Our intervention in Syria required me to be fully serious last Sunday, but now it’s time to return to this column’s ongoing series of implausible proposals, Easter Sunday edition. Which means I'll be proposing – yes, I’m that predictable – that many of this newspaper’s secular liberal readers should head en masse to church.
But not by converting to my own religion, Roman Catholicism. Of course that’s what I really want, what the sinister albino monk at my shoulder keeps muttering about, what the mimeographed orders from Catholic central command expect me to eventually achieve. (All those “disagreements” I keep having with Pope Francis are just classic papist trickery.)
For now, though, let’s talk about a smaller leap of faith. A large share of well-educated liberal America is post-Protestant – former Methodists, ex-Lutherans, lapsed Presbyterians, the secularized kids of Congregationalists. Their ancestral churches, the theologically-liberal mainline denominations, are aging and emptying, with the oldest churchgoing population and one of the lowest retention rates of any Christian tradition in the United States.
As a conservative Catholic, I have theories about how this collapse reveals the weaknesses of liberalism in religion. But my theological-sociological vindication isn’t worth the cost of mainline Christianity’s decline. For the sake of their country, their culture and their very selves, liberal post-Protestants should find a mainline congregation and start attending every week.
One reason they don’t is that some of what those congregations offer is already embodied in liberal politics and culture. As the sociologist N.J. Demerath argued in the 1990s, liberal churches have suffered institutional decline, but also enjoy a sort of cultural triumph, losing members even as their most distinctive commitments – ecumenical spirituality and a progressive social Gospel – permeate academia, the media, pop culture, the Democratic Party.
But this equilibrium may not last, and it may not deserve to. The campus experience of late suggests that liberal Protestantism without the Protestantism tends to gradually shed the liberalism as well, transforming into an illiberal cult of victimologies that burns heretics with vigor. The wider experience of American politics suggests that as liberalism de-churches, it struggles to find a nontransactional organizing principle, a persuasive language of the common good. And the experience of American society suggests that religious impulses without institutions aren’t enough to bind communities and families, to hold atomization and despair at bay.
To remedy the last problem, the truly implausible version of this column would urge ex-Protestants to convert to Mormonism, the most demandingly communitarian of contemporary faiths.
But I won’t ask for that (or maybe my papal paymasters are too threatened by the Latter-day Saints to let me). Instead, I'll just say: Liberals, give mainline Protestantism another chance.
Do it for your political philosophy: More religion would make liberalism more intellectually coherent (the “created” in “created equal” is there for a reason), more politically effective, more rooted in its own history, less of a congerie of suspicious “allies” and more of an actual fraternity.
Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.
Do it for your family: Church is good for health and happiness, it’s a better place to meet a mate than Tinder, and even its most modernized form is still an ark of memory, a link between the living and the dead.
I understand that there’s the minor problem of actual belief. But honestly, dear liberals, many of you do believe in the kind of open Gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.
If pressed, most of you aren’t hard-core atheists: You pursue religious experiences, you have affinities for Unitarianism or Quakerism, you can even appreciate Christian orthodoxy when it’s woven into Marilynne Robinson novels or the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
You say you’re spiritual but not religious because you associate “religion” with hierarchies and dogmas and strict rules about sex. But the Protestant mainline has gone well out of its way to accommodate you on all these points.
I appreciate that by staying away from church you’re vindicating my Catholic skepticism of that accommodation … but really, aren’t you being a little ungrateful, a little slothful, a little selfish by leaving these churches empty when they’re trying to be exactly the change you say you wish Christianity would make? I know you don’t worry about hellfire. But you do worry, presumably, about death: Would some once-weekly preparation really hurt?
Finally, a brief word to the really hardened atheists: Oh, come on. Sure, all that beauty and ecstasy and astonishing mathematical order is because we’re part of a multiverse or a simulation or something; that’s the ticket. Sure, consciousness and free will are illusions, but human rights and gender identities are totally real. Sure, your flying spaghetti monster joke makes you a lot smarter than Aquinas, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King. Sure.
Just go to church, guys. The mainline churches’ doors are open. They need you; America still needs them.
We'll talk about the Church of Rome next Easter.