Ross Douthat Asks if Liberal Christianity Can be Saved and His Readers Answer No

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It is always amusing to read conservative Ross Douthat’s columns in The New York Times and read the visceral negative reaction of almost all his commenters.  The New York Times of course is Holy Writ for most liberals in this country, and their seeing a conservative opinion piece in it is simply beyond the pale for most of them.

Today , Douthat asked if liberal Christianity can be saved, noting that liberal denominations are going the way of the passenger pigeon, the Edsel and conservative Democrats:

IN 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition — but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.       

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.       

This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital.       

Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.       

But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

Go here to read the rest.  As usual, the reactions of most of his commenters were unintentionally hilarious.  A random sample:

Why should any type of mythology — liberal or conservative — be “saved”?


If the church has to stay backwards to survive, if being a Christian really requires people have to pretend to know things that they not only don’t know, but CAN’T know, then by all means, let it die out ASAP.

I don’t understand why anyone even reads this guy’s column, much less takes it seriously.


People are called to faith or not based on their experiences in life. Faith is not just another subject for you to twist with clever words. If one believes in Christ and his message and has studied it, he/she knows that Christ said that the kingdom of God is inside you and all around you. And if that’s true, religion is manufactured. I’m just as likely to find the truth from the hot dog vendor at Central Park as I am from Pope Benedict. And if Christ was the embodiment of pure love, then any language or action that goes against pure love is against Christ.



Ross — have you ever heard of something called Vatican II? After World War II the Catholic Church was forced to do some very serious internal soul searching and change some of its old dogma. Part of the reason the Nazis were able to slaughter 6 million Jews with relative ease is that all of Christian Europe truly believed that the Jews were responsible for murdering Jesus Christ. The Jews were finally being punished at long last for refusing to believe the divinity of Jesus and, therefore, they deserved whatever they got. It’s sad that it took something so horrific to make the Church expunge the biggest lie of all and the Church finally dropped the ancient lie that the Jews had killed Christ from its litugy.

All i’m trying to prove is that even the Catholic Church had to clean up its act and change with the times.


modern Christianity in America has been taken over by the crazy right… basically, ask yourself “what wouldn’t Jesus do” and that’s what they believe in


I can’t imagine what Mr. Douthat would claim to know about liberal Christianity, or liberal anything. Or why he’d care, as it’s completely out of his world. Or why he’d have the chutzpah to offer an opinion.


Douthat (born at the end of 1979) here continues his habitual maligning of the 60s as an age of “consumerism and materialism.”

It just ain’t so.

THAT age arrived, along with Mr. Douthat, in the 80s with his idol Ronald Reagan.

Douthat speaks of the need for “personal redemption,” continuing a self-centered Augustianism that has plagued Christianity since the 5th century.

Matthew 25: 31-46 makes clear that the final judgement will be of the NATIONS as to how they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick (Obamacare anyone?) and comforted those in prison.

If Douthat would read Acts 2:44-45 and 4:34-35 he would see that the first Christians repudiated private ownership and embraced a completely communitarian (dare one say communistic?) ethic.

Guess what?

As a result, it says, “None of their members was ever in want.” Acts 4:34.


It’s called “the Kingdom of Heaven,” Ross, right here on earth.

No pie in the sky for those folks!


We as a species have outgrown thousands of gods and goddesses and demigods and each time a god was was put on the shelf with all the other myths, a new god took its place. The sun was once a god, and the moon was a god but when people figured out they were nothing more than natural phenomenon, then they invented new gods with ever more elaborate stories to go along with the persona.

The god of Abraham should have been put on the shelf with the rest of folklore soon we walked on the moon, or cured the plague, or any number of human milestones. It is on life support now, leave it alone and let it die a dignified death. Stop trying to resuscitate it, it is cruel to keep the willfully ignorant enslaved just to keep money in the collection plate.

Time to grow up and leave childish things behind…. Hmm … that sounds familiar.


Douthat’s readers help demonstrate why liberal Christianity is dying.  The true religion for his readers is secular liberalism.  Christianity at best, for a few of them, is a useful tool as propaganda for a liberal point of view.  Liberalism in its contemporary incarnation is, for many of its devotees, a substitute religion.  That is why so many of his commenters have such a seething contempt, if not hatred, for Douthat.  He is attacking their holy of holies and they will  not tolerate it.  Liberal Christianity is pointless for most liberals since it merely dilutes the True Faith of secular liberalism.  That is why liberal Christianity will soon be one with Nineveh and Tyre.





