Blame Trump on the Mainline

So argues Mark Tooley:

Neither Sanders nor Trump would have been possible or even conceivable as serious presidential candidates during the decades of Mainline Protestant hegemony in American public life.

Excluding JFK, all presidents (including Unitarians) have had ties to Mainline Protestants, who shaped America’s political ethos for most of four centuries. Mainline Protestantism helped create American civil religion, a broad vaguely Protestant view of God that permitted all religious groups, including Catholics and Jews, to fully participate in public life without having to minimize their own religious convictions.

American democracy consequently remained very religious but also non-theocratic, tolerant and diverse, with all sects invested in America’s affirmation of religious liberty.

Through the mid-20th century, Mainline Protestantism provided the political language and ethical tools for governance and accommodation, especially for the great reform movements that expanded human equality. The Civil Rights Movement was perhaps Mainline Protestantism’s last great moral crusade, redeeming its earlier failures to address slavery and segregation.

But the great Mainline Protestant membership and wider cultural collapse began in the early 1960s. Then, one of six Americans belonged to the seven largest Mainline denominations. Today, fewer than one of 16 do.

Tooley fails to ask whether that political hegemony came with the price of theological modernism? After all, to maintain your place in the establishment, you can’t be vigorous about the particulars of your religious communion.

Tooley goes on to observe a certain tackiness among evangelicals:

Evangelicalism, lacking that magisterial heritage, is less self-confident, often uncomfortable with political power, is prone to extremes and often highly individualistic, impatient with human institutions.

These same handicaps plague even more the world of the religiously unaffiliated, who often lack the traditions, formal human communities, ethical tools and moral vocabulary for governance. They are especially vulnerable to the impulse of the moment.

So, if the the downfall of the mainline paved the way for Trump, how much more the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church which paved the way for magisterial reformers?

15 thoughts on “Blame Trump on the Mainline

  1. DGH, if you accept the premise, you have a point. But, have you ever read “The Image” by Daniel Boorstin? A book that I thought highly of when we read it in a Political Behavior class, forgot about while going to law school and working for a living, but one that now seems to me to have been written for our times.


  2. Dr. Clark, Boorstin was a man way ahead of his time. Ignored now, probably because he was a conservative back in the day when a right winger could get a prestigious job (Director of the Smithsonian).


  3. dgh—“New School Presbyterians, the ones who favored the Second Great Awakening and supported parachurch… moralistic, and nationalistic aims. For New Schoolers… the health of the United States depended on extending Protestantism from the East Coast to the frontier. Without a Christian influence, morality would deteriorate and social order disappear. The ideal was for a unified order that reflected Protestant (but only generically so) standards.”

    dgh—“The South itself objected to the growth of the federal government’s power and control of a broad range of American activities. But Marsden noted Machen’s defense of the Confederacy, his lingering racism, and his ‘radical libertarianism’. In fact, Marsden thought it plausible to interpret Machen’s departure from the PCUSA in 1936 as the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Confederacy’s secession from the United States.”
    Some Pluralisms Are More Inclusive than Others: A Review Article

    The mainline likes to talk about “pluralism” until anabaptist stepchildren say that “we” should submit to “them” and not become “them”. At that point rejection of the role of magistrates is no longer “pluralism” but “sectarian rationalism”.


  4. Dreher—“Watching Spotlight on the flight back, and having to revisit in some sense the reason why I lost my Catholic faith, and might have lost my Christianity entirely had things continued, gave me deeper insight into the challenge we all face Believe me, you do not want to discover your own failures as a Christian when you are put to a hard test. Now is the time to prepare yourself and your community for the difficult future ahead. … it’s a pretty good guess that many of you are like I was in the year 2000, when Father Doyle warned me about the malign power of the darkness I was just starting to explore. I thought I could withstand anything. I was prideful in my faith, and I was smashed by that trial. Whatever your faith tradition, my warning to you is: don’t take anything for granted. You don’t know what’s coming. You think you know, but you don’t. You think you can imagine from where the attack might come, but you are almost certainly deceiving yourself.”


  5. DGH, when originally published The Image bore the sub title “What Happened to the American Dream.”. It has since been republished in 25th and 50th Anniversary editions with the sub-title ” A guide to Psuedo-events in America.”. His big idea was that mass culture had instilled a preference for the facsimile over the real thing. A pseudo event was something that happened solely for the purpose of being covered, such as a press conference. A celebrity is a person who is well known for his well knowness. One example he gives is the Gabor sisters, who some how became famous before any one of them ever appeared in a motion picture. The obvious current parallel is the Kardashians. Today’s millenials will apparently pay unlimited amounts of money for vacation resorts that offer an “authentic experience” that is a highly sanitized facsimile of the real thing. Googling around just now, I found this piece by Neal Gabler

    Tooley gets on my nerves. He is not unique.Far from it. In my lifetime, public intellectuals have gone from assigning no importance to religion (with any doctrinal content) on the assumption that it will wither away and become a tame reenforcement of the liberal consensus (Bellah), to explaining damn near everything ( and forcing it into a mainline/Evangelical mold to boot.).

    Boorstin would suggest that our preference for images, and thus their pervasiveness in the culture, has left us at a loss to distinguish between authentic/inauthentic, sincere/insincere, true and false. We grossly inflate what we expect from the world, and then blame real humans when they fail to deliver it.

    Very much an anti-hype classic. Also a more or less complete explanation of the Trump phenomena. Which, if you really thank about it, isn’t nearly as different from the 2008 Obama phenomena as the chattering classes think.


  6. Dr. Clark, it is Boorstin. He wrote some fine books back when historians were allowed to publish things that people would actually read. Of course, back in that day there were people who could read.


  7. Dan, thanks. I have read about The Image.

    BTW, don’t leave out Francis from the comparison with Trump. Lots of unedited thoughts about the errors of establishment. Not sure how that is fitting for a pope (as opposed to a renegade priest).


  8. Dan, it’s the SPIN.

    The real success, of course, has been his first two years as Pope, which have created an extremely positive media narrative of his papacy into which this visit could be neatly fit.


  9. DGH, well, DUH.

    The CONTENT of PF’s “unedited thoughts” might be a.tad problematic, but there are plenty of folks around the Vatican and the commentariat to clean up after him, like the guys with brooms that follow the elephants around at the circus. The FACT that he appears to be so unscripted is a conscious strategy.


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