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.


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.

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.