Mainstream Versus Mainline; or, Does Class Identification Work Against Racial Integration -- from Guest Poster Carolyn Dupont!

I'm pleased to guest post this dispatch from the recent meeting of the American Society of Church History, which meets together with the AHA. Our guest poster today is Carolyn Dupont, author herself of an outstanding study ("Mississippi Praying: White Religion and Black Equality, 1954-1966) on race and religion during the civil rights era. Dupont reports on an engaging panel she attended at the ASCH meeting.


If, as Kathryn Lofton suggests, our primary task as religious historians is one of comparison and classification, then a set of papers at the recent meeting of the American Society of Church History suggests that religious historians are profitably engaged in that task. A panel of four very strong papers demonstrated a great deal of creativity and underscored the need for historians to produce "tough categorical anatomies" (also Lofton's phrase; see this blog, "Spirituality, Smirituality," August 26, 2007).

Julie Byrne, Brendan Pietsch, Elesha Coffman and Catherine Bowler, all graduates of or current Ph.D. students at Duke, presented papers that were highlights of my experience at the annual AHA (of which the ASCH is an affiliate) meeting in Washington, D.C. last weekend. Two of the papers had special interest for me.

In "Mainline versus Mainstream," Coffman demonstrates the pitfalls that result from sloppy and undifferentiated descriptors in her examination of two words frequently interchanged in scholarly dialogue about American Protestantism—mainline and mainstream. Not only is there a sort of division (between moderates and liberals and between core and periphery groups) within the mainline, membership in the club has evolved a bit since the early twentieth century. Most importantly for Coffman, however, mainline has a strong class connotation that ties it to upper-class, old Protestant northeasterners, whom she argues "can never be mainstream." Scholars ought to have caught the inherent contradiction, as since about 1970 mainline is nearly always associated with decline, yet mainstream is " wherever the majority of Americans want to go—which for the past several decades has been into conservative and, increasingly, Pentecostal churches. The mainline, by contrast, is tethered to a past and a social location . . . Conflating mainline and mainstream simultaneously transforms Riverside Drive bureaucrats into just plain folks and pushes anyone who would dissent from the mainline to the “extremist” fringe."

Bowler's paper, "Thriving on Azusa Street: Word of Faith within and without Pentecostalism," offers an analysis of a sector of that mainstream—the "Word of Faith" movement in neo-Pentecostal churches. Typified by names familiar to any channel-surfer with curiosity about contemporary Christianity—T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland—this movement often appears so this-worldly oriented as to render false its claim to the mantle of the 1906 Azusa Street revival. But Bowler asks us to take this genealogy seriously, seeing the Word of Faith message as an expansion and redefinition of the four major traditions that have shaped Pentecostalism. Power for service becomes understood as faith—a power that enables the believer to "get results from God;" the tradition of entire sanctification that once meant freedom from sin is now demonstrated by prosperity and health ("a perfecting process that unfolds from the use of Faith"); and divine healing has assumed an increased importance as an expression of the believer's faith. Finally, the premillenialism that traditionally looked for God to rescue believers out of their problems by taking them to heaven has become "victorious living." "God takes the problems from the believers, bringing a bit of heaven to them."

Bowler's explanation of this branch of neo-Pentecostalism helps with the project of defining a group that resists easy classification because of its organizational fragmentation and its theological pluralism. Primarily, understanding the Word of Faith movement as an expression of traditional Pentecostalism "anchors Pentecostalism in the language of experience," the only agreed upon way of defining this group, and one consistent with their own self-definitions. While the historic experiential marker of Pentecostalism used to be tongues (an experience), "prosperity is a new ability to demonstrate a spiritual membership" in the Pentecostal community. Additionally, such an understanding helps us to anchor Pentecostalism in the "new realities" of world Pentecostalism. Since the vast majority of Pentecostals live in developing countries, "poverty has becomes an increasingly Christian problem," says Bowler, and "the Faith Movement allows scholars to examine how people are searching for a Christian solution for it."

I could say a great deal more about these two fine papers, but in the interests of provoking discussion, I'd like to join my own research interests in religion and race to this summation and offer a few observations. I can't help but be struck by the irony that, though mainline churches in the 1950s and 60s ardently championed the civil rights cause, most contemporary mainline congregations have very few black members. Coffman's reminder that these churches are strongly anchored to a class identity suggests why this may be the case—their class identification has worked against racial integration.

On the other hand, the white Pentecostal denominations were largely uninterested in advocating black equality during the civil rights years, yet Word of Faith and other Pentecostal-type churches are currently some of the most racially diverse sites in America. I also wonder whether it's important, in linking Word of Faith churches to the Pentecostal tradition, to identify where these neo-Pentecostals are coming from. They don't seem to come from the ranks of historic Pentecostalism, but rather from other churches or from no religious background at all—does this make any difference in their "categorical anatomy?" They seem to be true "upstart sects"—just the kind of places that have historically been the greatest sites of religious innovation and creativity.


Anonymous said…
hooray for Carolyn Du Pont posting here. Here's a vote for her to join the editor group.
Bland Whitley said…
These are really interesting ideas to mull over. As someone who focuses on southern history, I find it difficult to break out of the racial concerns that have defined our historiography for--let me see here--ever (on this point I'll join others in commending John Hayes's provocative essay in the Journal of Southern Religion). But I'm not sure class in this case bears much relevance either. Perhaps the most important category to bring in is geography. These new churches (neo-Pentecostal or not) mostly seem to inhabit the ever-increasing exurban landscape. In cities and older suburbs, mainline churches still mostly prevail (at least that's my not terribly well-informed impression). Maybe we should just start calling them oldline denominations.
David Sehat said…
Why is our primary task as religious historians one of comparison and classification? What about interpretation and narrative? I'm not being argumentative. It is an honest question.

David Sehat
Bland Whitley said…
David, I tend to agree with the premise of your question. But this post seemed more related to contemporary trends and to the classifications that sociologists and journalists use. Thus, I thought I'd inject a different kind of category. Interpreting these trends from an historical understanding would of course complicate all of this.