November 27, 2006

IRD's Tooley vs. Mainline Protestantism

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:47 pm

For 25 years, the Institute on Religion and Democracy has been pushing the meme that mainline protestant churches are losing members because they are too liberal. Their solution is a theology that looks remarkably like that of fundamentalist Christianity. Mark Tooley, in a review of Diana Butler Bass’s book Christianity for the Rest of Us, trots this bit out again:

Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith

All of the mainline denominations guided by liberal theology in the 20th century have been in decline since the early 1960s. Mainline Protestant church members once numbered one out of every six Americans. Now they are one out of every thirty. Meanwhile, Roman Catholicism has retained its market share of the U.S. population, and evangelicals have be come the largest religious demographic in America. Seemingly, the hour of liberal Protestantism has come and gone.

Via Father Jake, it turns out that Tooley doesn’t have it quite right. From a year-old article in the Baptist Standard:

While mainline churches could claim 60 percent of the total Protestant congregants in 1900, their share fell to 40 percent in 1960. Many religious observers and some sociologists attributed the drop–and simultaneous growth of conservative churches–to the lethargy of liberalism and the appeal of biblical certainty.

But what’s the real reason for the membership decline? Birth rates.

The popular notion that conservative churches are growing because mainline churches are too liberal is being challenged by new research that offers a simpler cause for much of the mainline decline–the use of birth control. Differences in fertility rates account for 70 percent of the decline of mainline Protestant church membership from 1900 to 1975 and the simultaneous rise in conservative church membership, the sociologists said.


However, the authors suggested, the trends underlying the mainline’s decline “may be nearing their end.”

Fertility rates now are virtually the same between the two groups and will produce only a 1 percent decline in mainline membership over the next decade, they noted.

So much for Tooley’s and the IRD’s favorite narrative and their call to mainline churches to adopt a more conservative theology. But what did Tooley think of Bass’s book? He sniffs that:

Bass’s favored churches host speakers like the Gnostic enthusiast Elaine Pagels and the interfaith advocate Karen Armstrong. They read books by the New Age mystic Marcus Borg. They walk labyrinths and meditate. They enjoy liturgy, vestments, the lighting of candles, and anointing with oil. They are interested in “reconciliation,” in psychic healing and “cosmic restoration.” They share faith stories. They employ tambourines and drums in their worship. Some do Latin chants. They want a connection to Christian tradition without necessarily being bound by it.

So if Tooley’s chief critique of the mainline is its liberalism, it’s interesting that this is the list of things he finds unique about the mainline churches Bass profiles. Let’s take a look…

  • Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg – theologically progressive. (Although in fairness, the church in question did not endorse their views, but did provide them an opportunity to speak.)
  • Labyrinths, meditation, liturgy, vestments, candles, oil – very traditional Christian practices going back 2000 years.
  • Reconciliation, psychic healing, cosmic restoration – new ways of describing very traditional Christian concepts.
  • Sharing faith stories – traditional.
  • Tambourines and drums – progressive.
  • Latin chants – very traditional.
  • A connection to Christian tradition without being bound by it – traditional.

This is a great list of traditional Christian practices mixed with a few bits of innovation. Compare this to PowerPoint slides and rock bands (not that I have a problem with them), and these mainline churches are clearly the traditional ones. But as it turns out, Tooley doesn’t really have a problem with these practices:

Bass’s vibrant liberal congregations, though not focused on soul-saving, are not entirely dissimilar to vibrant evangelical ones. Both emphasize innovation, personal testimony, and catering to the customer. But Bass’s liberal worshippers tend to meet in more tasteful surroundings, drink better wine, and read more quality literature.

Well, I hardly agree that mainline churches “cater to the customer”. We prefer to call it ministry. Which, by the way, tends to save souls, so it seems to me these mainline congregations are entirely “focused on soul-saving”. (I’ll defer to Tooley’s opinion regarding the surroundings, wine and literature.)

At one point Tooley states “But it is hard to understand exactly what the objective is for Bass’s book, other than to affirm her own spiritual choices.” Funny, the same thought occurs to me regarding Tooley’s review of Bass’s book as well. Besides returning to his mainline-churches-are-in-decline-because-they-aren’t-conservative-like-fundamentalist-churches meme, Tooley addresses the politics of it all:

Bass, like many on the religious left, seems overly preoccupied by the supposed political threat of conservative Christianity. But contrary to stereotypes, most conservative churches are not focused on politics. Bass should just chill out, and enjoy the companionship of the many like-minded Christians whom she found on her book-writing journey.

Let’s see if we can reconstruct this graf by swapping a few words here and there:

Tooley, like many on the religious right, seems overly preoccupied by the supposed political threat of liberal Christianity. But contrary to stereotypes, most liberal churches are not focused on politics. Tooley should just chill out, and enjoy the companionship of the many like-minded Christians whom he found on his mainline-bashing journey.

1 Comment

  1. Your statistics are comparing apples and oranges.
    Mark Tooley wrote that in the 1960s 1 of 6 (16.7%)Americans
    belonged to a mainline church and now 1 out of 30 (3.3 %) do.
    In your reply you write that in 1900 60 % of Protestants
    belonged to a mainline church and in 1960 40 % did.
    To have a clear discussion, it’s best to have some clear
    statistics. What percent of Protestants belong to mainline
    churches now?
    Do you agree with Tooley about the percentanges he sited on
    how many Americans belong to mainline churches?

    Comment by Jennifer Gahnstrom — January 13, 2007 @ 4:40 pm

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