The Bright Future of Liberal Religion
This is liberal religion’s moment, if only liberal religious leaders will be wise enough to seize it.
Americans are changing in dramatic ways on social issues, mostly for the good. They are fed up with intolerance and hatred, more relaxed about sex, and more accepting when it comes to models of family life different from their own. The Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision was a reflection of America’s evolving mores, further proof that in a remarkably short period of time, our citizenry has cast aside prejudices of the past.
The Court’s decision caused dismay among religious conservatives and much introspection in their ranks. As David Brooks has pointed out, Conservative leaders and scholars are divided. Some argued that in light of the decline of mainstream culture, religious conservatives should abandon public advocacy on social issues and tend to their own garden; others called for a renewed public battle on behalf of what they define as traditional values.
But religious liberals have been surprisingly passive about the broader meaning of the Court’s decision for them. This is distressing because we live at a time of unprecedented opportunity for liberal religious movements and institutions. In their 2010 book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell presented evidence that younger Americans were turning away from organized religion because they saw it as intolerant and increasingly aligned with conservative politics. Religion, in the eyes of the young, was “judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.” And, at the same time, the liberal side of religion was overshadowed by the voices of the religious right.
But America is moving in a more liberal direction, as the Court decision has dramatically confirmed. The message of the religious right has receded, discredited by a new liberal spirit. And this should present an opening for liberal religion to gain ground among young Americans.
Of course, this is not so if secularization in America is inevitable and religion–liberal and conservative alike–is on the road to irrelevance. The recent Pew study on the U.S. Religious Landscape is used as evidence of this trend, and many who read the data, such as Professor Arthur E. Farnsley II of Indiana University, argue that the “modernist” groups will suffer the most.
But I believe that just the opposite is true.
In the first place, religion remains remarkably robust in America. Boom-and-bust, wax-and-wane cycles are the rule of American experience. True, Americans are devoted to autonomy and personal freedom, which can undermine religious commitment, but that notwithstanding, religion has always come storming back from periods of dormancy and decline. And as Professor Peter Berger reminds us, the search for meaning and the need to find significance in our lives are eternal human concerns to which religion provides the response. Berger notes as well that the secularization of Europe is an exception rather than the rule of modern history, and while in America it may apply to certain elites, it does not apply to us all.
In the second place, it is liberal religion that has the most to offer now, and is most likely to bridge the contradictions of the modern era. It offers commitment to family, but a more expansive view of what families might look in these tumultuous times. It offers belief in God and tradition, but without the dangerous absolutes that too often banish questioning and doubt. And it offers concern for the poor and the needy. This does not mean mindless, knee-jerk political liberalism, but it does mean giving direction on poverty, justice, war, and the great issues of the day. For liberal religious people, it is blasphemous to cloak yourself in religion while denying justice to the oppressed and mercy to the suffering.
The simple fact is that liberal religion can reach out to young Americans in ways that conservative religion cannot. It can be innovative and idiosyncratic. It can offer endless experimentation. It can demonstrate a fierce willingness to open itself to outside cultures. And it can fully embrace modernity and reason, while balancing, most of the time, the new and the old.
Still, it must also be said that if liberal religion is to succeed, there are things that it must do better. All religions ultimately shape, inspire, and console with day-to-day sacred acts. It is these acts that build community, give structure to the holy, and provide religion with its true power. But liberal religion has often favored doctrine while ignoring liturgy, hymns, holidays, and festivals. It has often assumed that belief is enough, without recognizing that we need rituals to seduce us and to draw us to the sacred. And it has frequently forgotten that for young people in particular, God is often not the first step but the last, and we require rituals and intimate communities to get us there. Liberal religion must therefore build for itself a rich ritual life.
But it is starting to do so, and this is a time of hope. America is a religious country living through a period of social upheaval. Gay marriage, thank God, is now legal here, and the hateful rhetoric of anti-gay bigotry is disappearing from our midst. And young people are reinventing themselves at the same time that they are reinventing the social customs that govern their lives. Part of this reinvention is a search for the holy, the transcendent, and the fire of faith, even if they do not know precisely what those terms mean.
At this moment, for most of them, it is liberal religion that can provide them with the answers they seek and with the sense of permanence that they need in the midst of seething change. Therefore, this is not an occasion for passivity among the leaders of liberal religion. If liberal religion is up to the challenge, as I expect that it will be, what lies ahead is not decline or despair, but a renaissance of liberal religious life.