Left Church

Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity by David Shiflett (Sentinel, 224 pages, $23.95)

Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America by Chris Hedges (Free Press, 224 pages, $24.00)

These are tough times for liberal Christians. To hear most members of the media tell it, “liberal Christian” is practically an oxymoron, if not the name of an endangered species. At a time when the ABCs of “moral values” are defined as abortion, buggery, and capital-gains tax cuts, one of the biggest stories has been the “God gap,” the idea that the more often Americans attend church, the more likely they are to vote Republican. Headlines such as “Democrats Rely on Non-Religious Voters” during last year's election underscored the conservative talking point that the Republican Party is the only natural political home for people of faith.

To make matters worse, religious and political leaders now routinely pass judgment on liberal Christians as not being Christian enough. Justice Sunday -- the April simulcast service starring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and conservative Christian leaders -- portrayed people who oppose President Bush's controversial judicial nominees as complicit in an attack on “people of faith.” Pope Benedict XVI talks about a smaller, more pure Catholic Church and chooses as his first target Father Thomas Reese, a liberal Jesuit who edited the magazine America until he was forced out. And it was scarcely a shock when a Baptist pastor in North Carolina took the next logical step and told members of his congregation who had voted for John Kerry that they needed either to “repent of their sin” or to resign from the church.

But the real trouble starts when liberal Christians try to find a church to attend. Their options are not good, as those of us who have church shopped know. Nonevangelical churches have been shrinking over the past few decades (each of the five mainline Protestant denominations lost between 6 percent and 12 percent of its membership between 1990 and 2000), and for good reason. Far too often, these churches offer lackluster worship. Or, in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to differentiate themselves from fundamentalist Christianity, they strip away religious mystery, lessen the demands of faith, and sprinkle services with interpretative dance, drumming circles, or gender-neutral hymns that avoid “God the Father.” If such churches fail to meet their spiritual needs, liberal Christians can take their chances with more conservative churches. But they risk hearing -- as the pastor at my childhood Baptist church declared last summer -- that it is impossible to be both a good Christian and a Democrat.

Nonetheless, nearly 60 percent of Democratic voters attend church on a regular basis (at least several times a month). The God gap disappears with a broadened definition of religiosity, including such activities as Bible reading and prayer. Indeed, the vast majority of Democrats (nearly 80 percent) consistently report that religion is an important part of their lives, and that number hasn't changed significantly in the last 40 years. Even the two candidates at the head of the major party tickets in 2004 disproved the God-gap rule: John Kerry attends Mass at least once a week, while George W. Bush is an infrequent churchgoer who is not a member of a congregation.

The runaway success of Jim Wallis' book God's Politics (which I reviewed in The Washington Monthly in March) is just one more sign that the religious center is alive in the United States. In a broadside against the way both dominant political movements have engaged -- or failed to engage -- religion, Wallis offers a clarion call to those religious Americans who feel that the right doesn't speak for them and that the left doesn't let them speak. The left was once the home of religious-led movements such as abolition, suffrage, and civil rights. But during the past 30 years, attempting to distance themselves from the intolerance of the religious right, liberals and progressives have steadily filtered religion out of their rhetoric and guiding principles. As a result, they've left religion up for grabs in the public square, where it has been monopolized and redefined by conservatives.

Those liberal Christians who buy Wallis' book are hungry for an alternative to “I'm OK, you're OK” liberal churches and their doctrinaire right-wing counterparts. Where have all of the good liberal churches gone, and what are the people who have left them looking for? Two vastly different books attempt to provide some answers.

Christianity-Lite

There is a critical need for an honest, piercing book exploring the decline of the religious left and explaining why the more liberal churches in this country have lost members at an alarming rate over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, David Shiflett's Exodus is not that book. All it proves is that conservative Americans are embracing conservative Christianity. That's like explaining why registered Republicans voted for George W. Bush.

From the start, Shiflett sets out to shock his readers, quoting an Episcopalian seminary student who was told by his classmates, “We have figured out your problem. You're the only one here who believes in God.” Fed up, the student converts to Catholicism, which proves a happy home for him, although he admits to still being bothered by “the papacy and Mary worship.” This disillusioned student isn't just any seminarian; he's Andrew Ferguson, senior editor of The Weekly Standard and a man who thinks that the Catholic Church's sex-abuse problem is due to “a huge influx of homosexuals into the seminaries after Vatican II.”

