There is no more urgent question for American Christians than this: What’s wrong with the American church and how can its life and ministry be renewed?
Virtually everyone agrees something is radically wrong with the church. Inside, there’s more polarization and conflict than ever, leading all sides to agree the church is in deep trouble. Outside, journalists, sociologists, and all other observers bemoan or celebrate the church’s decline numerically, institutionally, and in influence. We must find a new way forward—to spiritual, theological, and institutional renewal—until the Christian church is thriving again, until it’s growing by appealing to and reaching people with truth and serving and changing people with love.
The best method for understanding the way forward is to begin by recounting the story of the American church’s decline.
The American church after World War II seemed strong and flourishing. In 1952, a record 75 percent of Americans said religion was “very important” in their lives. In 1957, over 80 percent said religion “can answer today’s problems.” Church affiliation during the 1950s jumped from 55 percent to 69 percent. From 1950 to 1960, the U.S. population went from 150 to 180 million, a record growth aided by the post-war baby boom. In the late 1950s, almost half of all Americans were attending church regularly. This was the highest percentage in U.S. history.
Virtually everyone agrees something is radically wrong with the church.
Another remarkable feature of this religious surge was how ubiquitous it was. Religion flourished, it seemed, in every class, race, region, and denomination. Catholicism seemed to finally be entering the cultural mainstream, no longer just a working-class ethnic church. Archbishop Fulton Sheen had a large popular following on radio and television. The African American church took front and center in the great social changes of the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr. Even conservative white Protestants were on the upswing with the unprecedentedly successful ministry of Billy Graham, who was part of a new alliance of organizations and leaders who sought to distinguish themselves from fundamentalism, calling their movement “evangelicalism.”
Mightiest of all was mainline Protestantism, consisting of the Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, American Baptist, and United Church of Christ (congregational) denominations. Their buildings were at the center of nearly all historic downtowns, their schools and institutions were of the highest prestige, and their endowment funds were enormous. Even their theologians, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, were respected public intellectuals, prominently appearing on the cover of Time magazine and on network television.
Yet this seeming high watermark led almost immediately to an unprecedented church decline that began first with the mainline. From a high of 3.4 million members in the mid-1960s, the Episcopal church declined to 2.4 million by the early 1990s. In 2019, it recorded 1.6 million members. The mainline Presbyterian Church had 4.25 million members in 1965, but by 2000, they numbered 2.5 million, and in 2020, 1.25 million.
Other major denominations have shown similar precipitous declines. By the mid-1970s, it had become clear something was afoot that had never happened before: “For the first time in [the] nation’s history most of the major church groups stopped growing and began to shrink. . . . Most of these denominations had been growing uninterruptedly since colonial times. . . . Now they have begun to diminish, reversing a trend of two centuries.”
Those words were written by Dean Kelley in his bombshell 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches are Growing. Kelley was a legal scholar who worked for the National Council of Churches—the council of mainline Protestantism. He wasn’t a conservative: he lobbied against prayer in public schools and served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet Kelley’s criticism of the mainline was searing. In those early years of decline, Kelley heard mainliners complain that “people are just not as religious anymore,” but he responded,
Not all religious bodies are shrinking. While most of the mainline Protestant denominations are trying to survive what they hope will be but a temporary adversity, others are overflowing with vitality, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, the Churches of God, the Pentecostal and Holiness groups, the Evangelicals, the Mormons, . . . Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Black Muslims, and many smaller groups.
The decline of mainline Protestantism has continued to the present day. I remember speaking to an Episcopal priest in New York City some years ago. He had gone to seminary in the 1950s when, he said, mainline liberal Protestantism was in the ascendancy. He’d been trained to take a highly skeptical view of the assertions and accounts in the Bible. He was taught to interpret them as legends and to find the places where the Bible coincided with the best of modern psychology and thinking—and to preach those things. The Bible was never allowed to critique modern thought or popular opinion but only to mirror it. He was taught that more traditional Christians—mainly Catholics, evangelicals, and fundamentalists—were hopelessly behind the times and would soon die out.
