What Happened to Liberalism?

Matthew S. Miller
C.S. Lewis Institute - Greenville, SC

As a formal movement embedded in mainline seminaries and denominations, American Protestant liberalism has been on the retreat for the better part of two generations now. Outflanked by more progressive strands of liberation and postmodern theologies on the one side and a resurging conservative Christian orthodoxy on the other, liberalism’s once commanding public voice has been reduced to a pleading whimper. Protestant mainline denominations, once the mainstay of American religion, have seen their numbers steadily plummet. As of 2017, “self-described mainline Protestants composed just 10% of the American public,” a statistic further diminished by the fact that of these, “barely a quarter actually attended church.”[1] By such measures, liberalism appears to be dead, or nearly so. But is it?

If we equate liberalism with its institutional form – the kind that took up residence at Harvard in the nineteenth-century, put forward nationally renowned theologians who labored to make Christianity credible to the modern world, published leading journals and Sunday School curricula shaping the thought life of a generation, and was heralded by celebrated pastors like Fosdick – then the bell tolled for liberalism long ago. In his massive trilogy tracing the history of American liberal theology, Gary Dorrien relays the accepted narrative: “In the nineteenth century it took root and flowered; in the early twentieth century it became the founding idea of a new theological establishment; in the 1930s it was marginalized by neo-orthodox theology; in the 1960s it was rejected by liberation theology; by the 1970s it was often taken for dead.”[2]

We would be mistaken, however, to equate liberalism exclusively with its established, institutional form, just as we would be mistaken to equate Gnosticism singularly with the official movement of self-styled Gnostics that early Christianity defeated. Though the published works of gnostic theologians were entirely lost long ago, the impulse of their thought has persisted to the present day (as Phillip Lee and others have demonstrated).[3] In the same way, liberalism in its institutional form has suffered an outward defeat, but that does not mean liberalism itself has been vanquished.

The heart of liberalism has proven to be not its institutions, but its ideological core. That core was clearly identified by J. Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism, in which Machen pointed to liberalism’s (1) naturalistic approach to religion, (2) appeal to human experience (and ultimately individual experience) as a final authority, and (3) exclusively imperatival message. On this last count, liberalism jettisons the grand “indicative” of the Gospel – that is, the announcement of the great things God has done in Christ for sinners (think Romans 1-8 or Ephesians 1-3) – and is thus left to traffic exclusively in commands and aspirations (imperatives). In one of his most profound statements, Machen announces, “Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.”[4]

What happens when we look for liberalism’s ideological core of naturalism, the authority of experience, and the imperatival mood? We find that liberalism has outlived the decline of its institutional citadels. Notre Dame sociologists Christian Smith and Patricia Snell write, “[A] historical nemesis of evangelicalism, liberal Protestantism can afford to be losing its organizational battles now precisely because long ago it effectively won the bigger, more important struggle over culture.”[5] Put another way, if institutional liberalism is effectively dead, ideological liberalism is more alive than it has ever been. Where do we find it?

The Ideological Core of Liberalism in Liberation Theologies

As a formal school of thought, liberal theology took a back seat to a host of liberation theologies arising with Latin American and black liberation theologies in the 1960s and, in the decades that followed, with feminist and gay rights liberation theologies, among others. In one sense, the projects of liberal theology and liberation theology are quite different. Liberal theology privileges the voices of the scientific and cultural elite in its aim of making the Christian faith more credible to the modern world. Liberation theology, on the other hand, privileges the voices of the marginalized and oppressed (it often maintains that “the cry of the oppressed is the voice of God”) with the aim of raising select themes of the Christian faith in protest against the modern world. That is why liberation theologies position themselves as a rejection of liberalism.

But beneath these above-ground differences, liberation theologies borrow and build upon liberalism’s substructure. Both liberalism and liberation theology see men and societies as facing their problems without the help of heaven—everything is interpreted and remedied naturalistically, within what philosopher Charles Taylors would call the “immanent frame.” Moreover, both place the seat of authority in human experience. Harold O. J. Brown, former professor at RTS-Charlotte, emphasized the underlying connection: “Because this standard [of liberation theology] is drawn from human feelings and experience—although limited to those of a particular group or class—liberation theology also resembles classic Protestant liberalism after Schleiermacher: it has made human feelings and human sensitivity a source of divine revelation that can be placed alongside Scripture.”[6] Finally, both sound their messages entirely in the imperative mood, whether that is the call of liberalism to “end war and poverty,” or the call of liberation theology to “resist oppressive power structures.” If Machen had lived to critique liberation theology, he would only have needed to add an appendix to Christianity and Liberalism rather than write a new book.