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  1. Of course it cannot be saved because liberal Christianity does not exist. The Catholic Church continues to grow because it does not change in faith and morals. It is the church founded by Christ and Christ entrusted the Church to St. Peter and his successors. People are abandoning liberal Christian churches and joining the Catholic Church for that very reason.

  2. “Why has the liberal voice been muted in liberal Christianity?” The question is: “Why has the voice of Christianity been muted in liberalism. The Sermon on the Mount is no longer allowed in the public square. The liberal Jesus Christ, God, the Father, God, the Holy Spirit is prohibited in the public school. Jesus could not give His Sermon on the Mount. The Lord, God cannot celebrate His Birthday at Christmas, because some “liberal”, “progressives” have disenfranchised the Lord, God, Jesus Christ, using HIs name to finagle their political ends. “Liberal” is an adjective to describe a person, not a group of individuals as the word “Christianity” does. As a “liberal” or “progrssive” I ought to be free to be a “liberal” or a “progressive” as I define liberalism, not as “a group of liberals” define me. When a “group of liberals” begin to redefine liberal Christianity, I, as an individual person, lose my liberty. Therefore, liberal Christianity is an artificial construct of persons who have been disenfranchised.

  3. Mary wrote, “The Catholic Church continues to grow because it does not change in faith and morals.”

    What growth? First off, Catholicism is about finished in Europe and is in declining in America. Evangelical Christianity is cutting into Catholic numbers in Latin America, especially Mexico, and Islam is making greater strides in Africa at Catholicism’s expense.

    Vatican II a spawned a serious of disasters, wrote Catholic author Pat Buchanan.

    Here are some grim statistics he cited of Catholicism’s decline:

    Priests. While the number of priests in the United States more than doubled to 58,000, between 1930 and 1965, since then that number has fallen to 45,000. By 2020, there will be only 31,000 priests left, and more than half of these priests will be over 70.

    Ordinations. In 1965, 1,575 new priests were ordained in the United States. In 2002, the number was 450. In 1965, only 1 percent of U.S. parishes were without a priest. Today, there are 3,000 priestless parishes, 15 percent of all U.S. parishes.

    Seminarians. Between 1965 and 2002, the number of seminarians dropped from 49,000 to 4,700, a decline of over 90 percent. Two-thirds of the 600 seminaries that were operating in 1965 have now closed.

    Sisters. In 1965, there were 180,000 Catholic nuns. By 2002, that had fallen to 75,000 and the average age of a Catholic nun is today 68. In 1965, there were 104,000 teaching nuns. Today, there are 8,200, a decline of 94 percent since the end of Vatican II.

    Religious Orders. For religious orders in America, the end is in sight. In 1965, 3,559 young men were studying to become Jesuit priests. In 2000, the figure was 389. With the Christian Brothers, the situation is even more dire. Their number has shrunk by two-thirds, with the number of seminarians falling 99 percent. In 1965, there were 912 seminarians in the Christian Brothers. In 2000, there were only seven. The number of young men studying to become Franciscan and Redemptorist priests fell from 3,379 in 1965 to 84 in 2000.

    Catholic schools. Almost half of all Catholic high schools in the United States have closed since 1965. The student population has fallen from 700,000 to 386,000. Parochial schools suffered an even greater decline. Some 4,000 have disappeared, and the number of pupils attending has fallen below 2 million – from 4.5 million.

    Though the number of U.S. Catholics has risen by 20 million since 1965, statistics show that the power of Catholic belief and devotion to the Faith are not nearly what they were.

    Catholic Marriage. Catholic marriages have fallen in number by one-third since 1965, while the annual number of annulments has soared from 338 in 1968 to 50,000 in 2002.

    Attendance at Mass. A 1958 Gallup Poll reported that three in four Catholics attended church on Sundays. A recent study by the University of Notre Dame found that only one in four now attend.

