The Protestant Mainline Makes a (Literary) Comeback

The Protestant mainline, by whatever name, was bound to make a comeback—at least as a subject of academic discourse.

The “mainline” is usually identified with seven Protestant denominations, it was always a small group, and shortly after it acquired its name, it began to shrink. After the shrinking began, journalists lost interest in liberal Protestantism, except to retell the story of mainline decline, and the academy lost interest in it, except to sneer that “liberal religion” is oxymoronic and no match for the fundamentalist Right. 

Now, as the New York Times recently noted, the books on liberal Protestantism and liberal religion are coming fast. Some are about the overlooked legacy of liberal Protestantism and some are about varieties of liberal religion in the United States. As a social ethicist and theologian I have a stake in both subjects, and a track record of worrying that make-up-your-own-religion yields shallow and self-absorbed spiritualities.

But the new books rightly emphasize that liberal Protestantism played a sizable role in creating the spiritual-but-not-religious sensibility that pervades the North American middle class, and they do so with a mostly appreciative attitude.

From Shrinking Churches to ‘Cultural Victory’

Intellectual historian David Hollinger has spent the past decade writing about the overlooked social, cultural, and political achievements of liberal Protestantism, now collected in After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History. In Embattled Ecumenism, American historian Jill K. Gill has recounted in rich detail the involvement of the National Council of Churches in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Sociologists Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, building on an argument by sociologist Jay Demerath, contend in Souls in Transition that liberal Protestantism contributed to its own decline by winning “a decisive, larger cultural victory.” 

Religious historian Leigh Schmidt paved the way for the latter argument and its research agenda in his book, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality from Emerson to Oprah. In Schmidt’s latest contribution to this field, American Religious Liberalism, co-edited with religious historian Sally Promey, he misrepresents my trilogy on American liberal theology, so first a word about that.

Schmidt says that “religious liberalism” should be defined more broadly than I do in The Making of American Liberal TheologyBut I stressed in all three volumes that my subject was not religious liberalism but the tradition of liberal theology running from Kantian idealism to David Tracy and Catherine Keller. (Schmidt also says that after volume one I dispensed with the “Unitarian/Transcendentalist/post-Christian/humanistic wing,” which is hard to square with the nearly 300 pages that I devoted to its principal actors.)

But Schmidt adeptly charts the unmoored and unwieldy religious liberalism that is certainly out there, as do religious studies sociologist Courtney Bender in The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination and religious historian Kathryn Lofton in Oprah: Gospel of an Icon.

Religious historian Matthew S. Hedstrom, in The Rise of Liberal Religion, amplifies the cultural victory thesis by focusing on the liberal Protestant creation of a book-reading, middlebrow, Emersonian spiritual culture. And religious historian Elesha J. Coffman, inThe Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline, tells the story of mainline Protestantism by tracking the history of the Christian Century magazine. 

Coffman tacks the cultural victory thesis onto an “all of the above” account of what came of the Protestant mainline. In the usual telling, there were three dominant arguments about the mainline before the cultural victory thesis added a fourth. The 1950s heyday was the golden moment of American Protestantism, when Protestant leaders forged a national ecumenical church featuring commanding assemblies of the National Council of Churches. Or, it was a triumph of illusion, when Protestant leaders assembled an impressive façade built upon sand. Or, it was the beginning of the end of the historic Protestant denominations. Now we have a fourth contender: Liberal Protestantism succeeded by identifying with bourgeois culture and insinuating its values into American society. 

Actually, the cultural victory idea is not new. Richard John Neuhaus, in The Naked Public Square (1984), pioneered a hostile version of this thesis, contending that the mainline self-liquidated by self-identifying with America and civilization. This was the legacy of the Social Gospel, Neuhaus said. The mainline pledged itself to the enlightened leadership of the nation, providing religious cover for bourgeois liberalism. It succeeded to the point of making itself dispensable. The mainline was barely thanked for its efforts, and afterwards it fell for liberation theology, because, having lost confidence in its own tradition, the mainline found the terms of its remaining prestige to be unacceptably demeaning. So the mainline trashed what remained of its tradition, exchanging the trinity of Christianity/America/civilization for the liberationist trinity of Christianity/Third World/revolutionary justice—a theology yielding memos for radical change, dwindling audiences in the pews, and “pervasive feelings of failure and guilt.” 

