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Why liberal Churches are doomed

21 June 2013

For many Americans, religion has become an irrelevance, says Harriet Baber

AMERICANS are, on average, far more religious than citizens of other affluent countries. But we are not uniformly religious: we are divided between a shrinking body of religious believers, and a growing population of "Nones" - individuals who say that they have "no religion".

Most Nones are neither militant atheists nor spiritual seekers. To them, religion is like Mah Jong, photosynthesis, or the Ross Ice Shelf - something that they have rarely thought about, and in which neither they, nor anyone they know, have any interest.

Nones and Christians live in different neighbourhoods. Many Nones have never knowingly met a Christian socially. And Nones of the liberal semi-intelligentia have a voyeuristic interest in our lives and customs. They consume non-fiction about us by social scientists - such as T. M. Luhrmann's recent anthropological study of Evangelical culture, When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012).

With the exquisite sensitivity of her predecessors' reporting on traditional South Sea Island cultures, Luhrmann, who spent four years as a participant-observer in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, describes the folkways of Evangelicals - of "prayer warriors" and women who lay out dinner à deux for "dates with Jesus". She is not, of course, a religious believer. In the social world that Luhrmann and her readers occupy, the world of the urban-coastal professional class, religion is not done.

The few Christians in this world are reticent about their religious affiliations. Admit to being a Christian, and your extra-ecclesiastical contacts will assume that you are one of those who "cling to guns and religion", believe that God created species in their current form less than 10,000 years ago, and, perhaps, arrange fantasy dinner-dates with Jesus. Among educated professionals, once the primary constituency of the Episcopal Church, religion is dying because it is an embarrassment.

From 1992 to 2002, during the Anglican Decade of Evangelism, membership in the Episcopal Church declined by 32 per cent. And the decline continues. Conservatives attribute it to the Church's liberal agenda, which, they claim, has driven Christians from the main denominations to churches that have (as they understand it) kept the faith.

But that is not so. Conservative churches are holding their own because working-class Americans, traditionally members of Evangelical churches, are still religious. Episcopalians and members of other mainline Churches have not, in any significant numbers, left for more conservative Churches. Embarrassed by the patently absurd beliefs of Evangelicals, and the virtual identification of Christianity with a socially conservative agenda, they are joining the Nones.

The Episcopal Church's traditional constituency - upper-middle-class professionals - is lost. And it will never appeal to working-class people, no matter how desperately it attempts to tailor its style.

The US mirrors the global divide between affluent secular Europe and the socially conservative "traditional societies" of the Global South. Luhrmann and her readers - educated, cosmopolitan, and thoroughly secular - are, effectively, Europeans. Working-class Americans - socially conservative and religious - are, to all intents and purposes, living in the Global South.

Locally in the US, as well as globally, the churches that will survive are the ones that cater for the needy, the naïve, and the poor, the ones that promise healing, promote self-improvement, and preach the prosperity gospel. Liberal, mainline churches, including the Episcopal Church, are doomed, because religion has become déclassé, a source of shame. Mainline Churches are dying of embarrassment.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.

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