Did the Mainline Win or Did 'Merica?

John Fea has an interview with Peggy Bendroth about her new book, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (The University of North Carolina Press, 2015). This exchange stood out:

JF: Why do we need to read The Last Puritans?

PB: Here’s one practical reason: since the 1980s, if we use George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture as the benchmark, historians of American religion have been working overtime to understand evangelicals. It has worked well, really well. The old stereotypes have been demolished and we now have a richly textured picture of evangelicalism in all of its aspects, from fundamentalist to Pentecostal.

We also have an assumption that there was no spiritual curiosity or zeal anywhere else, and that mainliners in particular were boring and feckless bureaucrats presiding over their own demise. Very few of us have actually worked through primary sources, however, and we know surprisingly little about what happened in mainline denominations for most of the twentieth century. That means that we cannot explain, as David Hollinger and others now argue, how mainline liberal values—tolerance and cooperation—have quietly come to define so much of mainstream American culture today. I’m thinking especially of Amazing Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, a picture of American religiosity far different from the usual stereotypes of the culture wars. Mainline denominations may be disappearing, but this is, I think, more of an organizational problem than a failure of their ideals.

I’ve seen references like this to David Hollinger’s argument a lot of late. It is the perfect way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The mainline churches didn’t lose. Instead, America became like the mainline. Mainline Protestants favored tolerance and cooperation and when America embraced those same ideals they were actually coming to Jesus even though they didn’t know it.

Huh?

Another way to think of this same process is Americanization. Consider Al Smith’s creed which he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1927 on the eve of his nomination as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States:

I believe in the worship of God according to the faith and practice of the Roman Catholic Church.
I recognize no power in the institutions of my Church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the law of the land.
I believe in absolute freedom of conscience for all men and in equality of all churches, all sects, and all beliefs before the law as a matter of right and not as a matter of favor.
I believe in the absolute separation of Church and State and in the strict enforcement of the provisions of the Constitution that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
I believe that no tribunal of any church has any power to make any decree of any force in the law of the land, other than to establish the status of its own communicants within its own church.
I believe in the support of the public school as one of the cornerstones of American liberty.
I believe in the right of every parent to choose whether his child shall be educated in the public school or in a religious school supported by those of his own faith.
I believe in the principled noninterference by this country in the internal affairs of other nations and that we should stand steadfastly against any such interference by whomsoever it may be urged.
And I believe in the common brotherhood of man under the common fatherhood of God.

Using Hollinger and Bendroth’s logic, does that mean that when the United States came to embrace the separation of church and state along with freedom of conscience the nation was actually channeling the Vatican?

Or, was it the case that Al Smith was simply doing what lots of Americanist bishops before had done — and the Vatican had mildly condemned — adapting Roman Catholicism to American realities?

Typically, when immigrant churches adapt to the host culture of the United States, we call that Americanization or assimilation. So why can’t we do that with mainline Protestants? If we did, we would conclude that mainline Protestantism and Americanist Roman Catholicism both share a willingness to let the aspirations and expectations of American society shape the teaching and practice of the church. That sounds modernist. It did to Piux X.

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12 thoughts on “Did the Mainline Win or Did 'Merica?

  1. I vote for America becoming mainline.

    Two reasons:

    Take a look at who moved whom on gay marriage. The mainline was advocating for redefining sexual morality since the 1960s and in particular with the publishing of Fletcher’s situation ethics. The “love wins” slogan is pure Fletcherism.

    Second, tolerance was not a particularly American virtue so much as a mainline one. It was not until recently that America gave up fear of immigrants (and still not amongst Trumpskyites). And religious tolerance went only so far: Kennedy could be elected, but Smith and Romney could not. But in the mainline and particularly Methodists I think, overcoming racial barriers was a value stretching back to … Well, antislavery movement, I guess.

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  2. I’ve seen references like this to David Hollinger’s argument a lot of late. It is the perfect way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The mainline churches didn’t lose. Instead, America became like the mainline. Mainline Protestants favored tolerance and cooperation and when America embraced those same ideals they were actually coming to Jesus even though they didn’t know it.

    Huh?

    Well done. Dragging the Catholic Church into it at the end, not so much. Predictably, you again elide the difference between individuals like Al Smith [or Garry Wills] and the Church itself. Category error. Bad Darryl. Very bad.

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  3. Take a look at who moved whom on gay marriage. The mainline was advocating for redefining sexual morality since the 1960s and in particular with the publishing of Fletcher’s situation ethics. The “love wins” slogan is pure Fletcherism.