That was the 1950s, but in the first decade of the 21st century, many mainline churches in New York City could only keep their doors open by renting out space to a host of new congregations from all around the world who believed in traditional, born-again Christianity. These churches were growing while the mainline was dwindling. “It feels like God’s judgment against us, frankly,” the priest said.
3 Critiques of the Mainline
1. Kelley’s Sociological Critique
So what was the problem? The appeal of religion, Kelley wrote, was that it provided “largest-scale meanings.” These are not the genuine but small-scale meanings we can discover such as helping others in the neighborhood or volunteering for a good cause. Rather, largest-scale meanings enable people to face suffering and death with confidence and hope and to seek the longest-term common good, making sacrifices for it, all because you know you’re part of a “cosmic purpose.” The only “largest-scale meanings that seem suitable to produce such results [are] those offered and validated by religion.”
The Bible was never allowed to critique modern thought or popular opinion but only to mirror it.
Kelley argued conservative churches continued to focus mainly on spiritual needs and supernatural “largest-scale” cosmic meanings—the reality of God, the truth of Jesus’s resurrection, the power of the Holy Spirit for inward change, the efficacy of Jesus’s death for the forgiveness of sins, the eventual arrival of the kingdom of God.
Liberal mainline churches, on the other hand, had adapted heavily to modern secular thought. They rejected the concept of miracles, of being born again by the Spirit, of Jesus’s bodily resurrection, of a trustworthy Bible. They adopted, in Kelley’s words, “relativism, . . . lukewarmness [and] individualism,” all of which he identified as “Evidences of Social Weakness”—marks of a weakening community that cannot coalesce powerfully around a life of shared faith, meaning, forgiveness, love, and spiritual growth in God.
The mainline churches adopted the therapeutic view of the self and dropped traditional Christian ethical strictures around sex and money. Kelley responded with what he called the “Minimal Maxims” for a strong religious body:
Those who are serious about their faith: 1. Do not confuse it with other beliefs/loyalties/practices, or mingle them together indiscriminately, or pretend they are alike, of equal merit, or mutually compatible if they are not. 2. Make high demands of those admitted to the organization . . . and do not include or allow to continue within it those who are not fully committed to it. 3. Do not consent to, encourage, or indulge any violations of its standards or belief or behavior by its professed adherents. 4. Do not keep silent about it, apologize for it, or let it be treated as though it made no difference, or should make no difference, in their behavior.
So what was the “mission” now of the mainline? Kelley said that these denominations had come to concentrate almost completely on political causes rather than leading people to faith and building them up in their faith. They also moved beyond the simple call (that the church had issued for centuries) for Christians to be salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13–16): caring for their neighbors, working for a more just society, and helping the poor.
Instead, the mainline identified themselves—and therefore Christianity—with particular political parties and social policies. The unique things the church could do had been abandoned and things better done by the liberal political parties were now seen as the main job of the modern denominations.
Kelley, though himself a political and theological liberal, predicted churches that continued to turn themselves into political organizations would see continued decline. And, in hindsight, there was a warning to conservative churches not to do the same thing with the Republican party that the mainline had done with the Democratic. Kelley has been almost completely ignored on all fronts. He received heavy criticism from the Left and, after a little enjoyable schadenfreude, conservative Christians didn’t take his warnings seriously. That’s why most of the readers of this essay wouldn’t have heard of him.
2. Machen’s Theological Critique
Fifty years before Kelley wrote, a completely different kind of critique against the mainline church was launched. In 1923, J. Gresham Machen published Christianity and Liberalism with a major New York publisher (MacMillan).
Machen was professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, the oldest and most prestigious of the theological schools of the mainline Presbyterian church. Machen was embedded in the establishment of mainline Christianity, much like Kelley. But Machen wrote when there was no numerical or institutional decline at all. There had been no diminishment or loss to be analyzed from a sociological viewpoint as Kelley did. Yet Machen took aim at the Protestant mainline because he saw it shedding its historic religious beliefs and faith in an effort to become acceptable to the modern world. He argued,
The great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive . . . because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. . . . Manifold as are the forms in which the movement appears, the root of the movement . . . is naturalism—that is, in the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity.
