Did mainline churches lead or follow the culture?

I love it when a good religion story gets people chatting. The New York Times has accomplished this with the publication of “A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered.” It’s a news story in the Books section of the paper and begins:

For decades the dominant story of postwar American religious history has been the triumph of evangelical Christians. Beginning in the 1940s, the story goes, a rising tide of evangelicals began asserting their power and identity, ultimately routing their more liberal mainline Protestant counterparts in the pews, on the offering plate and at the ballot box.

But now a growing cadre of historians of religion are reconsidering the legacy of those faded establishment Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, tracing their enduring influence on the movements for human rights and racial justice, the growing “spiritual but not religious” demographic and even the shaded moral realism of Barack Obama — a liberal Protestant par excellence, some of these academics say.

Remember, of course, that when the New York Times talks about human rights they are not including the youngest humans, a group that they and mainline Protestants tend to either ignore or dehumanize. But parsed through the newspeak code, you get the point. How could one say, when looking at the culture around us, that mainline Protestants have been anything other than wildly successful? If you look in their pews, it may look dire — but looking at the general academic, media, arts, and political culture, mainline liberal churches seem to have prevailed.

And isn’t this a great idea for a story? I love it. It’s based on the fact that a rash of books have come out with this “new look” on religious history. The story notes the dominant newspapers –  “The Christian Century, the de facto house magazine of mainline Protestantism” and “Christianity Today, the magazine founded in 1956 by the Rev. Billy Graham.”

We get a bit of the debate in question:

But other scholars take a markedly different view. In “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History,” published in April by Princeton University Press, Mr. Hollinger argues that the mainline won a broader cultural victory that historians have underestimated. Liberals, he maintains, may have lost Protestantism, but they won the country, establishing ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism and tolerance as the dominant American creed.

We hear that Hollinger’s argument got people talking. But I’d like to know why.

Sadly, it’s not included in the story. Here’s why I think it should have been: Few people would argue that the doctrines that mainline Protestants espouse have cultural dominance. In fact, those critics of mainline denominations might be hollering that the loudest. The typical critique is that as mainline Protestants have chased the culture, they’ve lost both traditional Christian teachings and souls in the pews. That the culture shares their values is not as newsbreaking as it seems in this story. It’s kind of the point of much criticism leveled against mainliners.

Still, I greatly enjoyed the story. It gave a nice little look at one corner of academia. It quotes Leigh E. Schmidt, one of my favorite religion historians. It does get a bit clunky at the end of the piece, but in a way that makes me wish editors would have permitted more space for a fuller discussion.

For instance:

Today’s “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon, [Matthew S.] Hedstrom argues, owes a strong debt to midcentury liberal Protestantism. In his book “The Rise of Liberal Religion” he traces the role of religious book clubs — which helped turn titles like the liberal pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “On Being a Real Person” (1943) into best sellers — in creating a broad-based “middlebrow religious culture” that emphasized personal ethics and inner experience over theology.

“The focus on personal religious experience being at the heart of religious life, which does come out of liberal Christianity, seems to me alive and well,” Mr. Hedstrom said.

I think we need much more on this point. I mean, speaking as a confessional Lutheran, from our perspective “inner experience over theology” is something we see both among mainline Protestants and the evangelical movement.

For more on this, read religion historian D.G. Hart. He argues that the media think the two sides of Protestantism are the mainline left and the evangelical right. He sees them more as two sides of the same coin, both focused on personal experience, cultural change and, in general, the temporal. They obviously have their political differences, but that’s a separate issue.

The article ends by noting that not everyone is on board this revisionist look at mainline influence. It ends:

That point is seconded by Ms. Coffman, who worked as an editor at Christianity Today before entering academia. She currently teaches at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution where pastors in training, she said, are less likely to be savoring their broad cultural victories than debating which elements of evangelical worship they should adopt to attract a viable congregation.

“I teach at a mainline seminary, and we do not feel very triumphal,” Ms. Coffman said.

Again, that the cultural values espoused by mainliners have been victorious isn’t really the debate, is it? Whether mainliners led the charge or merely followed it is. One wishes that this story would have at least engaged that question, if not focused on it. Still, this is precisely the type of big idea story I’d love to see more of on the Godbeat. Kudos to those who worked on it.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Micheal Hickerson

    Douglas Sloan makes a similar argument about the cultural victory of liberal Protestantism in his great book Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education (http://books.google.com/books?id=VpafCAIMCowC). He traces the rise and (shockingly rapid) fall of mainline Protestant campus ministries during the middle decades of the 20th century. It’s an academic book, but fascinating for anyone interested in religion on campus. In his analysis, the mainline campus ministries collapsed because they couldn’t make the case for their distinctive identity beyond the general values of the secular university – which were shaped primarily by liberal Protestants.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    I thought the focus on “personal religious experience being at the heart of religious life” came out of Pietism and Quietism, which had their origins in the 17th century, were very influential in the 18th, and continued on until well in the 19th?

    Or it is the case that if it didn’t happen to post-war Americans, it doesn’t count? ;-)

  • Jerry Lynch

    I have read the book reviews and many blogs on this subject of who is winning the popularity contest in Christianity but fail to see of what possible value are these findings. A great read (to me) on the belief that “personal religious experience [is] at the heart of religious life” can be found in Jean-Pierre De Caussade.


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