Ecumenical Protestantism’s Battle for Hearts and Knees – By James Hudnut-Beumler

James Hudnut-Beumler on David A. Hollinger’s After Cloven Tongues of Fire
David A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History, Princeton University Press, 2013, 248pp., $29.95

As late as 1960, more than half of all adult Americans belonged to a mainline Protestant denomination. Leaders of corporations and universities, the members of Congress and the federal judiciary — all came overwhelmingly from the membership rolls of just a handful of Protestant traditions. Likewise, John F. Kennedy’s election as President in November of 1960 was religiously contentious in a way that is hard to imagine today. The election was, in part, a referendum on who could be entrusted with the moral stewardship of a nation with the soul of a church. Only eight years earlier Dwight Eisenhower, never a churchgoer before, had joined a Presbyterian Church in order to improve his electability. Today such considerations seem quaint: mainline Protestant churches count 13% of the adult population in their memberships, and conservative evangelical churches hold political sway, while the U.S. Supreme Court is composed of Roman Catholic and Jewish jurists.

If there was a single visible figure representing mainline, liberal Protestantism at mid-century it was the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Widely quoted in news sources given his wisdom in relating Christian and biblical insights to politics and world affairs, he was also consulted frequently by the State Department and often invited to elite college campuses to give distinguished lectures. Those who once shared in its aura desperately miss that kind of influence. As a historian of American religion, I am now quite used to being asked at gatherings of academics or church leaders, “Can you tell us why this generation has produced no Reinhold Niebuhr?”

The aforementioned groups mean that question differently. For academics and other religious intellectuals, it often means, “Why are we not taken more seriously as public intellectuals in the broader American culture? Why don’t we have access to the kind of media attention Niebuhr had?” For church leaders, and especially the kind of liberal Protestant church leaders I usually run into, the Niebuhr question implies, “What happened to the prophetic tradition of liberal and moderate Protestants in America that stood for social justice and that experienced a mountaintop moment fighting in God’s name to end segregation and to stop the war in Vietnam? What happened to that church we knew, and loved, and served all our lives? Why aren’t our children religious?” Readers who wish to answer those questions, and many more, will profit mightily from David Hollinger’s splendid set of essays that center chiefly on the odyssey of ecumenical Protestantism from the late nineteenth into the early twenty-first centuries.

Riverside Church, New York – Image via Wikimedia Commons
Riverside Church, New York – Image via Wikimedia Commons

After Cloven Tongues of Fire could well revitalize the study of American religion, methodologically and substantively, in several ways. First, I suspect that Hollinger will be remembered most in American religious history for contributing the idea of Ecumenical Protestantism. This fresh construct allows Hollinger to do two important things. The first is to offer a different construal of what had been variously called mainline or liberal Protestantism. Looking back from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, Hollinger shows us that this tradition no longer looks very mainline. More than that, it was not particularly liberal, even in its most mainline phase.

What actually defined and bound together American Baptist, Congregational, Disciples, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches was their ecumenical outlook. These churches provided a home to people who most accommodated their faith to the Enlightenment by affirming science and reason, and who most embraced human diversity when they encountered it in American society. Because the leaders and members of these churches stood at the center of the most powerful block of American religion and culture, they deserve more historical investigation. Hollinger asks us to set aside how many adherents the tradition attracts now, and to observe instead what ecumenical Protestants accomplished in American life while they were ascendant. Ecumenical openness fostered women’s suffrage, white support for black civil rights, human rights, the establishment of the U.N., relaxation of blue laws, and elimination of laws discriminating against Jews and Catholics. If it weakened the fear of hell, Hollinger thinks, it made life in this nation less of a living hell.

So ecumenical Protestantism succeeded, after a fashion. Consequently, Hollinger provides a revised view of postwar religious life, starting with the idea that ecumenical Protestants — and postwar religious life for that matter — should be examined without the self-interest that has characterized so much of the historiography of American religion. Important things happened in religion and culture in the postwar period quite apart from the question of evangelical growth and mainline decline. And Hollinger is no doubt correct that the attention to evangelicalism’s rise has obscured the picture. I would further note that a theological sense of fitting succession has left an abiding air of judgment on the part of observers who see liberal social action against war-making, for civil rights, and for affirmative action as driving mainline Protestants into the arms of more faithful evangelical Protestants. The evangelical triumphalist version of post-1965 history has it that good faith beats politics-in-place-of-faith every time. Hollinger, by contrast, demonstrates how to pay attention to the life-worlds in which ecumenical Protestants lived and acted, instilling in their children the values of pluralism and acceptance while undercutting the xenophobia and fear of eternal damnation that had once supported adherents’ distinctive forms of belonging.

