Reconsidering liberal Christianity

Rev. J.S. Woodsworth  Liberal Protestantism revisited
Rev. J.S. Woodsworth
Liberal Protestantism revisited

I read in the New York Times recently about an increasing attention being paid by American academic researchers to the history of liberal Christianity. The article says that in the U.S. the dominant story for decades has been about the rise of evangelical Christians. The Times reports that decades ago evangelicals “began asserting their power and identity, ultimately routing their more liberal mainline Protestant counterparts in the pews, on the offering plate and at the ballot box.”

The Times says, however, that now “a growing cadre of historians of religion are reconsidering the legacy of those faded establishment Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, tracing their enduring influence on the movements for human rights and racial justice, the growing ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic and even the shaded moral realism of Barack Obama — a liberal Protestant par excellence, some of these academics say.” The Times describes this as a “mainline moment.”

Liberal religion

Historical books with the following titles are making their way onto reading lists: 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 Leigh E. Schmidt’s The Rise of Liberal Religion. This is significant because sooner or later historical research usually finds its way into popular consciousness.

Does this mean resurgence in liberal Protestantism in the U.S.? Not necessarily. Ironically, American researchers say, Liberal Protestantism has fed the “spiritual but not religious” demographic, which can accommodate everything from church going to “Alcoholics Anonymous, yoga and the gospel of Oprah.” This, according to some American researchers, is not a bad thing but it doesn’t fill mainline Protestant pews on Sunday.

Historian David Hollinger is paraphrased in the Times as saying, however, that the mainline churches “may have lost Protestantism, but they won the country, establishing ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism and tolerance as the dominant American creed.”

Not so fast

Not so fast, say others, including Mark Noll, a Canadian who teaches the history of religion at Notre Dame University in Indiana, and a prominent evangelical intellectual. If a religious tradition is to have a continuing influence, he says, it has to have committed people in the pews.

Social gospel in Canada

What about Canada? The historical influence of liberal Protestantism is undeniable. The social gospel movement drove political change from the 1930s to at least the 1960s. People such as J. S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles – all of them Protestant ministers — moved Canada in a humane and social democratic direction. But that flame has been burning less brightly in recent decades and a more right wing religious presence now prevails in the halls of power. A well-connected minister of my acquaintance says that the Prime Minister has yet to meet with United Church leaders since he was first elected in 2006. But religionists of a more conservative persuasion appear to have widespread access to Parliament Hill.

Census numbers

What of numbers? Sociologist Reginald Bibby wrote in the Globe and Mail about the release of the 2011 census information. He warned that the voluntary nature of this census made the numbers less reliable than usual but went on to say several interesting things.

Almost eight in ten Canadians (76 %) continue to identify with a religion, but a growing minority – 24 per cent, up from 16 % in 2001 and 12 % in 1991 – identify with no religion.

Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism are holding their own, according to Bibby, but a number of liberal Protestant denominations, including the Anglican and United Churches, are continuing to lose people. Bibby attributes this at least partly to demographics. Immigration by Filipinos, for example, has bolstered Catholicism. The Anglican and United Churches had their 19th and early 20th century base among people of British origin but they no longer constitute a large group of immigrants.

“Thin soup”

Theological differences between mainline and evangelical Protestants had their origins in various debates early in the 20th century, including those over fundamentalism and competing understandings about how to read the Bible. A persistent remnant of those differences remains. One prominent evangelical scholar reacted privately to Bibby’s recent analysis by saying he had been far too easy on the liberal Protestants.

“Their fifty-year experiment in trying to be as inclusive as possible has left them including fewer and fewer, year over year, decade over decade,” he wrote. “With so many more options on a Sunday morning than ever before, not many Canadians are going to rouse themselves for that thin soup, and most aren’t.”

Blogging for the Observer

Despite that harsh judgment, I must admit my own fondness for liberal Protestantism, particularly for what it bequeathed to Canada by way of the social gospel. This is my opportunity then to announce that commencing on August 8, I will be writing a blog entry every second week for the United Church Observer. You can follow it at:

I will, of course, continue to post to my Pulpit and Politics blog as well. I like to think that in the almost six years since I have been writing the blog, I have paid frequent attention to the many contributions of religious liberals to various public policy debates. I intend to continue doing that in future.


7 thoughts on “Reconsidering liberal Christianity

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  1. I’m really looking forward to the United Church Observer blog. More of your thoughtful, well-researched columns is a very good thing!


  2. The evangelical conservative “Christianity” is that of American individualism. That is individual’s spiritual journey and salvation is the primary importance. The Biblical prespective is about the collective. That is, caring for the community, those who on the bottom of the social ladder, and challenging the injustice of the ruling class. This is what made J. S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles true Christians.


  3. I appreciate comments re the biblical perspective being more the collective than the individual. Well said. One would expect that an individual’s spirituality would lead one to the collective journey to challenge social injustice.


  4. Re: “I must admit my own fondness for liberal Protestantism, particularly for what it bequeathed to Canada by way of the social gospel….” Me too, and I’m an atheist. (I’m pretty fond of liberal Catholics too!) To me the “social gospel” is what made Canada great, and one needn’t be religious to ascribe to the values of social justice and tolerance. I wish that more of my fellow atheists/secular humanists would see the value of strengthening our ties with liberals of ALL religions – and vice versa. We need to create a united voice to preserve the Canada that we – and the world – loves. I feel like I’m losing my country….


  5. Thanks as always, Dennis, for your insights. I’m delighted you will be doing this blog for the United Church Observer. I’ll do my bit to get the word around!



    1. Thanks Lawrence. I will appreciate any publicity that you can provide for my blog with the United Church Observer. They are calling it The Common Good and I will look most often at the moral and ethical dimensions of various public policy questions.


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