Media review | January 27, 2023

The historic struggle to control American Christianity

Hands folded in prayer
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This article is a summary by David A. Hollinger of his most recent book, Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular (Princeton University Press, 2022).

Donald Trump had good reason, on June 1, 2020, to stand in front of a church on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., holding a Bible aloft while cameras recorded the moment. As police and government troops forcibly cleared peaceful civil rights protestors from the square, he proclaimed his connection to the white evangelical voters he knew would appreciate this gesture. Millions of others dismissed it as a cynical caper, but he understood his dependence on a segment of the electorate who stood for a Christian America and believed the Bible belonged to them. Few knew that the church was St. John’s Episcopal, a bastion of the “other Protestants,” the liberal, ecumenical Protestants known for their more inclusive vision of the gospel and of the nation.

These “other Protestants” have played a much larger role in American life since World War II than is recognized today. The leaders of these mainline Protestant denominations participated in the founding of the United Nations, led the World Council of Churches and Church World Service, and sought through smaller international initiatives—such as Heifer Project—to unify humankind. The “ecumenicals” recognized the value of non-Christian religions and, amid escalating concerns about cultural imperialism, revised their missionary projects to focus on service. In virtually all of their endeavors, the mainline churches practiced a “Christian globalism” that has now been pushed aside by “Christian nationalism.”

The most active and influential confessions in this movement for a more cosmopolitan Protestantism were Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Northern Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and several Lutheran bodies, joined by a handful of smaller groups including the Dutch Reformed, the Church of the Brethren, and the Quakers. All of these groups encouraged education at every level and put distance between themselves and their intellectually narrower fundamentalist neighbors.

The ecumenical leadership officially opposed Jim Crow as early as 1946. Long before other organizations were willing to boycott cities where hotels refused service to Black people, the national meetings of the Federal Council of Churches—the predecessor to the National Council of Churches—were held only in cities whose hotels promised to treat African American delegates equally. Sex education in public schools was overwhelmingly an ecumenical Protestant project.

These “other Protestants” also set the terms in which their more conservative rivals achieved definition. Modern evangelicalism, building on a fundamentalist foundation, came to prominence not as an autonomous movement but as a point-by-point reaction to ecumenical initiatives. The National Association of Evangelicals was founded in 1942 as a lobbying organization opposed to the Federal Council of Churches. Fuller Theological Seminary, founded in 1947, became a concentrated intellectual force against the influence of liberal seminaries. Christianity Today was founded in 1956 to counter The Christian Century, and thanks to financing by conservative oil magnate Howard Pew—who paid for the sending of free copies to thousands of Protestant clergy—immediately outpaced the Century in circulation. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, evangelical writers accused ecumenical leaders of being communist dupes, serving the interests of the Soviet Union.

The dynamics of the ecumenical-evangelical relationship: Too often, we understand the rise of evangelicalism in a vacuum, apart from the history of ecumenical Protestants. If we examine the dynamics of the ecumenical evangelical relationship, however, we are confronted with a very important truth: evangelicalism flourished as a safe harbor for white people who wanted to be counted as Christian without having to accept what ecumenical leaders said were the obligations demanded by the gospel in an ethno-racially diverse society and a scientifically informed culture. This shows the falsity of the popular theory that evangelical churches flourished because they made greater demands on the faithful, while liberal churches declined on account of not demanding much of anything. The opposite is true. While ecumenical leaders were making Christianity more demanding, Billy Graham and his kind were making it simpler.

What did Billy Graham mean by “accepting Christ”? It turned out that it could mean remaining within the confines of the inherited culture depicted in Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers while simply promising to be better at it. To be better, that is, at living up to that culture’s self-image. Practicing the Golden Rule, being faithful to one’s spouse, eschewing pornography and same-sex intimacy, avoiding the abuse of alcohol and drugs, extending a helping hand to less well-off neighbors, praying on a daily basis, and supporting the essentials of the American economic and political order while its injustices were corrected by gradual changes in the human heart, were not necessarily signs of God’s grace. But these behaviors were expected of those who came to Graham’s altar. That was enough.

