Beware Drawing Bright Lines Between Evangelical and Ecumenical Protestants
Jesus' caution in Luke 12:2, "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known," certainly proved prescient in the case of white evangelicals. Oceans of ink have been spilled on nearly every facet of their existence, while recitations of their sins have become a daily ritual on social media. The scrutiny is so intense that it is easy to forget it is a relatively new phenomenon, especially among scholars.
There was rising interest in evangelicalism in the 1980s and 1990s, amid the heyday of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. Over the course of those decades, a cohort of evangelical historians, led by the likes of George Marsden and Mark Noll, salvaged their tradition from the academic dustheap. Having set out with the relatively modest goal of identifying "gold among the dross," in Marsden's choice turn of phrase, they ended up rewriting the history of Christianity in the United States, with evangelicalism as the throughline.
This entailed rehabilitating the fundamentalists, whose pugnaciousness was excessive, to be sure, but also understandable given the extent of early-20th-century liberal Protestants' assault on Christian orthodoxy. The neo-evangelicals fared better in this revised story too. While the worlds that developed around Billy Graham exhibited serious flaws--with anti-intellectualism and jingoistic nationalism at the top of the list--they at least resisted the temptation to bend Christian doctrine to fit contemporary whims. With the mainline on a long and well-intentioned slide into de facto apostasy, evangelicals were the truest heirs of a Protestant lineage stretching back through Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans to the Reformation itself.
These revisions were dramatic and yet escaped the notice of many in the wider historical guild, which tended to view religious history as a strange niche and largely irrelevant to the main plotlines. The election and reelection of President George W. Bush underscored just how wrong that presumption was. To their credit, if United States historians were initially baffled by the "values voters" powering the Right's resurgence, they did not sit idly by. Evangelicals soon began appearing as key actors in wider political and economic and cultural histories.
Scholars who did not hop on this bandwagon in the early going could hardly resist after the 2016 election, when Donald Trump prevailed by a razor-thin margin, and thanks in no small part to 81 percent of white evangelical voters. The deluge of scholarship on evangelicalism in the past two decades has been much more critical than the smaller vein that came before, and yet has only amplified the sense that this particular Christian tradition stands at the center of the American story.
A salvage operation
Enter David Hollinger, an eminent intellectual historian, who throughout our evangelical-obsessed age has written voluminously and brilliantly on "the other Protestants," by which he means especially, though not exclusively, "Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Northern Baptists, Disciples of Christ, several Lutheran bodies, and a handful of smaller Calvinist and Anabaptist confessions."
These folks have often been called "mainline," but as Hollinger relates in his latest book, Christianity's American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular, he prefers the adjective "ecumenical." In his view, this term better captures "a religious quality that is essential to their distinctive character: a willingness to cooperate in ecclesiastical, civic, and global affairs with a great variety of groups that professed to be Christian, and many that did not." In his younger days Hollinger was an ecumenical Protestant himself, who enjoyed tangling with Southern Baptists in theological debate. "I later drifted away from the faith," he relates in the preface, "but retained a feel for it that I hope informs this book."
Christianity's American Fate is at once accessible and erudite, weighing in at a lean 199 pages and yet packing a formidable analytical punch. Hollinger touches on a wide range of issues, from how the country became so Protestant in the first place to the underappreciated impact of Jewish immigrants on life in the modern United States. At the heart of the book is an argument that the vast literature on white evangelicals is necessary but nowhere near sufficient to explain why Christianity is now so closely identified with Trumpian politics.=
To be clear, Hollinger is not looking for more complexity in discussions of evangelicalism itself, which he paints, without a hint of irony, as a convenient refuge for racist white rubes. The problem, as he sees it, is that we have lost sight of how this supposedly retrograde faith developed in "dialectical relationship with another Protestantism whose adherents had more respect for modern science and were more willing to accept ethnoracial diversity."
Hollinger proceeds with a salvage operation of his own, recounting a story of how, in the mid-20th century, ecumenical Protestants, drawing on the very best of the Enlightenment, forged a cosmopolitan, anti-racist faith that decisively changed the nation for the better. As he has also argued elsewhere, oft-maligned missionaries were in the vanguard. "The experience of living with peoples really different from themselves, much to their surprise, changed their understandings of themselves, of their country, and of humanity," Hollinger writes.
