Mainline Protestants for Trump

Bethel Lutheran Church ELCA, Willmar

When it comes to Christians supporting the Trump presidency, evangelicals get all the attention.  But as Chris Gehrz notes in his recent Anxious Bench post, mainline Protestants are not immune to Trump love.  I don’t know of any “court mainliners,” but it seems like a pro-Trump sentiment is alive and well among Lutherans.  Here is a taste:

Consider the largest Protestant denomination in my part of the country: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). At its annual meeting earlier this month, the ELCA not only passed statements condemning patriarchy and white supremacy, but made national news for declaring itself a “sanctuary church body.” Hundreds of delegates joined Lutheran activists in marching a mile to the Milwaukee office of the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where they held a prayer vigil and posted 9.5 theses on care for refugees and other immigrants. “We put the protest back in Protestant,” proclaimed some of the signs held by protestors. (And I don’t think they meant it like one of our blogging neighbors does.)

As religion reporter Emily McFarlan Miller had predicted, the 2019 ELCA assembly offered “a window into the issues important to many progressive Christians across the country.” But how many of the ELCA’s 3.5 million members are actually (politically) progressive?

Consider some of the numbers that political scientist Ryan Burge has been crunching from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), which surveys over 64,000 Americans every two years. Not only do 49% of ELCA respondents in the 2018 CCES identify as Republican (vs. 42% as Democrats), but even more approve of Donald Trump: 52% of those Lutherans, 35% strongly. When Burge drilled down to look at religious behavior, he found that ELCA support for Trump was strongest among those who attended church most often and weakest among those who show up just once or twice a year.

Read the entire piece here.

What is Going on at Riverside Church?


Amy Butler recently resigned as pastor of New York City’s historic Riverside Church.

But why?

Was it because she was an outspoken on sexual harassment?  Here is a taste of Rick Rojas’s piece at The New York Times:

Dr. Butler’s supporters said she lost her job because she had spoken out about sexual harassment and she had complained in particular about an incident in which a former member of the church’s governing council left a bottle of wine and a T-shirt on her desk, both with labels that read “Sweet Bitch.”

They said she had pursued better treatment for women and minorities, with the aim of fixing a difficult environment that had led some church employees to complain and even quit. Her persistence strained an increasingly fractured relationship between her and the church’s lay leaders, her supporters said.

Was it because her leadership style was too progressive?  Again, here is Rojas:

…her opponents said her dismissal was being misconstrued, and pointed to the governing council’s significant misgivings about changes she made to the church staff and programming and spending priorities. Her philosophy and leadership style, they said, collided with a church whose culture remained deeply traditional, despite its politics.

Or did it have something to do with a strange visit to a Minneapolis sex shop.  Here is the New York Post (the article is also cited in Rojas’s piece in the Times):

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said.

The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

Butler also offered to buy a toy for the second minister — a gay man in a committed relationship — but he declined, sources said.

Read the rest here.

Did Missionaries Contribute to the Growth of Secularism?

Protestants AbroadOver at The Christian Century, Robert Westbrook of the University of Rochester reviews David Hollinger‘s latest book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America.

Here is a taste:

Protestants Abroad fits snugly within Hollinger’s long-standing narrative of the price that ecumenical Protestants paid as a religious community for their thinning of the particularism of Christianity. Clearly missionaries were prominent among the church leaders who got out ahead of the rank and file on controversial social and political matters and lost the loyalty of many of them. And the weight of Hollinger’s extensive biographical evidence is that they also pioneered the art of raising post-Protestant children who may well have admired their moral strength and shared their humanitarian values but found little need for their religious beliefs.

Hollinger himself remains impatient with those who persisted in “God-talk” long after he thinks it lost its plausibility, favoring post-Protestant “mish kids” over their still devout parents in this regard. But arguably, on his own evidence, there is something to be said, even if one does not speak it oneself, for God-talk or even Christ-talk. It may very well be that the tension between the universal and the particular was crushing for missionary theory, but was it so for missionary practice? There is little evidence in Hollinger’s book that this was the case.

Many of the numerous life stories in Hollinger’s books are tales of courage, courage that was for many of those who mustered it sustained by Christian belief, however thin it may have been. Civil rights activist and former missionary Ruth Harris was described by one of the students she inspired as “acting up for Christ”—not for humanity but for Christ. And the same might be said of many of those who gave us a more cosmopolitan republic. Could they have found the strength to act up elsewhere, outside the confines of Christian belief? Maybe, but in their Christianity was where they found it.

