U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Theft of the (Christian) Century

right of the protestant left…or, Do We Need a Book about the Parallel Lives of Liberal and Conservative Protestants?

Today’s guest post comes from Mark Edwards, who is the author of The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism (2012) and an assistant professor of history at Spring Arbor University in Michigan.

Whatever else they might be, evangelicals are most certainly thieves.  Through my research into twentieth-century public theology, it’s become evident that theologically conservative American Protestants have been “pioneering” political and social ministry tactics that once belonged to their liberal foes.  (NOTE: I will be using “liberal,” “mainline,” and “ecumenical” interchangeably, as is common usage today, although historically speaking they should be distinguished.)  Our relative ignorance of ecumenical Protestant tradition means that we are constantly naming “new” what is quite old and seeing novelty where habit presides.  I want to highlight five overlapping areas where it might be important for us to remember the parallel lives of supposedly irreconcilable manners of faith.

1. Secular Humanism.

This catchphrase, a once-ubiquitous war cry of the religious right, is not invoked as often in evangelical jeremiads today.  It still holds a prominent place in church and Christian school conferences dedicated to guerrilla-apologetics training, though.  Mike Huckabee’s response to the Sandy Hook shooting—that this is what happens when you take God out of public places—stands as testimony to secular humanism’s abiding presence.  In fact, the first church leaders to talk of “secularism” as a coordinated conspiracy against old-time religion were ecumenicals like Harry Emerson Fosdick and John Mott, chairman of the World’s Student Christian Federation (WSCF).  They were responding to direct attacks upon them by the “new humanists” Joseph Wood Krutch and Walter Lippmann.  Mott’s successor as WSCF chairman, Francis Miller, broadened the counter-offensive to include one of evangelicals’ future whipping boys, John Dewey.  Dewey’s “Common Faith,” Miller argued, was the spiritual equivalent of Nazism.

“Secular Humanism” was and is a potent organizational tool of the “oppressed” evangelical counterculture, demanding a closing of Christian ranks against a supposedly well-organized enemy.  Ecumenicals, however, were the first to employ it.  The International Missionary Council (IMC) meeting at Jerusalem in 1928 was so troubled by what it called the “growing worldwide spirit of secularism” that it began plans to unite Jews, Hindus, and Muslims with Christians in an inter-faith front.  Admitting the “powerful challenge of Humanism” articulated by Lippmann and Krutch, Mott assembled the best and brightest young theologians of the post-World War I era in a counter-offensive Theological Discussion Group.  The group included the Niebuhr brothers, Paul Tillich, and future ecumenical leaders Henry Pitney Van Dusen, John Coleman Bennett, and Walter Marshall Horton.  They and other members would help the landmark Life and Work ecumenical conference at Oxford (1937) to start forming the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1938.  The WCC was created to be a collective testimony against what its evangelism committee termed the “militant spirit of secularism,” or “post-Christian paganism.”

Ecumenicals today might want to forget that some of their most prized institutions had their origins in a defensive posturing against (we know now) a largely imaginary foe.  In a time when scholars routinely reduce ecumenicals to agents of secularization, though, it is necessary to recall that ecumenical, laboring alongside Catholics, have also been deliberate, thoughtful, and innovative conservers of broad Christian tradition.

2. Evangelical Catholicism. 

We are far removed from 1994, when several American Catholics and evangelical leaders as diverse as Pat Robertson, Mark Noll, and Richard Mouw first came together in common witness.  If Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) has failed as a portent of Christendom reunion, prominent evangelical spokespersons such as Charles Colson continue to champion the cause.  Evangelical openness to political candidates such as Paul Ryan might be submitted as further evidence of inter-Christian co-belligerency against a supposedly emboldened secularist left.  Once again, however, evangelicals must respect their ecumenical predecessors, who during the 1920s and 1930s began demanding that Protestants become “Evangelical Catholics.”  The Theological Discussion Group in particular became popular advocates for Evangelical Catholicism or “Catholic Protestantism.”  One of its members, Paul Tillich, prophesied in 1937 that Evangelical Catholics would preside over “the end of the Protestant era.”

The catholicizing of liberal and mainline Protestant churches—to which Evangelical Catholicism generally referred—was both a liturgical and a political maneuver.  The persistence of anti-Catholic statements among ecumenicals well into the 1950s has too often obscured all the ways that those same Protestants were borrowing high-church forms and sensibilities.  Mainline Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists generally engaged Catholicism as filtered through Anglican and Episcopal churches.  Yet many of them still testified to the Roman roots of their respective liturgical revolutions.  Changing attitudes toward church architecture, the communion service, and the church calendar were often secondary to the mainline leadership’s primary goal, however: The achievement of the Catholic sense of being a universal community.  As Walter Horton, a professed “liberal Catholic,” observed in 1938, “Catholicism knows where it stands, and why, and so holds firm in a world being shaken to its foundations.”  In the midst of global depression, war, and rise of totalitarian regimes, ecumenical Protestants hoped to severe their historic ties to the nation state and instead follow Rome’s seeming transcendence of geopolitical rivalries.  Francis Miller went so far as to announce a “third great epoch” of church history in which Protestants and Catholics would “pool spiritual resources” and become “united in one community.”

