David A. Hollinger is the Preston Hotchkis Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. In his new book, Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular, he recounts the long-running, dialectical relationship between conservative evangelicals and the liberal mainline in American history.
ECM: As you tell it, the story of American Protestantism in the twentieth century is the story of evangelical rise and ecumenical decline. Who are these factions, and how do they differ?
DAH: The ecumenical side is what we have often referred to as the “mainline” denominations or the “Protestant establishment.” They have also been referred to as the “seven sisters,” the denominations that the Pew Foundation, Gallup, and other polling outfits classify as “liberal” Protestants—the Congregationalists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Northern Baptists, Evangelical Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, and Presbyterians. These denominations enjoyed tremendous power and influence during the first half of the twentieth century and saw that influence decline precipitously in the second half.
The evangelicals are a less institutionally integrated body of American Protestants, those most easily associated with several institutions: the National Association of Evangelicals as founded in 1942 by members of the old fundamentalist leadership trying to recast itself; Fuller Theological Seminary, established in 1947 by people who were really annoyed at the liberalism of Union Theological Seminary, the divinity schools at Yale, Harvard, Chicago, and others; and Christianity Today, founded with Howard Pew’s money and Billy Graham’s charisma in 1956 to counteract the liberalism of the Christian Century.
So, even though there would be a variety of people in the pews of the various churches who did not identify strongly with one or another of these categories, this is the divide as painted in broad strokes. Interestingly, the term “mainline”came into being just a few years before it was rendered crashingly anachronistic, about 1960. That term did register the strong class position of the old, classic denominations, but a better term for them is “ecumenical,” because it indicates the willingness of this tribe of Protestants to cooperate with a great range of Christians and with an even greater range of non-Christians. It is really odd that so many people today continue to speak of liberal Protestants as “mainline” when they are a dwindling percentage of the national population, and the evangelicals have far greater membership and public standing.
ECM: Why has evangelicalism grown and ecumenicalism contracted?
DAH: Back in 1972, Dean Kelley wrote a book suggesting that evangelicalism was on the rise because it placed such strong moral demands on its adherents, and ecumenicalism was struggling because of its contrasting moral laxity. That theory has gained a lot of traction in the decades since, especially among evangelicals, but I think it’s wrong. Instead, I find that the evangelical churches flourished in the last third of the twentieth century because they offered a safe harbor to whites who wanted to be counted as Christians without having to confront the challenges of life in an ethno-racially diverse society and a scientifically informed culture. The old mainline church leaders were often out there promoting civil rights and Martin Luther King, they were very internationally minded and supportive of the United Nations, they were responsive to modern scientific advances, etc. In the 1940s and after, the liberal ecumenical intelligentsia mounted a vigorous campaign for a more cosmopolitan Protestantism committed to racial diversity, economic justice, a global consciousness, and a more welcoming and inclusive approach to the community of faith. Around this same time, the evangelicals were sending signals that none of this was strictly necessary in order to be a Christian. You could be a member in good standing of the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Assemblies of God, or the others without committing yourself to social justice or to any of these onerous, liberal standards. I think that the demands made by the ecumenical Protestants were simply too much for many white people who preferred Christianity in the evangelical mold.
ECM: Does that mean that evangelicalism was attractive to racists?
DAH: I would put it a bit differently. If you were a racist, the ecumenical churches made you feel guilty about it. The evangelical churches were more likely to put up with it as an unfortunate evil, a failure of the human heart that might eventually be overcome. When Billy Graham said in 1963 that the Black and white children of Alabama would walk hand in hand “only when Christ comes again,” he was not necessarily voicing a racist attitude, but a view of what the nation could expect from civil authority (not much of anything) and from faith in Jesus (lots).
Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics. I wrote about the book for Religion Dispatches last month.