Ecumenical vs. Evangelical

A historian's thoughts on recent American religious history resonate with the campaign season. Scott McLemee looks around the paywall.

August 17, 2011

Although currently secured behind the subscriber paywall at the Journal of American History, David A. Hollinger’s “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern Encounter with Diversity” nonetheless seems like part of the emerging conversation during the pre-primary phase of the presidential campaign. Hollinger, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, delivered the paper in March as his presidential address to the Organization of American Historians. This year’s OAH convention was held in Houston -- where, as it happens, Rick Perry recently led a national prayer rally. That may not have been providence at work, but the coincidence seems a bit much.

The paper traces what Hollinger calls the “Protestant dialectic” between ecumenical and evangelic strands of the faith since roughly the end of World War II -- a process “within which the two great rivals for control of the symbolic capital of Christianity defined themselves in terms of each other.” Americans whose understanding of Protestantism comes mainly from political and cultural developments of the past 30 years may be forgiven for wondering what this could possibly mean. The evangelical dimension of Protestantism (the witnessing, proselytizing, and missionary-sending side of it) has very nearly defined itself as the public face of the faith. It can get 30,000 people into a stadium to pray on the weekend. Evangelism as such does not in principle imply a specific outlook on secular matters, but for practical purposes it has become almost synonymous with moral conservatism and usually the political sort as well.

So much for the familiar side of Hollinger’s dialectic. The ecumenicalism that he writes about -- the spirit of de-emphasizing doctrinal conflicts among churches, the better to recognize one another as parts of “the body of Christ” and to join in common work in the world -- is, at this point, a less vigorous presence in public life. But it was once the ethos of an Establishment. “If you were in charge of something big before 1960,” Hollinger writes, “chances are you grew up in a white Protestant milieu. Until the 1970s, moreover, the public face of Protestantism itself remained that of the politically and theologically liberal ecumenists of the National Council of Churches and its pre-1950 predecessor, the Federal Council of Churches.”

A fairly common story is told about the decline of this “so-called Protestant Establishment,” as Hollinger calls it -- and his paper seems to confirm that story, though only up to a point.

“The ecumenists were more institution builders than revivalists,” he writes, “more devoted to creating and maintaining communities than to facilitating a close emotional relationship with the divine, and more frankly concerned with social welfare than with the individual soul…. The ecumenical Protestants of twentieth century America were preoccupied with mobilizing massive constituencies to address social evils. They wanted to reformulate the gospel of the New Testament in terms sufficiently broad to enable people of many cultures and social stations to appreciate its value.”

An invidious way to put this (and those of us who grew up in the evangelical world during the 1970s seldom heard it expressed any other way) is that ecumenical Protestantism became liberal activism in pious disguise. It confused spreading the Gospel with doing social work. And it was prone to undermining moral absolutes, as though Moses had come down from Mount Sinai bearing tablets with the Ten Suggestions. Churches were emptying out as the faithful rejected such all-too-wordly doctrines and instead made their way to the evangelical movement.

Without being so pugnacious about it, Hollinger’s treatment of the ecumenical movement corroborates some of this -- with particular emphasis on how self-critical theologians and clergy became about Christianity’s role in shoring up the inequalities and injustices of American life. The evangelical movement could define itself against such trends. It was not prone to second-guessing its own role in the world, nor to question the idea that the United States was an essentially Christian nation.

In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, the National Association of Evangelicals promoted a Constitutional amendment that began: “This nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.” (The framers of the Constitution had, through some peculiar oversight, failed to mention God at any point in the document.) A lack of support by ecumenical Protestant clergy meant the amendment didn’t get very far. But the effort itself disproves the idea that evangelicals remained, as Hollinger put it, “politically quiescent until galvanized into political action by the legalization of abortion in 1973 by Roe v. Wade.”

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.”

There is a good deal of interesting material in the article that I’ve not tried to sum up here – and many aspects of the argument resonate with Hollinger’s earlier work on secularity, cosmopolitanism, and affiliation. It contains an intriguing reference to research which suggests that “young adults of virtually all variety of faith” (including evangelicals) now “talk like classical liberal Protestants.”

What long-term implications that might have, if any, I can’t say, but it seems like something to discuss, especially as political and religious issues get mixed up in debate. That the paper isn’t circulating freely is unfortunate, and Hollinger, as a leader of the Organization of American Historians, ought to do something about that. Mr. President, tear down this paywall!


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