Two pieces popped up today. One, "A Religious Legacy with a Leftward Tilt" in the NYT today, which talks about recent scholarship that is trying to show how liberal Protestant Christianity has shaped the mainstream American ethos. Key grafs:
In “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History,” published in April by Princeton University Press, Mr. Hollinger argues that the mainline won a broader cultural victory that historians have underestimated. Liberals, he maintains, may have lost Protestantism, but they won the country, establishing ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism and tolerance as the dominant American creed.
Mr. Hollinger’s argument generated much chatter among his colleagues when he first presented it at the 2011 meeting. But his sometimes pugnacious new book, he said, is just a “punctuation mark” on the recent spate of work reconsidering the left-hand side of the American religious spectrum, which includes titles like Matthew S. Hedstrom’s “Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the 20th Century”; Jill K. Gill’s “Embattled Ecumenism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War and the Trials of the Protestant Left”; and David Burns’s “Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus.”
The surge of interest in liberal religion, many say, reflects the renewed vitality of religious history more generally, which has spread beyond its traditional redoubts in divinity schools to become one of the most popular specializations among academic historians, according to the American Historical Association.
That liberal Protestants "may have lost Protestantism, but they won the country, establishing ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism and tolerance as the dominant American creed" is IMO an indicator of the weakness of liberal Protestantism rather than of its strength. Liberal Protestantism, as one of the primary carriers of modern spirit, reached it fulfillment, in the opinion of many, in the realization of the secular society, and in doing so made its creedal assertions obsolete. And so the best one can feel about that is a certain ambivalence. Better that than an oppressive theocracy, but perhaps there were (and could be) other, better possibilities.
So if you like the modern, flat-souled, 'spirit of whatever' secular society, what's not to like about liberal Protestantism? But what's to like? There's no there there. What is it that distinguishes it from non-creedal Unitarians or Ethical Humanists? How does it stand as something that seeks to offer a robust prophetic challenge to the mainstream? From where I stand its problem lies in that it was (and is) too accommodationist in its relationship to the cultural nihilism that emerged at the end of the 19th century, and thus it became infected with it to terminal effect. And as liberal Protestantism melted into the larger secular society it was complicit in creating, it created a space for the emergence of a more passions-driven religiosity of evangelical right, because it no longer could offer a deeply grounded, robust counterbalance to it that could be called Christian. So many people who are honest believers find themselves pushed to the Right for want of an alternative that can be taken with religious seriousness on the Left.
Nevertheless, for those of us who are Christians firmly rooted on the poltical Left, we have to work with what is there to work with. And for a while now I've thought that the Black Church in the U.S. might be in the best position to bring Americans to a more vigorous retrieval of its full-souled, prophetic Christian heritage. So I was interested today to see coincidentally this piece in Salon about 'Moral Monday" in Raleigh, NC, where a Christian-led protest against the Republican nihilists there seems to have some legs:
NC-NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber, who has emerged as a de facto leader of the movement, opens with what can only properly be called a sermon. Barber, who identifies as an evangelical Christian and theological conservative, is a Disciples of Christ pastor. He invokes the liberationist promises of the Old Testament prophets and Synoptic Gospels in his scathing critiques of the ALEC-beholden extremists who currently control NC government. A powerful orator, his preaching style is old-school Southern Black Pentecostal, and shouts of “Amen!” ring out through the crowd as the intensity of his delivery grows. Even those of us with differing religious convictions — or none at all — have to respect the role of religion in this movement.
I don't want to make too much of this. As the article points out, NARAL was there insisting that its positions on abortion were moral, too. I don't dispute that, but it's a morality with a different genealogy. And their presence at an event like this shows how things get mushy on the Christian political Left and make it difficult for it to get any traction with sane Christians, serious about the challenges posed by the Gospels, who have a sensibility that makes it difficult for them to take seriously the mushy morality of what they perceive as the flaky Left.
So sure, some Christians embrace NARAL positions. But where the confusion lies is when they embrace positions that developed largely out of a tradition that is very alien to Christian personalism, namely a feminist branch of the Utilitarianism of Bentham, Mill, Singer, etc., a stream of thinking that is at the heart of most contemporary secular ethics whether pro-choice advocates think of themselves as Utilitarians or not. And I would argue that Utilitarianism creates the frame for the rationalist technocratic thinking that (as I've with regard to education issues) is, whatever its imagined humane good intentions, anti-humanistic. It may be possible to make arguments from within the Christian personalist tradition about the permissibility of legalizing abortions under certain circumstances, but such arguments should not be made on terms that accept or are in any way associated with the NARAL utilitarian technocratic frame. The NARAL ethos of abortion on demand is completely out of alignment with a Christian personalist ethos for which abortions are seen at best as a tragic necessity in certain rare circumstances.
And so while I think that alliances need to be made between Christians and secularist Utilitarians on issues where there is common ground--particularly on issues of economic justice--I'd like to see a more vigorous emergence of a Christian Left that makes a case for its positions on its own terms rather than to simply merge with the amorphous, ontologically nihilist positions of the secular Left.