Liberalizing the Churches
To the Editor:
In “That Old-Time Religion” [January] James Hitchcock seems to be looking at the top of the triangle instead of at the underlying causes. The major modern-day churches did not become more liberal because of a conviction that this was a morally right position, but from a realization that they were already losing members and that this loss would accelerate in coming years. Seeking to reverse the obvious, they espoused less restrictive views. Thus, membership losses did not start when more tolerant church views were adopted, but, on the contrary, preceded them. Indeed, if the churches had not liberalized, their membership losses might have been even greater. . . .
Woodbury, New York
To the Editor:
. . . James Hitchock understands quite well that the static, liberal, emasculated, and structured church is in a serious state of decline. . . . But it is also clear from his article that he has neither knowledge nor understanding of the “old-time religion.” Using James Morris’s The Preachers, he cites as examples of so-called fundamentalism or conservatism a few megalomaniacs whose financial tactics are questionable and he emphasizes their radio and TV popularity. But he does not mention the hundreds of genuine radio and TV programs not connected with these money-mad megalomaniacs. Furthermore, Mr. Hitchcock does not differentiate among cults and denominations. One example: he calls Jehovah’s Witnesses a conservative church when he should know that they deny many of the major doctrines of the Christian church. . . .
Balfour, North Carolina
James Hitchcock writes:
To Barbara Krupit: The question of which came first—the liberalization of the churches or the decline in their membership—depends partly of course on what is meant by liberalization. From one standpoint the churches have been liberalizing since the 17th century.
Dean Kelly’s figures show, for example, that membership in American Lutheranism did not begin to decline until 1969: Episcopalianism until 1967; Methodism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism until 1965. Strong “liberal” tendencies were present in all these groups considerably before these dates.
It is doubtless true that, had the churches not liberalized, they would have lost some members who have stayed. However, the statistics suggest that for every person attracted by reforms, several have dropped out. (I do not necessarily infer that people drop out because they find liberalization unpalatable. My own experience suggests that many of those who call most eagerly for reform are among those most likely to drop out once the changes have been enacted. The church merely ceases to interest them.)
The most dramatic case of liberalization preceding membership decline is Roman Catholicism, which in this country did not begin to experience this process until several years after the Second Vatican Council.
To Lyman Owen: an admittedly casual listening to some lesser-known radio preachers gives me the impression that even with many of them money is a major subject. However, I did ask in my review whether Morris’s preachers are typical and whether there are not some preachers for whom mercenary considerations are not paramount. I am willing to believe that there are. In my opinion the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not orthodox Christians does not preclude their being called a church.