Evangelical Catholicism is being discussed all over the web today by Catholics interested in more personalized expressions of discipleship.  The impact of Evangelical Catholicism among mainline and ecumenical institutions—with the exception of Lutheran churches—has largely been forgotten.  This is particularly unfortunate, as Evangelical Catholicism may be the key to understanding how and why so-called “liberal” Protestants have, in truth, steeped themselves in ancient Christian practices and self-understandings since the late-nineteenth century.

3. Global Reflex.

The evangelical underpinnings of American exceptionalism are well known.  For the most part, the Protestant wing of the religious right has appeared particularly hyper-nationalistic in a global age.  Lest we conclude that all evangelicals have been speeding to Zion on an American Century superhighway, though, scholars should to take note of what Moral Minority (University of Pennsylvania, 2012) author David Swartz has termed the “global reflex.”  Since the 1970s, Swartz notes, non-Western evangelicals such as Peruvian evangelist Samuel Escobar have been directly confronting and, in turn, opening up Christian American provincialism.  To be sure, Swartz’s book centers on the evangelical left’s transnational achievements.  Yet the global reflex is at work among the religious right as well.  Rick Warren is not Pat Robertson, even if he is part of the right’s crusade to globalize family values.  More important, to peruse the conservative Protestant missions theory being read on Christian college campuses today—a lot of it being written by evangelicals outside the United States—is to witness a number of insider assaults on Christian nationalism.  Young evangelicals are awakening to the reality that the days of “100% Americanism” are numbered.

Yet on these points, too, evangelicals could learn from their ecumenical forebearers who first experienced the global reflex.  The emerging world evangelical citizen of the twenty-first century is descendant of the thousands of college Christian young people who entered the international YMCA, the Student Volunteer Movement, and Mott’s WSCF at the dawn of the Christian Century.  Time after time, recruits confessed to crises of faith stemming from their contact with non-Western peoples and faiths.  Lian Xi’s The Conversion of Missionaries (Penn State, 1997) does a wonderful job exploring the fruits of that first global reflex.  Some like Sherwood Eddy, J. H. Oldham, and E. Stanly Jones became globe-trotting evangelists, combining respect for spiritual-cultural difference with the belief that Christianity represented the “fulfillment” of all religion.  Others such as Daniel Fleming reinvented missions as a process of open dialogue rather than a preaching of correct doctrine.  Still others, including Pearl Buck, gave up on missions altogether.  All became critics of Western imperialism.

Nor was the global reflex which helped shape so much of twentieth-century Protestant liberalism and ecumenism limited just to missionaries.  American church leaders involved in the WCC underwent similar transnational transformations of perspective.  Of course, Christian nationalism remained operative in ecumenical circles well into the 1960s—the inaugural slogan of the National Council of Churches (NCC) was “the building of a Christian America in a Christian world.”  Yet, as David Hollinger has reminded us, the first grand American opening to global cultural hybridity was mediated through those same persons.  Evangelicals have some serious catching up to do if they hope to lead in the second American awakening.

4. Vocation

The word might not be uttered much anymore, but the practice of “vocation” remains operative in most evangelical circles today.  Indeed, it was a central concept supporting the transition from Billy Graham’s post-fundamentalism and Arthur Blessitt’s Jesus Movement into a near-total evangelical engagement with all facets of American intellectual and cultural life.  Arthur Holmes’s The Idea of a Christian College (1975) and Os Guinness’s The Call (1998) represented immensely successful efforts to instill a sense of vocation in conservative Protestant youth.  They are still widely read today.  The public theology of Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper, especially as mediated through post-fundamentalist extraordinaire Francis Schaeffer, has probably done the most to rehabilitate vocation as a rationale for conservative Christian coziness with “the world”—i. e., contemporary academia (notably philosophy and history), art and media, and politics.  If it was true that Christ was “the Lord of all life,” the Schaeffer family argued, then his followers should seek to occupy and ultimately redeem all areas of the human experience.  Schaeffer’s culture warriorship has since represented to some the perversion of vocation.  Nevertheless, his “Lordship principle” was transmitted broadly by and among the “father of Christian Contemporary Music” Larry Norman, the Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF), Congressman Jack Kemp, and televangelist Jerry Falwell.  The jury is out on whether or not vocation has been a double agent, laboring for the forces of cultural accommodation and secularization.