    Only 10 percent of lay religious teachers now accept church teaching on contraception. Fifty-three percent believe a Catholic can have an abortion and remain a good Catholic. Sixty-five percent believe that Catholics may divorce and remarry. Seventy-seven percent believe one can be a good Catholic without going to mass on Sundays. By one New York Times poll, 70 percent of all Catholics in the age group 18 to 44 believe the Eucharist is merely a “symbolic reminder” of Jesus.
    Google “decline of Catholicism” and you get 66,000 hits.

  4. @ Joe Green: This is the pruning of the branches that St. Paul discusses in Romans 11. There will be growth in orthodoxy. But the dead liberal branches will have to be pruned first. That’s makes for some bad statistics when it comes to mere numbers, but it makes for a healthy Church in the long run.

  5. Actually Joe there are about 5000 more priests in the world today than there were in 1999. Ordination rates are climbing in Africa and Asia, and among orthodox dioceses around the world including in North America and Europe. The Church has ever been in flux and has usuallly had a shortage of priests particularly in the New World. The statistics for priestly ordinations in this country in the fifties were unusually high for a number of reasons, many World War II veterans becoming priests on the GI BIll for example, and do not reflect the normal trend in ordinations in this country. In the future priests in this country are going to be much more orthodox than their predecessors and that should lend itself to more ordinations. Orthodox orders of nuns and sisters are doing quite well in obtaining new postulants. Mr. Buchanan is as reliable as to the future of the Church as he is in regard to the history of World War II.

  6. What is disconcerting is that Douthat is as ever Douthat. Whatever his is, amusing or trenchant he is not. He is for the most part drily discussing a social phenomenon familiar to anyone who has been paying attention the last forty years, and even contrives a shot at evangelicals in the course of it (in his typical fashion). The man writes like David Broder and gets 323 paroxysms in response. The people commenting would do well to look at themselves in the mirror and ask if there is not something wrong with them (were they the sort to do so).

  7. The fate of the liberal churches springs from the fact that those who reject authority will never succeed in imposing their own authority on others

    The Reformers having challenged the authority of the Church, on the basis of scripture, it was only a matter of time before Semler, Ernesti, and others challenged the authority of scripture on the basis of reason and private judgement. Strauss and the Tübingen School inevitably followed.

    Why, after all, should the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Westminster Confession be of more authority than popes and councils?

  8. @Joe Green – Here’s a link that speaks to the growth of the Catholic Church. We have to remember that the Catholic Church is universal. While Europe is in a state of decline that is not true for the remainder of the world. Women entering religious orders are delcling in the existing orders affiliated with the liberal LCWR but if you take a look at the religious orders that are orthodox they are booming. I agree with Paul, the Holy Spirit is doing some pruning.

  9. I think Joe agreen’s point is well taken. The concept of quality over quantity assumes that you have enough. The quality of a necessary product, whether it be wheat or priests, is important but there must be enough to feed the community.

    That having been said, it should be noted that the clergy accused of sexual abuse and non-criminal perversions peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s among priests who entered the seminary in the 1960s. Couple that reality with Christ’s divinity denying nuns, Transubstantiating denying Jesuits, and drunken Christian Brothers, and you have a virtual whirlpool of intellectually decaying, Baby-Boomer Catholic Religious, dragging themselves and their charges into hell.

    We simply have to be better off without them.

  10. The fate of the liberal churches springs from the fact that those who reject authority will never succeed in imposing their own authority on others

    I will go out on a limb and suggest that there was a seminal tendency of people seeking agreeable low-pressure employment, intellectuals not satisfied with digesting and making small incremental additions to a body of theological understanding who want to be ‘innovative’, and addled bourgeois who have a taste for cloying lectures and hymn singing. What you get is the Episcopal Church.

  11. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” – Mt. 7:24-27

    Parts of the Church were being built upon sand in the Bernardin days, introducing the values of Man and not clinging to the values of God; now the rains have come, the streams are rising and the winds are blowing and beating against it. Those parts of the Church not built upon the Rock will, and have already begun to, fall with a crash.

    Let the tempest rage.

  12. @Mary, not to be disrespectful, but you are in denial, and so is Don, cherry-picking a few “positive” stats. A macro view undeniably shows not only Catholicism in decline but Christianity as a whole. Even other religions are losing adherents as reason and science make greater strides. In the O.T. the “curse of the law” was disease, poverty and death. If Christ was the end of the law, then why do we still have disease, poverty and death? Religion, whatever one you choose, fails on all accounts.

    I understand why people cling to religion in such an abysmal world. They need something/anything to believe in. As a cradle Catholic, I, too, once believed. But the experience of 70 years has demonstrated to me unequivocally that a) Life is not fair b) God is the author of Life c) God is unfair. We not only live in a world that is demonstrably imperfect but terribly flawed in countless respects. A world in which the supreme creature — man — is the worst of the lot; made, we are told, “in the image of God,” yet prone to evil and doomed to suffer. At bottom, Man is vile, (anagrammically evil) stupid and unworthy and I cannot believe in a God who would his waste time trying to perfect such a pathetic creature. I’d rather live in a world of dogs, which are superior in every way but so-called “intelligence.”

  13. Joe, your woe is me agnosticism is as tiresome as your inability to accept data that contradicts the pessimism that you wallow in as a pig does her filth. Peddle your bitter angst elsewhere.

  14. Zummo dismisses me as an “ignorant ass” and you call me a “pig wallowing in filth.”
    Yes, Jesus was right about one thing: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

  15. Joe wrote, “But the experience of 70 years has demonstrated to me unequivocally that a) Life is not fair b) God is the author of Life c) God is unfair.”

    Ezekiel 18:25-29 says:

    25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel, is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair? 26 When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies in it, it is because of the iniquity which he has done that he dies. 27 Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive. 28 Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ O house of Israel, is it not My ways which are fair, and your ways which are not fair?


    We are getting precisely and exactly what we deserve.

  16. Addendum: God did create life, but life is unfair not because of God, but because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God. It is sin that has made life unfair, not God. Indeed, it is our sin that has done that. It may seem like a remarkable example of the transitive law of logic to say, “a) Life is not fair b) God is the author of Life c) God is unfair.” But it is flawed logic because it is missing that key point: man rebelled, so God, being a Gentleman, gives man up to what he wants (i.e., sin) and the consequences thereof (i.e., disease, injury and death). St. Paul makes this very point over and over again in his Epistles.

  17. To paraphrase Chesterton:

    “It’s not that liberal Christianity has been tried and found lacking, it’s that it’s…well, actually, now that you think about it…um,…well….ok, forget I said that.”

  18. I can understand your banning of Joe (it does get tiresome). You would think he has never heard of free will. And image and likeness does not mean exactly the same. Like our Creator, we are given free will. The similarities don’t go much beyond that.

    Yes, his syllogism sucks. It should be A) God created life, B) we mucked it up, C) we suck.

  19. The pessimism of Joe Green is sad. God is love and He continually calls us to conversion. Let’s hope that God’s grace can permeate Joe’s heart.

  20. Yeah, I get a little tired of despair, but I feel for Joe. When you get to his vantage point, you see a lot of stupidity and horrible behavior. But his mistake is in seeing that as the sum total of man, or his basic essence. Man is a “ruined god,” to crib a turn of phrase from a sci-fi writer whose name I forget (Anderson?).

    Whether that ruin is tragic or contemptible depends upon one’s perspective. I think it’s both, but Joe chooses only contempt, which is at the root of his error.

  21. While Joe accuses others of cherry picking facts, he does the same thing.

    Fact, the number of Catholic Priests worldwide are on the increase.
    Fact, the number of Catholics worldwide are on the increase too.
    Fact, liberal elements of the Church are dying while orthodox elements are growing.

    These are simple facts easily verified with minimal research by those that want a balanced view.

    In response to Zummo Joe quoted a snippet from Matthew 7:16, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Unfortunately and typical to those of a liberal, agnostic or atheistic persuasion, his quote is totally out of context. To put it into context Joe needs to read

    Mt. 7:15-21 –

    “[15] Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. [16] By their fruits you shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? [17] Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth forth evil fruit. [18] A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit. [19] Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire. [20] Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them. [21] Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the
    kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

    I think verse 15 describes Joe perfectly….his bitter views of mankind, the unfairness of God, the Church et al are certainly not good fruits. But Joe’s salvation is more important than arguing with him. He should read Mt. 7:21 above and take it seriously. Below is a link to a document that explains Catholic belief (doctrine) that outside the Church there is no Salvation (before other posters go bonkers please read the article). In this article it explains that unless one can claim ‘invincible ignorance’ of Catholic doctrine they cannot be saved outside the Church. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that Joe can make this claim.

