Hollow (read: no) Victory

Along with the last rites being administered to the GOP, students of evangelicalism are also reassessing what had looked like such a strong showing by born-again Protestants in the culture wars since 1980. It turns out, according to some, that rather than being sidelined by evangelical Protestants, the mainline churches were the real winners in late-twentieth-century American Protestantism. John Turner puts it this way:

Liberal Protestants may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle. A trenchant quote from the sociologist Christian Smith: “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.” One could turn to a host of other scholars to buttress Hedstrom’s contentions: David Hollinger and Leigh Schmidt immediately come to mind. Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas.

Turner bases this view on a book by Matthew Hedstrom, author of The Rise of Liberal Religion. According to Hedstrom, what some people call secularization is simply a change within religion itself:

Let’s look at Harry Emerson Fosdick, probably the most famous preacher in the United States from the 1920s through the 1940s. He was a star on radio, a bestselling author, and the founding preacher of the Rockefeller-backed Riverside Church in New York. As the leader of a major church, he clearly cared about church life. Yet in As I See Religion, his bestseller from 1932, he argued that the heart of religion is reverence for personality—by which he meant the sacred uniqueness of each human being as well as the divine personality—and experiences of beauty, which for him were the clearest pathway to the transcendent. These sensibilities might be cultivated in church or they might not.

Is this secularization? What Hollinger calls Christian survivalists—those who can only see religion as the perpetuation of a certain kind of Christianity—might think so. I guess I’d say that for some, liberal Protestantism is precisely what has allowed them to remain Christian. For others, it has been a halfway house to post-Protestant and post-Christian religious sensibilities. But this is transformation of religion, not secularization.

David Hollinger himself, one of the leading intellectual historians, contributed to this line of argument in an interview he did with Christian Century:

Q.What role did ecumenical Protestants play in shaping contemporary culture that are perhaps too easily forgotten today?

A. Ecumenical Protestants were way ahead of the evangelicals in accepting a role for sex beyond procreation and in supporting an expanded role for women in society. The ecumenical Protestants understood full well that the Jim Crow system could not be overturned without the application of state power, rejecting the standard line of Billy Graham and many other evangelicals that racism was an individual sin rather than a civil evil. The ecumenical Protestants developed a capacity for empathic identification with foreign peoples that led them to revise their foreign missionary project, diminishing its culturally imperialist aspects—and that led them, further, to the forefront of ethnoracially pluralist and egalitarian initiatives as carried out by white Americans. The ecumenical Protestants resoundingly renounced the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, while countless evangelical leaders continue to espouse this deeply parochial idea.

If the barometer of religious health is how a group is faring in party politics, then evangelical clout is clearly on the wane and its gambit of backing the Republicans is looking questionable. John Turner puts the current evangelical predicament this way:

. . . I tend to agree with Albert Mohler that evangelicals had better get ready for a sojourn in the political wilderness. I remember (but could not find to link) a splendid editorial by the Christian Century’s David Heim (some uncertainty about the author) from quite a few years ago (presumably before the 2008 election) wryly encouraging evangelicals to enjoy their moment in the political and cultural limelight because it would prove fleeting. In a short time, they’d be with their erstwhile liberal Protestant bedfellows in the scrapheap of political history.

True enough, but notice where that leaves the mainline — still on the scrapheap of history, now having to scoot over to make room for evangelicals. Notice also, that evangelicals of the nineteenth-century — folks like Finney no less — were responsible for teaching later mainline Protestants about equality, women, race, and the value of evangelizing non-Europeans. What is striking in the stakes between evangelicals and mainliners is that some contemporary evangelicals still read Finney and take great pride in the progressivism of the Second Pretty Good Awakening (e.g. Jerry Falwell). But does anyone in the mainline read Fosdick? Have the culturally spiritual people even heard of Fosdick? Probably not. Which makes the notion of mainline Protestants taking credit for shifts in the culture outside the churches a tad fanciful, sort of like the Sixers taking encouragement from only losing to the Heat by five points.

