence of independent actors and agendas.

    Merry Christmas, Scott! 🙂

  2. Merry Christmas to you, too, Kevin.

    You’re right that Fosdick was more liberal than Sunday. Fosdick was on the modernist side of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early 20th century. A famous sermon or book of his (I can’t remember which) was “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

    You made a great comparison: “Hedstrom says he doesn’t address politics much, but I can’t help but consider the significant political contributions which not only succeeded in containing conservative Christianity as religion apart from the state, but also succeeded in embedding liberal Christianity into the state and growing it.”

    This is one of those posts/comment threads where we agree on everything!

  3. “So, from this vantage point, cultural success and institutional decline should go hand in hand.”

    The idea that cultural success *should* go hand in hand with institutional decline is rather odd to me. Liberal Christianity has succeeded in many of its political goals, but it has failed miserably when it comes to passing on the faith to their children or in making their original moral views popular. Surely they didn’t set out to lose their children or their ability to set the moral tone of our culture? It is far more likely from my perspective that our elite cultural institutions shaped liberal Christianity far more than liberal Christianity shaped the broader culture. While liberal Christianity was able to accomplish much by working hand-in-hand with the secular elites curing the civil rights era, they did so at the cost of castrating their faith and making it servant to their secular overlords. In order to maintain this newfound acceptance in the hallways of our elite institutions, they became lapdog and waterboy to the secular elites who control them. When it comes to radically changing perspectives on such things as gay marriage, it is not hard to see who is leading whom. Any church that is led by secular elites can hardly be called victorious in imposing their cultural vision of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Far from redeeming the culture, they have gutted their religion of the ability to take a prophetic stand against the views our secular cultural elites. If the “cultural victory” of a religion is defined as becoming the neutered lapdog of a secular elite who run the show, then I think one can say that Hedstrom is correct. However, I don’t think I’m alone in considering such a victory delusary.

    True cultural success *should* result in the strengthening of an institution not its decline. That this has not happened to liberal Christianity should lead us to reexamine how those successes where achieved and who was really responsible for them. Power, influence and the acceptance of those who wield such things in much greater degree than ourselves can be powerful motivators to acculturate and to temper our pursuit of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    • Hi Doug! 🙂

      What would you say are the core moral views of liberal Christianity?

      The term itself is still a bit vague to me, though I have a sense of aspects of it, namely to shift morals to adapt to growing cultural sensibilities, to be tolerant of everyone except those who are not similarly tolerant, to factor out commonalities from religion and thereby contain and minimize it, to more often justify the means by the ends, …

      Usually, cultural success *should* go hand in hand with institutional success, but if liberal Christianity has aspects which inherently disintegrate such cohesiveness, then the success of that ideology in popular culture will result in the dissolution of the institution. In other words, it’s an ideology more than a religious institution, and if it has any remaining institution at its conclusion, that institution will probably be the government.

      The point of your contention seems to be whether liberal Christianity actually has achieved cultural success, and perhaps whether liberal Christian parents feel it is a significant loss of their core beliefs that their children are even more liberally Christian (or less Christian). Is that right? Hm, perhaps I made that last part up — do their children tend to be more conservative Christians?

      It seems to me that politics is a decent proxy for culture in many ways (either forcing or following culture), so I’m also curious how you see liberal Christians succeeding politically but failing culturally? I’m thinking in particular about the cultural attitude toward sex and marriage and the poor, but maybe you’re thinking of other examples.

      • Kevin, I had a fairly comprehensive reply and just lost a couple hours writing. I’m afraid I’ll probably have to abandon the project for the next week at least.

      • I’m sorry to hear you lost all that work. I type into a text editor for that very reason. Thanks for the update, though! I will look forward to your response when you get a chance.

      • Kevin, Pardon the messy reply. I figured it would be easier to rewrite it now than later, but don’t have time to edit.

        You ask, “What would you say are the core moral views of liberal Christianity?”
        One place to start is what moral issues those denominations address formally (often in a document from the national assembly) as opposed to what they let their membership decide on their own based on their own consciences. Regarding the examples you were looking for, I think abortion offers a very good case study.

        Prior to 1950 all denominations opposed abortion
        In 1970/71 Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ and Baptists all endorsed abortion.
        The uniformity and timing of change among dominant mainline denominations was almost uncanny. What could have caused it? But it was not just the timing but that even baptists went along with the change for a while says something about the source.
        There is a radicalness underlying many of the positions. Episcopalians even formally oppose parental notification laws.
        Given all this, one must ask who or what is the source of this change across denominations? I don’t think it is tenable that it originated from internal dialogue and debate.

