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.