    We should all pray for his return to the faith.

  22. My own reflection on humanity mirrors that of Stephen Vincent Benet in The Devil and Daniel Webster:

    “Then he turned to Jabez Stone and showed him as he was — an ordinary man who’d had hard luck and wanted to change it. And, because he’d wanted to change it, now he was going to be punished for all eternity. And yet there was good in Jabez Stone, and he showed that good. He was hard and mean, in some ways, but he was a man. There was sadness in being a man, but it was a proud thing too. And he showed what the pride of it was till you couldn’t help feeling it. Yes, even in hell, if a man was a man, you’d know it. And he wasn’t pleading for any one person any more, though his voice rang like an organ. He was telling the story and the failures and the endless journey of mankind. They got tricked and trapped and bamboozled, but it was a great journey. And no demon that was ever foaled could know the inwardness of it — it took a man to do that.”

    God became one of us, and gave His life for us. Two very salient facts for those who have only despair for Man.

  23. That’s a good quote, Don.

    I was starting a little further back, though. Until you can get a glimpse of the idea that there was a Fall–that there is something still noble in us, despite our ruined visage, despite the nastiness we deck ourselves with–redemption doesn’t (yet) make sense.

  24. It was in God’s mind to send His only begotten Son as Savior of manknd even before man sinned. It is God’s prerogative. The Fall removed our innocence but not our soul.

  25. “But the experience of 70 years has demonstrated to me unequivocally that a) Life is not fair b) God is the author of Life c) God is unfair.” “Life is unfair” because man sinned against God. God is the author of a perfect life. “God is unfair” is victim bashing.

  26. Catholicism is booming in Africa. I’m having trouble finding a consistent data source, but there are something like 100 million more African Catholics now than there were forty years ago. It’s not just population growth, either: the percentage of Catholics in Africa is increasing as well. The number of African priests has increased 25% since 2000.

    It’s true that the evangelicals have expanded a lot at our expense in South America. And a lot of the faster-growing parts of Africa are largely Muslim. But Catholicism overall is trending upward.

    Once you get past the percentages game, you can see that Asia has the greatest potential for changing the absolute total of religious membership. The relationship between China and the Church is worth watching.

  27. Oh, and back to the point of the original article: these aren’t watered-down religions that are booming. Evangelical Protestantism, Islam, and Catholicism tend to be pretty serious. Even the, say, Anglicanism that’s expanding in Africa tends to be highly devout and moral. Not that African Catholicism is perfect: I was reading recently about the treatment of women in Africa, even within Catholic countries. Shocking rates of rape. But back to the main picture, again, people are more attracted to more demanding religions.

  28. Pinky wrote, “…people are more attracted to more demanding religions.” A religion that demand little gives little, and a religion that demands nothing gives nothing.

    God requires everything, even our lives. What He gave in return was His only begotten Son – His very self.

  29. a) Life is not fair b) God is the author of Life c) God is unfair.”

    Job… the poster child for life/God being unfair. God may be unfair, but he is just.

  30. Asians are no less materialistic than Westerners yet the churches here are overflowing. The relative decline in church attendance is in large part due to the lack of continuous enforcement over the young. Now given a choice most youngsters would rather prefer to stay in bed than attend Sunday mass. This is excused as an expression of free will, which is of course a sacred right in the West; the rest of the world does not suffer from this to the same extent.

    Mr Green if your questing is sincere then God owes you an explanation. He is the Father after all. By doing all that is right, you will find Him as affirmed in one of the Easter prayers.

  31. Ivan I agree with you. Materialism is not the whole problem. Our liberal culture gives youth in the culture too much latitude …. and unfortunately it can take a long time to get over some of the mistakes we make when young.
    Now for us to expect that teens can decide whether or not they should go to Mass is only the tip of the iceberg. Some think 7 and 8 year olds can self identify as gay, or born in the wrong sexual identity, or ask the government abortion through the public school system without the parent’s knowledge. As these young people encounter the results of their own actions they become more conservative and wiser as they grow older. Until then parents should exercise their traditional perogatives.

    Many of the 22 year olds who voted for Obama in 2008, will be 26 for this election and will not make that mistake again.

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