A recent article from MSNBC centered around the question of whether so-called “liberal Christianity” is signing its own death warrant by, among other things, being more tolerant and accepting of such groups as LGBT people.  While the article raises some interesting questions, it also runs perilously close to drawing some unfounded connections between the process of liberalization (what does that really mean anyway?) and a dwindling of church attendance among such mainline Protestant denominations as the Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, and the United Churches of Christ.  Rather than merely putting the blame on the process of liberalization, I have proposed below some alternate (and, I think, equally plausible explanations as for why church attendance may be dwindling):

1.)  Increased skepticism.  Certainly one possible explanation is an increased skepticism, what I like to call “The Da Vinci Code Effect.”  What I mean by this is that popular texts like TdVC, whatever their factual problems, have nevertheless exposed some of the problematic aspects of the history of Christianity that managed to fly under the radar in prior periods.  It seems to me that there is an increased cultural awareness of the very speckled history of various Christian denominations.  As a result, many see the Church not as a source of salvation and guidance, but as a source of potential danger and the inheritor of an unfortunate and tragic history of oppression and tyranny.

2.)  Anxiety over religious zealotry.  In the wake of 9/11, there can be no doubt that there is in the American consciousness a renewed awareness of the dangers of religious zealousness (I am not necessarily arguing that all of those who are “terrorists” are automatically zealots, I am merely pointing out what I think is a common perception among the American public).  Now, of course, no one really associates religious zealousness with mainline Protestant denominations like the Episcopalians, but it does seem to me that there is an increased anxiety, among both liberals and some conservatives, about the potential dangers that accompany religious faith of the extreme variety.

3.)  More Viable Alternatives.  Let’s face it, Christianity doesn’t quite the stranglehold on the American public that it once did.  There are loads of alternatives out there, some of which exist outside the bounds and strictures of an official denomination, and it could very well be that many of those who might, in a past era, have come to one of the mainline Protestant churches, have decided to go to one of these other venues, which might offer them more of the spiritual guidance that they desire than traditional Christianity.

So, it seems like it might be a bit premature to start ringing the death knell of liberal Christianity.  Does a reduction in attendance numbers really signify as much as this article seems to suggest?  Is it possible, perhaps, that a smaller, more unified, more tolerant Church (whatever its denomination) might be preferable to a big-tent Church that ultimately ends up excluding those who might need its light and guidance more than anyone else?

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