Filling in the Gaps of Liberal Culture

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 8, 1989, p. 1019. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


An analysis of how American Christians have both interacted with and transcended liberal culture.

Book Review:

Unconventional Partners: Religion and Liberal Culture in the United States, by Robert Booth Fowler. Eerdmans, 240 pp., $12.95 paperback.

No one -- well, almost no one -- in America belongs to a church or synagogue in order to get political signals and find denominationwide company for expressing them. Many who believe in God or who hear sermons and pray and fulfill their financial pledges may welcome or tolerate their denomination’s political activities, but they did not join the church seeking a political outlet.

I know of no survey which has shown people within churches -- conservative, moderate or liberal -- to be eager for their religious bodies to be involved with specific political action in their name. I know of no survey, though admittedly there could have been some in the past 60 years, which showed that the mass of laypeople felt represented by the leaders who took political stands at convention, or in task forces or commissions. The members do not always protest specific political actions. They simply see them as irrelevant or secondary.

This is not to say that the foot-dragging laity and clergy are right. The stands taken by church leaders may be more or less congruent with the historic message and theological thrust of their religious movements. And not to take a stand may be to take a stand on many great moral issues of the day. The point, rather, is to reflect on why people go to church in the first place, why they worship and remain active, why new members come, and why religious organizations endure.

Help in pondering all this comes from this book by Robert Booth Fowler, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, who considers how far various groups have gone in their efforts to be political. One way to crack things open is to look at his two long chapters on liberal Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and "Conservative Protestants: The Challenge That Is Not."

How many divisions has the pope? Stalin’s old question could apply to the leadership of one-fourth of America that is Catholic. How much does the political order get rearranged because of bishops’ pastorals and political programming by official and organized Catholicism? Not much at all. Catholicism is now mainstream and not discriminated against in the public forum any more than Protestantism is. Yet the laity often feel uninvolved in and even alienated by hierarchical forms of political Catholicism, even when, "ironically," says Fowler, that laity is "much more liberal than pastors are.

Fowler seems to be at ease with the pastoral letters on nuclear armament and the economy. On abortion he finds laity to be impatient when the leadership is not more fervent in its antiabortion stance. On the left, "liberation theology has not as yet penetrated the great body of the American Catholic Church." He does not say leaders should not be political. He simply says what we all know: Catholics are Catholics for reasons other than political.

For two centuries "mainline Protestantism" has been best poised for and most at home with political expression and activity. It has sometimes found and used its voice on such great issues as abolition, women’s suffrage, prohibition and repeal, and the civil rights movement. American public life would be immensely poorer had it not had such expression. But even in the prime of its politicking, for instance in the fabled 1960s, no survey showed general sympathy for the pronouncements made by leaders, and there was little congruence between lay (and sometimes local pastoral) opinion and what was being said at conventions or in commissions.

Further back, "even during the popular heyday of the New Deal, Protestant clergy were overwhelmingly opposed to Roosevelt and his policies, even more than were Protestants as a whole. They remained so throughout the 1950s." Meanwhile, the Niebuhr-inspired activists in those decades were to the left of what the denominational leadership pronounced. "The gap between clergy and laity" only grew irt the I 960s, though "even the most activist Protestant elites are not, on the whole, very radical." Fowler grants a "modest success of mainstream Protestant social activism," but found this "surprising -- perhaps one should stay astounding. After all, mainstream Protestantism was America for a long time in religious terms," so when it engaged in political criticism and nudging, it was criticizing and nudging what it had largely wrought.

Voluntary Protestant organizations today like Bread for the World make some differences, and Fowler might make more of them. But he cites and agrees with hosts of surveys which have found gaps between laity and clergy in respect to activism. "No wonder mainstream Protestantism’s alleged radical challenge has not amounted to much. . . . the church’s center, its laypeople, simply are not attracted to political reform, much less radicalism or the idea of political action by the church. Indeed, classic Protestantism is largely untouched by politics -- radical or integrative -- on a daily basis. It is, instead, a traditional religion, that is, concerned with spiritual truth, faith, prayer, and fellowship. Most laypeople belong for these things."

Fowler, an expert on conservative Protestant (fundamentalist, evangelical, Pentecostal) intrusions into recent public life, is not overimpressed by such activities. He takes seriously their challenge to conventional frameworks, but he regards the challenge as "more rhetorical than fundamental," so hand-in-glove with most dimensions of the criticized culture are these conservatives. Overall, "there is good reason to deprecate the challenge of the religious right from a purely practical point of view." It never represented many, even in its prime. "In 1980, for example, only 5 percent of the electorate judged themselves strong supporters" of the Moral Majority, symbol for all the challengers; "an overwhelming 68 percent were hostile." Even in their best-shot presidential years, 1980-1988, they won very little and are not poised to win much more. Why? Among other reasons, because "overall, conservative Christians have a distinct distaste for politics," and "go to church for politics even less than do most people in the United States." And they are internally divided over what political engagements they do or should undertake and how to pursue them.

Fowler gives other challengers short shrift. Radical Christian communities like the Sojourners Fellowship draw his admiration as a form of witness, but he disagrees with leaders who claim such fellowships are "very much on the way up." These communities "do not represent significant numbers of religious Americans. Few agree with their tactics of assertive nonviolent action, with their policy goals. . . or with their implicit collapse of any distinctions between religion, politics, and society. Popular support is simply not there."

While Fowler notes that black religious leaders are often willing to enter politics, the last thing the huge Baptist, Methodist, and Church of God in Christ denominations are is radical or revolutionary. Evangelists Tom Skinner and John Perkins represent them more than, say, the more radical James Cone. "There is . . . scant evidence that Cone or other radicals altered any doctrines in the typical black Baptist or Methodist Church," and when radicals supported black power or violence, Fowler says, "views such as Cone’s fell outside the main body of black Christians."

Judaism is not Fowler’s subject, but I am sure that, after paying respect to the special case of support for Israel, he would not find its synagogue-going laity essentially or naturally political, or eager for political signals from the rabbis.

Where does this leave Fowler, and us? Fowler confirms what we have all known for decades, and cannot paper over or bluff past: people need and find churches for reasons other than direct political expression.

What do they need and seek? To answer we have to let Fowler set his terms. The key one is "liberal," which he uses as a sort of replacement for "secular culture," since the U. S. is far too religious to fit that mold.

By liberalism and our liberal society I mean three things. . . : 1) a commitment to skeptical reason, an affirmation of pragmatic intelligence, and an uneasiness about both abstract philosophical thinking and nonrational modes of knowledge; 2) enthusiasm in principle (and increasingly in practice) for tolerance not only in political terms but much more obviously in terms of lifestyle and social norms; 3) affirmation of the central importance of the individual and individual freedom. By liberal culture I mean not only these values of modern American liberalism but also its practices in our political order, our schools, our media, and the major institutions (except, to some extent, or course, religious institutions) of our society.

If you are like me, you find this description generally accurate but spiritually unsatisfying. In Peggy Lee’s words, "Is that all there is?" According to Fowler, that is precisely the question that the citizens who inhabit this culture and also go to church are asking themselves. He disagrees at great and impressive length with social scientists who argue that organized religion in America exists simply to legitimate the existing public order. "It is a mistake to see most forms of religion or the churches -- clergy or laity -- as bent on sustaining the liberal order in a highly self-conscious way." It does happen, "and real opposition is rare; but ordinarily the process operates differently, if not less potently. Religion in America is integrated into liberal culture "only in the sense that it has supported the culture, albeit unintentionally, by providing a temporary refuge from that liberal culture." So church religion "fills in some of the gaps people perceive in liberal culture." Isaiah thundered so Americans would form congregations for this modest and possibly half-corrupting role? Jesus died to fill our gaps?

Fowler may seem too content with words like "escape," "evade," "fill gaps" and "refuge" to describe religion’s role in a liberal culture. But the patient reader will understand more when he compares the notion of a refuge to that of a "retreat." People do very important things, they pursue matters of ultimate concern, in churches that offer "somewhat different ideals and practices than liberal society can . . . Indeed, this perception of difference is much of what attracts people to religion or, at least, to church and synagogue." Fowler’s point is "that religion in America has been, and continues to be, an alternative to the liberal order, a refuge from our society and its pervasive values. Yet, by providing that space from our liberal order, it unintentionally helps the liberal world." "By refuge," he makes it clear, "I mean a retreat in a religious sense, a place where one escapes liberal society or its costs and enters into another . . . realm."

One could say, as Fowler does in somewhat different terms, that effective churches seek the sacred and the transcendent; they want their liberal culture’s confinements thrown up against and opened by the scope of eternity. They seek meaning and a kind of beauty or truth which "skeptical reason and pragmatic intelligence" cannot hope to address. In worshipful retreat they intercede, in prayer, for others and, sometimes, interact with the subjects of intercession. They apply something of divine law or the message of grace to their ordinary lives, their daily vocations.

It may be that words like "eternal," transcendent" and "sacred" offend some intransigents, cut the crowds, and alienate the cheap thrill-seekers in a buyers’ market of religion. But, conversely, to believe that one can draw people from and feed into the liberal culture without offering a retreat from it, without filling the gaps it necessarily leaves, is an assured way to lose the congregation.

Fowler sees one other vital dimension in the churchly quest. People are involved with church life in order to escape also from "liberal individualism." Over against mere secularity or privatistic do-it-yourself, pick-and-choose religion, millions are serious about being gathered together. Churches can provide community in a way liberal culture never can. To assume community without building it, as often happens when unrepresentative denominational pronouncements get made, is lethal for the church and ineffective in politics. But when the community of believers is formed, then churchgoers can be impelled into the works of love, mercy, and justice to which most pages of their scriptures call them.

Mainline Protestants and Catholics: Are you looking for a framework for redirection? Fowler’s "back to basics" call can be misread as promoting a transcendent, introverted, self-enclosed worshiping community. World need is too evident to permit the church to be nothing but a refuge, a supporter of the status quo. But there is greater risk in not listening to Fowler’s evidence. Unless religious leaders understand the hungers of the heart expressed by Americans who inhabit and enjoy but are not finally satisfied by liberal culture, there will be no followers with which to work. We need congregations in which alternatives to our culture can appear in the rich and transcendent messages of our theological and worship traditions.

There is and there should be, says Fowler, some "undeniable tension between parts of organized religion and contemporary liberalism." Yet Fowler concludes: "For better or for worse, the rather remarkable relationship between religion and liberalism that I have described sails serenely on. Neither secular intellectuals nor religious activists will sink it quickly or easily." Such a culture may be judged, and its congregants redeemed, by a word of God which can penetrate that remarkable and easy relationship.