Book Review

“Should Historians Weep For Liberal Protestantism?”

k10008a review by A. I. Jacobs

After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History
by David A. Hollinger
248 pages. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Like much of David Hollinger’s recent work, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History, is a collection of analytical essays, occasional pieces composed for different venues and pitched to a variety of audiences.[1] The earliest dates back to 1989, while the most recent is from last winter. The topics range from the ecumenical Protestant liberalism of the book’s title, to the place of religion in the contemporary university and American politics, from meditations on the development of William James’ thought to an essay detailing Hollinger’s own intellectual biography, including his travails at graduate school and his evolution from Protestantism to Freethought.

Despite the diverse subject matter, Hollinger nevertheless manages to weave his various arguments into a coherent whole. As the title suggests, ACTF’s analytical heart is Hollinger’s careful recovery of “Protestant Liberalism” as a midcentury intellectual and political phenomenon. In particular, Hollinger joins a growing group of scholars focused on the period from the 1940s through the 1960s, when the intellectual and organizational leadership of what used to be called Mainline Protestantism lurched leftward in its political orientation.[2] During that era, the National Council of Churches, The Christian Century, and other representatives of the Mainline establishment emerged as powerful voices in liberal reform causes ranging from African American civil rights to anti-colonialism. At the same time, ecumenists were often at the forefront of the era’s intellectual avant-garde, with thinkers such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Harvey Cox, and William Stringfellow advancing inclusive and sometimes frankly anti-supernatural readings of the Christian religion.

Like the Democratic Party, however, the ecumenical Protestant establishment paid dearly for its move left, rapidly losing its political and institutional preeminence. By the beginning of the 1970s, it had become clear that the membership numbers for Mainline denominations were in steep decline, and that liberals were losing their leadership role in American Protestantism, ceding power to more theologically and politically conservative evangelical denominations. As ecumenists tried to push Protestantism toward theological and political positions that made the laity uncomfortable, the growing evangelical juggernaut spoke of an austere Christianity more appealing to many white Protestants.

Despite this, Hollinger argues that the migration of Mainliners into more conservative variants of Protestantism was not, in fact, the engine of ecumenical decline. Instead, he contends that the ecumenists’ laudable promotion of gender equality and their resulting embrace of birth control and family planning eventually put them at a demographic disadvantage. Additionally, by the mid-sixties ecumenical youth could find plenty of secular vehicles for their leftist values that lacked the Mainline’s cultural baggage and establishment politics. Thus, while the potential constituencies for conservative evangelicals grew or held steady, many would-be ecumenists drifted away from religious commitment altogether. Ecumenists ceded their leadership of Protestantism to their conservative rivals because, as Hollinger pithily puts it, evangelicals “had more children and kept them.”[3]

This is, in many ways, a familiar story. But there is more to ACTF than Hollinger’s retelling of ecumenical Protestantism’s experience in the crucible of the sixties. The book is also, at least partially, a work of polemic. For Hollinger, various sorts of religious nostalgia have distorted our understanding of Protestantism’s fortunes in the twentieth century. The primary culprit is what Hollinger deems “Christian Survivalism,” a tendency to measure the events of American history in terms of whether they help or hinder Christian cultural hegemony. In its more vulgar, Palin-esque forms, this survivalism treats the United States as Christianity’s property, and any diminution of American religiosity as a move away from the country’s “real” identity. In milder versions, ecumenical Protestants wring their hands over their lost pride of place and fret about Churches too concerned with openness to prevent the laity from heading out the door.[4]

Hollinger is hard on both kinds of Christian Survivalism, and rightfully so. He spends as much energy, however, criticizing a different kind of nostalgia, one that emanates primarily from humanities departments and laments the rise of ‘positivism’ as much as it fears reactionary religion. As a consequence, ACTF bubbles over with frustration: at the outsized influence of Reinhold Niebuhr and “his countless, and often uncritical admirers,” at scholars so enchanted by the “epistemic humility” of “The Will to Believe” that they overlook William James’ slipshod argumentation, at academic “neo-harmonists” who refuse to acknowledge a genuine cultural conflict between Christianity and science.[5]