But the real difficulty with this interpretation of the mainline’s ongoing influence and relevance is that we generally do not permit such moral victories in other realms of historical understanding. Was Protestantism simply the transformation of Roman Catholicism or did the Reformers break with Rome? Was Ronald Reagan simply the transformation of the Democratic Party or was he a Republican? Did removing prayer and Bible reading from public schools represent another form of prayer and Bible reading or were the Supreme Court’s decisions the signal of post-Protestant America’s arrival?

Mind you, I am no fan of trying to pump more antibiotics into the diseased-ridden evangelical body political. But it does seem to me naive if not dishonest to highlight evangelicalism’s poor health by declaring the Protestant corpse in the adjacent bed to be alive.

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14 Comments

  1. mark mcculley
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Hollinger: The ecumenical Protestants understood full well that the Jim Crow system could not be overturned without the application of state power, rejecting the standard line of Billy Graham and many other evangelicals that racism was an individual sin rather than a civil evil. The ecumenical Protestants resoundingly renounced the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, while countless evangelical leaders continue to espouse this deeply parochial idea.

    mark: This reminds me that the evangelicals (including Falwell and Bob Jones, who also wanted political power) and the mainline liberals are BOTH Constantinians. They think not only that they know what direction others should go but also that it is their duty (responsibility) to sit at the wheel of history and make it go the correct way. So the difference between them is more a strategy and a tactic rather than any loyalty to Jesus and His kingdom. Where the jellyfishfundies want to move history back to the good old days, those who identify with the “christian century” (Stackhouse, Cornell West) want to impose their “democratic pluralist culture”. But it’s still “the culture” they want and they are willing to promote american killing to get it done. Neither were content to build their own culture, and leave the others to God.

    I certainly agree with DGH that those who are dead could stand a little more humility. But it’s the function of most “christian colleges” to teach their students that the future depends on them transforming culture. Forget that elect for eternal life stuff, because you need to be the elite which will make things better for the others….

    Along with the paternalism comes the self-righteousness. And along with my sectarian sarcasm? Surely, more self-righteousness….

  2. mark mcculley
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Hedstrum: (the ecumenical culture) wants to achieve its own extinction, or at least its own irrelevance. Postmillennial theology desires the Kingdom of God on earth, and believes that human beings, with divine grace, can achieve it. The idea is to redeem the culture—redeem the world—through full participation in it

    mark: I would guess that Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart (also Tim Keller and Don Carson) think it’s going to take long term project, therefore no extinction for them or this generation….

    One of the reasons you water infants is to avoid the discontinuity, the start-up and the start-over. This is also why the “death tax” is opposed. Over time, one builds up that good Christian karma and passes it down to the next generation. Positive political sanctions. Better that than state confiscation, which of course what all anabaptists really want….

    ok, i promise to go out of sarcasm mode. Soon.

  3. mark mcculley
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the Heat weren’t really trying so hard against the Sixers. But David Stern can’t fine Pat Riley for that. But my short-term hope is that the Heat really really try against the Spurs in the finals. And lose to the Spurs by more than five points.

    Time will tell.

  4. Phil Baiden
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    DGH: But does anyone in the mainline read Fosdick?

    I’ve been “educated” in a mainline denomination and I’d never heard of him before I started listening to the WHI and reading about Machen. The mainline don’t read books or authors from before the 1960s. As someone said to me recently: “Let’s throw the past away!”

  5. Posted April 17, 2013 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    Harry Emerson Fosdick’s gorgeous Riverside Church, a bastion of “liberal” theology built for him by John D. Rockefeller, hasn’t had a permanent pastor for years. There remains some question as to theology and worship styles. Its social activism arm seems to be less ambiguously thriving, however.

    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/30/riverside-church-pastor-resigns-after-2-months/

    [The comments are quite interesting too.]

    Since its founding in 1930 as a Gothic cathedral built by John D. Rockefeller, Riverside Church has espoused a progressive and often pacifist agenda. But internal fights have plagued the congregation for more than a decade.