The vocational revival, however, actually originated among ecumenical Protestants during the 1940s and 1950s.  Robert Calhoun’s God and the Common Life (1935) and J. H. Oldham’s Work in Modern Society (1950) and were not isolated publications on work-as-worship.  They resulted from coordinated ecumenical leadership efforts to overcome the “clergy-laity gap” rampant in their churches.  American ecumenists, on behalf of the WCC, met regularly to deliberate the meaning of vocation.  As one noted , “it is to those who, consciously or unconsciously, make their scientific and organizing activities a daily offering and prayer to God that we may expect the way out of our present difficulties to be progressively revealed.”  Ecumenicals, too, looked to Christ as the “Lord of History” to provide theological base for their superstructure of worldly appointment.

To be certain, evangelical and ecumenical Protestants deployed vocation for quite different social and political purposes.  That just makes their similarly constructed desires for cultural transformation all the more remarkable.  It should also remind us that ecumenical  Protestants were capable of the same complexity—the same “adaptive traditionalism,” as Walter Horton termed it—as their rivals on the right.

5. New Monasticism. 

Young evangelicals today are rediscovering monastic disciplines.  During the 1970s, ex-Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) member Jim Wallis had formed the “Post-Americans” (renamed the Sojourners), and, with the CWLF and the Schaeffers’ L’Abri, pioneered the evangelical equivalent of radical liberal communitarianism.  For a long time, it seemed Wallis’s group was a lonely voice crying in the wilderness of FOX News Christianity.  Then, sociology major Shane Claiborne and other Eastern University students, following Catholic Workers’ (and, however intentionally, SDS’s) footsteps, left their Philadelphia suburbs in 1997 in search of a more authentic Christian experience through inner-city service and hospitality.  Their “Simple Life” neighborhood is now one of nearly one hundred such “communities” in the United States and abroad.  Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution (2006), a founding text of the self-described “new monasticism,” is required reading on several Christian campuses.  Claiborne himself travels widely spreading the good news of liberation from Christian identity politics (I recently got to talk with him when he spoke at SAU).  A variety of other communitarian culture critics like Wendell Berry and Stanley Hauerwas are also winning audiences among evangelicals.

The first demands for a “new monasticism,” however, came from the Niebuhr brothers and their associates during the 1920s.  Facing an unredeemable New Era of techno-corporate individualism and business churches, several ecumenicals in America and Europe clung fast to the participatory democratic commitments of their Progressive-era upbringings.  The WCC’s inaugural “Responsible Society” platform (1948), for instance, was developed to aid “little men in big societies.”  Its architects (including progressive liberal Senators Paul H. Douglas and Frank Graham) demanded a halt to the “trend toward bigness” and pleaded for strengthening popular “participation” in public life.  As part and parcel of their vocational efforts, WCC constituency either launched or reinvested in several communitarian experiments, such as the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, Switzerland, the Sigtuna Foundation in Sweden, the Iona Community of Scotland, the eight Evangelical Academies spread around Germany, and Christian Frontier of England.  These work-study centers varied from endeavors in adult education and correspondence course programs, to week-long retreats, to seasonal monastic arrangements.  Many were composed of educated, middle-class believers as well as a diverse body of displaced persons—including war resistors, veterans, and concentration camp survivors.  Union Theological Seminary in New York, long a nursery for Southern Christian communitarian experiments like Sherwood Eddy’s cooperative Delta farms and Miles Horton’s Highlander Folk School, also inspired students to establish the East Harlem Protestant Parish following World War II.  These and other ecumenical endeavors more or less paled in comparison to the devotion and permanency of the Catholic Workers, yet they are still noteworthy.  As Doug Rossinow related in The Politics of Authenticity (1998, p. 56), the student who formed the Christian Faith and Life Community at UT Austin—a seedbed for Casey Hayden and the Christian New Left—received his inspiration from the Iona Community.  More importantly, ecumenical communitarianism shows us that evangelicals’ “new monasticism” is not so novel after all.

 The Sum of It All

As I suggested earlier, these vignettes do overlap.  Liberal and conservative Protestants alike, sensing a secularist conspiracy against Western Christian civilization, began to close respective ranks.  They each began to reach out for resources and support from others, including Catholics and non-Western Protestants.  They each challenged their constituencies to engage and transform the world out of loyalty to the Lord of History.  Finally, they each have positioned themselves as defenders and promoters of participatory democratic community in a Too-Big-Not-To-Fail world.  Of course, this is not to evade the many theological and political differences between evangelicals and ecumenicals.  Culturally speaking, however, it appears that twentieth-century conservative Protestants have more often than not been created in the image of their liberal foes.  I had initially thought about entitling this post, “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” but is an evangelical-based Super-Pac really a more historically noteworthy achievement than the WCC?

