04 July 2012

Today Is July 4--Founding Fathers and Thoughts on Theological Liberalism

Well, it's another July 4, where many people will celebrate the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.  Of course, declaring independence and actually winning it are two different things.  Perhaps we should actually celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 as our official independence day.  That's not as fun, though, because it took far less in terms of guts.

There is frequently a debate over whether or not the founding fathers of the nation were all evangelicals or all Deists.  I've argued before that it's difficult to lump the founding fathers into one easy group.  There were founding fathers from both groups.  The link above is a post from last your that discusses a bit about John Witherspoon, a minister who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Baylor professor Thomas Kidd wrote about the top five forgotten evangelical founders this week.  The good thing about his posts are that they are actually scholarly and written by an expert in early American religious history, unlike some other "experts" that try even Thomas Jefferson out to be an evangelical, rather than the Deist he actually was.  People who study American church history should not just cherry pick documents that seem to argue what they want.  It's important to look at a person's entire body of work. 

Another post this week that interested me was a discussion about historians of liberal Protestantism, which deals with the twentieth century.  There is quite a bit about evangelical religion in this period.  My own work deals with the subject of evangelical history.  The question arises why there are not as many historians of liberal Protestants.  A definition is in order, liberal Protestants tend to be liberal in the theological sense.  While they frequently have liberal leanings in a political sense, the major emphasis is theological liberalism, at least as far as I understand.

Perhaps the answer to this question is the fact that theologically liberal Protestants are much less influential in American society because they are a shrinking demographic in society.  Some evangelical denominations have lost members and there is a growing number of non-religious people in America today, but these losses are nothing when compared to the influence that the mainline denominations once had in American society.

Much of this could probably be explained because of the non-supernatural bent of these liberal Protestants.  For example, if Jesus was just another man who had a special spark of the divine, there's not much to differentiate him from the descriptions that other religions have of their founders.  If he actually resurrected from the dead and was God and man as the New Testament describes, on the other hand, then Christianity holds infinitely more importance.  I think this difference is the reason for much of the decline of liberal Protestantism.  If Jesus isn't really who the Bible claims, why not just become a hedonist and skip church?

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