Thin God-talk is not necessarily weak God-talk; it can be wiry God-talk. God-talk lean, supple, and articulated alongside humility and doubt. Might one not cop to the considerable uncertainty that remains in even such wiry God-talk and despite doing so be moved by religious faith to do far more good than one might otherwise have done? The more cosmopolitan American republic that liberal Protestant missionaries did so much to create is of late under siege. If we are to protect it, perhaps a few courageous, die-hard ecumenical Christian survivalists will come in handy.

Read the entire review here.

Clergy: Do Not Repeal The Johnson Amendment

Williams ChurchOver 4000 clergy want Congress to preserve the so-called Johnson Amendment.  You may recall that the repeal of this part of the federal tax code has been a major part of the court evangelical agenda and, by extension, Donald Trump’s appeal to evangelical voters.

Read our coverage of the Johnson Amendment here.

Click here to read the text of the clergy’s letter asking Congress to leave the Johnson Amendment alone.

Here is a taste:

As a leader in my religious community, I am strongly opposed to any effort to repeal or weaken current law that protects houses of worship from becoming centers of partisan politics. Changing the law would threaten the integrity and independence of houses of worship. We must not allow our sacred spaces to be transformed into spaces used to endorse or oppose political candidates.

Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines. The prophetic role of faith communities necessitates that we retain our independent voice. Current law respects this independence and strikes the right balance: houses of worship that enjoy favored tax-exempt status may engage in advocacy to address moral and political issues, but they cannot tell people who to vote for or against. Nothing in current law, however, prohibits me from endorsing or opposing political candidates in my own personal capacity.

Changing the law to repeal or weaken the “Johnson Amendment” – the section of the tax code that prevents tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates –would harm houses of worship, which are not identified or divided by partisan lines. Particularly in today’s political climate, engaging in partisan politics and issuing endorsements would be highly divisive and have a detrimental impact on congregational unity and civil discourse.

Adele Banks has some context at Religion News Service.

It looks like most of the Christian signers are mainline Protestants.  I did not recognize too many names.  This is partly because most of the signers are local pastors and partly because I am not as familiar with mainline Protestantism as I am with evangelicalism.

Trump to Mainline Protestant Pastors: “But you’re all Christians?”


Over at CNN’s “State” magazine, MJ Lee has written a nice overview of Donald Trump’s relationship to Christianity.  There is not a whole lot of new insights here beyond what has already been explored during the campaign, but the opening vignette of the piece is worth quoting:

Two days before his presidential inauguration, Donald Trump greeted a pair of visitors at his office in Trump Tower.

As a swarm of reporters waited in the gilded lobby, the Rev. Patrick O’Connor, the senior pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Queens, and the Rev. Scott Black Johnston, the senior pastor of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, arrived to pray with the next president.

From behind his desk on the 26th floor, Trump faced the Celtic cross at the top of the steeple of Johnston’s church, located a block south on Fifth Avenue. When Johnston pointed it out to Trump, the President-elect responded by marveling at the thick glass on the windows of his office — bulletproof panels installed after the election.

It was clear that Trump was still preoccupied with his November victory, and pleased with his performance with one constituency in particular.

“I did very, very well with evangelicals in the polls,” Trump interjected in the middle of the conversation — previously unreported comments that were described to me by both pastors.

They gently reminded Trump that neither of them was an evangelical.

“Well, what are you then?” Trump asked.

They explained they were mainline Protestants, the same Christian tradition in which Trump, a self-described Presbyterian, was raised and claims membership. Like many mainline pastors, they told the President-elect, they lead diverse congregations.

Trump nodded along, then posed another question to the two men: “But you’re all Christians?”

“Yes, we’re all Christians.”

Read the rest here.

HT: Liz Loveland

Why Aren’t Mainline Protestant Religious Leaders More Famous?

Church for Sale

Duke Divinity School historian Kate Bowler asks this question at Faith and Leadership blog.

Here is a taste of her piece:

No one seems to call anyone famous in the mainline church.

As a historian of the largest churches and ministries, I have been grappling with this conundrum: why are there so few mainline celebrities? And when I find them, why don’t they want to be called celebrities?

I have spreadsheets of the largest mainline churches in every denomination — Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and so on. Even with plenty of mainline megachurches, there are few familiar names among them. Today’s era of increased concentration of people in big churches is not necessarily creating the same model of self-promotional leadership that has made Joel Osteen or Steven Furtick into recognizable faces.

I recently spoke to a young pastor of a Presbyterian megachurch about the advantages of becoming a star.

“I am not interested in becoming a celebrity,” he said. “Even that word makes my skin crawl.”

Mainliners did not always feel that way, especially about one of the most important vehicles for fame: television. Mainline preachers had been staples of religious television in the postwar period until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed the rules that subsidized their airtime in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was religious conservatives who outbid them in the years that followed, willing to pay higher and higher prices for the exposure that television would bring. Gradually, televangelism became equated with a certain kind of theology — a form of Pentecostalism known as the “prosperity gospel” for its assurances that health and wealth would come to any righteous believer.

