The other day I posted about how the failure of any strong ideology is in letting that ideology shrink to the point that it forgets there’s an obligation to the improvement of society. I think it’s equally likely to happen in both liberal and conservative camps, and so it’s a poor thing to point out as a failing of an ideology itself, but more something to encourage adherents of any ideological framework to be wary of.
I came across this article in The Atlantic the other day that discussed the rise of what the article calls “religious progressives.” It’s a good read, and one that will probably interest you regardless of your political or theological leanings. It pulls its data from a recent report by the Public Religion Research Institute. If you like number breakdowns, that’s a really fun report to look at (otherwise, skip it because it’s very dry reading).
So, the entire point the article makes is that the demographic breakdown of people who identify as religious in America (which predominantly means Christian) is gradually shifting from conservative to progressive. The PRRI defined its categories using three measures: theological orientation, economic orientation, and social orientation. Those people who rated low on these measures were identified as religious progressives while those who rated high were identified as religious conservatives. Anyone who rated in the middle or had a mixed rating across the three measures were identified as religious moderates. People who identified as nonreligious weren’t included in the breakdown for this section of the report.
First off, I think it’s important to point out that this is a really thoughtful way to categorize sections of personal ideology. Your opinion about theology, economic, and social issues will be interconnected, but they don’t necessarily run parallel.
In response to the trend, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention said, “Congregationally speaking, Protestant liberalism is deader than Henry VIII. While survey after survey shows a secularizing American population, this hasn’t helped the growth of liberal Protestant churches. Where are the Unitarian mega-churches, the Episcopalian church-planting movements?” This follows an explanation in the article that Moore believes that religion which “survives and shapes culture shows up in local congregations.”
I’m totally with him on the local congregation thing. What astounds me though is his explanation for why progressive theology hasn’t become more dominant. How can you hold the opinion that local congregations are the way of the future for the Church and then in the next breath say that the number of progressive Christians isn’t growing because of a lack of megachurches?
The whole megachurch thing is an evangelical invention which other branches of the Church don’t emphasize. Furthermore, a megachurch is not a local congregation. It’s a community of people who are very like-minded in their support of a religious leader or a group of religious leaders and who gather together from a relatively large geographical area. These churches typically involve the pooling of a lot of resources for use by members within their communities instead of turning those resources outward to help the marginalized people who are not part of that community. Some progressive Christians might go so far as to say that this pooling of resources is sinful, because it fails to benefit the people who need it, instead going to unnecessary things like large, well equipped auditoriums that can seat the several thousand strong congregations.
So no, you don’t see Unitarian Universalist megachurches or Episcopalian church planting campaigns. Those things are not the focus of their missions. I’m not a part of those denominations so I won’t try to speak to what they do prioritize, but I’ll take a stab and guess that it doesn’t involve trying to measure their “success” according to membership rosters, which is the foundational assumption of what Moore said.
To be honest, I don’t belong to any congregation. I’m not a church goer. That practice does not define my faith, although I still consider myself a devout Christian (a Protestant even!). By Moore’s metric, I don’t count as part of the “religious progressives” that are becoming more prominent. He’d probably lump me in with nonreligious Americans because I lack a church membership.
I think that Moore’s model is flawed because he envisions something akin to a great mass of individual kingdoms who are loosely affiliated through their common culture as the only possible model for propagation of the faith. What I see, and this is based on the diversity of perspectives that the PRRI’s data shows in regards to how the “religious progressive” demographic is broken down, is more a vast ocean of islands who each have their own peculiar culture and perspective on issues that affect everyone while maintaining a vision of something universally important to their cultures: the Son.