An entirely different critique of ‘liberal’ Christianity

By P. Joshua Griffin
Posted Jul 25, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] In the wake of General Convention’s adaptation of liturgy for same-sex blessings, electronland has been abuzz with opinion pieces about the future of mainline Christianity in the United States. The New York Times, in particular, provoked some controversy July 14 with Ross Douthat’s piece “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” in which he ties declining Sunday attendance in the Episcopal Church to the erosion of “traditional” Christianity, as apparently evidenced by our continued recognition of gay and lesbian people as people.

Showing little understanding of historical Anglicanism, Douthat writes that the Episcopal Church “still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.” The problems with Douthat’s analysis, as put forth here by Diana Butler Bass, range from false causal assumptions and factual inaccuracies, to a lack of understanding about just what Anglicanism is—a nondogmatic tradition of common prayer.

Writing in the Huffington Post, the Rev. Winnie Varghese, of New York City, penned one of the best replies to the Times piece, writing that “liberal and progressive Christians believe…[that] those liberation movements from the 1960s on… were right, and [that] our church should change in response to that revelation.” Rev. Varghese is right: the movement of God is towards the elimination of social domination and toward a leveling of hierarchical categories of human identity—that much is clear in the arc of the Biblical narrative. God’s Spirit, we believe, erodes all formulations that hold some people at the margins so as to benefit the few.

We would do far better if we thought of the church as a movement, not an institution or even a non-profit organization. But we don’t always recognize it when the Spirit moves to challenge and overturn long-standing hierarchies of domination. The Episcopal Church still has a long way to go. “We have been a denomination of privilege,” writes Varghase, “but we are working on that.”

Yet, Douthat’s editorial may be correct in this one regard. If, as Douthat claims, “the Episcopal Church and similar bodies… don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism,” then we have a huge problem on our hands. It’s just an entirely different problem than he has in mind.

In his stunning 2010 book, “The Death of the Liberal Class,” the seminary-trained journalist, Chris Hedges observes that for the most part, the institutions which have been pillars of liberalism, including the media, the university, the arts, the unions, the Democratic party, and the mainline churches have bought into the neoliberal ideology of corporate-capitalism, which revolves around the mythology of growth at the expense of human and nonhuman wellbeing, thriving, and increasingly, life itself.

In a word, political liberals talk a good talk but (just like political conservatives) have sold out people at the bottom and the planet. A splintering of “causes” and the reduction of politics to “issues” has left the liberal class “obsolete” and clinging “to its positions of privilege within liberal institutions.” And “[l]iberal religious institutions,” writes Hedges, “which should concern themselves with justice, embrace a cloying personal piety… and small, self-righteous acts of publicly conspicuous charity.”

If Hedges is correct, then Douthat is also correct about one thing: the Church should split from the secular liberal class. We should split from those who talk a good game but make peace with all manner of corporations whose time has frankly come.

We might start by challenging the power of coal, oil, and gas industries and the big banks that fund them, as has been prophetically suggested by Bill McKibben, a lay-Methodist, in this disturbing new piece in Rolling Stone. Thankfully, resistance of this sort is now official church policy since Resolution B023 on climate justice was adopted by this year’s General Convention.

In theological terms, we are tasked with affirming life in this moment of planetary exhaustion and pervasive social death. Ours are the works of resistance and restoration, of resurrection and reconciliation. Such works require us, always, to undertake some risk.

— The Rev. P. Joshua Griffin, priest Associate at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon. “Griff” received his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School in 2009 and is a doctoral student in cultural and environmental anthropology at the University of Washington. He has recently started blogging at You may also follow Griff on Twitter @therevgriff.

Comments (17)

  1. Jonathan Galliher says:

    With all due respect, the elimination of hierarchies isn’t really part of the Gospel. Repudiating sin in all its forms is a part of the Gospel, however including actively rejecting and resisting the corporate sins with which we are complicit.

    1. P. Joshua Griffin says:

      Greetings to you Jonathan and many thanks for your helpful comment! I suppose I should clarify my claims. I have yet to witness any “hierarchies of domination” that do not create the condition of corporate/social sin. So to that end, I would maintain the Gospel is all about leveling hierarchies of domination, by which I mean, any relationship whereby one group/person is dominated/oppressed by another group/person. I also believe we are called to address those situations (now taken for granted) in which an ecosystem is dominated by human beings, as such domination always leads to the detriment of both the ecosystem and the humans living in that ecosystem.

  2. Reshley Canlas says:

    The conversion of people to the Kingdom/Reign of God is the central message of Jesus. However, people live in a particular society which has institutions and hierarchies. In the book of Exodus, God liberated his people from the very society which had dealt with them in an unjust manner. God invited these oppressed people to “create” a new society where there is no oppression and injustice.

    Consequently, the Good News is not only interested in the conversion of people. The Good News also calls for a change / conversion of those institutions and hierarchies when these become the means to oppress our fellow human beings.

    1. Jon Spangler says:

      I like your comment, Reshley Canlas!

      I also agree with P. Joshua Griffin’s clarification about the need to eliminate destructive hierarchies–or other social systems that oppress, pollute, or destroy, for that matter. Our understandings of the Creator of the Universe (or Universes, if one believes in String Theory) are evolving and we must act on our new understandings of Love and Justice as they are revealed to us.

      I grew up in the 1960s in an Episcopal Church full of 1928 BCP, 1940 Hymnal, and KJV understandings of the Creator (a term we never used in church). I am deeply grateful that we as a church have widened our vision and understanding significantly since then….

      1. Reshley Canlas says:

        thank you Jon Sprangler for your kind comment … as I look at it … since we are in a process of change, our understanding of many things in life are evolving … however, let me add that we need the guidance of the life giving Spirit of God to help us discern which road to take when we reach a cross-road … we need to make decisions – even life-changing decisions – as we move on

  3. JarvickCrossely says:

    I’m deeply offended that he didn’t take this opportunity to remind us all that we have more work to do in UnDoing our unearned White privileges. We will never reconcile until Whites make more sacrifices and begin to heal themselves from the wounds of racism and hatred.

    1. P. Joshua Griffin says:

      And, indeed you should be, Jarvick! Very important point, but I was three words under the word limit as it was… 😉 In my work and ministry on environmental justice I am especially focused on what Laura Pulido (Geographer at USC) called “white spatial privilege” or “environmental privilege.” The insulation of privileged people (including a disproportionate amount of euro-americans) from environmental risk makes it extremely hard to address the systemic issues we are facing. One might also phrase it this way: there is an increasing bifurcation between “green zones” (in her book the Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein uses the example of the Green Zone in Iraq for these falsely insulated spaces) and (often toxic) “sacrifice zones.” Mark I. Wallace addresses “sacrifice zones” in his book, Finding God in the Singing River. These are not exceptions, but rather intrinsic to the logic of capitalism as we know it. Chris Hedges’ new book address such spaces in earnest. See this excellent interview with Bill Moyers: Thanks for caring!

      1. P. Joshua Griffin says:

        And, I meant to add: these “green zones” and “sacrifice zones” more often than not map out across racial lines. Even in the Bay Area which thinks of itself as very environmentally friendly: The United Church of Christ, incidentally, has been a leader on this as well, commissioning this landmark study in 1987 and a followup in 2007:

  4. The Rev. John Spruhan says:

    For a positive take in the mainstream media on General Convention, see Jon Meacham’s article, “Of God and Gays and Humility”, in Time Magazine, 7-30-2012. I think the problem in our church at the moment is that the Episcopal Church as an institution is disintegrating. General Convention was off the radar for the most part as far as the mainstream media, because we are shrinking in size, influence, and financial backing. Is our calling to be part of a Confessing Church, i.e. like the anti-Nazi church in Germany before World War 2, as opposed to an elitist, well funded and growing institution supporting a religious right point of view? We need to be better spiritually grounded if this is our future, whatever structural changes are adopted to reflect out shrinking membership and financial resources.

    1. Lance Woodruff says:

      While this reply is quite late as far as the original posting and replies are concerned, the topic and my reply are appropriate in the run-up to next months national election.
      Not only is our church disintegrating, but the nature and ideals of our country have deteriorated and show little sign of promise for restoration or renewal. Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church may not be so off-base for the America of today, and tomorrow.
      As a Franciscan within the deeply troubled and likely disintegrating Anglican Communion — three days of meetings of the committee tasked to identify a successor to Rowan Williams has failed to make a recommendation. Perhaps we are headed to a new monasticism or families and small communities that look to the ‘official’ Episcopal Church as a signpost rather than a pillar of the social order.

  5. Susan Thomas says:

    This is exactly the sort of thing that we should hope to be hearing from those who love not only the church but the way of Christ. It could be that God is doing a new thing now among the faithful, something that will involve death as it brings resurrection. “If, as Douthat claims, ‘the Episcopal Church and similar bodies… don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism,’ then we have a huge problem on our hands. It’s just an entirely different problem than he has in mind.” We don’t need another liberal club that happens to meet on Sunday morning. But we do need faithful followers of Christ who have taken to heart the message that runs through the Gospel. Winnie Varghese is right: God’s Spirit continues to erode all formulations that hold some people at the margins so as to benefit the few.

  6. Donald Jack Newsom says:

    Interesting that this should remind me of a YouTube video I just finished watching. The Climate Crisis: Fashioning a Christian Response.

  7. Richard Bidell says:

    Thank you for your insightful and inspired words. A seminary professor once used bumpersticker theology and said, “Remember, Jesus called us to be fishers of (men) not keepers of the aquarium. There is a subtle yet important difference.

  8. Bishop Andrew Gerales Gentry says:

    “If there is no difference between the Chruch and the Kiwanis Club, if there is no difference between the Gospel and transactional analysis, if there is no difference between the Kingdom of Heaven and “raising consciousness”, if there is no personal relationship and accountability, if there is no difference between anthropological philosophy and faith,why waste the time and money to be a member of a dead society with religious trappings!” I wrote this as the last paragraph of a comment on an earlier article but I sincerely believe it is appropriate here.


    Bishop Andrew Gerales Gentry,
    Retired servant bishop of an Intentional Eucharistic Community

  9. Rob Smith says:

    While there’s much to disagree with in Douthat’s Times piece, when he writes “But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes,” I find, to my surprise, that I can agree with him a little. Our church has just severed ties with a priest whose preaching was exactly what Douthat describes and we saw during his time with us a precise mirror of the national decline over just twelve months. While these issues are interesting to consider in a graduate seminar or during a polite dinner party, I don’t think they boil down to belief in anything or make the foundation for a religion. When I go to church, I want more than a well-considered sensibility.

    1. Deborah Aronson says:

      My Parish carries the Gospel message. We have several Daily Offices during the week, an Anglican Rosary Guild which makes chaplets and teaches about praying using intentional helps. We incorporate Centering Prayer into Noon Prayer. We are a Believe Out Loud congregation with an incarnational mission lived out in service to marginalized people. As a bit of “the body of Christ” there is nothing farther than “a well-considered sensibility”. We carry the message of Jesus. This is the Episcopal Church I know.

  10. George Waite says:

    Mainline Protestantism has been coming up with gimmicks to stay “relevant” and “prophetic” for over 40 years; it’s had the same overall effect as dieting resolutions from fat people: none or even a slight gain in weight.
    Want to be “prophetic”? How about not claiming tax breaks or housing allowances if you want to show that middle/upper middle class people should pay more in taxes to help fund social programs. Nothing preaches better than setting a good example. Or would you rather continue to issue statements and run seminars and workshops nobody but the same middle/upper middle class White people will be the only ones attending?

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