All the largest Christian television networks were owned by prosperity preachers (except, of course, the Catholic network owned by an unforgettable entrepreneurial nun in Alabama named Mother Angelica). Televangelism was thought to be slick, credulous and fun, while mainline culture still sought to be unvarnished, respectable and serious. Not to mention that no mainline pastor would dare to imitate Jim Bakker’s powder-blue suits — not even to jazz up the Easter morning breakfast.

Anyone who has ever seen a Catholic priest break out his guitar to sing “On Eagle’s Wings” knows that every American religious tradition has cultural episodes of trying to appear more relevant. But the chilly relationship between mainline Protestantism and the popular marketplace has become a stable feature of the mainline’s self-understanding. The more that evangelicals and Pentecostals dominate megachurches, television, publishing and almost any other means of gaining fame, the more that mainline pastors seem disinclined to enter the fray.

Read the entire piece here.

Perhaps this is yet another reason why mainline churches are in decline and evangelical churches are growing.

Grant Wacker on Billy Graham’s 1957 New York Crusade

WackerI have always been fascinated by this Billy Graham crusade. When I was in divinity school I wrote an M.A. thesis on separatist Protestant fundamentalism in the 20th century.  The 1957 crusade was a key part of my story.

Over at the blog “Evangelical History,” Justin Taylor interviews Graham biographer Grant Wacker about the 1957 Crusade, which got underway 60 years ago yesterday.

Here is a taste:

Setting aside whatever influences on the culture this crusade might have had, historians recognize that one of the most significant internal legacies from this summer was Graham’s decision about partnering with modernists, moderates, and mainliners.

The New York crusade embodied and portended one of the most important strategic decisions of Graham’s entire life. He determined that he would work with anyone who would work with him if (1) they accepted the deity of Christ and if (2) they did not ask him to change his message.

In practice he quietly overlooked the “deity of Christ” provision. He accepted the help mainline of Protestants who probably would have the affirmed the divinity but not necessarily the deity of Christ, and of Jews, who found his emphasis on God, patriotism, and decency appealing.

But the second provision—“if they do not expect me to change my message”—proved absolutely non-negotiable. There is no evidence anyone tried.

Inclusiveness worked—on the whole. As I noted earlier, the invitation to New York came from a majority of the churches, evangelical and mainline. It is hard to generalize about Catholics, but signs abound that thousands of ordinary believers and many members of the Catholic clergy supported him. Some Jews, too.

That being said, fundamentalists relentlessly opposed Graham’s effort in New York and, from then, pretty much everywhere else. By working with so-called liberals and Catholics, they reasoned, he had sacrificed doctrine for success, and the price was too high. Their opposition could be called “the bitterness of disillusioned love.” In their eyes, Graham had once been one of them, but he had left the family, never to return.

The diversity was not only religious but also included men and women from a variety of occupations and social levels. The crusade was sponsored and undoubtedly partly funded by leading figures in the business community, such as George Champion, vice president (soon president) of Chase Manhattan Bank, one of the largest in the nation. The nightly meetings featured a retinue of testimonials from prominent entertainers, politicians, and military men. Anecdotal evidence suggests that thousands of ordinary people—more often readers of the New York Post than the New York Times—talked about the meetings on the subways and in street corner diners.

Read the entire interview here.

Stetzer: Mainline Protestantism Has Just 23 Easters Left

Church for Sale

The headline is provocative, and observers have been forecasting the death of the Protestant mainline for decades, but Ed Stetzer‘s analysis is worth reading.

Mainline Protestantism has been attracting a lot of attention from historians of late. If current trends are any indication, these historians are not trying, as many of us do, to provide historical context for a thriving present-day movement.  Instead, they seem to be chronicling a religious movement that is dying.

Here is a taste of Stetzer piece at The Washington Post: <!–

Christians recently celebrated Easter, a Sunday where many churches are robust and full. But, if current trends continue, mainline Protestantism has about 23 Easters left.

The news of mainline Protestantism’s decline is hardly new. Yet the trend lines are showing a trajectory toward zero in both those who attend a mainline church regularly and those who identify with a mainline denomination 23 years from now.

While the sky isn’t falling, the floor is dropping out.

The trajectory, which has been a discussion among researchers for years, is partly related to demographics. Mainline Protestants, which has been the tradition of several U.S. presidents, aren’t “multiplying” with children as rapidly as evangelicals or others of differing faiths. And geography matters. Places where Protestants live are now in socio-economic decline, and parts of the country like the Sun Belt are become more evangelical with every passing winter.

Read the entire article here.

Is Trump Energizing the Protestant Mainline?


Check out Harry Bruinius’s report at the Christian Science Monitor on liberal Protestants coming back to the church in the age of Trump.

Here is a taste:

The current “Trump bump” now energizing many progressive congregations, however, may only be a blip on what has been a decades-long decline of liberal Christianity and some of the mainline Protestant denominations that have carried its torch since the early 20th century, many scholars caution.

“The social gospel has found its biggest moment of relevance since the Reagan years,” says Brett Grainger, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University near Philadelphia. “The energy is feeding directly off the current administration’s proposed budget cuts, which target the most vulnerable members of society, and its policies on immigration, which rub against the belief that ‘love of the stranger’ is central to Christian teaching.”

“But if there is a revival, it’s most likely to be temporary, in that it thrives on its antagonism to Trump,” Professor Grainger continues.


Liberal Christianity and mainline Protestantism have been contracting for decades, in fact, losing millions of members and the cultural influence it once was able to wield. Mainline Protestant churches, including those in Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist denominations, have lost roughly 5 million adult members since 2007, and now comprise about 15 percent of the US population, according to Pew Research.

Formed in the “modernist” controversies of the 1920s, liberal Christianity began to “demythologize” certain teachings like the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, and the literal meaning of Scripture. In response, conservatives emphasized the traditional “fundamentals” of Christian doctrine, which eventually gave rise to the term “fundamentalism.”

At the same time, many liberal congregations began to emphasize the “social gospel,” which focuses on Jesus’ ministry to the outcast and poor and the call to Christian service. Indeed, Christian congregations on the left were major players in the Civil Rights movement and the rise of the “sanctuary churches” movement that supported Central American refugees in the 1980s. Many were also part of the spread of “liberation theology,” first preached by Central American Catholics in the 1960s, who proclaimed that God primarily identifies with the oppressed and marginalized.


“Churches that are channeling this new anti-Trump energy into justice and caregiving issues, they’re not leaving their understanding of the Christian gospel behind,” says Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “They are saying: This is who we are, we have a history of this, and we can’t be silent.”

Read the entire piece here.  Perhaps it is time for David Hollinger, Elesha Coffman, and Matt Hedstrom to weigh-in on this phenomenon with some historical perspective.

Preachers on Politics


Check out this recent Pew Research Center study on what churchgoers are hearing on Sunday morning.

A couple of my takeaways

  • 64% of churchgoers claim to have heard a sermon on one of six social issues: religious liberty, homosexuality, abortion, immigration, environmental issues, and economic inequality.   This is good.  The Bible and the Christian tradition speak to these issues.
  • When clergy do address social or political issues they tend to focus on religious liberty and homosexuality more than anything else. They focus least on economic inequality.
  • 14% of churchgoers have heard a sermon in support of a particular political candidate.  That is a low number. I am glad to see that a very large percentage of clergy are not using their pulpits to endorse candidates.
  • Clergy, generally, tend to preach in defense of religious freedom, in opposition to abortion, in favor of a more welcoming view of immigrants, on the need to protect the environment, against homosexuality, and on the problem of economic equality (as opposed to a defense of free markets or capitalism).
  • White Evangelicals preach more sermons on religious liberty and against homosexuality than do mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, and Catholics
  • White Evangelicals and Catholics preach more sermons against abortion than do mainline Protestants and Black Protestants
  • Catholic priests preach more sermons on immigration than all Protestants groups
  • Catholic priests preach more sermons on the environment than all Protestant groups
  • Black Protestant clergy preach more sermons on economic inequality than white Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics.
  • 40% of churchgoers claim that their clergyperson has encouraged them to vote in November. Black Protestants lead the way on the this front.

The American Bible Society and Mainline Protestantism

Bible Cause CoverWhile working on The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I had several evangelical friends and readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home inform me that they were often told that the American Bible Society was a theologically liberal organization and thus not worthy of the support of evangelicals.

Indeed, as I recently wrote in Christianity Today, during the 20th-century the American Bible Society worked most closely with mainline Protestant denominations and their ecumenical efforts.  The ABS had a strong relationship with the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. The ABS board of managers was filled with leaders from mainline Protestant churches.  The Society sought to bridge the gap between Protestants and post-Vatican II progressive Catholics through joint Bible translations efforts.  It also agreed to sell the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, an ecumenical project that drew heated criticism from evangelicals for some of its translation decisions.

Prior to the 1960s the American Bible Society was a distinctly Protestant organization. One could find evangelicals on the board of managers and on the ABS staff.  The ABS often used Billy Graham for promotion purposes.  But everyone in the Protestant world knew that this was a mainline Protestant organization.