    To be sure the mainline was to the left of evangelicals, but going all the way back to 1973 RCs were to the left of protestants on the question of whether sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is not at all wrong. Back in 1973 this chart based on the GSS about 10% of RCs agreed with that statement while about 7% of prots did. That stayed pretty flat until the early 1990’s and we see a bit of bifurcation. About 50% of RCs and just over 25% of protestants agree. Even if you consider nones in 2012 as effectively protestant and 100% on board, it does not get you up to where RCs are on this issue.

    In some sense it may be that the broader culture has become mainline, and it could be that it was driven by RCs becoming effectively mainline themselves. Another possibility though is that RCs pushed the mainline along or at least created space for the mainline to move further “left”?

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  4. Mark McMark gets it.

    As regards a changing Scotland, a more urgent matter for the Kirk might be the dying of the Christian light, and I seriously doubt whether in 2035 the Kirk will still exist save as a residual legal corporation. Note in the statements the seemingly pervasive Pelagianism, the adoption of currently favoured secular political rhetoric, the plea to have some say, and the request to be invited along to other people’s events; the desperate longing to be seen to be relevant, and not only part of a ‘progressive’ today but part of an ‘egalitarian’ tomorrow.

    I am commonly asked is about what was going on at the Rome Synod on the Family and its likely consequence. First, it has been the usual Catholic chaos: ill-prepared, badly organised, indefinite of purpose, lacking useful procedure, with jostling for position and favour by a few over-promoted prelates and ingratiating functionaries hoping to succeed them.

    In general, then, inefficient and unseemly—but, as they say, “here’s the thing.” For all that messiness, the upshot will be reaffirmation of existing teachings on sex and marriage. No printer or publisher should invest in the possibility of a reprinting of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, though they might hope for some small short-term commissions for pastoral letters in Washington and Munich. The absence of ‘progressive movement’ will lead to a fairly speedy decline in the ‘popularity’ of Pope Francis and a resumption of the attacks on the Catholic Church as the last bastion of resistance to making ‘a fairer, more equal and more just world’.

    #ecclesiology

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  5. Jeff, think the founders. They were more tolerant and less traditional than the churches well before the churches did anything.

    And don’t forget about Mencken (and other secularists). They were arguing for loosening religious convictions long before the mainline. Prohibition?

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  6. “… if we use George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture as the benchmark, historians of American religion have been working overtime to understand evangelicals. It has worked well, really well. The old stereotypes have been demolished and we now have a richly textured picture of evangelicalism in all of its aspects, from fundamentalist to Pentecostal …”

    OK, so what is it? It’d be nice if someone who authors books like this would nail down a definition of this elusive will-o’-the-wisp known as “evangelicalism.” Certainly, the RC can be ruled out. Do the mainline denominations consider themselves “evangelicals” (and I’m in no way implying the 17th Century label that the protestants adopted during the Reformation)? Probably some, but not of them. I doubt the the Pentecostals would agree with the label either.

    An attempt to nail down something with culture-reflecting chameleon-like characteristics would certainly be difficult nowadays, but this author seems to think they’ve established a benchmark. Kinda reminds me of Obama’s endless rhetoric about the “middle class.” The way he talks about it makes it nearly impossible to comprehend the social/cultural/demographic category to which he’s referring. One day it sounds like the low income working class; the next day it sounds like the suburban soccer moms.

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  7. I’ve been furrowing my brow on this thesis for several years. I would not say that the mainline won. Rather, I would say that the cognitive elite won. Many members of the cognitive elite were probably raised in mainline churches or in communities whose ethos was dominated by mainline churches. And while the mainline ethos was amenable to the emergence of the cognitive elite, most cognitive elites aren’t very Puritan in their outlook. Puritans, whether of a socially progressive or conservative bent, tend to be idealists. Consider the abolitionists, for example. By contrast, the cognitive elites are most pragmatists in their outlook, e.g., along the lines of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who largely objected to the idealism of the abolitionists.

    In some ways, that’s what attracts me to this website. The 2K view seems to operate with more of a realist epistemology, allowing for a spiritual refuge between the progressive and conservative variants of Puritanism.

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  8. Leftist academics [but that’s redundant] love to “deconstruct” stuff until it has no meaning. 60% of evangelicals are white, politically and socially conservative and generally agree on grace, the inerrancy of the Bible, heaven and hell.

    That’s what “evangelical” pretty much means for any socio-religious purpose, and everybody knows what it means. The pointy-heads try to dilute the pot by including black evangelicals [who are sui generis] and their own EINO selves, as though useful idiot “Pastor” Jim Wallis has anything resembling an actual congregation.

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  9. Tom – yeah, that’s about as much a definition as I could imagine, too. Except to add that they’re also fairly loose on formal associations (non-denominational).

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