Of the many gifts this blog gives, one has been framing the emergence of new scholarly discussions. I have been struck in particular by how the blog has narrated the rise of a debate on the shape and influence of twentieth-century modernist/liberal Protestantism. The new works include a veritable "must read" list for twentieth-century American religious history:
- Matthew S. Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion
- Mark Thomas Edwards, The Right of the Protestant Left
- Caitlin Carenen, The Fervent Embrace
- Jill K. Gill, Embattled Ecumenism
- David A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire
(I'm sure I'm leaving out some other important books, and I hope folks will reference others in the comment section)
Today begins a 2 part series on Elesha Coffman's new book, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline. First and foremost, congratulations to Professor Coffman and her family. They welcomed a baby boy this week. Of course, her book will receive bunches of scholarly reviews (in fact, Christian Century has already run one from David Hollinger himself). For our format, I thought it would be interesting to have two folks who have worked closely with The Christian Century reflect on Coffman's book from their particular vantage points.
Today, we have Jason Byassee, senior pastor at Boone United Methodist Church in North Carolina and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at the Duke Divinity School. As a former editor at Christian Century, he lived, moved, and altered the realms made by the Mainline's main magazine.
I’m grateful for this site’s invitation to review Elesha Coffman’s terrific book and respond with personal reflections.
I can’t believe my good fortune to have worked at The Christian Century, to look in on the institutional relationships Coffman examines some 50 years after the timeframe of her book ends, in 1960. I had an office from 2004-2008 beside Dean Peerman, who edited King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (“I found Dr. King very congenial to work with,” he said. I thought, “Are you freaking kidding me?!”). Martin Marty and John Buchanan became friends and mentors. There was still a whiff of the relationship to cultural power that Coffman details—Marty tells a story of Warren Buffett knowing the magazine, he is proud of Hillary Clinton growing up in a Methodist youth group in Chicagoland, we offered sympathetic portraits of Trinity UCC when the universe was spleening over it during the 2008 election. But that cultural greatness feels slightly past its sell-by date. We did not backslap with politicians or presidents. I was honored and intimidated to meet Wendell Berry and Barbara Brown Taylor, but in terms of cultural cache on the American political scene, they’re not exactly FDR (who met with Federal Council of Churches leaders in 1933). I do remember when two friends independently told me their minister-fathers feigned enthusiasm when their Ivy League dissertations were published by university presses. But they genuinely gushed to strangers when their kids got articles in The Christian Century. What your parents esteemed when you grew up still matters.
Coffman’s work is a remarkable piece of scholarship. She not only plowed through unimaginable stacks of copy. She also describes the idea of the mainline in a way no one has yet done, in a way that should influence all future conversation of the mainline and of evangelicals in this country. It’s a reminder of what historical scholarship is supposed to be: it’s curious, it does its homework, it offers judgments but not too frequently, it is lucidly or even brilliantly written. One can see Coffman’s previous work as a journalist on display. She tells us everything we want to know. And it all started with a simple question from a prelim examiner: “How did the mainline become mainline?” It is remarkable no one had thought to ask that question. The mainline has always been a matter of cultural cache more than numerical success or a hierarchical superchurch offering marching orders to obedient masses. It has fought for an ecumenical church (born from its early days as a Disciples of Christ publication), a progressive politics, an engagement with scholarship. It has gained more prestige from university-trained writers and readers than the political and cultural operatives for which it has longed. I just take as true her use of Alasdair MacIntyre’s definition of a tradition as a socially embodied argument over time about the goods inherent to the tradition.
What surprised me most was her observation that there has never been a “mainline” that wasn’t “declining.” That is, the idea of the mainline, since its earliest usage she can find in 1960 (in the pages of the New York Times no less!) has only ever been used since its enemies arose and began competing for that mantle of prestige. Only when Billy Graham, CT, and others rise up and claim the mantle “evangelical,” to challenge the National Council of Churches, and to offer an alternative to university-trained cultural elites, does there even need to be a name for what they’re challenging. Even before the idea of a mainline is born it is already demoted to sideline, oldline, has-been. I’m not sure anyone has seen that quite clearly before, but no one can claim not to have seen it now that Coffman has shown it to us.
