The Strange Victory by Liberal Religion

By Terry Mattingly Modified: April 10, 2013 at 9:06 am •  Published: April 10, 2013
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For example, liberal Protestants have -- backed by progressive elements in Catholicism and Judaism -- been victorious in their push to define religion's value in public life primarily in terms of social and economic justice, in contrast with more conservative groups that would stress both good works and evangelism.

Then there is religious liberalism's "much higher tolerance of pluralism," even on eternal issues tied to salvation, said Turner in a telephone interview. Belief in "universalism" -- that all world religions lead to the same eternal ends -- remains "very divisive among evangelicals, but you would have to say that this belief has become the norm in Middle America."

Liberal religious leaders, he added, have been intensely committed to the "cultural prestige of science" in debates about life's big questions. They won that battle, too.

Religious liberals have also been much quicker to adapt to the looser moral standards of the Sexual Revolution, especially when changing ancient doctrines linked to hot-button topics such as sex outside of marriage, abortion and homosexuality.

"Actually, it's hard to know," said Turner, if mainline Protestants and other religious liberals "simply jumped on the bandwagon of the Sexual Revolution or if, in the end, they got run over by it."

The bottom line, he said, is that the religious left has the cultural momentum right now, even as its own institutions are wrestling with painful issues with demographics, membership totals and budgets.

"It's hard to know what the future holds," said Turner. "I mean, Thomas Jefferson was absolutely sure that Unitarianism was the future of religion in America. That isn't how things turned out, at least not in terms of what's happened in America in the past."

(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)

(EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Kendra Phipps at kphipps@amuniversal.com.)

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