I am not entirely convinced yet of the purpose or value of stressing liberal and conservative Protestant commonality.  Certainly one lesson learned is that evangelicals need to read up on their supposedly defunct rivals, while ecumenicals need to rediscover their own past.  Very likely, there’s a lot the former wouldn’t want to accept, while a lot the latter might want to disown.  I’m most intrigued by the historiographical possibilities: Might we be able to craft new narratives that (nodding to Dr.Ribuffo here) place the Protestant left, right, and center in conversation all at the same time?  The Culture Warriors will say we can’t and we shouldn’t.  Nuts to them.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think the verb tense in the reference to the late Chuck Colson is wrong (“prominent evangelical spokespersons such as Charles Colson continue to champion the cause”).

    But the real question: While it’s certainly the case that the “pioneering” we see today isn’t new or original, is there evidence it’s actually theft (or appropriation, which might be a better word). They’re doing the same stuff, sure, but does that mean they took it in some way from those other groups?

    • Great point. I’ll readily concede that the “theft” language is intended to incite interest; there’s no evidence of actual theft going on. I don’t think that in any way detracts from the numbers of amazing coincidences between these groups, however; the coincidences still demand explanation. Is it that they were both still adherents to traditions of Protestant Christian ideology? Is it that they were responding to the same national and international developments (my bet is here)?

  2. Inciteful and insightful post. Yeah I was surprised by the theft and thieves approach when it is, in my mind, a matter of interpretation not appropriation. A secular humanist in the mind of a conservative evangelical is a godless communist, a wolf in sheeps clothing but it may be a more palatable epithet. Is the use of secular humanist a gentler approach to criticism? Does it indicate a less strident conservatism?

    • I’d say that the Religious Right of the 1980s and the ecumenical movement of the 1930s had a very similar image of “secular humanist”: John Dewey. The “communist” association was necessarily secondary, not primary, for either group.

  3. Great post, Mark. Two quick thoughts.

    1. I think what your five points reveal a common set of assumptions about what religion is and does that liberal and conservative Protestants share. Despite their disagreements and fights, they share a common discourse about religion–it is good and important to social and cultural health (contra secularism), it expands and unites (to include Catholics and around the globe), and it shapes the individual self (through monastic practice or vocational choices).

    2. Specifically on your point about secularism, you can push it back to the World’s Parliament in 1893 where liberal Protestants and post-Protestants sought to “unite all religion against irreligion.”

  4. The WSCF spanned a secular group post-WWI. It started as the European Student Relief and became the International Student Services. There’s a chapter in my dissertation about a meeting that Marion Cuthbert and Anna Arnold (oh and Edward R. Murrow) attended in the early 1930s. Let me know if you want more info. By that conference, they were specifically debating whether or not they should continue with their Christian roots or embrace a university-based secularism.

  5. We need some idea of how many people we’re talking about in each of these Movements. In a nation of hundreds of millions of human beings, there’s a difference between a movement and a tic.

    • I’d say we’re talking movements in the case of both ecumenicals and evangelicals. The Federal Council of Churches (FCC) once represented 30 million churchgoers in a nation of about 150 million; the NCC during the 1950s boasted a representation of around 50 million. The WCC today represents 560 million Christians globally. In contrast, the National Association of Evangelicals–the evangelical equivalent of the FCC/NCC–has always been much smaller, although some estimates have “evangelicals” at 20-25% of America’s population today. Of course, this begs several questions: Does “ecumenical” and “evangelical” mean the same thing for everyone (of course not)? Is there a gap between leadership and laity (of course there is)? Maybe such questions get to your “tic” point?

  6. Yes and no, Mark. The putative leadership of larger populations by elite organizations is not reality. The AARP does not equal elderly Americans. Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), whathaveyou. Richard Cizik was the face of the National Association of Evangelicals until they gave him the boot.

    Many of the alphabet soup orgs mentioned in the essay are of questionable scope and sweep, and the growing body of “histories” of such orgs often amounts to chronicling fingernail clippings. Which is OK, I guess, but some numerical perspective is necessary.

    • So, what you’re getting at is we need to know more about ecumenicals and evangelicals “on the ground?” I concur entirely if so. Alot of great work is being done on “plain folk” evangelicals; Matt Hedstrom’s RISE OF LIBERAL RELIGION, Jill Gill’s EMBATTLED ECUMENISM, Elesha Coffman’s forthcoming THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY AND THE RISE OF THE PROTESTANT MAINLINE are starting to do more of this sort of work for ecumenicals. Apart from that work, all we can say is, “The NCC leadership said this”; “The WCC leadership thought that”–which I think I do in the essay.

  7. So, what you’re getting at is we need to know more about ecumenicals and evangelicals “on the ground?”

    All depends on how many of them there actually were/are. I’ve been wondering if Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams and Thomas Paine might not be inflated beyond their actual importance because some historians find them ideologically attractive.

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