Voices > Soul Food

Recipe for decline

While there are many brands of liberal theology, none of them work

Issue: "Living a legend," Aug. 19, 2006

Liberal theology was the bright idea of churchmen who thought that the way to make Christianity relevant to a changing culture is to change Christianity accordingly. Thus, while there are many brands of liberal theology, none of them work.

Liberal theology began with the Enlightenment of the 18th century, which was "the age of reason." Christianity, some said, needed to be revised into a religion of reason and reason alone. Out went revelation, miracles, prayer, salvation, and mind-blowing doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. Congregations and ministers who embraced this eviscerated Christianity considered themselves intellectually respectable, even if the real action was with the Wesleyan revivals and the Reformed Great Awakening.

When the Romantics reacted against the Enlightenment's "age of reason" with an "age of emotion," churchmen were quick to devise a Romantic Christianity, focusing on feelings rather than objective truth. Then, in the 20th century, one brand of liberal theology followed another. Existentialist philosophy meant the need for an existentialist Christianity. Marxism required a Marxist Christianity; thus, "liberation theology." As feminism, gay rights, and environmentalism each took the stage, churchmen, always just a little bit behind, rushed to catch up, devising a new Christianity to attract the followers of the latest cultural trend. Funny, though, it almost never did. Nevertheless, liberal theology did succeed in converting much of its already-churched base.

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After World War II, liberal theology was ascendant in nearly all of the mainline Protestant denominations, dominating their seminaries, colleges, bureaucracies, and pulpits. In 1960, 40 percent of the American population attended liberal, mainline churches. But today, that number has plummeted to only 12 percent.

In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, Charlotte Allen, the Catholicism editor of the online religion site BeliefNet, documents the disintegration of the liberal mainline churches. Episcopalians have lost nearly a third of their members, dropping from 3.4 million in 1965 to only 2.3 million today. The liberal Presbyterians of the PCUSA have lost nearly half their members, from 4.3 million to 2.5 million.

And yet, Allen shows, the liberal theologians continue to dig their own graves, agitating now for gay marriage, gay clergy, feminist ideology, and left-wing politics, no matter how much such measures alienate their few remaining members in the pew.

A church that just follows the culture is not worth taking seriously. Liberal churches satisfy no spiritual needs. If there is no sin or salvation or Christ, as the liberal churches say, why should anyone go to church? Why not just sleep in on Sunday mornings?

Conservative and evangelical churches, meanwhile, for the most part thrive. But here is the mystery: An ever-growing voice within those churches is now saying, let's change our teachings and our practices to conform to contemporary culture. Why would evangelicals want to embrace the liberal death wish?

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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