That biographical note on Elesha opens up one of my few criticisms. The review copy I read nowhere mentions her previous work for Christianity Today. Surely that is relevant background information. I bring it up not to suggest she has been unfair to that publication’s longtime rival in any way. Her outsider status is probably an asset. It takes an outsider to an institution to read that institution in as full a color as she offers here. There is a time or two when she shades the Century’s sparring with Billy Graham in a way that strikes me as not unbiased (but then again I found myself “pulling” for Graham as a reader against what seemed the Century’s either histrionic or condescending response to him and to CT). She points to incredible language that C.C. Morrison used to denounce Graham, calling his work a “fundamentalist cult,” claiming evangelism itself is “raped” by its association with the rallies. She concludes with some measure (though perhaps a touch of triumphalism?), “Was it really any wonder that millions were drawn to a man who confidently repeated, ‘The Bible says’” (202). Perhaps this book isn’t the venue for it, but I would have loved to see Coffman wrestle with her own vantage and how it affected or inspired her scholarship here.
The rub between the Century and CT is one that fascinates me, as an evangelical within a mainline denomination (the United Methodist Church). I lived in the western Chicago suburbs while working at the Century, and many of my friends and intellectual co-conspirators came from CT and similarly oriented institutions like Wheaton College. I found them more interesting conversation partners than those I met at liberal institutions or among my fellow United Methodists. The latter seemed so quick to wring their hands in feigned outrage at evangelicals (this was in the era of W and his various world adventures), while evangelicals seemed more interested in talking about the gospel, the church, ideas, Jesus. I often wondered whether evangelicals aren’t the new mainline—the ones with actual cultural cache (Denny Hastert, Wheaton grad, was Speaker of the US House while I lived in Illinois), their own elite academic institutions (including Wheaton), their own influential magazines (note the plural—The Century occasionally sparked new publications but not near as many as CT). Perhaps in 50 years some former Century staffer will write the story of CT’s rise to prominence and its not-entirely-intended rebranding of the word “evangelical” while trying to offer its own version of political salvation to America. Turnabout is fair play.
One aspect of Coffman’s story I loved in particular was her account of Martin Marty’s rise at the magazine. He came up not only as an academic at the University of Chicago (the Century’s longtime farm system until Duke eclipsed the U of C in its pages). He didn’t let the word “evangelical” go without a fight to Graham and friends. He smartly interviewed 40 who claimed first-time professions of faith at a Graham crusade and found 38 already to have previously been church people. He used biblical language to try and make sense of the mainline, calling us a “remnant,” indicating early on that the sideline isn’t a bad place from which to do ministry, biblically-speaking. I remember Marty once complaining about Lee Strobel, the former Tribune reporter turned conservative apologist. Strobel apparently narrates his conversion solely in terms of evangelical institutions like Willow Creek, but he was raised ELCA. He did not come to Jesus totally unawares, he was introduced to him by the mainline. My sense is that is part of Marty’s long frustration with evangelicals is that they speak as though the mainline is not also offering Christ, they claim “success” with converts when really they’re often poaching the already-baptized. He’s usually just too much a gentleman to say it out loud.
I do think evangelicalism and mainline have both been parasitic on one another. Each only knows who they are by the other’s malicious existence. I occasionally praise the Century to others by saying they are genuine liberals. They actually care what other people think. Sometimes liberals will only respect others if they are, a priori, as liberal as they are. The Century was broad-minded enough to listen to non-liberals. Coffman’s book shows this is historically almost true. The Century was ecumenically advanced for its time, working to be inclusive of other mainline traditions, including Jews (one wonders how the Jews viewed such efforts at “inclusion”). Yet the Century was long exclusive of Catholics (longtimers tell the story of the Century’s refusal to publish founding owner C.C. Morrison’s condemnation of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. It ran in CT. He’d originally condemned “John S. Kennedy.” Staffers joked the “S.” stood for “Sonuvabitch”!). Then the Century turned every gun in its arsenal on Graham, even while its readership tended to admire him, defend him in letters, or subscribe to CT. In our own age the two publications do have more overlap, as Coffman relates. Richard Kauffman came to the Century from CT and continued to write for his old employer. I wrote for both, as did lots of our contributors. I remember being at a party thrown by a CT staffer and being introduced to a family member studying at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He joked that his professors call CT “Christianity Astray.” He crowed at the cleverness. When he caught his breath he asked me, “So what do you do?” Occasionally I think CT has a better shot at being less focused on America because of its interest in missions; The Century seems doomed to be more myopic and America-centered without a similar interest.
I also remember Robert Jenson, the eminent Lutheran theologian, seeing me at a conference and saying, brusquely, “The Christian Century is talking about Jesus again. That’s good.” I wanted to argue we never quit. Coffman’s book showed me otherwise—for decades we sounded little different than The Nation or The New Republic. Jenson’s views on numbers are also informative. A friend asked him once how many copies he hoped to sell of his next book. Jense mused, 250. My friend was surprised he was satisfied with the number—surely 250 wasn’t enough? “Well, if it’s the right 250 it is,” Jense replied.
