Thursday, July 5, 2012

Should Secular Intellectuals and Mainline Protestants Unite Forces Against Evangelicals?

Over at the blog of The Christian Century, Amy Frykholm interviews intellectual historian David Hollinger about the history of the Protestant mainline.  Many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home may recall Hollinger's provocative presidential address at the 2011 meeting of the Organization of American Historians, "After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern Encounter with Diversity."  The essay was published in the June 2011 issue of The Journal of American History.

Here is a summary of Hollinger's ideas from the interview:
  • The Ecumenical Movement in American Protestantism led the way in a host of 20th century social reforms related to race, imperialism, feminism, and multiculturalism.  Church attendance may be declining, but the mainline has achieved a cultural victory.  Hollinger argues that "the public life of the United States moved farther in the directions advocated in 1960 by the Christian Century than in the directions then advocated by Christianity Today." (Is this true?)
  • Mainline Protestants should be claiming victory for their role in stimulating social change in 20th century America, but evangelicals have hijacked the conversation by equating "success" with church attendance.
  • Mainline Protestants need to be more critical of evangelicals.  They should seek accommodation not with evangelicals, but with secular intellectuals.  As Hollinger puts it, "The salient solidarity today may not be with the community of faith but among those who accept Enlightenment-generated standards of cognitive plausibility."
  • Ecumenical Protestantism must reconstitute itself as a "prophetic minority" in American culture.
Hollinger is on solid ground for much of the interview until he proposes that mainline Protestants should team up with secular intellectuals rather than try to build relationships with evangelicals. This may look like an attractive option from where Hollinger sits--in an endowed chair at Berkeley--but such a solution seems rather strange (to say the least) from the perspective of Christian ecclesiology.