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:

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