Ecumenicists, Evangelicals, and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity: Some Personal Reflections on David Hollinger's OAH Address


by David Stowe

Reading David A. Hollinger's OAH presidential address, "After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity" (just published in the new Journal of American History) puts me in mind of a little family history. The dialectic he analyzes, between liberal ecumenically minded Christians played out in my family exactly as he scripts it.

Raised Nazarene in Iowa, my father discovered the life of the mind while attending a tiny college in Nebraska, finished his BA in history at UCLA, went to seminary, served for a time in China, completed a doctorate in theology. He had gravitated to the social-gospelly Congregationalists--later merged into United Church of Christ--for whom he directed overseas missions in the last stage of his career. His younger brother Gene stayed in the Nazarene fold, became a pastor and eventually ascended to the pinnacle of the church hierarchy: General Superintendent.

Our side of the family grew up in the East, became liberal Democrats, stayed with the UCC. My uncle's family stayed in the West, remained mostly rock-ribbed Republicans and Nazarenes. We read Christian Century, they undoubtedly read Christianity Today (and sent us a subscription to Herald of Holiness). Their menfolk hunted for elk in the Rockies; we trapped (and often released) squirrels to keep them out of our attic. The Boomer offspring had little contact; families didn't fly around a lot in those days. Consequently the cousins remained slightly exotic to each other. How could two brother/fathers turn out so differently while remaining committed Christians?

Hollinger lays out the historical context within which their lives diverged. In the middle decades of the last century, ecumenical Protestants dominated the American Establishment. Beginning well before the Sixties, ecumenicals pursued "diversity-accepting, captive-liberating projects" on behalf of people of color, women, and gays and lesbians--movements that allied them with secular intellectuals, mainly of Jewish descent. In the Sixties, self-interrogating ecumenical intellectuals like Wilfred Cantwell Smith, William Stringfellow, John A. T. Robinson, and most famously Harvey Cox eroded the theological foundations and moral complacency of mainline Christianity.

Evangelicals who had earlier red-baited ecumenicals with mixed success began to overtake their liberal rivals, increasing their cultural capital through savvy media use, outbreeding their mainline rivals and doing a better job holding their kids in the churches. “But just as a substantial portion of the missionaries found that the Hindus and Buddhists they encountered abroad were not quite so much in need of Christian conversion as once assumed, thousands of children of the old Protestant establishment found that Christianity was not so indispensable to the advancement of the values most energetically taught to them by their Methodist and Congregationalist tutors."

Hollinger makes a useful point about avoiding Whiggish assumptions in assessing the impact of a movement like ecumenical Protestantism:

To recognize the historic function of ecumenical Protestantism as a halfway house, if not actually a slippery slope to secularism, is in no way invidious unless one approaches history as a Christian survivalist. Religious affiliations, like other solidarities, are contingent entities, generated, sustained, transformed, diminished, and destroyed by the changing circumstances of history. Those circumstances still render ecumenical Protestantism a vibrant and vital home for many persons. A genuinely historicist approach to the history of religion will not teleologically imply that those committed to that faith today are headed for history's dustbin.

That’s a relief. If Hollinger is correct, my uncle's family won the battle for the soul of American Protestantism, but my father's side may...may... have won the war for the nation's heart and mind. Hollinger sees a powerful analogy between ecumenists and the post-1964 Democratic Party:

The evangelicals gained the upper hand in the struggle for control of Protestantism just as the Republicans gained the upper hand in the struggle for political control of the South.... [J]ust as the nation got something in return for the loss of the South to the Republican party, so, too, did the nation obtain something in return for the loss of Protestantism to the evangelicals: the United states got a more widely dispersed and institutionally enacted acceptance of ethnoracial, sexual, religious, and cultural diversity.... Those impulses and capacities generated a cascade of liberalizing consequences extending well beyond the diminishing domain of mainstream churches, running through the lives and careers of countless post-Protestant Americans distributed across a wide expanse of secular space [no doubt including many in higher education]. Our narrative of modern American religious history will be deficient so long as we suppose that ecumenical Protestantism declined because it had less to the offer the United states than did its evangelical rival. Much of what ecumenical Protestantism offered now lies beyond the churches, and hence we have been slow to see it.

Probably we'll never equal my uncle's kin in elk-hunting prowess, but we can out-squirrel-trap them any time. The (usually) friendly rivalry continues. In lieu of a definitive resolution (mark your calendar for October 21), and given Hollinger's point that American religion has increasingly come to serve as politics by other means, we'll have to await the results of the 2012 elections.


Kevin M Schultz at: July 5, 2011 at 8:45 AM said...

Really nice post. Thanks for sharing. The metaphor between squirrel trapping and elk hunting is excellent.

newer post older post