Many evangelical groups would not work with the American Bible Society.  For example, in 1968, two evangelical missionary societies–the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (EFMA) and the Interdenominational Foreign Missions Associations (IFMA)– held a joint meeting in Winona Lake, Indiana.  These organizations represented nearly every evangelical missionary agency ministering around the globe.  Clyde Taylor, a former missionary in South America, the secretary of the EFMA, and the director of the National Association of Evangelicals, invited the ABS to address the meeting on the subject of the Society’s position on Catholicism.  The evangelical missionaries were aware of the new spirit of cooperation between the United Bible Society (an international fellowship of Bible societies in which the ABS held significant power) and the Catholic Church on the translation and distribution of the Bible and had some serious concerns.  ABS General Secretary Robert Taylor spoke to 200 evangelical missionaries who were skeptical–if not outright opposed–to cooperation with Catholics on Bible translation projects on the mission field.  His address was titled “The Bible Societies and the Catholic Church.”

After the talk, Taylor answered questions so that the missionaries present would be able to make an informed decision about how the EFMA and IFMA should respond to the ABS-Catholic relationship.  While we don’t know exactly what happened in the meeting, we do know that it was a rough crowd.  In a follow-up letter, Clyde Taylor apologized to Robert Taylor for having to endure “all of the cross examination that you had.”  He continued: “I had no idea…how bad a time they gave you in committee meetings.  However, I imagined there were no holds barred.”  It sounds like Taylor got grilled.

Clyde Taylor also wrote to inform Robert Taylor and the ABS about the decisions these missionary organizations had reached during the Winona Lake meeting.  The missionaries of the EFMA and IFMA wished to inform the ABS that it did not want to “enter into any relationship which would entail either structural or formal relationship with the Roman Catholic Church as a church.”  It also added that any EFMA or IFMA missionary who was involved in translation work with a member of the Catholic Church under the auspices of the UBS would need to inform the Society that he was participating as an individual and not as a representatives of one of these evangelical agencies.

Robert Taylor told Clyde Taylor in a follow-up letter that it didn’t matter whether they “act as individuals or as a church, the main idea is to get the Scriptures translated and distributed.”  He admitted that he received some “pointed questions” in Winona Lake, and there was one attendee who insisted on reading the conference “a great deal of Roman Catholic law,” but Robert Taylor felt he developed a “happy relationship” with the missionaries.  This was wishful thinking.

After learning about what happened in Winona Lake, Laton Holmgren, the ABS general secretary in charge of programming, wrote to Eugene Nida, the director of the ABS translation department, to fill him in on the decisions made by the joint meeting of the EFMA and IFMA.  Holmgren wrote that the evangelical missionaries perceived the ABS to be an organization that promoted “ecumenical interests” and thus did not want to be forced to participate with Catholics on ABS and UBS translation projects.  The missionaries asked the ABS to “curb the promotion of Ecumenism by its representatives.”  They referenced witnessing ABS officers make speeches that promoted “ecumenical philosophy,” and trying to convince native church leaders who were evangelicals to support ecumenical initiatives.  The missionaries were also upset that the ABS had decided to enter into conversation with the Catholic Church “without consultation with conservative evangelicals.”

The American Bible Society had an evangelical problem. And this was only the beginning. It is a story I uncover extensively in The Bible Cause.

The Associated Press on Trump’s Visit to Church


1st Presbyterian Church, Muscatine, IA

Donald Trump went to church yesterday. He attended a service at the First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, Iowa.  Jill Colvin covered the story for the Associated Press. Her piece made me chuckle for a variety of reasons.

Colvin writes:

At one point, Trump shared a prayer book with Debra Whitaker, an Iowa supporter seated to his right. She put her hand gently around Trump’s waist as the congregation sang Hymn 409, “God is Here!” Trump could be seen by some mouthing the words of the hymn.

Do Presbyterians use prayer books?  If they do, is it customary to share them?  It sounds like Trump and Whitaker shared a hymnal–which is quite common in church.

Here’s more:

When it was time to offer tithes, Trump was seen digging into his pants’ pocket. Two folded $50 bills were later spotted in a collection plate that was passed down his pew.

Did Colvin actually interview the people in the pew?  Is this what political journalism has come to–the amount of money a presidential candidate puts in the collection plate?

“Can you imagine eye telling hand, ‘Get lost, I don’t need you’ or hearing the head telling the foot, ‘You’re fired, your job has been phased out?'” the reader said. “You’re fired!” was Trump’s signature catchphrase when he hosted “The Apprentice” television show.

Was this read by the minister or another person appointed to read the scriptures?  It sounds like this was part of a sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:21.  The real moment for Trump should have been the teaching in the passage about the inclusive nature of the body of Christ (“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free…”), not whether or not the reference to being “fired” was meant as a gesture toward “The Apprentice.” Trump, of course, “wondered if that was for me.”