It was not enough for the leaders of the mainline organizations, who called on the faithful to renounce a number of inherited ideas and practices that had come to seem racist, sexist, imperialist, homophobic, unscientific, and chauvinistic. But these ideas and practices remained popular with much of the white population, within and beyond the churches. How far could the leadership go without losing the people in the pews? How little change would suffice to remain true to the gospel as the ecumenical leadership was coming to understand it?

These uncertainties were given point by the national conflicts of the late 1960s and 1970s over Vietnam, feminism, civil rights, and the increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships. Church leaders were going too far and too fast for some churchgoers, but not far and fast enough for others, especially young people, who left the churches in droves. Between the late 1960s and the end of the 20th century, membership in most mainline denominations declined by nearly one-third. This decline has continued in the 21st century. Although much of this decline resulted simply from a falling birthrate responsive to ecumenical support for family planning and for women’s careers outside the home, the decline also reflected the feeling of many of the maturing “cradle ecumenicals” that churches were weak instruments for advancing even the soundest of the values taught by their the Methodist and Presbyterian tutors.

A major historic function of ecumenical churches was to serve as stepping stones to post-Protestant secularism. These flexible and commodious churches created and sustained an environment in which it became more possible to engage sympathetically with a vast panorama of ethnoracial, sexual, religious, and cultural varieties of humankind. These varieties threatened to destabilize inherited practices and beliefs, but the ecumenical churches were brave enough to provide a community and an orientation that facilitated these engagements for people who might otherwise have avoided them. That many millions continue to be at home in ecumenical churches does not render any less significant, historically, the transit-assisting function for other millions. Not everyone driven in the same direction by the same circumstances ends up in the same place.

Did the ecumenicals win the country while losing the church? Not quite. But this hyperbole contains an element of truth. The diversity-preoccupied, inclusive-striving public life of the United States today looks much more like what ecumenical leaders wanted in 1965 than what was advocated by their evangelical rivals. The ecumenicals yielded a substantial portion of the symbolic capital of Christianity to their evangelical rivals, but they served as “earthen vessels,” one might say, for values that transcend Christianity. Yet the departure of massive numbers of Protestants and Catholics left the hollowed-out edifice of American Christianity more easily occupied by evangelicals and their conservative Catholic allies.

The recent history of Christianity indicates that its American fate is, in part, to serve as a way station to something else. But the remainder of Christianity’s American fate depends on who controls what is left of it.

From ancient times to the present, the Christian project has been a movement of sensibilities, impulses, ideals, perceptions, loves, hatreds, and programs that are brought into it and are processed by distinctive groups who manage to build a critical mass of people willing to recognize them as Christian. Even Christianity’s original, movement-defining documents are themselves of disparate ancestries in the ancient Mediterranean world, selected for scriptural status by historically situated individuals and groups often at odds with one another. The purposes advanced in the name of Jesus of Nazareth are not infinite, but they are staggering in their diversity and range. What counts as Christian is always achieved, never given. It all depends on who manages to get and retain the local franchise.

The struggle to control American Christianity is not over. Protestants of various persuasions are not the only players. Catholics, too, are divided between progressive and conservative dispositions, but are now the most conspicuous in their specific role as suppliers of Supreme Court nominees who can serve the interests of the evangelical Protestants allied with the Republican Party. But the major conflict is between the evangelicals to whom Trump played that June evening in 2020, and the “other Protestants” for whom St. John’s Episcopal is an emblem.

An accurate narrative of ecumenical-evangelical divide enables us to better understand today’s enactment of this historic conflict.

David A. Hollinger is professor of history emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. His memoir of his Brethren family, When This Mask of Flesh Is Broken, was reviewed in Messenger in November 2019.