I spent many pages wrestling with this argument in Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity (1995), and I debated Neuhaus and other neoconservatives afterward—always disputing their hostile interpretations of the Social Gospel and liberation theology (and their equally problematic claim that Reinhold Niebuhr would have agreed with them).

It was hard to debate neoconservatives without coming off as defensive about the shrinking, shrinking, shrinking trajectory of the churches that they derided. But that reflected that I had as much at stake in this many-sided theological, social ethical, and political argument as they did. 

The new books are coming mostly from scholars who do not carry battle scars from the culture wars. They take a more sanguine view of what happened, suggesting that liberal Protestantism is overdue for some credit. The mainline, for all its faults and illusions, built up a huge stock of cultural capital and helped to unify American society. It crafted a persuasive rhetoric about modern Christianity and America, and for a while it built an impressive ecumenical national church. The denominations comprising the mainline served as guardians of America’s moral culture, they preserved the idea that the USA was a nation with the soul of a church, and they did so in a way that helped to liberalize American society. 

A Continued Influence

For the past half-dozen years I have felt the comeback coming, on the lecture circuit, where conference organizers ask me to represent liberal Protestantism. Sometimes the conference is an interreligious conversation sponsored by a Catholic, Jewish, or Evangelical institution. Sometimes I feel compelled to explain that “liberal Protestant” is a moniker that I hear only at conferences of this sort, or occasionally at an old-school congregation or seminary. It does not exist at Union Theological Seminary, where I teach. Neither is it spoken at a long list of other former bastions of liberal Protestant theology, including many divinity schools and denominational seminaries.

Theology versus religious studies is not the issue. These institutions still teach theology, and religious studies too, but we do not say that we are liberal Protestant schools. Most of us say that we are pluralistic, ecumenical Christian institutions that study the variety of Christian and non-Christian traditions. A few have dropped the term ‘Christian’ to keep their secular university status. Roman Catholic institutions have dealt with similar issues and made a similar range of responses. For the formerly liberal Protestant schools, to be identified with liberal Protestantism would smack of provincialism and the cultural presumptions of the mainline from a bygone time. And it would exclude our faculty and students that lack any connection to liberal Protestantism.

On occasion I speak at a congregation or seminary where members still self-identify as liberal Protestant, but the trend is decidedly toward open-ended terminology that excludes fewer people and dispenses with historical baggage. 

Sixty years ago liberal Protestants had a bland unconsciousness about being a group, a state of mind that derived from being the dominant group. In the 1920s liberal Protestants won the battle against various conservative orthodoxies and reactionary movements for control of the historic Protestant denominations. Afterwards, ignoring a growing fundamentalist sub-culture, they appeared not to need any name or identity-marker besides “Protestant.” The term “mainline Protestant” was coined in the 1950s, at the same time as a tag closely related to it, the term WASP. 

These terms reflected a crack in the unconsciousness of the past. The Protestant mainline, despite setting attendance records, began to feel crowded by growing Catholic, evangelical, and secular populations. By the 1960s it was belatedly uncomfortable with being so white and middle-class. Today liberal Protestants prefer not to be a group again, at least overtly, for reasons that define and reflect the transition from modern, custodial, mainline American Protestantism to its post-establishment varieties. 

