Don’t Re-Church Us

Should young ex-Protestants go back to church?

Save the Mainline
Ross Douthat
April 15, 2017

Response from Aurelius


“A large share of well-educated liberal America is post-Protestant…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.”

Not gonna happen for me. I respectfully decline.

My experience aligns with the premise that well-educated liberal America is post-Protestant, and the author links to supporting data as well. However, I don’t agree with the self-labeled implausible proposal that follows. The author is intending to provoke strong responses by lobbing a series of implausible proposals in his NYT column, such as “Trump Needs a Brain” and “Break up the Liberal City”. Akin to “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift, the real intention is to highlight real problems and promote real discussion on real solutions. So, let’s discuss.

“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.”

Liberalism without Protestantism does not devolve into chaos. The 2017 college campus scene is an embarrassment to free speech, but Protestantism cannot reel this in. That’s a bizarre suggestion. Nor can Protestantism alter the apparent flippancy of liberal ideals. gjskkI believe this claim stems from Douthat’s flawed belief that liberalism is inherently unprincipled. Maybe it’s because liberals like to protest, and lately it’s often unclear what the unifying message of a particular protest is. I can agree with that, but just like the hypocrisy and sin of Christians do not nullify Christ, politically correct young liberals do not nullify liberalism. Furthermore, this assertion has a sub-claim that the alternative is principled. Today’s Republican party looks extremely different than a few years ago. Trump is not a principled man by any means. A phenomenon for sure, but terribly inconsistent in his stances. Republicans are not the unwaveringly principled party.

“Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.”

I completely agree with Douthat’s supported point that institutions are needed to organize principles and build and sustain a sense of community. My biggest loss for me after becoming an atheist was leaving behind an omnipresent community. It’s lonely to leave the church. But, re-entering church is not the answer. Grassroots movements and political activism are how we should organize liberalism. The Democratic party has a tough job this next year before the 2018 midterm elections. Inserting religion is unnecessary bundling. While on that topic, I strongly believe that the bundling of Christianity with Republicanism and conservatism, while the status quo, is counterproductive and invites tremendous unnecessary divisiveness. Why is the Republican platform so accommodating to evangelical America? Why are Democrats not receptive to anti-abortion rights advocates?

“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.”

There exist secular “churches” to satisfy this exact need of community and organizing liberal principles. They’re not nearly as popular as the religious variant, but I would suggest ex-Protestants go to a secular church such as Sunday Assembly over a denomination they’ve already rejected, probably for good reason. Get the benefits of going to church without the baggage of belief.

But maybe, the author assumes, most who slowly fade away wouldn’t be strongly opposed to re-entering those communities. Statistics aren’t in his favor here. A 2016 Pew study found that well over half of the previously-churched left because they do not believe or they dislike organized religion. Less than one third consider themselves on the fence or inactive believers, and it’s really only this latter category, about 10%, who are open to the notion of church.

“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.”

Atheists have a bad stigma in this country, and it’s arguments like Douthat’s that perpetuate that perception. His argument here is pathetically straw manned. Yes, I’m sure the stereotypical neckbeard atheist with the FSM bumper sticker does exist, but that outdated meme is as uncommon as the Christians portrayed in the documentary Jesus Camp. What do his atheist friends think of that characterization? It describes exactly zero atheists that I know.

Finally, I counter that if you left Protestantism for good reason, then remind yourself of those reasons. Maybe even write them down. Seek out a secular church if you are wanting something similar but without the baggage of belief. Become politically active if you’re tired of incongruence in your party. But don’t proclaim Take Me To Church unless you are ready to re-explore your belief in Christ.

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