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. 



Kelly Phipps said...

I have never read anything Hollinger has written without putting it down upon completion and thinking,"He just does not get evangelicals. He is reacting to the extremes, and compares the worst of evangelicals with the best of mailine/protestant thinking and action."

John Fea said...


RAKman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RAKman said...

As I understand it, Hollinger has a BIC background but no church affiliation now. In that situation I would suspect it is much easier to be concerned about the culture than the church. It has been our intention as a Century staff to discuss this article among us, but with summer schedules, etc., it hasn't happened yet. I suspect most of us will tend to agree with your critique, John. Theologically, it would be better to partner with evangelicals where we can. And obviously there are evangelicals who are very uncomfortable with the rightward trend of conservative Protestants.

John Schmalzbauer said...

Elsewhere, David Hollinger lumps Mark Noll in with the mainline:

According to Hollinger, "many of the loudest voices in the evangelical conversation
today . . . make Noll look
like no less impassioned a defender of the Enlightenment than Harvey Cox. It is all a matter of degree and emphasis."

Would Hollinger include Noll in his mainline/secular alliance?

Matt Hedstrom said...

Well, I certainly agree with David Hollinger about the "cultural victory" of liberal Protestantism and the need to study religion beyond butts in pews. I have made a similar argument in my book, The Rise of Liberal Religion -- though Hollinger is more focused on politics and I on culture and spirituality. But in either case, I think we are seeing some renewed attention to ecumenical or liberal Protestantism -- and even liberal religion more broadly -- after a couple decades of very important work on evangelicalism dominating the field.

But on the political front -- on reproductive rights, gay rights, torture, the social welfare state -- aren't these coalitions already in place? I agree that Hollinger might overlook what one could call progressive or liberal evangelicals on many of these issues (these folks are in my family, so I know they exist!) -- but largely speaking he's not wrong. Evangelicals are less likely to support marriage equality, and more likely to support torture, than the general population.

D G said...

Isn't what Hollinger is calling for, a union of mainline Protestants and secular progressives, what the Democratic Party is? But this is a political union, not a religious one, obviously.

At the same time, a lot of Americans who vote GOP and identify with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Latter Day Saints would quibble about a cultural victory for so called ecumenical Protestants. Here is where I am surprised that historians, who are pretty good about interpreting the past, think they can read the consequences of the present.

Matt Hedstrom said...

Well, I actually think many religious conservatives would agree with the cultural victory thesis -- after all, much of the rhetoric from the religious right laments what has happened culturally in recent decades. In addition, Christian Smith's survey work among young adults seems to confirm the idea. At one point he even invokes Harry Emerson Fosdick as a progenitor of what we see today.