In contrast to the general assumption that the post-war years constituted an era of consensus, Hollinger offers the best synthetic account I have read of the fall of the ecumenical Protestants from their most-favored-religious-leaders status in the 1950s. And Hollinger names names. While the diversity commitments of the mainline leaders, especially in the 1960s, brought on disaffiliation by fragmenting ecumenical Protestantism’s base, conservative forces in the 1950s, including Billy Graham, his father-in-law L. Nelson Bell, and J. Howard Pew used the great red paintbrush of communism to bring ecumenical leaders down in public view and promote neo-evangelicals in their place. Down went Christian Century, up went Christianity Today; down came old-line seminaries, up went the upstarts Fuller and Gordon-Conwell. When conflict appears at all in most religious histories of the period, it is often depicted as a kind of antiseptic contest over which churches’ preachers moved people more. With Hollinger’s masterful intervention we can see how much more of a contact sport this battle for hearts and knees was throughout the twentieth century.

Another theme interwoven throughout all the essays involves the bridge between intellectual and cultural history. We are all given to thinking about how things got to be the way they are today. Some of us tend to think that ideas drive change. Others think that material facts, inventions, or events drive change. Of course the truth is that both matter. But the next time you are watching TV or listening to someone else explain change, notice how often either/or thinking about causes of change predominate. By contrast, we can learn from Hollinger’s model of intellectual history as we encounter big ideas, starting in the lives of single individuals with influence and moving outward to opponents, audiences, institutions, social reactions, and larger scale social processes. Each step along the way determines which way the ideas will break — whether as lasting influences and institutions, or as declining ways of life.

Especially in the currently fragmentary business of trying to explain how the parts of American religion relate to one another, Hollinger’s approach serves as a fruitful model of scholarly discipline. Whereas a retreat into the particulars of the historical record does little to expose the real gears and levers of historical change, encouraging instead heroic biographies, colorful congregational ethnographies, and way too many untethered inferences from well-known religious events, Hollinger shows how to make a case rather than engage in evidentiary bricolage. Any given chapter in After Cloven Tongues is a lesson in how to think about the evolving sources of influence that make people who they are.

Lastly, Hollinger also distinguishes carefully and helpfully between the historian’s motives and warrants. When I initially saw that two chapters discussed William James, I had an initial moment of trepidation. Ever since I first read James’s The Varieties of Religious Belief (1902) as an undergraduate, I have been amazed by the way others read James to definitively say things about faith and belief that I find hard to square with the text. Part of the problem is that James so often lets his informants’ faith experiences speak for him. Another is that he gestures toward faith experience-affirming and faith experience-questioning conclusions without actually giving those answers.

Imagine then my pleasure to see Hollinger, the careful intellectual historian, tracking James’s development from a man of faith willing to assert the principles of faith against the demands for scientific vindication in The Will to Believe (1896) through Varieties, and then coming to embrace the view that religious beliefs, too, should be verified scientifically in Pragmatism (1907). As good as Hollinger’s treatment of James is, he also has in this and other chapters a meta-historical point in mind: the distinction between motives and warrants. It is all very fine to undertake a subject matter to study in history because you find that subject honorable, or because you belong to the group whose claims and acts you propose to narrate. The problems come and mount quickly when one’s motives start determining the evidence one accepts as true; historians, too, it turns out, can have problems with the ethics of belief. Believers and skeptics alike will profit from Hollinger’s thoughtful analysis.

As with most of David Hollinger’s books, the chapters in After Cloven Tongues of Fire are so crammed with big ideas in diverse essays that any review must leave jewels to readers of the volume to find for themselves. Nevertheless, three contributions stand out: that ecumenical Protestantism should be reexamined for its lasting impact, not just its current membership; that doing intellectual and cultural history in tandem is not a current fashion but abiding wisdom; and that letting one’s religious commitments over-determine one’s scholarly findings is more common than we suppose and intellectually dishonest. Smart, challenging, thoughtful, and beautifully written, After Cloven Tongues of Fire deserves to be on your reading list if you are religious, were religious, or teach about any religion in America today.

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