Jul  2017 25
Questioning the Future of Liberal Protestantism

How are the moral worldviews of evangelical and liberal Christians in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) alike and different? Dr. James Wellman, Jr., whom I met when he and I were both at the University of Chicago about 25 years ago, wrote a very insightful book on the topic. Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest includes research from 24 growing evangelical congregations and 10 liberal congregations that, well, were numerically and financial stable at the time of the study.

Dr. Wellman’s findings gave me pause (such as finding oodles of growing evangelical churches and only a couple handfuls of “stable” liberal congregations).

One might have thought the affinities between liberal Protestantism and the liberalism of the PNW coastal areas would have been positive for liberal Protestantism. Instead, it is evangelicals who are finding more strands of the culture to weave together into numerically growing congregations.

The book is a good read for clergy and laity who want to understand Christianities in U.S.-American culture and how congregations shape the moral worldviews of their participants, even as the congregations draw on or resist the moral order of the host culture.

For those who tend to limit the term “morality” to sexuality, Wellman’s work will contribute to a much broader understanding of moral order: the fundamental principles that form a “sacred canopy” (to use the late Peter Berger’s term) under which a people connect to each other, differentiate between themselves and others, and between right and wrong in everything from liturgy to climate change to what constitutes family values.

There was much in Wellman’s findings that disturb me, as a progressive/liberal Christian (who is not comfortable with those labels that feel like Procrustean beds to me). For today, I note his findings on raising children and outreach.

One of the stark contrasts was that evangelical leaders affirmed only cis-gendered heterosexuality as within God’s plan for humanity, while liberal leaders embraced and advocated for LBGTQ communities. Wellman also found that evangelicals succeeded in reaching families with children who looked to a church to help form the moral and religious outlooks of their children. And the liberal churches did not.

Okay, I’m with the liberal leaders on affirming and including LBGTQ communities. But embracing persons of different sexualities and gender identities does not seem mutually incompatible with helping caregivers raise children!

The late Don Browning led a massive multi-scholar, Lilly-funded project on family and religion in the 1990s. At the time, liberal Protestantism was either bested by or had ceded “family values” to the Moral Majority and then the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family.

Browning hoped to revitalize conversations and practices of family ministries (with multiple definitions of “family”) in mainline Protestantism. But what did Browning find?

Evangelicals were interested in his results. Family policy think-tanks were interested in his results. But in mainline Protestantism he found little interest. Wellman’s work indicates the same lack of attention to helping caregivers raise children, which also means the children who go to church are most often being shaped by evangelical moral orders.

The other disturbing finding for me, as a liberal/progressive, concerns outreach. In the PNW, liberalism correlates highly with libertarianism. This is not a communitarian liberalism where community is richly valued.

Religion is a personal and private matter, for the liberals who profess any religion. Liberals welcomed those who found their congregations. But liberals don’t evangelize, they don’t do outreach, they don’t share their faith with others and invite them. All those practices seem, to liberal church-goers, invasive (Wellman did find ONE liberal pastor who thought and practiced differently).

And, as one might expect, the exact opposite was true among evangelical leaders: they found creative, organic ways to reach out beyond their walls and invite others to experience their churches and their moral points of view.

I know that Wellman’s findings for the churches he studied in the PNW are not valid without exception everywhere in the country, among all racial-ethnic groups, and for every congregation. He does not claim they are.

But his findings ring true enough for me, from where I sit in Oklahoma, that I wonder again what will be the contours, moral order, and strength of progressive churches (not just progressive/liberal secular folks) in the next 20 years if we don’t form and enact commitments to shaping family values and don’t actively, unashamedly share with others what we have found to be good news.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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