“Emerging adults” and Liberal Theology

Posted: November 17, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Christ & Culture, The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism
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Peter Leithart comments on the end of Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition.  Here is his full post:

Near the end of his recent Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Christian Smith summarizes the argument of a 1995 article by N. Jay Demerath of the University of Massachusetts.  Demerath writes, that the widely reported decline of liberal Protestantism may in fact signal its “wider cultural triumph. . . . Liberal Protestant have lost structurally at the micro level precisely because they won culturally at the macro level.”  Smith adds, “liberal Protestantism’s core values – individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the authority of human experience – have come to so permeate broader American culture that its own churches as organizations have difficulty surviving.”  Try, Smith implies, running an organization centered on the values of “emancipation” and “the authority of experience.”

Smith’s own surveys of 18-24-year-old “emerging adults” supports Demerath’s claims.  His team found that “individual autonomy, unbounded tolerance, freedom from authorities, the affirmation of pluralism, the centrality of human self-consciousness, the practical value of moral religion, epistemological skepticism, and an instinctive aversion to anything ‘dogmatic’ or committed to particulars were routinely taken for granted by respondents.”  They found that “most Catholic and Jewish emerging adults . . . talked very much like classical liberal Protestants” and “evangelical Protestant and black Protestant emerging adults even talked like liberal Protestants.”

Richard Niebuhr’s 1937 description of liberalism is alive and well: “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

If Demerath and Smith are right, liberal theology lost the battle for formal membership but won the “hearts and minds” of the American people, including many evangelicals.  I’ve always thought that this explanation of the decline of the liberal mainline denominations made sense: why go to church if the church keeps telling you that it doesn’t offer to show you something that’s certain?


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