This “modern naturalistic liberalism” is what philosopher Charles Taylor called the “immanent frame”—the worldview that brackets out the supernatural or transcendent, insisting all things have a natural, empirical cause.
The mainline identified themselves—and therefore Christianity—with particular political parties and social policies.
Protestantism knew modern science would object to Christian “particularities”—all the main historical doctrines of the Christian faith such as the virgin birth of Christ, the preexistence and incarnation of Christ, the atonement on the cross, and the bodily resurrection. In response, Machen observed, “The liberal theologian seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these ‘particularities’ are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting ‘the essence of Christianity.’”
So the main Protestant denominations accepted historical skepticism about the reliability of the Bible, including the accounts of Christ’s life and death. Protestant leaders “reinterpreted” Jesus as a great moral teacher who may or may not have been executed and who certainly didn’t rise physically from the dead. However, both his teaching and the legends of his life were unsurpassed as inspirations to live lives of love, peace, and justice. That, it was now declared, is the “essence” of Christianity, not the outdated supernatural doctrines.
Machen’s assessment was searing. He argued liberalism’s attempt to create a desupernaturalized Christianity “has really relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity, so that what remains is in essentials only that same indefinite type of religious aspiration which was in the world before Christianity came upon the scene. . . . Here as in many other departments of life it appears that the things that are sometimes thought to be hardest to defend are also the things that are most worth defending.”
This is the heart of Machen’s critique. The changes were no mere tweaks or updates. They altered Christianity at the most fundamental level, turning it into something that wasn’t Christianity at all.
There have always been religions in the world that aspired to a higher form of living, providing various sorts of inspiring stories that encouraged a higher-toned life. All these religions were forms of self-salvation through various ethical practices, religious observances, and transformations of consciousness. If this is how contact with God was reached or accomplished, then the ancient stories in the religion’s literature about the deeds of various religious figures served strictly as models for us. Whether they literally happened or not didn’t matter.
But Christianity was and is wholly different. It insists we’re saved not by what we do but by what God in Christ has done for us in history—in his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Machen understood that if one loses a belief in the historical reality of these events, whatever Christianity is left is remade into another religion of works-righteousness. And that removes the main thing differentiating Christianity from all other faiths. In his chapter on salvation, he writes,
If Christian faith is based upon truth [of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus], then it is not the faith which saves the Christian but the object of the faith, . . . Christ. Faith, then . . . means simply receiving a gift. To have faith in Christ means to cease trying to win God’s favor by one’s own character; the man who believes in Christ simply accepts the sacrifice which Christ offered on Calvary. The result of such faith is a new life and all good works; but the salvation itself is an absolutely free gift of God. Very different is the conception of faith which prevails in the liberal church. According to modern liberalism, faith is essentially the same as ‘making Christ Master’ in one’s life; at least it is by making Christ Master in the life that the welfare of men is sought. But that simply means that salvation is thought to be obtained by our own obedience to the commands of Christ. Such teaching is just a sublimated form of legalism. Not the sacrifice of Christ but our own obedience to God’s law is the ground of hope. . . . The grace of God is rejected . . . and the result is slavery, . . . the wretched bondage by which man undertakes the impossible task of establishing his own righteousness as a ground of acceptance with God.
As we’ve noted, Machen wrote when there were no signs of numerical or institutional decline at all. And his critique didn’t include a prediction of such decline—Machen believed the changes were lethal to the life and mission of the Christian church, whether or not this led to changes in attendance and giving. At the end of his book, he admitted he didn’t have any idea what the future held for the church.
Machen refers to the entrance of paganism into the Christian church in the second century—a battle fought and won by the church fathers—and to the corruption of the medieval church, which resulted in the Reformation and the division of Christendom. Machen hinted that some kind of reckoning would come to such a massive change in the theology of the churches, but he didn’t guess how it would play out.
Liberalism altered Christianity at the most fundamental level, turning it into something that wasn’t Christianity at all.
It’s impossible not to see how Kelley’s analysis of mainline decline in many ways (despite the sharp difference in viewpoints) agreed with Machen’s. Machen said the church was abandoning the main things the church can do uniquely. Kelley agreed. (Kelley, speaking sociologically, spoke of connecting people to “largest-scale meanings” while Machen, speaking theologically, spoke of connecting people vitally to God.) Instead, the church was becoming a social service agency and political lobbying bloc, performing functions that could be done far better by secular organizations.
No wonder it was in decline. The mainline church was increasingly offering people nothing the secular culture and its institutions couldn’t offer. If I want to work for inclusion and justice, there are lots of ways to do it. Why do I have to get up early on Sunday morning or connect to a Christian church with all its baggage?
3. Marsden’s Cultural Critique
There was, however, a final reason for the mainline decline that wasn’t apparent until decades later.
(a) Seeming moral consensus. After World War II, America emerged as the world military and economic power. Our population was growing rapidly, as were our incomes and bank accounts. Enormous public works—such as the interstate highway system—were undertaken. Huge new suburbs were built, filled with shiny new homes. It all seemed to be a triumph of “American values.” Those values included beliefs in (1) democracy and self-government by the people, (2) science as the best way to determine how to promote human flourishing in society, and (3) traditional moral values such as patriotism, the building of strong families, and hard work as the pathway to prosperity. Morality was seen as obvious and a given.
But George Marsden chronicles how the seemingly unified and optimistic 1950s contained a strong undercurrent of doubt, the feeling something was profoundly wrong with us. Many believed the unprecedented prosperity had turned Americans into “cogs in an economic machine,” depersonalized beings who did whatever it took to get ahead.
Books by Erich Fromm, William Whyte, and others countered that the antidote to stultifying conformity was the assertion of individual freedom—to be an authentic, self-determining, and self-fulfilled person. Many of the most popular public intellectuals at the time weren’t philosophers but psychologists, such as Gordon Allport, Carl Rogers, B. F. Skinner, Erving Goffman, and Rollo May. They shared the basic idea of Freud’s psychoanalytic tradition, namely that people matured and became healthy as they escaped the irrational guilt, fears, and controls of traditional community and authority. They added a deep, particularly American, optimism that human beings could and would shape themselves for the better if given complete freedom to do so.
(b) Rise of the therapeutic self. However, freedom was increasingly being defined as “autonomy,” a word that meant literally to be a law unto oneself. Historically, human fulfillment and meaning were understood to be found not in a quest for our own singular happiness but in seeking the happiness of families and communities through relationships and roles in which the group’s common good was more important than individual self-interest.
But by the late 1950s and early 1960s, a steady stream of best-selling books, such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, called Americans to be more authentic and self-determining, to not allow family or any local “subcommunities” to dictate their values and purposes. We become full persons, it was said, only as we leave the moral prescriptions of others and discover our own. The term “freedom” was becoming an almost wholly negative term—a freedom only from. “Once one was free from restrictive traditions or expectations, what was going to replace them as a basis for determining what was good for human flourishing?” wrote Marsden. If we’re not going to let others determine our moral values, what then is the basis for our new moral values apart from our own inner feelings? And if that was the sole basis, how can there be a unified culture of shared values?
(c) Loss of cultural unity. This question hardly troubled anyone at the time outside of lonely religious conservatives in the tradition of Machen (see C. S. Lewis’s seminal The Abolition of Man). Virtually the only major cultural figure to sound an alarm in the U.S. was the eminent writer and journalist Walter Lippmann. Lippmann was a nonreligious Jew at the center of the secular liberal establishment. But in 1955, he wrote his last book, Essays in the Public Philosophy, which dismayed his peers. Marsden wrote, “His heresy was to say that his liberal colleagues were trying to build a public consensus based on inherited principle, even after they had dynamited the foundations on which those principles had first been established.”
He charged that our liberal American values (whether fully executed or not)—equal dignity of all people; freedom of conscience, thought, and speech; government by consent; trust in science and reason—weren’t the deliverances of science. Originally, these American ideas were based on transcendent moral standards, a higher “universal order” we could all recognize as the truth.