Finally, Colvin writes:

Asked whether he thinks people are aware of his religion, he said. “I think they know now. I think they didn’t know at all at the beginning… it took a while.”

This is why political reporters should not write about religion and people like Donald Trump should not try to appeal to religious voters.

By the way, I wonder how many times Trump has gone to church since he announced his candidacy for POTUS?  Attendance at a service in Iowa less than a week before the caucuses doesn’t count.


The Author’s Corner with Margaret Bendroth

Peggy Bendroth is Executive Director for the Congregational Library and President of the American Society of Church History. This interview is based on her new book, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Last Puritans?

PB: If I back up all the way, The Last Puritans is my effort to explain mainline Protestants, not just as a historian but as a participant/observer.  For the last ten years I’ve been at the Congregational Library up on Beacon Hill in Boston.  My office is literally in the stacks of a wonderful collection documenting the history of this denomination, from the original Puritans on up to the 1950s, when most of the Congregationalists joined in the ecumenical merger that created the United Church of Christ.  For much longer, I’ve been married to a Congregational (UCC) minister, which means I’ve had a front row seat to all kinds of churchy things, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I was raised in a conservative, doctrinal tradition (the Christian Reformed Church), and was regularly puzzled by my husband’s parishioners, and the personal piety so many of them took for granted.  It’s fascinating: in one of the most liberal denominations in Christendom, I hear prayers and sermons and testimonies that would not be out of place in an evangelical congregation.  What, I always ask myself, besides the presence of gay people in the pews, is the difference? It’s more than doctrinal or political.  We’re talking about different religious cultures, and I wanted to see if I could identify and explain the liberal side.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Last Puritans?

PB: I argue that mainline Protestants are not just “failed evangelicals,” churches that weakly capitulated to modern culture, but, like evangelicals, made their own selective peace with it.  The story of one denomination, the Congregationalists, shows them wrestling over and over with the meaning and implications of their Puritan past, defining and redefining their obligations to their ancestors, and in the process understanding their modern faith not on a literal reading of Scripture but on the messy complexities of history.
JF: Why do we need to read The Last Puritans?

PB: Here’s one practical reason: since the 1980s, if we use George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture as the benchmark, historians of American religion have been working overtime to understand evangelicals.  It has worked well, really well. The old stereotypes have been demolished and we now have a richly textured picture of evangelicalism in all of its aspects, from fundamentalist to Pentecostal.  

We also have an assumption that there was no spiritual curiosity or zeal anywhere else, and that mainliners in particular were boring and feckless bureaucrats presiding over their own demise.  Very few of us have actually worked through primary sources, however, and we know surprisingly little about what happened in mainline denominations for most of the twentieth century.  That means that we cannot explain, as David Hollinger and others now argue, how mainline liberal values—tolerance and cooperation—have quietly come to define so much of mainstream American culture today. I’m thinking especially of Amazing Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, a picture of American religiosity far different from the usual stereotypes of the culture wars. Mainline denominations may be disappearing, but this is, I think, more of an organizational problem than a failure of their ideals.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PB: Probably in grade school, after I finished reading Johnny Tremain.  And then I majored in history in college because I liked music, art, and literature and figured that would be a way to do it all.  We are talking about a time, of course, when young women weren’t asked the hard questions, like “how will you support yourself.” The assumption was that you wouldn’t need to.  And so the big change for me was seeing history as a career and myself as a historian, and that came somewhat painfully during the ritual paring of the sheep from the goats in graduate school. I had to learn pretty quickly, as a woman in a virtually all-male setting, to take myself and my vocation seriously and have the long view always in mind. At the same time I had to keep a sense of humor about myself and decide what to take to heart and what not.

JF: What is your next project?

PB: Despite what I said in an earlier question, I am going back to write about evangelicals and fundamentalists, and I’m putting together some ideas about their understanding of history, time, and tradition—a kind of part two for Last Puritans.  It’s an interesting problem: in some ways evangelicals care very little about historic traditions. They are oriented to the present and the future. But in other ways they are deeply invested in history, and not just the mythology around George Washington and all that, which John knows so well. History is their standard of proof. It’s vitally important to have a historical Jesus, and as we’ve seen lately, an Adam who actually lived in a place called the Garden of Eden centuries ago. I think this is a key, and largely unexplored way of thinking about evangelicals, and what distinguishes them from more liberal and mainline Protestants.

JF: Thanks, Peggy!

