uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Finding Pride In Dwindling Mainline Protestantism

Logo for the NCC
After appeals to make it public, Prof. David A. Hollinger's article on ecumenicalism vs. evangelicalism has been posted by the University of California-Berkeley, where he is on faculty. This article is a must-read for anyone who is currently a mainline protestant, who grew up as one, or whose parents were once mainline protestant, because it charts the process whereby the conservative Christian denominations staked out ground against their mainline counterparts -- and more importantly, how and why. For anyone interested in the very stark "two-party" Protestantism in the U.S., Hollinger's analysis is indispensable.

Delivered as the Presidential Address to the Organization of American Historians, March 19, 2011, in Houston, Texas, Hollinger's essay in essence chronicles the widening of the mainline protestant tent as these denominations embraced diversity and secular governance, "the dialectical process by which ecumenical Protestants lost their numbers and their influence in public affairs while evangelical Protestants increased theirs."

Though not covered in detail by Hollinger (he keeps his analysis to the 20th century), these two factions began their divergence when high criticism of the Bible began in the 19th century, as textual criticism took off amid the very basic paradigm shift in academia to examining the Bible in light of history, instead of the other way around. Mainline protestants ultimately accepted the tenants of biblical criticism, while their more conservative and evangelical counterparts did not. (Though there are evangelicals who do accept this, for the sake of brevity evangelicalism as a term is used to describe those conservative church bodies like the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest denomination of this group. Hollinger also notes that while there are more progressive evangelicals today, this is a rather recent phenomenon, and so largely outside of his examination.)

"This distinction between ecumenical and evangelical Protestants," notes Hollinger, "hardened during the 1940s and after as a result of the discomfort felt especially by fundamentalists with how far the 'mainstream liberals' had pushed their program of cooperation across denominational lines and of alliances with non-Protestant, non-Christian, and eventually secular parties."

Mainline protestants continued to stake out ground that embraced diversity, something their conservative counterparts resisted, Hollinger writes, and became "more frankly concerned with social welfare than with the state of the individual soul."

Two organizations that still wield influence are the result of this split: the National Council of Churches (progressive as ever lately with its defense of the "ground zero mosque") and the National Association of Evangelicals -- "an organization founded in 1942 in explicit opposition to the ecumenists," notes Hollinger. "The evangelicals gradually became the dominant public face of Protestantism, partly because these evangelicals continued for many decades to espouse a number of diversity-resisting perspectives that remained popular with the white public even as these perspectives were being renounced by self-interrogating ecumenist intellectuals."

It's this tendency to self-interrogate that most marks the protestants of the postwar era, Hollinger writes. This has often been left out of the history of the evangelical rise of the 20th century, as though it happened in a vacuum, when in fact, "they miss the historical process by which religious liberals abandoned a series of diversity-resisting ideas and practices that the liberals had concluded were mistaken, only to find these same ideas and practices serving as a vital foundation for the growth in the public standing of evangelicalism."

The chief diversity-resisting idea rejected by (intellectuals in) mainline Protestantism? You probably guessed it: "the claim that Christians, especially Protestants, had a proprietary relationship to the American nation that could be easily exercised despite the constitutional separation of church and state."

Among other things, the Federal Council of Churches (the precursor to the NCC), declared in 1946(!) that racial segregation was "a violation of the Gospel of love and human brotherhood." Unfortunately, the "ecumenical leadership's willingness to take chances on these issues ... created space for the eventual triumph of the religious Right in the public affairs of the United States" because "the various initiatives of the ecumenists ... all of which seem so mild from today's perspective -- carried the ecumenical leadership quite far out in front of the average Methodist or Presbyterian."

Some of the past actions of the NAE, which today can be somewhat progressive (see its statements on Muslims and torture, for starters), are startling in retrospect. In direct opposition to ecumenicals, they came out against the United Nations and supported investigations into church officials for "loyalty" during the Red Scare. Christianity Today (in opposition to the ecumenical Christian Century) was launched in 1956 by Billy Graham and his father-in-law L. Nelson Bell, who had opposed Brown v. Board of Education two years earlier by alluding to "those barriers of race which have been established by God." Hollinger notes that Graham himself, though integrating his rallies, refused in 1963 to support Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington.

The best story in Hollinger's article has to do with the Methodist youth magazine motive (uncapitalized), which after it was inundated with criticism for a 1969 issue on women's liberation, was told to tone it down by Methodist leadership. "The editors refused and proceeded in the diversity-affirming directions in which they were already headed, including serving as an unpublicized safe harbor for gay and lesbian Methodists. With what little money they had left after declaring their independence from the Methodists, the editors detonated their institutional suicide bomb." This took the form of two "provocative and defiant issues celebrating gay and lesbian sexuality."

Hollinger's article touched me for a number of reasons, most obviously because I have always been a mainline Protestant, confirmed in the United Methodist Church, a Disciples of Christ member for a number of years, and now a member of the United Church of Christ. But it also validated a general sense of history I had by way of hearing more conservative Christians revise or reverse it to their ends. To hear them tell of it, they rescued Christianity from the evils of mainline Protestantism, as evidenced by the dwindling numbers of mainliners in comparison to Evangelicals. Hollinger attributes this mostly to a declining birth rate among mainline Protestants in comparison to conservatives, coupled with the fact that many children of mainline protestants don't feel pressured to remain within Christianity (thanks to the diversity-accepting policies of their grandparents' pluralism).

Today the divide is more often articulated as the religious right vs. the secular left, although there are plenty of liberal Christians also on the front lines. But what often gets forgotten, and what Hollinger set out to demonstrate in his speech and essay, is the central role that mainline Protestant leaders played in laying the foundation of the freedom of conscience, pluralism and diversity acceptance that increasingly marks modern American society. Concludes Hollinger on this score: "The diversity-preoccupied aspects of public American life today look much more like what the editors of Christian Century in 1960 hoped it would look like than what the editors of Christianity Today were then projecting as an ideal future."

Quoting N. J. Demerath III, Hollinger adds: "Ecumenical leaders may have lost American Protestantism ... but they won the United States."


  1. How do you seriously claim that Mainline Protestantism "celebrates diversity" when it's remained over 95% white and middle/upper middle class? Either someone is lying (a lot and often)or serious preaching and tens of thousands of dollars have resulted in virtually no change-the one genuine miracle Mainline Protestantism could genuinely claim for itself.
    It's not often that people want something so badly, spend a lot to get it, have it readily available and still not manage to get it.

    1. Hollinger's essay (and my summary and praise for it) note the intellectual movements in mainline Protestantism in the mid to late 20th century. It's not about membership, except to say that it has stagnated or shrunk, and so it's not surprising that the demographics have remained largely the same.
      It's true and unfortunate, and many have noted this, that religion is one of the most persistently segregated places of American life. But I fail to see how this suggests "someone is lying." The organizations of the NCC started taking diversity-affirming positions as early as the 40s against general, societal opinion, and Hollinger notes that this gave the evangelical churches an opening for membership drives. Taking admirable positions on topics such as whether atheists should be not only tolerated but defended in the courtroom is different than actively pursuing them for membership (indeed, that would be the opposite approach), so it has little to do with membership drives, as your last paragraph suggests. That is to say, Hollinger was remarking on the remarkable ways in which mainline Protestantism shaped the discourse of the later 20th century - not with its membership, indeed in spite of it, but rather with its (of course) discourse. Indeed, he even suggests that it is in fact this diversity-affirming stance (over against the traditional exclusivist approach Christianity has typically embraced) that in part led to its dwindling numbers, as mainline parents were more open to their children leaving the church altogether than their evangelical counterparts.