Lippmann was no theist, and so he was speaking more in the tradition of Aristotle, but he insisted that unless a society could recognize an objective moral order—a set of standards that weren’t merely produced by culture or our private feelings—there was no grounding for a public, shared social order. “If what is good, what is right, what is true, is only what the individual ‘chooses’ to ‘invent,’ then we are outside the traditions of civility.” By that, he meant no one had ever tried to create a social common life on such a basis. Who’s to say one particular law is just and another unjust? Do we do it by majority vote? Then what do we say to Germany whose majority thought it was right to persecute and even destroy minorities?
If we’re not going to let others determine our moral values, what then is the basis for our new moral values apart from our own inner feelings?
Lippmann was right that our original “American values” originated in an agreement between Christians who believed these were the teachings of the Bible and also of those Enlightenment thinkers who believed, as did Aristotle and the ancients, in “natural law”—a transcendent, moral order in the universe that was discernible through human reason and reflection. But in 1955, the American modern liberal establishment was aghast at Lippmann. They reviewed his book negatively and pushed back, saying that returning to belief in God or natural law was dangerous and completely unnecessary. Arthur Schlesinger was a good representative of this view. A “nondogmatic, relativistic, pragmatic” way of testing beliefs was the best. Our values are just things “we all know” that will benefit human beings best and will make most people happy. They aren’t rooted in God or a cosmic order. It’s simply obvious to practical human reason and scientific thought that individual freedom, democracy, the equality of all people, free speech, human rights, and such are just the right way to go.
Interestingly, the leading public intellectual of mainline Christianity, Reinhold Niebuhr, also rejected Lippmann’s book. Niebuhr, just as Machen had predicted, adapted the faith to secular science. He wrote that “we” modern Protestant believers “do not believe in the virgin birth and we have difficulty with the physical resurrection of Christ. We do not believe . . . that revelatory events validate themselves by a divine break-through in the natural order.” Liberal Protestants, in other words, didn’t believe the accounts in the Bible of miracles were true or that the Bible itself was a supernaturally produced book of authoritative truth. Rather, it contained stories that provided the true essence of Christianity—the moral principles of love, justice, and peace. And these “essential verities” turned out to be exactly the ones the liberal secular establishment held as well.
(d) Impotence of the mainline. Marsden, who was a teenager in the 1950s, argues in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment that the Protestant mainline had allied itself to a secular moral consensus that was inherently unstable. That consensus wasn’t based on the Bible or on any transcendent, universal norms embedded in the universe (as the Greeks, Romans, and Chinese believed). The consensus of liberal Protestantism was—they said—based on common sense, intuition, and tradition. But when in the 1960s the American consensus’s own moral values, starting with sexual ethics, began to fragment, liberal Protestantism had no basis for moral truth from which to speak.
Protestant liberalism, by adapting to a more secular modern mindset, had pointed to their shared views (“See, we have the same moral values as you do”) and could thus welcome modern people into their churches without challenging their secular worldview. Even atheists could find a home in Protestantism now, since what mattered was not outdated doctrinal beliefs but one’s ethics—a commitment to freedom and justice for all.
However, as Marsden points out (and as Machen had argued decades before), what need then was there for the church at all?
The grand irony of that strategy was that, while Niebuhr himself used it effectively as a way to preserve a public role for the Christian heritage, its subjective qualities made the faith wholly optional and dispensable. . . . One could simply bypass the theology and adopt the profound insights into human limitation that Niebuhr offered.
The mainline Protestant moral argument was this: it wasn’t that secular society’s values were right because they aligned with God’s; rather, the church was right because it aligned with secular reason. But when secular reason and science began to fail to provide American culture with a unifying, moral consensus, the mainline church had nothing to say that secular science couldn’t say. Protestantism had become virtually a mirror of the dominant secular culture and could offer nothing special, nothing the culture didn’t offer its members by way of wisdom or insight. So what was its use? This is what Kelley saw in the early 1970s.
