Why Liberal Religion Fails

By Mark Tooley Published on July 29, 2015

Liberal religion will never command a majority nor will it ever be the wave of the future, although liberal religionists will never understand why. After all, everybody who counts agrees with them!

A Huffington Post column by a liberal rabbi confirms this point. “This is liberal religion’s moment,” he enthuses, “if only liberal religious leaders will be wise enough to seize it.” After all, “Americans are changing in dramatic ways on social issues, mostly for the good, … are fed up with intolerance and hatred, more relaxed about sex, and more accepting when it comes to models of family life different from their own,” while the “Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision was a reflection of America’s evolving mores, further proof that in a remarkably short period of time, our citizenry has cast aside prejudices of the past.”

Blah, blah, blah. Here is liberal conventional opinion, echoed in a thousand chambers. We’ve won, they insist, so get out of the way.

The rabbi, who shares the views of countless liberal Christian clergy, regrets that religious liberals are “surprisingly passive” in their golden moment. Denying that liberal religion means secularization, he thinks it “has the most to offer now, and is most likely to bridge the contradictions of the modern era.” It offers “belief in God and tradition, but without the dangerous absolutes that too often banish questioning and doubt.”

If liberal religion is to consummate its victory, the rabbi suggests, it must stop relying on doctrine alone and start emphasizing “rituals and intimate communities,” including “liturgy, hymns, holidays, and festivals,” to provide a “sense of permanence,” to facilitate a “renaissance of liberal religious life.”

But no amount of candles, incense, flowing robes, chanting staged invocations in beautiful stained glass studded worship space can really offer a true “sense of permanence.” Without the so-called “dangerous absolutes,” religion as stagecraft becomes just so much cotton candy.

What the rabbi is essentially describing is the U.S. Episcopal Church, which has more liturgy and ritualistic showiness than ever, and is one of America’s fastest declining denominations. This week in fact, the Episcopal National Cathedral will host an “evening of contemplative practice,” which will include walking the labyrinth, a Centering Prayer gathering, and “laying on of hands for healing or simply sit[ting] in the twilight quiet of the nave listening to the strains of harp and Native American flute music.”

For the truly energetic, there also will be “Laughter Yoga exercises (breathing, clapping, and movement) [that] are designed to relax us and to boost our creativity.” The cathedral promises: “As we move past the awkwardness of forced laughter we tap into a wellspring of joy that engenders feelings of health and wellbeing. Join us for this wacky, silly, and fun practice that has been proven to reduce stress and strengthen the immune system. The session ends with a period of silent meditation.”

The National Cathedral is architecturally magnificent but is struggling to sustain its budget and a viable congregation. The labyrinth, Native American flute music, and Laughing Yoga will attract a predictable crowd of Northwest Washington, D.C. upper income white liberals but won’t evangelize a new audience with a substantive religious message.

In a similar spirit, former Evangelical Rachel Held Evans, now an enthusiastic Episcopal Church member and liberal religious advocate, recently tweeted: “My Episcopal church is so packed out each Sunday, we may have to move to 3 services year-round! No “dying mainline” here! :-)” Indeed, her congregation in Cleveland, Tennessee, whose website doesn’t indicate anything overtly liberal, is doing fairly well. In 10 years, its average attendance has increased over 20 percent, from 140 in 2003 to 170 in 2013. Meanwhile, its diocese’s attendance has fallen 15 percent in that same time, from 6,134 to 5,200. There are probably Evangelical megachurches nearby whose attendance is larger than the whole Diocese of East Tennessee.

Of course there are always exceptions, due to local circumstances or creative leadership, but liberal religion globally is in steady retreat. It’s largely confined to declining, mostly white, upper middle class Mainline denominations in North America, northwest Europe, Australia and New Zealand, all of which are imploding. There are no major growing liberal denominations anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, growing religion is conservative Evangelical, especially Pentecostal, conservative Catholic, Islamic and traditional Hindu. Although small globally, Orthodox Judaism is growing. Liberal Judaism, as represented by the HuffPo rabbi columnist, is declining.

What’s the Problem?

If liberal religion is so in sync with Western secular culture, why isn’t it more popular? First, it offers an echo rather than a distinctive voice. Second, it doesn’t demand very much beyond self-acceptance. Third, it lacks permanence, pegging belief on the trends of last week, always trying to keep up.

Here’s a truth most liberal religious elites especially don’t understand. Most religious liberals attend or at least affiliate with conservative churches. Most American Catholics may tell pollsters they affirm abortion rights and same sex marriage, yet still they cleave to a church that will always reject both. The average Evangelical megachurch probably has more liberals in its typical auditorium than do a dozen Mainline churches collectively in the same neighborhood.

In Washington, D.C. there are dozens of Evangelical church plants collectively with thousands of young people, many of them socially liberal. Yet the liberal Mainline churches in the city that aggressively espouse liberalism have no comparable following. Instead they often rent their mostly unused sanctuaries to Evangelical groups.

Even religious liberals, if only subconsciously, crave permanence, authority, transcendence and a challenge to their common assumptions. For these reasons among others, organized liberal religion will never be widely popular. But it will always exist, as some wayward children of conservative religion will in every generation chafe against its supposedly “dangerous absolutes.”

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