Many years ago one of my favorite hobbies was to browse through used bookstores. I almost never do anymore, not since I discovered that I can buy used books online. In any case, one day while browsing through one of these stores I came across an old volume (printed, as I recall, in the 1870s) of the collected essays of William Ellery Channing, often called the father of American Unitarianism.
Now, despite the poor physical condition of the book, I had two motives for picking it up. For one, I knew almost nothing about Unitarianism, especially its early stages; and so I figured this old book might tell me something I should know. For another, Channing (1780-1842) was born and grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, my hometown. His family home was about a mile from where my wife and I now live. So I figured I should read him, if nothing else, as an act of local patriotism.
I learned a lot from reading Channing, who, despite his anti-Trinitarian heresy, is one of my favorite American religious figures. I learned about the man himself, about early Unitarianism, and, most important, a lesson about liberal Protestantism—a curious species of Christianity of which Unitarianism was the first American example. The lesson I learned helps me today to understand the religious liberalism (or progressivism, or secularization) that is invading Catholicism in the West.
I learned that there is a formula that Protestant liberalism follows: it is always a response to whatever happens to be the popular and fashionable anti-Christianity of the day. Progressivists always say something like this: “It is a shame that these anti-Christians reject our beautiful religion. But let’s be honest: they make a good point with some of their criticisms. So let’s do this. Let’s blend the best teachings of Christianity with the best teachings of our anti-Christian friends.”
In Channing’s day, the fashionable form of anti-Christianity was deism. And so the early Unitarians blended Christianity and deism. They dropped the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, original sin, the atonement, and the inerrancy of the Bible, and then they announced, “Look, now we have true religion.”
In the decades after the Civil War, the fashionable form of anti-Christianity was agnosticism backed up by evolutionism and German biblical criticism. Liberal Protestants accepted agnosticism while saying that Christianity is purely a matter of faith and morality, having nothing to do with knowledge. They accepted biblical criticism, saying in effect, “The Bible remains the Good Book even though it is riddled with myths and lies and exaggerations and foolishness.” And they embraced the spirit of evolution, saying that not only have biological species evolved but Christianity itself has evolved; Christianity is an ever-evolving religion. It is different today from what it was in the days of the apostles, and it will be different tomorrow from what it is today.
Beginning in the 1960s, the fashionable form of anti-Christianity was sexual freedom. Now, these new anti-Christians didn’t reject Christianity in a theoretical way, as the old ones had done; they rejected it in a practical way. They endorsed, and engaged in, sexual conduct that Christianity had always called wrong: fornication, unmarried cohabitation, homosexuality. And they embraced abortion, the fruit of sexual license.
“God is still speaking,” they said, “and we are listening with pious ears, and what God says now is that fornication is good and homosexuality is good and abortion is good—provided they are done in a loving spirit.” More advanced progressives, who have better hearing, heard God say that the loving spirit is nice but far from essential.
In each case, one of the standard arguments made on behalf of liberalizing or modernizing Christianity is that it will be popular; that without it, Christian churches will lose membership. Ironically, but not really surprisingly, just the opposite has happened. The more Protestant churches have liberalized, the more their membership has declined. As these churches gradually void their doctrinal content, their members eventually don’t see any point in sticking around.
Bart Campolo, son of the progressive Evangelical pastor Tony Campolo, recently described his own journey from liberal Christianity to unbelief—what his interviewer calls an “addictive” process of doctrine rejection:
I passed through every stage of heresy. It starts out with sovereignty goes, then biblical authority goes, then I’m a universalist, now I’m marrying gay people. Pretty soon I don’t actually believe Jesus actually rose from the dead in a bodily way.
Campolo thinks he’s an example of things to come and predicts that 40 percent of liberal Christians will become atheists in the next decade. History says he may be right.
I fear that many Catholics today may be going down this same path of self-destruction. The Protestants of the past, though, had this excuse: they didn’t know where this path was leading. Catholics don’t have this excuse; they can easily consult the history of liberal Protestantism. The ignorance of liberal Catholics is vincible.
We’re fortunate in that the Catholic Magisterium does not officially teach progressive doctrines or morals. But Channing said that in Boston, Unitarianism replaced Calvinism—not because ministers attacked Calvinist doctrine but because they ceased to mention them. So if we want to combat the destructive effects of secularizing religion, we must not merely rest content on magisterial teaching; we must be vigilant and vocal. To that end, for what it’s worth, I have the following suggestions.
First, we must realize that we are in a “culture war” in which the aim of the enemy (secular humanism) is to destroy traditional Christianity.
Second, we must defend the Faith most forcefully at the point at which it is being most forcefully attacked. Today, that point is its teachings on sex, the family, abortion, and euthanasia.
Finally, we must not be timid. Bishops, priests, and lay Catholics alike should be leading this defense from the ramparts. As the Protestant lesson teaches us, the stakes are very high: nothing less than the preservation of our religious beliefs and morality.