The problem with even low-grade religious nostalgia, in Hollinger’s view, is that it blinds us to the significance of ecumenical Protestantism in American cultural history. He proposes that we ought instead to view the Mainline’s move leftward and subsequent decline as one episode in a long-term and decidedly peculiar engagement of Protestantism with the Enlightenment in America. He contends that the demographic and institutional dominance of Protestants in the United States, combined with the country’s “godless Constitution” and lack of an established Church, have meant that battles over the meanings of modernity have often been waged between different sorts of Protestants, rather than between religious believers and outright skeptics.[6] Further, the country’s numerous religious revivals notwithstanding, the relationship of America’s Protestant establishment to the Enlightenment has, on the whole, been one of accommodation. In the nineteenth century, these efforts primarily took the form of adapting Protestantism to the findings of natural science and higher Biblical criticism. In the twentieth, it meant coming to terms with Protestantism’s provinciality, as waves of immigration increased the numbers, visibility, and cultural authority of non-Protestants in American public life.

Set in this larger historical frame, the travails of liberal Protestantism at midcentury look rather different. Faced with a growing secular culture and an unprecedented level of demographic change, ecumenists in postwar America tried to engineer a version of Christianity suitable to their transformed circumstances. In renouncing the idea of America as Protestant property, they may have destabilized their own cultural authority, but they also provided a means to engage a changing culture in a humane and generous fashion. In short, ecumenical Protestants embraced modernity, advancing the cause of Enlightenment while simultaneously becoming one of its casualties. Their “historic function” was thus to serve as a “halfway house” on the way to “Post-Protestant secularism.”[7]

Unless we are committed to Christian Survivalism, according to Hollinger, there is no reason to see this turn of events as a calamity. If our primary concern is not the fate of Christianity, but of the American community, we could just as easily treat ecumenical Protestantism’s demographic decline as part of a larger success story. As Hollinger puts it, “The United States today, even with the prominence of politically conservative evangelical Protestants, looks much more like the country ecumenical leaders of the 1960s hoped it would become than the one their evangelical rivals sought to create.”[8] In this respect, Hollinger joins Michael Kazin—though with different points of emphasis—in arguing that the conservative ascendancy in recent American history is partly ephemeral, a series of short-term political victories that obscure a gradual, but much more significant cultural defeat.[9]

There is much to like in ACTF. With characteristic deftness and verve, Hollinger reassesses classic controversies while simultaneously recovering forgotten books and under-appreciated thinkers. Anyone seeking an entry point into the rapidly expanding literature on Liberal Protestantism and the end of WASP hegemony would do well to begin here. Furthermore, for an intellectual historian so enamored of science as a “cultural program,” and so clearly aggravated by what he sees as the malign influence of Christian Survivalism, Hollinger generally resists the temptation to turn ACTF into a rote re-telling of the warfare between science and theology in Christendom.

ACTF’s most significant contribution, however, is to construe Protestantism as a cultural formation that extends well beyond the boundaries of Protestant Churches.[10] Hollinger recognizes that the empty Mainline pews have become a stick with which Christian Survivalists can beat their liberal adversaries. Like the “over-reaching” Great Society, or the “extremism” of Black Power and Third Wave Feminism, the “decline of liberal Protestantism” constitutes part of a classic conservative narrative of how the Left “went too far” during the sixties and was subsequently punished for its “excesses.” By treating ecumenical Protestantism as a complex set of cultural practices and dispositions, Hollinger is able to disentangle it from the declining membership roles of the Mainline denominations, and thereby put us in a position to see the myriad ways in which elements of ecumenism continue to shape American life.

Yet despite its achievements, much of ACTF leaves one uneasy. Hollinger’s irritation with religious nostalgia sometimes gets the better of the book’s arguments. In his essay on Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, the theologian comes off as so muddle-headed that it is difficult to understand why he ever became the darling of secular intellectuals such as Arthur Schlesinger. Without much discussion, the widespread turn against secularization theory among scholars of religion appears as just another academic fad. The line dividing milder sorts of Christian Survivalists from scholars who would criticize Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls or underline the role of religion in the civil rights movement is not always entirely clear. Indeed, it often feels as though Hollinger wants to follow Sidney Hook and scold his colleagues in the humanities for their failure of nerve.

There are other difficulties as well. Chief among them is the fact that while Hollinger carefully historicizes the development of ecumenical Protestant thought in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he never performs the same task with the Enlightenment. Despite the critical role it plays in ACTF’s historical framing, Hollinger never pauses, either in the original essays or his editorial commentary, to explain exactly what it is he means by the Enlightenment. His is not necessarily the canonical little flock of philosophes envisioned by Peter Gay, nor the updated, Spinoza-centric “radical enlightenment” of Jonathan Israel. It is not Robert Darnton’s Grub Street hacks, nor J.G.A. Pocock’s establishment Anglican Enlightenment, and certainly not Carl Becker’s persistent medieval mind. The Enlightenment in ACTF is attacked, defended, accommodated and inherited, but there is no extended exposition of the thing itself.

The point here is not that Hollinger should adjudicate early modernist historiographical quarrels. Rather, it is that there is sufficient controversy over the Enlightenment’s genuine historical substance that if we invoke the notion, we should be very careful to put some handles on it.[11] If the Enlightenment is a concrete historical phenomenon, a diverse set of philosophical movements, or even just a cluster of seventeenth and eighteenth-century ideas and dispositions, then we are in a position to examine its provenance, trace its legacies and, most importantly, probe its limitations. Absent that, the Enlightenment becomes a kind of weightless stand-in for a secular and secularizing “modernity,” and religious engagement with it is almost necessarily limited to accommodation or resistance.

As a result, Hollinger’s contention that ecumenical Protestantism is a halfway house to post-Protestant liberalism becomes over-determined and over-simplified. After all, with its commitments to left-wing politics and its spirit of critical self-interrogation, what could ecumenical Protestantism be other than a waypoint in a linear progression from an exclusivist, mythological, reactionary, premodern way of thinking, to a more universalist, scientific, modern one?[12] Hollinger’s numerous qualifying statements suggest he is not entirely comfortable with that conclusion, but it remains the force of ACTF’s argument.

Finally, Hollinger’s tight focus on the issue of diversity tends to overestimate ecumenical Protestantism’s cultural successes. In terms of the “acceptance of ethnoracial, sexual, religious, and cultural diversity,” the United States is certainly more liberal today than it was in 1965.[13] Even so, it bears pointing out that while some of the ecumenists’ values colonized the cultural common sense after the sixties, others went down in resounding defeat. Ecumenical Protestantism flourished in a midcentury American liberal culture that treated economic inequality and racial apartheid as, to borrow Hollinger’s own term, “civic evils.”[14] By any serious measure, that egalitarian edge has disappeared almost entirely from American public life.[15] Whether or not it represents a halfway house to a more secular modernity, ecumenical Protestantism was without question a powerful voice in America’s all too brief midcentury experiment with social democracy. To that extent, maybe we do not have to be Christian Survivalists to mourn its passing after all.

None of this is to detract from ACTF’s accomplishment. Hollinger’s pugnacity is bracing and fun, and one can readily sympathize with many of his frustrations. Moreover, his willingness to confront the biggest historical questions confirms his position as one of our foremost historical critics. The essays in ACTF make one want to revisit old books and pick up new ones, to argue fiercely about big ideas like secularization, Enlightenment, and modernity, about the past and future prospects of American liberalism, religious and otherwise. One wishes that there were more such books.

[1] David Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[2] Hollinger’s preferred term for these Protestants is ecumenical, rather than liberal (confusing) or Mainline (normative). Proximately, Hollinger identifies the Second World War as the key turning point in the transformation of ecumenical Protestantism’s political complexion. Two summit conferences, in 1942 and 1945, brought about an uneasy reconciliation between the pacifist and realist wings of liberal Protestantism, thereby pulling the politics of the ecumenist movement leftward. See Ibid., “The Realist Pacifist Summit Meeting of March 1942 and the Political Reorientation of Ecumenical Protestantism in the United States,” 56-81.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Hollinger associates this latter variant in particular with the Lilly Endowment. Ibid., 45.

[5] Ibid., 59, 104, and 83-84.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid., 46.

[8] Ibid., 14.

[9] See Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York: Knopf, 2011).

[10] One of the strongest essays in ACTF draws an explicit analogy between a “dispersionist” approach to Jewish history and Hollinger’s notion of Post-Protestantism. See Hollinger, “Communalist and Dispersionist Approaches to American Jewish History in an Increasingly Post-Jewish Era,” 138-69.