End of American Cultural Unity
Lippmann had been right. Even as a relativistic, secular worldview had taken the place of the Christian/Enlightenment view, the older consensus on moral values was still maintained temporarily because of enormous common enemies—the Great Depression and two world wars. These crises required self-sacrifice for one’s family and community merely to survive and necessarily muted the culture’s therapeutic and individualizing underpinnings. There was still great agreement across the political spectrum on what a good, moral life looked like. Love of country, sexual chastity, faithfulness, thrift and generosity, modesty and respect for authority, sacrificial loyalty to one’s family and relationships—nearly everyone believed in all of these even if there were plenty of deviations in actual behavior.
But by the late 1960s, such survival challenges were just memories, and as people followed the culture’s direction to discover truth within themselves, they began to come to radically different conclusions about what was right and wrong. American society began to splinter and has been doing so ever since.
American society began to splinter and has been doing so ever since.
The original civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. pointed (as Lippmann had counseled) to a higher moral law. Marsden writes, “What gave such widely compelling force to King’s leadership and oratory was his bedrock conviction that moral law was built into the universe.”
But by the time King was assassinated in 1968, very different forces were already at work. All the coming “rights” movements for women, gays, and other minorities modeled themselves in some ways (e.g., protests and activism) on King’s movement, but the philosophical framework was completely different. Identity politics grounded claims for justice not in an objective moral order but in their own group’s unique perceptions and experiences. Individualism eroded traditional values such as love of country, loyalty to family bonds, and respect for authority. And many of these groups, especially those demanding sexual rights, had beliefs about morality at sharp variance with traditional Western, Protestant ethics. The country began to break up into warring factions.
Why? No leading cultural figures could point, as Lippmann and King did, to a higher law or to the Bible. The Protestant establishment had given up its ability to do that. Everyone assumed secular, pragmatic, common sense reasoning would come to an agreement on social mores. When that failed, there was no court of appeal or rationale available in any discussion of moral values. If someone called out injustice by saying, “What you’re doing is wrong because I feel it’s wrong,” there was no answer for the rejoinder “But I do not feel it’s wrong—why then should your feelings about this be privileged over mine? What right do you have to impose your views on me?” Since our society had discarded any shared basis for moral values—religion and natural law—there was nothing left to unite us at all, no basis for a debate. As Lippmann argued, no society had ever sought to do this before, and he doubted it could be done.
And as the country broke apart, mainline Protestantism began to slide. First, it began to lose those who were coming to less straight-line, politically liberal conclusions. It lost political conservatives, but that was just the start. Later, it continued to decline because even the children of liberal Christians, as Kelley and Machen had pointed out, failed to see any real usefulness to the Christian church.
Ironically, Niebuhr saw that increasing secularism put the long-time American impulse toward rampant individualism on steroids. As religion declined and secularism grew, selfishness grew apace. He spoke of the “self-glorification” encouraged by modern culture that was leading people to use wealth and sexuality not just as good gifts but as ways to create an identity. He spoke of the idolatries of both secular liberalism (that deified human reason) and fascism (that deified the race and soil) and socialism (that deified the state.) In good Augustinian fashion, he argued everyone had to have a “god” and rest their hearts in something, and without God in their lives, people inevitably created these destructive ideologies. But as Marsden adds, Niebuhr’s “chastening words regarding the human condition could be welcomed, but his generalized Christianity offered little to challenge most of the secularizing trends that he himself identified.”
Mainline Protestantism was no longer about radical conversion, about an encounter with a transcendent God and the reordering of the loves of the heart. It was about ethics and politics, and it had adopted too many of secularism’s assumptions to be any real challenge to it.
Where Are We Today?
We live in a fragmented society. All the mid-20th-century figures who assured us pragmatic common sense and scientific reason could bring about a unified moral consensus have been proved terribly wrong. The polarization in our society has become severe and the disagreements are about the most basic ideas of what human nature is and what human flourishing looks like. There’s no longer any common set of “American values” or a unifying “American story.” And the decline of mainline Protestantism, once the unofficial but real religion of America, was both a cause of and a result of this breakdown in American society.