A Revival in the History of Mainline Protestantism

New books on the Protestant mainline’s influence on modern American culture are popping up everywhere.  Gary Dorrien takes notice of them over at Religious Dispatches.  Here is a taste of his post:

The Protestant mainline, by whatever name, was bound to make a comeback—at least as a subject of academic discourse.
The “mainline” is usually identified with seven Protestant denominations, it was always a small group, and shortly after it acquired its name, it began to shrink. After the shrinking began, journalists lost interest in liberal Protestantism, except to retell the story of mainline decline, and the academy lost interest in it, except to sneer that “liberal religion” is oxymoronic and no match for the fundamentalist Right.  
Now, as the New York Times recently noted, the books on liberal Protestantism and liberal religion are coming fast. Some are about the overlooked legacy of liberal Protestantism and some are about varieties of liberal religion in the United States. 

I have not read any of the books Dorrien mentions (I have been too busy goofing off with books about the New York Mets and Jimmy Connors), but I have seen very good reviews or heard good things about the following:

David Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History

Matthew Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century

Elisha Coffman, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline

Christian Colleges and the Church

In the Epilogue of my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I challenge Christian historians to use their expertise to strengthen and edify the church. But I say very little to challenge churches to embrace the expertise of Christian historians.

I have done a lot of speaking in churches over the last couple of years, but most of them have been affiliated with a Protestant mainline denomination.  Mainline Protestants do a much better job of creating space for educational opportunities.  Evangelical churches (there have been some wonderful exceptions) are not interested in sponsoring classes, seminars, talks, or conversations about history, politics, philosophy, literature, or serious theology because they are more interested in promoting service, evangelism, missions, spiritual growth, and other forms of Christian activism or personal piety.  Why have a course or seminar that helps Christians think more deeply about how to be responsible citizens or cultural critics when you can devote your time and energy to preparing people to grow in their faith?  (As if “growing in your faith” has nothing to do with understanding how to be a thoughtful witness in the world). The result, of course, is what Mark Noll has called “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.”

Over at Christianity Today, Mark Galli urges the local church and Christian colleges and universities to work together.  Churches, he argues, should care about the fate of Christian colleges and work at developing stronger relationships with such institutions.  Here is a taste of his piece:

In Chicagoland, I’ve attended churches that have taken full advantage of their location: They have regularly invited professors from local Christian colleges and seminaries to preach and teach. This has enriched the biblical, theological, and practical understanding of these congregations in palpable ways, even if the impact can’t be charted on a graph. This has not only matured disciples at the local level, but professors and their institutions walk away more deeply appreciating the challenges and questions of Christians in the pew. This, in turn, only enhances the relevance of their scholarship. 
But what can the local church, a far distance from such institutions, do? First, even distant churches can create budget line items to at least once a year fly in a teacher to give a daylong seminar or even a week of classes—this is well within the reach of even modestly sized churches. And certainly local churches should consider using some of their benevolence giving to support Christian higher education. 
Today we have an unparalleled opportunity. Distance is no longer the obstacle it once was. From video lectures burned on dvds to live streaming to chat rooms, more Christian colleges and seminaries are the proverbial click away from every church in America. 
Here is our hunch: If churches began asking schools for such resources, financially strapped schools will figure out how to make this education happen at an affordable cost. Many are already taking steps in this direction. Some will probably offer some classes for free as a way to market their school. The point is that many schools won’t invest in such an effort unless there is some inkling of demand.

Why Do Evangelicals Have All the Religious Bestsellers?

Mickey Maudlin, who is VP for Bible Publishing at HarperOne, believes it has something to do with the fact that evangelicals have done a better job of accommodating to consumer culture than mainline Protestants and Catholics.  He writes:

Because the most important agent in this world is the individual consumer, and because of the sheer size of this demographic, books, music and programs are marketed to these individuals, which has allowed for the rise of mega-churches (guaranteed quality programming), a network of Christian bookstores and a panoply of media offerings (TV, radio, websites, DVDs, etc.) targeted to these believers. So when an unknown author catches on in some circles — such as happened with Sarah Young’s devotional “Jesus Calling” — there is a system in place to respond (Young’s book has sold more than 2 million copies). There are a variety of ways to market effectively to their audience. Yes, those bestsellers break out into the general market, rising in rankings on Amazon and sold in stacks at Barnes & Noble, but often half the sales of these blockbusters are from specifically evangelical distribution channels. This is a huge advantage.

Now imagine the Catholic consumer, who typically does not see himself or herself as the deciding agent. Spend time with Catholic customers and you will hear questions like, “Which one is approved by the church?” — or by “my bishop” or by “my priest.” This is why there are so few Catholic bookstores despite there being more Catholics (about 75 million) than any other one church group. The biggest players in this world are those Catholic publishers who sell directly to Catholic institutions — such as schools and parishes — not to individual Catholic consumers. And even if a Catholic author catches on with consumers, there is no real distribution system directly to Catholics except for mainstream bookstores. 