        That said, clearly the mainline churches embracing of abortion paved the way for Roe vs. Wade. Without their formal acceptance in 1970/71, it is unlikely that the cultural elites could have successfully foisted abortion on the entire nation in 1973, even through the judicial system. The support of the mainline denominations was critical and necessary, but not fundamentally indicative of a cultural victory since they were merely tools for more powerful cultural institutions (i.e., academia, politicians, the media) who were using the denominations for their purposes. Tools eventually outlive their purpose and are abandoned for more effective ones. I think this is a much better explanation for why the “cultural victory” of mainline churches has coincided with their institutional decline.

        You do raise the point that there might more fundamental morals that aren’t formally stated but shape the ones that are on specific issues such as abortion and marriage? Perhaps, but I would have to ask again “What is their source? Is it Christian? How can this change occur so rapidly and uniformly? Who is leading whom?” Frankly, I’m skeptical when someone comes up to me and says that their most fundamental Christian values led them to conclude that killing an innocent human being is fine.

        Hedstrom actually starts by pointing to Catholics. “This is something that folks who study American Catholicism and Judaism have long understood, but oddly it’s taken a while to apply these same insights to American Protestantism, especially liberal Protestantism.”
        As a Catholic, I most stridently disagree with this point. I think he fundamentally misunderstands the Catholic situation and misinterprets slavish following of liberal elites for victory. There are differences in the situations that make being a liberal more difficult as a Catholic than a Protestant such as:
        1) Universal nature of Catholic Church encompassing all nations and cultures
        2) Hierarchical structure
        3) Place of tradition as properly understood (2 Thess. 2:15)
        Without minimizing those differences, though, I agree with the author that there are parallels between Protestant and Catholic liberals and their alleged cultural victories. To illustrate the illusory nature of this cultural “victory”, I would like to present the example of liberal nuns in America. For years, liberal nuns through their organization the LWCR have functioned as the official spokesmen for the American bishops and Vatican on Catholicism from the perspective of American nuns. The prominence of their heterodoxy and slavish devotion to their cultural masters is scandalous.

        For example, Sr. Simone Campbell said that abortion is “above my pay grade.” virtually quoting Barack Obama’s response to Rick Warren. Yet she went on a bus tour to tell every media outlet she could find about how immoral Paul Ryan’s budget was because it doesn’t place the same prudential priorities on direct government support for the poor as she wants. For this she was given a speaking slot at DNC within an hour of Cecile Richards (Planned Parenthood President) and Sandra Fluke (activist form who went to a Catholic university for graduate studies specifically to agitate for free contraceptives)
        The average age of these nuns is 74 years old. While their message appears to have been victorious culturally in many respects, they missed the boat when it comes to attracting the young and are dying out.
        The keynote speaker at the LWCR conference even said that in order to face shrinking numbers and remain “dynamic” nuns should consider a “move beyond the Church” and even “beyond Christ.” following up with “the God of Jesus might well be the God of Moses and the God of Mohammed.”
        While this may seem radical and even scandalous to the average Christian’s ears, it is standard fare for our liberal elites. The bishops investigated the heterodoxy of these nuns and made pretty tame recommendations for reform last year. The nuns howled in protest and grew even more slavish in their devotion to liberal poltical causes. For standing up to those mean old bishops the media lionizes liberal nuns with prime coverage on the Colbert report, CNN, NBC, etc. pretty much ignoring alternate voices when it comes to controversial matters.

        Is this what real cultural victory looks like: a group of aging misfits who get most of their attention as the lapdogs of our cultural elites in opposition to the Catholic Church?

        The heterodoxy got so bad, an alternate group of faithful sisters formed in 1995 (decades late as they had worked unsuccessfully to reform the organization from within). The average age of this other group is much younger, with the youngest nuns being attracted almost exclusively to very orthodox orders. For instance, the average age of my sister-in-law’s order is 28 vs. a median age of 74 among liberal nuns. They have appeared on Oprah and been featured in the New York Times and other major media outlets.

        So, is either group of nuns/sisters a cultural victor? I don’t think so. One is lapdog to liberal elites but gets primo media coverage for their political viewpoints. The other is on the outside working for causes our cultural elites abandoned long ago (e.g., pro-life work, authentic Catholicism). They get media coverage from Oprah and NYT not for their work on controversial political causes or help of the poor (though it exists), but for the attractiveness of their life and how it offers a young face to something that we were led to believe is falling by the wayside. They are never featured in hard news stories, but in personal interest type stories.

      • Great explanation, Doug. I see what you mean, particularly since you define liberal Christianity (LC) by the morals it explicitly announced and then renounced, rather than the overarching morals I was extrapolating which are not formally expressed, much less Christian-derived.