One would think a fragmented society would be a truly pluralistic society in which all the various voices and groups have their say. But that’s not the case. The official view of liberal politics in this country was framed by John Rawls and required religious views be kept private and out of public discourse. The only valid arguments are those based on (supposedly) neutral, objective, scientific, empirical reasoning. Interestingly, Rawls was a mainline (Episcopalian) who considered going into the ministry. He was shaped by the mainline perspective before losing his faith during his military service in World War II. Today, Left Progressivism holds this view—that public discourse mustn’t include religious viewpoints—even more strongly.
In counterpoint, others argue all accounts of value or justice are nonempirical, based on “worldviews” about human nature and destiny and morality that are ultimately faith-based. The supposedly objective secular viewpoints are based on moral values (such as equal human rights) that aren’t the deliverances of science—they’re deep beliefs that aren’t self-evident, empirically provable, or shared by all cultures. Therefore, there’s no qualitative difference between secular and religious points of view.
In earlier (pre–World War II) times, institutional religion (and largely mainline Protestantism) was so powerful it could keep atheist and other nontraditional religious voices silent. But today in the secular society mainline Protestantism helped bring about, it’s religious voices that are precluded.
There’s no longer any common set of ‘American values’ or a unifying ‘American story.’
Recognizing the faith basis of all views should lead to the readmission of religion to the public square and the establishment of a truly pluralistic society.
Wilfred M. McClay and Rowan Williams argue the state should be “procedurally secular”—a kind of “umpire,” keeping the playing field level and open for all points of view, guarding the rights of free and public speech of all, not privileging one religion over others, and allowing the democratically chose public policies—whatever their worldview basis—to be put into effect.
They also argue the state shouldn’t be “programmatically” or “philosophically” secular. That is, it shouldn’t impose a secular worldview and marginalize religious ones. It shouldn’t speak as if the only legitimate, “scientific” views are (1) the secular views of expressive individualism and therapeutic identity—therefore of sex and gender, (2) the secular view that all human evil is produced by social structure or by evolutionary biology, or (3) the secular views of morality such as utilitarianism. In short, the state shouldn’t act as if secularism wasn’t one quasi-religious worldview among many. It shouldn’t tag anyone who disagrees with the secular “takes” on these things as “hate speech.”
Neither the mainline nor the conservative Protestant churches—nor indeed the secular political establishment—is currently capable of moving forward into a truly pluralistic society. But I argue in my full paper that conservative Protestantism and Catholicism have better resources for doing this than either the mainline church or secularism.
In light of the rightful critiques of Kelley, Machen, and Marsden, I believe that, in general, the progressive mainline Protestantism still in existence is no real way forward for the American church. This isn’t to dismiss all the good leaders or people still in the mainline—a significant number. There’s a great variety of beliefs and practices in these churches. There are many who would say the criticisms of Kelley, Machen, and Marsden don’t apply to them personally or to their parishes. I’m sure that’s often true.
The progressive mainline Protestantism still in existence is no real way forward for the American church.
However, because of the reassertion of fundamentalism within American evangelicalism and the consequent exodus of many young adults from the churches of their youth, many are pointing to mainline, progressive Christianity as the place for them to go. There may indeed be some influx into mainline churches, especially in urban areas, of young “ex-evangelicals” who are “deconstructing their faith.” But the overall project of mainline Protestantism has failed. It overadapted to Western secular culture and can’t offer our society an alternative or counterpoint to what the dominant culture already offers.
It also doesn’t appear to be able to grow the way the church has historically grown in every culture—by evangelism and church planting. Can it lead secular people into life-transforming conversion? Progressive Christian theology won’t be able to produce the phenomenon so memorably depicted by Charles Wesley, who saw tens of thousands of people experiencing the new birth: “My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose went forth and followed thee.”
This article was adapted from the first part of Tim Keller’s The Decline and Renewal of the American Church. This downloadable PDF is an aggregation of a series of four articles by Tim Keller originally published in Life in the Gospel (the quarterly journal of Gospel in Life) between 2021 and 2022. This paper is intended to help pastors and church leaders go deeper on the topics addressed in the original series.