The Ideological Core of Liberalism in Progressive Christianity

Second, the core features of liberalism abide in the many leading voices of self-styled “progressive Christianity.” Granted, the term “progressive Christianity” is quite vague. Some define it as liberal Christianity that adopts certain insights and accents of liberation theology. Others find that progressive Christianity is a large umbrella term under which self-identified Christians who prefer egalitarian approaches to marriage and ministry and who support the LGBTQ+ movement can publicly identify (often without having to do the hard work of examining whether these commitments are actually compatible with their other theological positions).[7] Progressive Christianity lacks the established tradition and formidable theological giants that liberal theology in the first half of the twentieth century boasted—liberal theology was a disciplined school of thought, while progressive Christianity consists mostly of a patchwork of blogs, social media influencers, and authors of easy-read books (think Rob Bell). Roger Olson’s observation that progressive Christianity is a kind of “halfway house” between fundamentalism and liberalism seems apt: “Some get stuck there, but some move on to the ‘left’ into liberal Christianity without understanding that tradition.”[8]

Those distinctions being what they are, we would still say that the shoe of Machen’s description of early twentieth-century liberalism fits the foot of early twenty-first century progressive Christianity in key ways. In its emphasis on openness, uncertainty, and questioning, progressive Christianity caters to a suspicion of external authority paired with a deferential posture toward new insights from human experience, especially the experience of those who claim victimhood. In this way, progressive Christianity adopts the oppressor-oppressed hermeneutic of liberation theology, but employs this hermeneutic more toward liberalism’s goal of making one’s own beliefs credible to the prevailing culture than toward liberation theology’s goal of taking meaningful action on behalf of the oppressed (this raises the question of whether progressive Christianity is more geared toward protecting the adherent from the dominant culture’s shaming reflex than toward loving one’s neighbor in hidden (Matt. 25:37-39) and costly ways). Moreover, for all of its openness to mysticism, progressive Christianity speaks with more confidence about the things below than the things above, consistent with the naturalistic bent of liberalism. Finally, progressive Christianity presents itself overwhelmingly in the imperative mood, marching under the cultural shibboleths of “science is real,” “love is love,” and “kindness is everything,” all of which declare how people should think and behave, and none of which point to the best news Jesus proclaimed to the paralytic: “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mt. 9:2).

The Cultural Triumph of Protestant Liberalism in America

Thus far we have seen how the ideological core of liberalism abides in liberation theologies and progressive Christianity. But the core that Machen identifies exists well beyond these two movements. It has, to use a social media term, “gone viral.”

Consider the parallels between the ideological core of liberalism and the main features of what Notre Dame professors Christian Smith and Patricia Snell recently found to be the default religious outlook of America’s teenagers and young adults, regardless of their historic faith tradition. According to their now famous acronym, MTD (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism), Smith and Snell found that young Americans across the board believed: 1) a God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life, 2) God wants people to be nice, good, and fair to each other, 3) the goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself, 4) God does not need to be particularly involved in our lives except when he is needed to solve a problem, and 5) good people go to heaven when they die.[9] Where did young people get this outlook? Smith and Snell’s research found “that teenagers learned their MTD primarily from their parents.”[10] As these teenagers moved into young adulthood, the general outlook remains largely in place: “Religion exists to support individuals, according to emerging adults, to provide useful beliefs and morals that help people live better lives. People should take and use what is helpful in it, what makes sense to them, what fits their experience—and they can leave the rest.”[11]

Smith and Snell interpret these findings as signaling “the cultural triumph of liberal Protestantism.” They endorse Demerath’s thesis that, “far from representing failure, the decline of Liberal Protestantism may actually stem from its success. It may be the painful structural consequences of [its] wider cultural triumph…. Liberal Protestants have lost structurally at the micro level precisely because they won culturally at the macro level.”[12] In other words, the growth of ideological liberalism inevitably undercuts institutional liberalism, since ideological liberalism is by nature too individualistic and present-minded to see the use of historic institutions (such as mainline churches and denominations). Therefore, even the demise of institutional liberalism is another sign of its ideological victory.

The one difference Smith and Snell find in the outlook of young adults and the ideological core of liberalism is that liberalism – being a product of modernism – was optimistic about the future, while today’s young adults – being children of postmodernism – are quite “dubious about the future of society, politics, and the world beyond their individual lives.”[13] Nonetheless, Smith and Snell were struck by the similarities of the religious outlook of twenty-first century young adults and the theology of liberalism that preceded them by a century, and which doubtless most of them have never read. “The likes of Adolf von Harnack, Albrecht Ritschl, Wilhelm Herman, and Harry Emerson Fosdick would be proud,” they muse, adding, “People, it is clear, need not study liberal Protestant theology to be well inducted into its worldview, since it has simply become part of the cultural air that many Americans now breathe.”[14]

Tara Isabella Burton has recently distinguished between institutional religion and intuitional religion, finding in her research that America’s religious “Nones” (those claiming no religious affiliation) are actually ensconced in religious commitments and practices, just not in the kind connected with historic religious institutions.[15] Borrowing her lexical distinction, we might say that while institutional liberalism is all but dead, intuitional liberalism is alive and well—more than that, it is the default way of thinking about God, society, the self, and the meaning of life in American culture today. Liberalism may be withering in its denominational form and passé as a formal school of theology, but it reigns triumphant in the far broader sphere of culture. This makes it simultaneously more potent and harder to spot, most especially within ourselves.