    Longtime members ascribe some of the tension to changes in the racial makeup of the 2,700-member congregation, which was once about 60 percent white and 40 percent black, and now is roughly the reverse. Some of the troubles are traced to generational differences, between older whites with roots in the civil rights era and younger, middle-class black members who are less politicized.

    Dr. Braxton, a Baptist minister and former Rhodes scholar, appeared to knit together both those traditions, calling himself a “progressive evangelical.”

    But his opponents kept up their attacks, saying that his pay package exceeded $600,000 a year, including a $250,000 salary and a housing allowance. Experts on American churches said the pastor’s compensation was well above average among pastors nationwide, but within the range of packages for senior pastors of similar major churches in other big cities.

  6. Richard Smith
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    tom van dyke: Harry Emerson Fosdick’s gorgeous Riverside Church, a bastion of “liberal” theology built for him by John D. Rockefeller, hasn’t had a permanent pastor for years. There remains some question as to theology and worship styles. Its social activism arm seems to be less ambiguously thriving, however.

    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/30/riverside-church-pastor-resigns-after-2-months/

    From the site above: “The senior pastor of Riverside Church, the renowned bastion of liberal theology and social activism on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is resigning after just nine months on the job.”

    RS: This sounds like Tim Keller, at least some of it. Maybe he would be a renowned bastion of hiding the WCF sort of theology. Maybe the two congregations should join together.

    From the site: ” They also complained that Dr. Braxton was moving Riverside away from its tradition of interracial progressivism and toward a conservative style of religious practice. The judge refused to block the installation, and urged both sides to reach an accord.”

    RS: This is enough to make one consider the 2k theory. Going to court over the installation of a pastor based on a tradition of interracial progressivism and toward a conservative style of religious practice? I suppose that once one leaves the Bible and/or creeds you develop your own standards of what is right and wrong. But that sure sounds like what the snake promised Eve.

  7. Posted April 17, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Fosdick, a Baptist, ministered at First Presbyterian Church in NYC from 1918-1925. He doubted the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the literal second coming of Christ. This says a lot about the state of the PCUSA at that time.

  8. Posted April 17, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Erik, at least it says something about New York Presbyterianism. Nothing good for Presbyterianism came out of NYC.

  9. AB
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Lol

  10. kent
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Phil: The mainline don’t read books or authors from before the 1960s. As someone said to me recently: “Let’s throw the past away!”

    Do they read in a serious way at all?

  11. Brad
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    DGH, I was searching for your post with the “nothing good for Presbyterianism comes out of of NYC” line, but I believe I heard that in a recording of a talk you did. If it wasn’t in a post it should have been.

  12. Posted April 17, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    This quote from Hedstrom is what stuck out: “…liberal Protestantism, at its very core, wants to achieve its own extinction, or at least its own irrelevance.”

    Would that have ever been a plausible statement coming from a mainline leader in the 40′s or 50′s? They sure seemed intent on being around given their fetish for owning properties, i.e. if they calculated that the liberal spirit would leave the body of the church to inhabit the body of NPO’s and government, why have all these buildings for folks who would “get it” and leave?

  13. Posted April 17, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    RS: I suppose that once one leaves the Bible and/or creeds you develop your own standards of what is right and wrong.

    Aha.

    I also found interesting that black “enthusiasm” in worship was characterized as “conservative.” [In NYT parlance, conservative = bad.] Probably too much “Jesus” not to mention “Christ.”

    Shall the fundamentalists win?

  14. Bobby
    Posted April 21, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Rod Dreher linked to this article a few weeks ago. As a mainliner, I largely concur. The ethos of the Protestant mainline has largely become the ethos of American white-collar folk generally, especially those in the upper middle class and upper class. Its victory has become so complete that no one even feels the need to attend any more.

    Evangelicalism has also had an effect on the culture, but it will probably take another decade for us to know for sure.

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