Liberal Protestantism, by whatever name, still plays a quietly influential role in American society. The National Council of Churches is down to almost nothing organizationally, but the mainline churches are still out there, offering a modern spiritual witness and serving the public good in the distinct manner that defines them. Thus the word “mainline” stays in play even as it represents a smaller and smaller slice of the population. The mainline is devoted to intellectual freedom and the public good. It conceives its public role as a steward of civil society, not as an agent of special interests, practicing what sociologist Mark Chaves calls “bridging”: a distinct form of civic engagement emphasizing the connections between issues and the complexities of moral responsibility and citizenship in a pluralistic society. 

Liberal Protestant denominations are more likely than Roman Catholic and Evangelical communities to engage in public work of every kind except direct political action.

Even with depleted social policy and outreach organizations, liberal Protestant denominations continue to address issues pertaining to war, intervention, and foreign policy; debt relief, foreign aid, and economic development; white supremacism, racial justice, and affirmative action; women’s rights, gay and lesbian issues, reproductive rights, and child welfare; acid rain, ozone depletion, bio-diversity, and eco-justice; and much more.

Routinely these churches and communities take on more than they can handle, leaving unsettled priorities in caring for the commons while generating complaints about “issue proliferation” and over-involvement in social issues. Liberal Protestantism founded the Nestle Boycott, the Sanctuary Movement, the divestment from South African apartheid movement, and Jubilee 2000. It is more involved in social justice work today than it was in Niebuhr’s time, reflecting that congregations everywhere are slimming down to the core that holds serious reasons for being there. 

All this work depends upon social ethicists, theologians and others that work with denominations and local religious communities as the primary vehicle of their engagement with the public sphere. Certainly this is a type of public work, and a form of public intellectualism. Yet it is rarely considered the latter. The standard complaint about theological scholars is that they are too identified with the academy to make an impact beyond it. I have waxed often on this theme. But the “academy fixation” is only part of the problem. Those of us who identify with existing religious communities and do social policy work for them are prone to be drained by them, struggling merely to keep depleted programs and institutions from going under. 

The liberationist versus neoconservative argument that overtook social ethics in the 1970s is relevant to this point. The first time that I faced off with Neuhaus, he had recently converted to Catholicism; the last time, I had recently moved to Union. We disagreed about things precious to me—liberal theology, feminism, liberationist criticism, post-colonial theory, economic democracy—without failing to understand each other. But when I said that I took marginality for granted and my students at Union were even more so, Richard was incredulous. How could liberal Protestants embrace that as anything but a rationalization of failure? That had not been an option for him when he found himself in a small and shrinking Lutheran denomination. He could not imagine that anybody from the former mainline could experience marginality as liberating. And I made an ambiguous, unconvincing case for saying that it was, because I regret that religious progressives like me have reached so few people beyond the small worlds of the academy, church and community organizing in which we live. 

Progressive Christianity today, by whatever name, is characterized by an ethos of egalitarian civility that makes it allergic to developing strong leaders. It works in a coalitional style and speaks in the voice of an improvisational ensemble, or as James Wind says, an always-evolving chorus. We don’t want anyone to presume to lead us or speak for us, and we tend to be reticent about our faith. 

On occasion we lament the absence of prophetic heroes, but what really matters to us is to build cooperative, ecumenical, egalitarian communities that promote human flourishing and the variety of spiritual gifts.


Books Cited:

David Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013); Christian Smith and Patricia Snell,Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), quote 287; N. Jay Demerath III, “Cultural Victory and Organizational Defeat in the Paradoxical Decline of Liberal Protestantism,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34 (1995), 458-469. 

Leigh Eric Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality from Emerson to Oprah (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005); Schmidt and Sally Promey, eds.,American Religious Liberalism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012); Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Kathryn Lofton in Oprah: Gospel of an Icon(Berkeley: University of California, 2011); Matthew S. Hedstrom, in The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford, 2013); Elesha J. Coffman, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (New York: Oxford, 2013).  

Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion,1805-1900; Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism and Modernity, 1900-1950; and Dorrien The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony and Postmodernity, 1950-2005 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, 2003, 2006). Gary Dorrien, Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity (Fortress, 1995).