A Concluding Unscientific Postscript

If liberalism now supplies the atmospheric conditions for our culture, what should the descendants of Machen do? The evangelical counterstrategy to liberalism thus far has focused on opposing its doctrinal tenets (its embrace of evolution and its hollowed-out doctrines of Scripture, of Christ, and of salvation) while shoring up within our own churches and institutions “liberal-proof” confessions on these doctrines and adjacent issues. But we have not yet deprived liberalism of one of its most effective criticisms—namely, that conservative Christianity tends to focus on personal salvation and doctrinal precision to the unnecessary exclusion of concern for the poor and the problems of the world.

Conservative theologians have acknowledged this problem in the past, particularly Carl F. H. Henry in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) and Francis Schaeffer in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (1970).[16] Among these works belongs Harold O. J. Brown’s The Protest of a Troubled Protestant (1967). In that work, Brown, who held four degrees from Harvard and together with Francis Schaeffer, would launch the evangelical pro-life movement in the mid-1970s, paced his readers through a Machen-like critique of the errors of “modern theology.”[17] But he closed with his own “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” in which he exposed and critiqued his fellow evangelicals:

Evangelicals sharply criticize liberals and modernists for abandoning the church’s God-appointed task, to save men, in order to try to reshape society. This criticism is serious and legitimate. But we evangelicals are stained by the sin of our relative indifference to society’s problems… The early church, for example, did nothing about slavery. And evangelicals, like the early Christians, have often been a despised minority without much real hope of changing the structures of society. But where evangelicals have been strong—as for example in the American South—they have been as slow to deal with prejudice as the ancient church was to deal with slavery—and even more reluctant. There is no other word for this lethargy in obedience than sin[18]

He then pivots to a summons:

The pressure by apostate elements within the organization of many churches to turn them into instruments of social revolution must be resisted—but it must not be resisted by turning our back on social problems… Evangelicals must not dance to the tune of the non-Christian social revolutionaries. We have clearly said that this profanes the Gospel. But we must learn to write our own music: a program of social action in harmony with God’s Word and with the ring of honesty to those it is supposed to help.[19]

If we heed Brown’s call, we will position ourselves to give a more full-orbed witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ not only to a watching world, but also to those within our fold and within our own families who might otherwise find appeal in “another Gospel” (Gal. 1:6-7) that has criticized their own tradition’s indifference to matters beyond individual salvation and doctrinal precision. Put another way, if evangelicals wish to make the music of liberalism’s social concern sound less attractive to the ears of professing Christians, we must, as Brown says, “learn to write our own music.” Or, in the words of Machen himself with which we close:

The “otherworldliness” of Christianity involves no withdrawal from the battle of this world; our Lord Himself, with His stupendous mission, lived among the throng and the press. Plainly, then, the Christian man may not simplify his problems by withdrawing from the business of the world, but must learn to apply the principles of Jesus even to the complex problems of modern industrial life. At this point Christian teaching is in full accord with the modern liberal Church; the evangelical Christian is not true to his profession if he leaves his Christianity behind him on Monday morning. On the contrary, the whole of life, including business and all of social relations, must be made obedient to the law of love.[20]

[1] Tara Isabella Burton, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (New York: PublicAffairs, 2020), 52.

[2] Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, vol. 3, Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity, 1950-2005 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 1.

[3] Cf. Phillip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); and Harold Bloom, The American Religion, 2nd ed. (New York: Chu Hartley Publishers, 2006).

[4] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 47.

[5] Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 289.

[6]Harold O. J. Brown, “What Is Liberation Theology?,” in On Liberation Theology, edited by Ronald H. Nash (Grand Rapids: Baker House Books), 11.

[7] Roger Olson, “What is a ‘Progressive Christian’ and How Is That Different from a ‘Liberal Christian’?” at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2021/04/who-is-a-progressive-christian-and-how-is-that-different-from-liberal-christian/

[8] Olson, “What is a ‘Progressive Christian’ and How Is That Different from a ‘Liberal Christian’?”.

[9] Cf. Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 154.

[10] Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 155.

[11] Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition,157.

[12] N. Jay Demerath, “Cultural Victory and Organization Defeat in the Paradoxical Decline of Protestantism,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34.4 (1995), 459-60, 463; quoted in Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 288.

[13] Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 289.

[14] Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 288-289.

[15] Burton, Strange Rites, 33-52.

[16] “We may preach truth. We may preach orthodoxy. We may even stand against the practice of untruth strongly. But . . . [u]nless people see in our churches not only the preaching of the truth, but the practice of the truth, the practice of love and the practice of beauty; unless they see that the thing that the humanists rightly want but cannot achieve on a humanist base – human communication and human relationship – is able to be practiced in our communities, then let me say it clearly: They will not listen and they should not listen.” Francis Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the 20th Century (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1970), 39-40.

[17] Harold O. J. Brown, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967).

[18] Brown, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant, 278.

[19] Brown, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant, 278.

[20] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 155.