Nor are Shiflett's other examples of once-frustrated Protestants/now-satisfied Catholics much more representative. He tells the conversion tales of Al Regnery, of the right-wing publishing house by the same name, and Diane Knippers, the late president of the radically conservative Institute for Religion and Democracy. The obvious question is not why these individuals joined conservative Catholic parishes but what they were doing in fairly liberal Protestant churches in the first place.

These examples are supposed to illustrate what Shiflett suggests is a broad trend among Americans of all political dispositions. He implies that no serious Christian would be caught dead in a liberal church, and that those who remain are so liberal as to be considered barely religious. The problem is that no data exist -- and Shiflett certainly has not presented any here -- to prove these points. While liberals do attend church less frequently than conservatives, it is not clear whether liberals have left religion or the churches have left them.

In both the introduction and the conclusion, Shiflett tries to take himself out of the debate, declaring he has “no dog in [this] fight” and claiming to be a religious outsider. Yet Shiflett, a conservative journalist who has written for the National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and The American Spectator, has previously not hesitated to portray himself as a representative of the faithful perspective, referring to himself in an essay on Salon, for example, as “a regular churchgoer.”

When Shiflett turns his gaze to liberal churches in order to determine why Americans are fleeing their ranks, he chooses the two easiest targets: the Episcopal Church USA, which is currently in the midst of a roaring debate over gay ordination, and the Unitarian Universalists. Shiflett has quite a lot of fun at the expense of these traditions, referring to “the train wreck known as the Episcopal Church USA,” alluding repeatedly to “the religious freak show” of liberal Christianity, and parading before the reader figures such as a Unitarian Universalist minister who refuses to say that there is an afterlife. Ridicule comes easily, but Shiflett's stated purpose is to explain why American churchgoers are leaving mainline denominations, and he is less successful on that score. Unitarian Universalists hardly dominate the liberal religious landscape; according to Shiflett's own figures, there are barely 155,000 of them in the United States today. As for Episcopalians, Shiflett implies that debates over whether to ordain gay priests and bishops have driven tradition-minded congregants out. As Shiflett himself notes, however, “the Episcopal Church's descent toward subatomic status” far predates this latest development.

But it is when Shiflett shifts from disagreements over policy to the real meat of the matter -- doctrinal differences -- that he really loses his way. Holding up controversial Bishop John Shelby Spong as the standard-bearer for liberal Christianity, he charges that Americans are leaving liberal churches because these institutions fail to hold firm on the most basic challenges to their theological foundations. As proof, Shiflett cites a series of recent survey questions about religious belief -- whether you believe in heaven, the resurrection, the existence of a literal Satan, etc. -- and notes with sorrow that only 7 percent of Americans answered “yes” to all of the questions. But he also points out that only 9 percent of self-identified “born-again” Christians agreed with these “traditional teachings and beliefs.” As liberal churches can hardly be blamed for that result, Shiflett turns on a dime to argue that the poll findings prove that evangelicals shouldn't be stereotyped as homogenous fundamentalists.

What Shiflett doesn't seem to recognize is that throughout the book, he conflates “conservative” religion with “traditional” or “orthodox” religion. He rightly condemns many liberal churches for making religion too easy, requiring little sacrifice, and using the Bible merely as a jumping-off point and not as a sacred text. He fails to notice, however, that these inclinations aren't limited to liberal congregations; in fact, they're found in many of the conservative “megachurches” that have seen the most explosive growth over the last few decades. As sociologist Alan Wolfe explains in his recent book The Transformation of American Religion, these churches gain members by competing to offer the most user-friendly versions of faith around, often preaching a health-and-wealth gospel that claims Christians can expect material, in addition to spiritual, benefits from their faith. Christianity-lite comes in all flavors: liberal, centrist, and conservative.

What Faith Demands

The ultimate shame is that Shiflett could have provided real answers to the question he posed if he had bothered to look beyond the small cadre of conservatives around him. My brother-in-law is just one of many liberals who traveled the path from Protestantism to Catholicism and has embraced the ritual and authority of the Church of Rome. Indeed, among my close friends are several Catholics who seek out high-church services, liberal Jews whose adherence to Orthodox Judaism perplexes their less-observant families, and half a dozen former Baptists who, like me, have become Episcopalians. None of us sought “conservative” religion, but rather a more demanding religious tradition.