[11] For a brilliant survey of recent historiographical turmoil over the term ‘American Enlightenment,’ see Nathalie Caron and Naomi Wulf, “American Enlightenment: Continuity and Renewal,” Journal of American History 99, 4 (March 2013): 1072-91.

[12] One way to easily complicate this line of reasoning would be to include some discussion of African American Protestantism, to the extent that one can generalize about that tradition. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell have pointed out, African American Protestants’ mixture of theological conservatism, high levels of religious commitment, and social democratic values complicate any picture where metaphysics are supposed to predict politics. See Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 274-84.

[13] Hollinger, 48.

[14] Ibid., 12. Hollinger deploys this turn of phrase to contrast the critique of racism as a “civic evil” with the more conservative sense of it as an “individual sin.”

[15] The need to be circumspect about the successes and failures of liberalism in post-sixties America is skillfully explored in Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), esp. 399-425. Hollinger does acknowledge the failure of egalitarianism to penetrate specifically evangelical culture since the 1960s, but does not equate this with a more general decline of social-liberalism. Hollinger, 47-48.

A. I. Jacobs is a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University working in postwar U.S. intellectual history.  His research focuses on political/religious currents from the 1940s to the present.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful review of a landmark book in the field of liberal Protestantism. My hope is that historians of religious liberalism/the ecumenical movement/the mainline can begin to set “decline” narratives aside and really get at what those movements were and are, and Hollinger provides a great starting point.

    This summer, I started an on-again, off-again study of the ecumenical movement in Detroit, including the history of the Detroit Council of Churches begun in 1919 (now the Metropolitan Christian Council-Detroit Windsor). Your point about the shift from social democracy to diversity issues is certainly confirmed by what happened there. The DCC was never a hotbed of economic radicalism, but its melding of economic and racial egalitarianism in the 1950s and 1960s–its leadership in the open housing movement–was very quickly lost in the 1970s. It reminds me very much of Alan Brinkley’s argument in The End of Reform: Following World War II, liberals turned from structural economic issues to promoting diversity. My one hesitation in all this is the unfortunate implication that gains in civil rights are not as “important” as achieving economic democracy.

  2. This is a very good review–well-written and worth mulling over. I have questions about how you might read Hollinger’s personal development as an intellectual historian. Does the essay on his own intellectual history provide insight into the assumptions you note that he seems to make regarding the effects of the Enlightenment in America and the apparent demise of the “egalitarian edge” that liberal Protestants brought to bear in their struggles in mid-century America? Would you characterize Hollinger’s critique of someone such as Niebuhr as a way of choosing one set of social critics and intellectual leaders over another as part of a generational training in intellectual history? Do you get a sense that Hollinger’s views on the dissipation of Protestant dominance comes in part from him being able to witness the immediate aftermath of this historical trend and being part of the generation that buried the old Mainline while fighting against the what many would characterize as a separate movement by religious fundamentalists to fill the void left by the likes of Niebuhr and others?

    Again, thanks for the thought-provoking review.

  3. As a result, Hollinger’s contention that ecumenical Protestantism is a halfway house to post-Protestant liberalism becomes over-determined and over-simplified.

    One could tell the story from the theological side and perhaps end up in the same place.

    This [very good] review brought to mind William Wilberforce’s caution that one of the first “liberal theology” movements, late 18th century unitarianism/non-Trinitarianism, was a halfway house to infidelity.

    As it turned out, he was right. By the mid-1800s, Unitarianism [by then a formal denomination] had rejected Biblical authority in favor of “free thinking.” And of course today in its successor church, Unitarian Universalism, belief in God is optional–and if too Jesus-y, a cause for disunity.

    And although still Christian, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s NY Riverside Church has much the same liturgical tension these days, although its social-political action arm plows along untroubled by controversy. On the concerns of this world, there is a comforting unanimity; when it comes to the next, Neuhaus’s Law seems to hold:

    Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.

    [Note 12 in the essay is particularly germane here–perhaps the most interesting facet, whither African American Christianity, which sits astride all these currents?

    Good stuff, Mr. Jacobs.

  4. I would be very interested in having Jackson Lears step into this conversation, either here or elsewhere. He gives a mostly sympathetic, albeit pretty well-nuanced, look at religious (mostly Christian) social activists and progressives in his book “Rebirth of a Nation,” covering the early early 20th century.

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