Mark Chaves: Theological liberalism

Theological liberalism—the word, not the thing—has suffered the same fate as political liberalism. Even many liberals dare not speak its name.

In the January 24, 2009 New York Times, Timothy Garton Ash observed that the United States is full of liberals, but very few of them use the word. Liberal ideas are influential and popular, but liberalism, he wrote, “is the American love that dare not speak its name.” The thing, he says, is all around us, but never the word.

The same is true in American religion.

In a 2007 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 70 percent of Americans who are religiously affiliated agreed that many religions can lead to eternal life, and 68 percent agreed that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion. Almost half--47 percent--said that their church or denomination should adjust its traditional beliefs and practices in light of new circumstances or adopt modern beliefs and practices. According to both Gallup polls and the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, only about 1 in 3 Americans believe that the Bible is the “actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” and that number has been declining, slowly but steadily, for decades.

There are predictable differences among religious traditions in these numbers, but a majority even of white evangelicals say that many religions can lead to eternal life and that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.

If this isn’t theological liberalism, what is?

Yet, despite the clear signs that at least certain aspects of theological liberalism operate as the majority perspective within American Christianity, only a small minority of congregational leaders are willing to use the L-word to describe their congregations. Combining data from the 1998 and 2006-07 National Congregations Studies, only 9 percent of congregations are described by their leaders as theologically “more on the liberal side.” The majority of congregations—61 percent—are described as more on the conservative side, with the rest, 30 percent, described as “right in the middle.”

There is predictable variation in this pattern across religious traditions. As the figure above shows, congregations in the white mainline denominations are more likely to be described by their clergy leaders as theologically liberal, followed by, in order, predominantly black Protestant congregations, Catholics, and white evangelicals. But even within the white Protestant mainline, the historical mainstay of theological liberalism, only 17 percent of congregational leaders say that their congregations are theologically liberal.

Theological liberalism—the word, not the thing—has suffered the same fate as political liberalism. Even many liberals dare not speak its name. At the same time, theological liberalism—the thing, not the word—is a more potent cultural presence than many realize.