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.”

Blum: "I Was David Barton Once"

This is how Ed Blum, prize-winning historian of race and religion at San Diego State University, begins his review of Kevin Schultz’s new book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America To Its Protestant Promise (Oxford, 2011).

Schultz’s book has been getting a lot of attention lately.  If the reviews I have read thus far (including Blum’s) are any indication, the attention is well-deserved.

Blum continues:

Having had a conversion to evangelical Protestantism in the 1980s, I became convinced in the early 1990s that “liberal secularism” was destroying the nation and its educational system. I determined to use history to fight back. Examining primary sources from the founding of the United States, I set out to prove that America was built upon “Judeo-Christian values.”

I combed through colonial law and early state constitutions. I read as many speeches and letters as I could from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. It was a tall historical task, especially since I was a teenager living in suburban New Jersey. My research and writing were sandwiched between basketball practices and flirting with girls (both of which I did with great earnestness and equally great ineffectiveness). Years later, my interest in religious history and justice (I really believed then that evangelicals were an oppressed minority) brought me to race, civil rights, and liberal causes. I thought I was unique; it turns out I was wrong.

Kevin Schultz’s new book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, explains my story and so much more. This tremendous study examines how the belief that Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism defined the United States defeated the nativist vision of America as a “Christian nation,” how the concept of “Judeo-Christian values” were created to express the tri-faith belief, how tri-faith became standard operating procedure during World War II as the nation battled European totalitarianism and Nazi genocide, how it created new struggles in America’s suburbs, fraternal organizations, schools, and courts, and how it created a rhetoric for both the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of the new religious right. Through it all, Schultz brilliantly shows that between the labor-capital divide of the 1930s and the racial divide of the 1960s was an ideological contest over the religious composition of the nation.

Read the rest here.  HT

Why Are Evangelical Churches Growing and Mainline Protestant Churches Declining?

In 1972, sociologist Dean Kelley wrote a book entitled Why Conservative Churches are Growing. Kelly, an executive with the mainline and ecumenical National Council of Churches, wanted to know why mainline Protestant churches were declining in membership and conservative evangelical churches were growing.  He concluded, among other things, that churchgoers wanted to be part of a congregation that made strict demands on their lives.  Mainline churches, Kelly argued, were too concerned about image, courtesy, cooperation, and being non-dogmatic, to attract churchgoers who wanted more from their religion.  Kelly called this kind of Christianity “a recipe for the failure of the religious enterprise” informed by a “mistaken view of what success in religion is and how it should be fostered and measured.”

Most of us have come to believe that Kelly was right.  And evangelicals have been touting Kelly’s findings for years.  (See, for example, this recent piece by Southern Baptist conservative Al Mohler).

But if you subscribe to the Journal of American History, or were present at the recent Houston meeting of the Organization of American Historians, then you are familiar with David Hollinger’s keynote address, “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern Encounter with Diversity.”  The address has been published in the June 2011 issue of The Journal of American History, but it is only available to subscribers.

Hollinger makes several provocative arguments about 20th century evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism, but Scott McLemee at Insider Higher Education is most interested in Hollinger’s take on why the mainline churches declined and evangelical churches flourished in the 1960s.

According to Hollinger, the rise of evangelicalism as a religious movement and the decline of ecumenical Protestantism in this era is best explained through birth rates.  I will let McLemee explain:

Membership in the ecumenical Protestant denominations (e.g., Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians) began falling in the mid-1960s. But here Hollinger’s interpretation departs from the evangelical tale of Christians fleeing the modernist churches in search of that old-time religion. It was not that “masses of believers switched from the liberal churches to the conservative ones,” he writes, “though some people did just that. The migration to evangelical churches was not large and was actually smaller than the modest migration to Roman Catholicism.”

Rather, the decline of ecumenical churches (alongside the steady growth in numbers and power of the evangelicals) reflected a generational shift, compounded by differences in fertility. Ecumenical couples had fewer children than evangelicals did. And the offspring, in turn, tended not to become members of their parents’ churches, nor to send their own kids to church.

“The evangelical triumph in the numbers game from the 1960s to the early 21st century,” writes Hollinger, “was mostly a matter of birthrates coupled with the greater success of the more tightly boundaried, predominantly southern, evangelical communities in acculturating their children into ancestral religious practices. Evangelicals had more children and kept them.”

This makes sense, although I would probably say that birth rates were one of many factors involved.  Whatever the case, I found Hollinger’s talk to be very useful for a lecture I will be giving next month at Georgetown University on the history of evangelicals in the public (political) square.