It is that desire that Chris Hedges confronts in Losing Moses on the Freeway, an attempt to reassert the relevance of the Decalogue. Mention of the Ten Commandments in recent years has prompted eye rolls from liberals or conjured up images of right-wing extremists protesting the removal of massive monuments to the biblical injunctions. Liberal churches sometimes seem slightly embarrassed by the rules, the moral absolutism of it all. But Hedges asserts that the Commandments are not some medieval code that is best left in the past, but instead are timeless. That could be why vast majorities of the American public see nothing wrong with what they view as an endorsement of the Decalogue. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, dividing voters into eight types, more than 80 percent of each of seven groups thought it was proper to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings; only 35 percent of liberals felt the same way.

Hedges, a former New York Times reporter and seminarian, was inspired by a 10-part film series by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski called The Decalogue. He quotes the director as saying, “For 6,000 years these rules have been unquestionably right. And yet we break them every day. We know what we should do, and yet we fail to live as we should.” That, perhaps, is why we could all benefit from moving beyond the Commandments as a political symbol and actually read them closely. We are no smarter or more ethical than other generations; our sins simply take slightly different forms. The Commandments still implicate us.

The book is constructed as 10 separate essays, one for each of the Commandments, which can, Hedges writes, “only be understood in moments when they are no longer abstractions.” Each chapter tells the story of someone who has broken one of the Commandments or been affected by someone who has, and explores the pain that each suffers as a result. Most of the chapters originally ran as part of a series in The New York Times; the rest are uneven, and it is sometimes difficult to find Hedges' point. But they are unfailingly well-written, compelling, and disturbing tales.

Hedges begins with two meditations on idolatry, on the temptations and dangers of making a goal or a person or ourselves more important than God in our lives, and he sacrifices himself as the first example. The first chapter details Hedges' year as a seminarian and part-time pastor living in the Roxbury projects of Boston. The violence of his neighborhood and the combination of fear and hatred it stirred up in him challenged his liberal “turn the other cheek” beliefs. For a time, those emotions overcame him, though he emerged with an intact, road-tested faith. It's not an easy faith that Hedges describes, and that is the point. One clear theme throughout the book is a still-lingering bitterness he holds toward the liberal theology that ill-prepared him for the real world. “Liberal theology, like its nemesis in the evangelical church, is a form of self-exaltation,” he writes. “While evangelicals champion a gospel of greed and personal empowerment, deeply attractive to the poor and marginal, liberals often speak on behalf of oppressed groups they never meet, advocating utopian and unrealistic schemes to bring about peace and universal love.”

The stories that Hedges tells about the Commandments, however, are not limited to the bêtes noirs of conservatives. In the chapter on worshipping idols, he goes after consumerism, market worship, and political power as false gods. Similarly, the chapter on theft tells the story of a business journalist who was convicted for insider trading.

At its core, the book asserts the rather radical idea that we are not in charge. False covenants, according to Hedges, “tempt us to be God. They tell us the things we want to hear and believe.” For liberal churches, this too often means telling Christians not to worry because God is not omnipotent and judgmental, and that the lessons of the Bible are merely guidelines. Conservative churches, for their part, offer a similar spin: You are OK as long as you do what we tell you without asking questions; it's those other people who are doomed. In both cases, these churches allow liberal and conservative Christians to reconcile their faith with their politics, implicitly placing the emphasis on the latter.

Religious faith -- sacred, majestic, and often inconvenient -- is so much greater than politics. But over the past few decades, churches on both ends of the theological spectrum have set aside those parts of their traditions that threaten their political goals. The result has been a steady dwindling of worship options for serious Christians. Few churches these days encourage a mature faith that allows believers to ask questions but also demands answers. So far, liberal Christians are the ones who have rebelled and left their churches for more orthodox traditions -- or for entirely private spiritual lives. If, however, conservative churches continue to impose political litmus tests on the faithful and serve as mere cogs in the Republican machine, those fed-up liberals may soon be joined by some of their conservative brothers and sisters.

Amy Sullivan is an editor at The Washington Monthly.

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