Such voices carried into the boardrooms of ecumenical institutions like the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), which fought against draconian immigration restrictions and, in 1946, became the first large predominantly white organization to condemn Jim Crow. In the 1950s and 1960s, many ecumenical Protestants celebrated as the movement coalescing around Martin Luther King Jr.--"literally one of their own," Hollinger asserts--won historic civil rights breakthroughs. Far from indulging in self-congratulation, leading ecumenical figures such as John Bennett, Harvey Cox, and William Stringfellow urged their fellow churchgoers to reckon with their complicity in a variety of social evils. These calls for self-interrogation rang out even as the National Council of Churches (successor to the FCC) pressed onward in pursuit of social justice, championing everything from Palestinian liberation to grape boycotts in support of the United Farm Workers.
So how on earth did we get from there to here? Anyone who wants to show how American Christianity became so (in)famously right-wing must account, Hollinger rightly contends, for the precipitous decline of this erstwhile ecumenical juggernaut. Faulty explanations abound. Some evangelical triumphalists continue to confuse correlation and causation, citing ecumenical churches' shrinking rolls as clear evidence of the defectiveness of their theology. (This argument has been harder to make ever since Southern Baptists started hemorrhaging members; but the notion that popularity is a reliable barometer of faithfulness had always seemed hard to square, in any case, with the gospel injunction in Matthew 7:13, "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.")
Here and elsewhere, Hollinger advances a more nuanced case. The evangelical eclipse of ecumenical Protestantism sprung, in part, from brass-tacks matters such as divergent birth rates. Whereas evangelical women had 2.4 children on average, their ecumenical counterparts--who were more likely to embrace the new professional opportunities on offer--averaged only 1.6. But no single factor looms as large in Hollinger's story as the way that the "ecumenical elite" navigated the social and cultural tumult of the 1960s. He likens their prophetic leadership to Lyndon B. Johnson's decision to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one which LBJ made knowing, as he ruefully declared, "We have lost the South for a generation."
In the case of ecumenical Protestantism, too, courage and wisdom came at great cost. "Liberalizing church leaders were pushing their campaign too far and too fast for some of their older members," Hollinger writes, "but not far and fast enough for many young people who were attentive to the cultural and political movements around them." Some disgruntled laypeople joined evangelical congregations, while many more drifted away altogether, becoming, like Hollinger himself, post-Protestants who cherished the humanitarian ideals they once learned at church but who no longer saw a need to show up on Sunday mornings. Ecumenical shepherds had arrived at the proverbial mountaintop but failed to bring their flocks with them.
Capacious and unwieldy
The fissures and fractures that Hollinger highlights help to make sense of ecumenical decline, though they also raise significant questions about the major frame of both his book and American Protestant history writ large. For more than 50 years now scholars have run with Martin Marty's notion of a "two-party system" in American Protestantism. Marty's particular vision of the parties--a "private" one emphasizing matters of personal sin and salvation, versus a "public" one more committed to social engagement--has not stuck. But the basic narrative device has, whether it is a "churchly orientation" versus an "evangelical orientation"; "wildcat Christianity" versus "the civil religion of crude"; or, most commonly, evangelicals versus mainliners. Hollinger and the aforementioned evangelical historians may have decisively different senses of who counts as the sheep and who the goats in American Protestant history. But one thing all these scholars agree about is that the sheep and the goats can readily be separated.
The two-party paradigm is not without some merit, of course. There has in fact been much conflict between fundamentalists and modernists, between evangelicals and ecumenicals. And yet this framework glosses over the fact that the divides within the ecumenical camp, in particular, often ran just as deep. We see glimpses of this in Hollinger's account, when he discusses the relative conservativism of Southern Protestants throughout the Civil Rights era; the devastating collapse of a proposed merger of ecumenical denominations in the early 1970s; and the bitter ecumenical fights over LGBTQ rights.
Yet the so-called mainline was even more ecumenical than Hollinger lets on. Theologically, politically, and otherwise, it was a remarkably capacious and therefore unwieldy tent. Ecumenicals disagreed over everything from the New Deal to women's ordination, and from how to read the Bible to even very recent presidential politics.
Hollinger is so enamored with the progressive leaders that oversaw institutions such as Union Theological Seminary and TheChristian Century that he underplays just how deeply conservative the ecumenical grassroots have sometimes been. One would never guess from his narrative that Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush all belonged to ecumenical congregations, let alone that a majority of white ecumenicals voted for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020. The truth is that the line between the Protestant party that Hollinger loves and the one he loathes has never been as bright in real life as it is in the pages of so many academic books.
And yet, anyone who cares about the past, present, and future of American Christianity will be challenged by this book, which like the entirety of Hollinger's corpus is provocative in the best of ways. One can only hope that it provokes redoubled attention to an ecumenical Protestant tradition that is so much deeper and wider than popular caricatures have allowed. It has much to offer still today.
Heath W. Carter is an associate professor of American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago.