A Compelling Conversation: Four Progressive Religious Leaders Reply to The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's question, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?"
By mreyf
July 17, 2012

In a New York Times op-ed on Sunday, July 15th, titled, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” Ross Douthat posited that an increasing emphasis on social justice has led to the decline of mainline churches.

Auburn Media invited four of our heroes in the world of American religious leadership to explore the topic:

  • Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church in Chicago (who is also an Auburn Board member)
  • Rabbi Sharon Brous, co-founder of IKAR in Los Angeles
  • Rev. Peter Laarman, Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting in California, and
  • Diana Butler Bass, author of the new book, The End of Christianity
  • Macky Alston (moderator), Founder and Senior Director of Auburn Media, Sundance Award-winning documentary filmmaker


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Macky Alston: Diana, I want to start with you. You were one of the first to go on record in response to yesterday's op ed by Douthat. "Is he right?" is my question to you.

Diana Butler Bass: Well, you know, I think he's wrong. I mean, there's no other way to really say it. And it's not just an issue of thinking he's wrong, but for the better part of the last decade, I have spent my time as a researcher and a person who has actual academic expertise in American religion on the ground with mainline liberal and progressive congregations.
    And the main thing that was missing from his article was a sense of what is happening from the grassroots. He was theorizing, it felt like to me, about what was happening with liberal religion and literally quoting books that were 30 and 40 years old in his critique.
And it's obvious that he has not spent time with people who are progressive Christians, liberal Christians and even kind of the moderate mainline, people who are trying to refashion faith in new ways to be more responsive to the cultural changes of the world around them. …

Macky Alston:
I've read a report on the fact that the growth churches in the progressive mainline are those that are increasingly inclusive, and at the same time, Douthat is saying it's exactly the opposite. What do you see in terms of trends?

Diana Butler Bass:
Well, I pay attention to the things that come out from Hartford Seminary, Hartford Institute on Religion Research. They really do a lot of good work.
   And one of the things that they revealed last year in some data that they'd been working with for the better part of the last decade is that they reported that liberal congregations, congregations that were self consciously progressive, that were making moves to identify themselves in the public space and be supportive in very open ways in their communities, that they were welcoming, inclusive, etc., those churches actually demonstrate a higher level of spiritual vitality than do conservative churches.
   … What the new stuff is showing us is that liberals are rediscovering spirituality and they're self consciously linking it to their social concerns. And that to me is one of the trajectories of the future, and I find that to be a development in American Christianity that could take the liberal tradition in some very exciting new directions and I think in a path of renewal.

Macky Alston:
This question's for Otis Moss. Otis, it feels like to me that Douthat's focus in his op ed elides the power and vibrancy of historically Black churches in America, a large portion of which have been and remain committed to social justice, and seem to be thriving as they have been in recent decades. What do you think?

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III: One of the things that I think that is missing in the article especially, as you already mentioned, is in reference to the Black church tradition, which has been deeply connected to the issues of social justice. And churches that are disconnected from social justice find themselves many times dwindling congregations.
   And so, I'm excited about what is happening across the country. Right here in Chicago, a gentleman by the name of Reverend Corey Brooks brought together an ecumenical group of people as they were putting together what was called the Walk Against Violence. He's walking across America. He's been on the roof of an abandoned strip mall to bring attention to the issue of violence, to reclaim this area.
And what was powerful about it was that they were utilizing the quote from Abraham Heschel, "praying with my feet," as the synergy for this movement of walking and reenergizing this community.
   So, you have a Neo Baptist, the Pentecostals, UCC and the people of the Jewish tradition walking together because this new generation of ministers recognize that you can't disconnect yourself from social justice.
   … Across the length and breadth of this country in the African American church a new group of young brothers and sisters are taking the helm, drawing on the past and saying that, in order for you to develop the church, you've got to be deeply rooted in the Gospel and recognize that the Gospel is not just internal but also an external.
   …Those churches that are disconnecting from social justice find themselves arguing about internal doctrinal issues but not ministering to the community. And this generation is very clear that they want to see synergy and also congruency between the message of Christ and what the church is doing versus seeing the church do one thing but yet hearing what Jesus is about on the other end.

Macky Alston:
Let me ask you this. I was talking to the Rev. Dr. Delman Coates [Senior Pastor, Mt. Ennon Baptist Church, Clinton, MD] last week about the price of speaking out as an African American pastor for [LGBT] marriage equality. And many I think are worried or told that they're going to lose a big chunk of their church. And in fact, what Delmon has found is that numbers are up since he has taken a very public stance.
   Where do you see the issue of LGBT equality and African American churches stand in that regard, and how do you see that playing out in terms of dwindling numbers as Douthat writes about?

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III:
Well, I don't see it as in reference to dwindling numbers. I think when the President made his statement … what was really powerful is that I found from my colleagues so many people struggling with the issue and wanting to say something on Sunday, and many did. And as a result, their congregation supported them because the pew is much more sophisticated in many ways than the pulpit.

Macky Alston:
Sharon, here's a question for you. Seems like the world looks to you and a handful of others, but often it's you, when they think of next generational progressive congregation life in the American Jewish community. What has worked well in the growth of IKAR? As you look over to your progressive Christian sister communities, do you see decline, as Douthat does, or something else? And what would be your advice?

Rabbi Sharon Brous: Coming from a Jewish standpoint, there's no question that there's been a diminishing--a dwindling of numbers in the Jewish world in terms of formal and official affiliation over the course of the past couple of decades. And it's something that the Jewish community has been tremendously concerned about, particularly in the demographic of Millennials, 20 and 30-somethings.
   And yet, at the same time, there is a real acknowledgement that there has been a counter trend that started probably about a decade ago, which is almost entirely in progressive and sort of liberal minded little pockets of community that have been born around the country where people are really insistent on wedding their religious and spiritual experiences with a deep expression of social justice commitment in the world.
   … What we've seen is really a trend --I would call it really a counter trend, which means that you don’t have to choose between either betraying your Jewish roots and Jewish community or betraying the world, but actually serving one is the way to serve both.
   And so, we're really deeply invested in our community (IKAR), which has been around now for eight years, to creating an environment in which the depth of our religious and spiritual practice is manifest in the way that we speak and work and live and act in the world, where there's really a deep correlation between those two.

Macky Alston: What does it look like, what does it feel like in any given service at IKAR? What's the thing that is such a draw that you have created there?

Rabbi Sharon Brous: Well, the idea is really to build out an integrated religious experience in which our intellect and our spirit and our politics are--we're all a part of the same conversation because we're holistic beings. And so, the key question that I'm always asking when I prepare a sermon is what does it mean to be a Jew and a human being in the world right now, in a world that is on fire, really.
And so, what we're trying to help people understand is that the way that we live has a profound effect on the world that we live in. And so--and it absolutely matters.
   And there's a very powerful text by a Hassidic rabbi who says that the very fact of being alive as a Jew in the world today after the Holocaust is in itself a miracle. So, the question is what are you doing with your time on this earth, what are you doing to transform your community and the world around you. And that is actually the greatest and deepest calling that a Jew is called to respond to.
   And so, this is really a part of every service that we have. There's no separate sphere for religious practice or for justice engagement and political engagement or for social encounters, that we're really as integrated people looking for a way to marry all of these elements into one another.

Macky Alston:
Okay, Peter, now I'm looking for a story from you. You are the former Pastor of Judson Memorial Church [in New York City], a flagship of the progressive Christian movement in the 20th Century. It's still going strong today. Do you think Douthat has it right? If not, tell me a story of robust progressive church life that you are convinced is a sign of things to come and proves him wrong?

Rev. Peter Laarman:
[An] example just happened today. I'm working with some people on criminal justice, mass incarceration in California. We had Michelle Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow] come and speak to a rally of 1,200 people at an AMA church in Compton in May. And now, this thing has legs under it.
   And today, we were looking at the website for this project, for this campaign, which is going to be called Justice Not Jails. And we looked at it and we said--a lot of pastors in the room, and we said, you know what, the one thing that's missing here, we've got all of the ACLU materials and all of the Policy Alliance, we've got, you know, all the sort of standard stuff that any secular group would have. Where is our prayer center, our sort of worship resources center, where is the spiritual stuff here?
   And overwhelmingly, people said, without that, why would we be doing this. We--it has to be there, the language of beauty from ashes, the language of resurrection, the language of death for life, the Lazarus language, all of that stuff needs to be there, [it's a] very powerful piece.
   And it can be Christian, but, this is an interfaith project, so other faith traditions can do their own stuff here. [It’s] very clear that this is coming from a progressive faith place, that change in the atmosphere of the room was transformative for this meeting.
Douthat has, I think, one thing right, and it kind of [is] that [we can] never forget what brought us here. We must never—we in the progressive world—must never forget what's that living testimony in our lives, what's that electrifying spiritual charge that drives us forward.

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