Not a bad summary of the Century’s approach to numbers. Coffman relates (in a bit too much detail for my taste) the magazine’s long effort to promulgate ideas that only mattered to university-trained and related elites broadly enough to sell enough copies to keep in business. It’s quite a needle to thread. As it fulminated over Graham’s success it argued that ours was the right view of Protestantism, even if the vast majority of our own people couldn’t see it. It could use the royal “we,” assume its rightness and everybody else’s retrogression. Occasionally this produced glories: publishing King’s letter, covering the internment of Japanese Americans. I saw a letter while there from MLK kindly declining The Century’s offer of a regular column—he just had so much work to do for the SCLC. It was signed by his secretary, Andrew Young. The Century offered solace to lonely pastors in backwater places nostalgic for halcyon days in ivy-covered academic bastions. It reminded readers of the narrowness of their parochial Christian upbringing and the broad intellectual sophistication they now enjoyed. And it sought to save the soul of America. Coffman seems to me exactly right to compare C.C. Morrison’s tonic for what ills the nation to that of the Christian right circa 1980. I loved her inclusion of a letter in 1928 claiming that an ordination committee asked a candidate only one question—what magazine do they take? When they heard The Christian Century the exam was over and the candidate passed and praised.
Things didn’t work out so easily for me, I confess. My own ordination committee turned me down when I first came up in 2005, and I worked for The Christian Century. The reasons don’t have to do with the fissures between “mainline” and “evangelical” quite. But that distinction is always as uneasy as it is important. Coffman charges the Century with obliviousness to the distinctions between evangelical and fundamentalist and even gradations within each camp. She’s right to do so. The Century itself has often seen similar fissures in kinds of liberals, sometimes expressed as she points out in great differences between, say, the contents of the magazine’s editorial pages (often taking swings at Reinhold Niebuhr, for example) and its features (often publishing his stuff, until it drove him out to start his rival publication, Christianity and Crisis). Today, parallel parties in various denominations have much more to do with one another than folks within the same denomination—I relate more easily to evangelicals within Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran churches than I do to liberals in my own denomination. And I worked for the liberal flagship! See how the Century is genuinely liberal?
The titles break down and fall to dust. Coffman’s successor in 50 years will have to struggle even more mightily with the labels than she did, covering our now post-everything world. I remember Marty marveling at an age that sinks print periodicals as fast as the Century’s competitor magazines in the 1920s (God bless Hoover vacuums for bankrolling the Century when other periodicals failed en masse). In our age Life is long gone, Newsweek recently left, and there is the Christian Century still rolling on. David Heim, the soul of the publication for the last generation, points out that even in the Century’s supposed heyday we only had between 30,000-40,000 subscribers. We still do. The question is whether they’re the “right” ones—that can be said without snobbish elitism I think. Are they readers who will “think critically and live faithfully,” as the magazine’s masthead now says?
I read Coffman’s book while on a continuing ed trip to New Hope Community Church in Oahu, Hawaii, a 14,000 member juggernaut with all the cultural capital the Century once had or longed for (a letter from the late Senator Inouye thanking pastor Wayne Cordeiro is framed in the hallway of their offices). We mainliners visited hoping to catch some of the evangelicals’ lightning in the bottle. And despite myself I couldn’t help objecting when Pastor Wayne objected to social justice: we should just stick to saving people, who will then do justice, he said. I couldn’t help but become “that guy.” I pointed out that Billy Graham wouldn’t have a revival in your southern town if it wasn’t integrated. He said all the social justice in the world won’t get anybody saved. Others in our group said you can’t disconnect this world and the next like that—Jesus didn’t.
Who was mainline in that conversation? We hardly are anymore—the vast majority of Christians in the US would likely agree with Cordeiro. Or maybe by Coffman’s definition we are—the “mainline” has only ever existed in decline vis a vis evangelical upstarts. Who was I to object to Pastor Wayne with his thousands? Yet he was wrong, his views are retrograde, and numbers aside it had to be said (I hope if Billy Graham was in the room he would have to). The lines can be hard to find, and once found hard to adhere to.
When I worked at the Century I was honored to walk past icons of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr into our office on Michigan Avenue every day, even if I eventually realized having 30,000 sermon-hearers was no good if I couldn’t see their faces, and if my own intellectual lights were more formed by Augustine, Karl Barth, and Stanley Hauerwas (Stanley enthused the day I got the job: “Good! We have a mole in the enemy camp!”). I remember early conversations about whether to change the magazine’s name—the very same discussion Morrison hosted when he bought the paper in 1908. I wished we’d have changed it to the Post-Christian Century, but cooler heads prevailed. It was decided that we just had too much cache built up in the name that was, by then, well into its second century. May it see a third.