        At the very least, Hedstrom should begin by carefully defining liberal Christianity, otherwise his conclusions have little meaning.

        Doug wrote: “How can this change occur so rapidly and uniformly?

        I think it is possible for change to occur rather rapidly once culture has built up to it, much like some feedback control systems. I think I’ve read about similar social dynamics in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

        One decentralized possibility that comes to mind is that the LC elites were themselves faced with increased pregnancy due to the “free love” cultural movement, perhaps in their children’s lives, and their self-centric response to that may have driven the doctrinal and further cultural changes. What do you think?

        Doug wrote: “Who is leading whom?

        That is the crux of it. The coincidence of secularism and LC doesn’t tell us cause and effect, and if we cannot trace LC back to uniquely Christian motivations, then that would suggest secular ideological dominance.

        But if we instead define LC by the LC elites themselves rather than by an ideology, then perhaps they would be reasonably considered a leading force in shifting culture, as you note for Roe v. Wade. And in fact, their children could be seen as a leading force as well, if my theory above has merit.

        Doug wrote: “Hedstrom actually starts by pointing to Catholics. “This is something that folks who study American Catholicism and Judaism have long understood, but oddly it’s taken a while to apply these same insights to American Protestantism, especially liberal Protestantism.”

        Hedstrom preceded that with: “we need to get outside of church if we want to really understand American religion”, which altogether I interpreted to mean that American Catholic and Judaic (AC+J) researchers already look at behavior outside of church as an indicator of fidelity, as opposed to merely church attendance and church action.

        But it sounds like you interpreted Hedstrom as saying that AC+Js are more prone to being influenced by liberal culture. If that’s what he was saying, then I agree with your criticism — AC+Js are actually more cohesive and resistant to change in many ways.

        Your example contrasting nuns/sisters was great, thanks for sharing it! Popular culture is more clearly on the side of the liberal nuns, but again that doesn’t show causality. At the very least, it indicates that the totality of their odd mixture of morality is not tenable long term.

      • This is an article that I haven’t had time to read, yet might help. The author, Gary Dorrien, is a major scholar of liberal Protestantism (and is an LP himself):

        Doug, I think that your question of who is leading whom is a great rejoinder to Hedstrom. Am I right to summarize your point as being that liberal Protestants got evangelized by 20th-century progressivism, rather than succeeding in their goals.

        One way to answer the question of success would be to look at the late 19th- and early 20th-century leaders’ visions for church, society, and morality and see how they match up.

  4. This paragraph sums up naivete of the author, in my view.

    “As for the field of American religious history, I think we’re entering a period of exciting vitality in the study of liberal religion, including but not limited to liberal Protestantism. I have graduate students now doing exciting work on Howard Thurman, for example, and Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly. I was pleased to be part of a working group put together by Leigh Schmidt and Sally Promey that in many ways, I think, points out where this field is heading.”

    That paragraph makes me want to say to Hedstrom, “Dude, if that’s your standard of vitality, I have news for you: Nobody gives a $#!t. Seriously, who has even heard of those people outside of a few academics?”

    It also reminds me of a conversation that Richard John Neuhaus had with Jaroslav Pelikan, “Many years ago, I asked Pelikan who was the most influential theological mind of the past two hundred years. I had suggested thinkers such as Schleiermacher, Harnack, and Barth. Without hesitation, he said John Henry Newman. I expressed surprise at the certainty with which he named Newman. I may not recall the exact words, but he explained that Newman’s thought has been received into the tradition of the Catholic Church, whereas Schleiermacher and Harnack, brilliant though they were, wrote against the tradition, and Barth was, as he claimed to be, a “church theologian” but a church theologian without a church capable of bearing his contribution through successive generations. Pelikan understood, as Wilken said at Yale, that it is orthodoxy that is the most consequential, the most adaptable, the most enduring.”

  5. Doug, you make an excellent point about the influence of secularism on liberal Christianity. And I think that the conversation with Neuhaus and Pelikan makes a ton of sense, too. The great liberal theologians were influential on a fading branch of the church. And Doug, you’re right about the academic insularity reflected by Hedstrom, although Howard Thurman was an important influence on MLK Jr.

    On the other hand, the liberal project is reconciling the “essence” of Christianity (defined differently by different theologians) with the modern world, so in some ways that’s built into the system. I don’t think that the institutional church is as important to liberal theologians, although that’s just an impression. One reason for this would be the conflation of evangelism and mission with humanitarian efforts that arose in the early 20th century. I would imagine that the anti-institutional trend has only accelerated with the influence of 1960s liberation ideas into liberal theology. So this is where I agree with Kevin.

    I hope that conversation keeps up!

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