That leaves mainline Protestants, a still sizable group (around 53 million), characterized by their diversity, tolerance and commitment to social justice but also by their weakening institutional ties. Everyone recognizes the significant weakening of denominations’ ability to impose an agenda on its constituency, but these affiliations retain a significant pull in shaping their clergy’s and their churches’ time and energy. At the same time, the denominations have almost no direct relationship with their lay members. This is why so many denominational publishers have struggled financially and shrunk their lists. The largest mainline denomination, the United Methodists, has often done the best job of reaching out to consumers through its Cokesbury bookstores and website, but even they have announced the closing of their remaining 50-plus stores after April of this year. Because of the split, diverse interests of these churches, there is no one place online or physically where these Christians come together. Few leaders rise up and are known outside their denomination; no website or magazine can claim to draw significant numbers (though The Christian Century comes closest). If a publisher wants to reach out to this constituency, there is no direct way to reach the masses in the same way evangelicals can to their constituencies.

Evangelical print culture in the early nineteenth century was popular for the same reasons.  I seem to remember Nathan Hatch having something say about this in The Democratization of American Christianity.

Pastors and the Debate Over Christian America

One of my goals in writing Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? was to provide a primer for a general audience on the relationship between religion and the American founding.  I had hoped that the book would reach Christians, students, people in the pew, and especially pastors.

Yesterday, following my talk at the Bible in the Public Square conference at Duke, a divinity school student asked me how pastors might deal with this kind of controversial issue in their future congregations.  After reminding the student that his primary responsibility as a pastor was to care for his flock and lead them toward spiritual formation, I  encouraged him and his fellow students to create space for civil conversations about things like American history or politics.  Christians too often approach hot-button contemporary issues by acting, not thinking.

I have been very encouraged that so many pastors and congregations have been interested in my work.  Since the book came out I have not turned down an offer to talk about these themes in congregations.  I have found that the mainline churches do a better job of creating space for these kinds of conversations.  Most pastors of evangelical congregations do not seem ready to engage with questions such as “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”  They either do not see this kind of Christian intellectual engagement as part of their mission, or they are worried that hard conversations will cause too much division and strife among their members.

My thoughts in this post were prompted by a friendly review of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by Josh, pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in San Carlos, CA.  Here is a taste:

Sadly, the perception that America has been a Christian nation has not been accompanied by Christian practice. Fea laments American slavery (pp. 17-21, 153-154), the genocide of Native Americans (p. 91), and the misuse of Scripture by clergy to support war (pp. 108-121). The fact that Americans have “understood themselves to be citizens of a Christian nation” (p. 21) does not mean that America has in fact been Christian.

When he comes to the more specific question of the founders’ intent, Fea presents similar ambiguity. In the Declaration of Independence, there are four references to God; but these references are to a “vague” deity rather than the specific God revealed in and by Jesus Christ (pp. 131-133). Most of the first state constitutions were explicitly Protestant (pp. 144-145); however, the U.S. Constitution includes no references to God (p. 150). Some of the founders were Christians (John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams); some of the founders were Unitarians (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) (pp. 171-242).

Thanks, Josh.  

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. 


Appalachian Mountain Religion

I don’t know much about the subject, but I found this recent piece at Scripps News on Primitive Baptists in Appalachia to be interesting.  Religion writer Terry Mattingly explains:

Travelers who frequent the winding mountain roads of Southern Appalachia know that, every few miles, they’re going to pass yet another small Baptist church sitting close to some rushing water.

It’s all about location, location, location.

Why would a preacher want to baptize a new believer in a heated, indoor tank when he can dunk them in the powerful, living, frigid waters of the river that created the valley in which his flock has lived for generations? There’s no question which option the self-proclaimed Primitive Baptists will choose, even if it adds an element of risk.

“Among Primitive Baptists, you almost always see two ministers when they baptize someone — one to do the baptism and one to hold on. It’s even become part of their unique liturgical tradition to have two ministers there,” said Baptist historian Bill Leonard of the Wake Forest School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“As the saying goes, you could get baptized and go to heaven on the same day if there wasn’t somebody there to hang on so you didn’t wash away and drown.”

This is the kind of old-fashioned faith that Americans are used to seeing in paintings of frontier life or grainy black-and-white photographs from the days before interstate highways, shopping malls, satellite dishes and the Internet. Appalachian religion has played a dramatic role in American culture, helping shape our folk art, Scotch-Irish history, roots music and a host of other subjects.

The question, for Leonard and many other scholars, is whether the rich heritage of “mountain Christianity” will play much of a role in the nation’s future.

“Increasingly,” he said, “our modern forms of American religion and our mass media and culture are sucking the life out of one of our most distinctive regions.”