Dispatch from Berkeley: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Elesha Coffman

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Last week I spent a fantastic, albeit smoky, few days out at Berkeley at a workshop on "Ecumenical Protestantism and Post-Protestant Secularism in the United States," convened by David Hollinger. The elegiac song I've used in my title was inescapable. How does one define ecumenical/liberal/mainline Protestantism? "Something here inside / Cannot be denied." What has happened to it over the past century? "When a lovely flame dies / Smoke gets in your eyes." But wait--is the topic really as nebulous, and the outlook as grim, as that?

Not at all! Well, maybe. It depends on what you're talking about. But scholars are talking about this, and a case can even be made that the center of gravity in the study of American Protestantism is shifting from evangelicalism and fundamentalism toward ecumenical Protestantism and post-Protestant secularism. The "mainline moment" continues!

I can't even try to summarize all of the rich conversations from the workshop or preview all of the really exciting work in progress. Some version of the presentations might be made available in the future. In the meantime, here are just a few things that struck me:

Post-Protestant: I never understood this term before. I read it either as defeatist insider talk (Oh no, we lost the culture!) or triumphal scholar talk (Finally, we can stop being "church historians" and study the more vital, authentic religion that flourishes beyond church walls). In Berkeley, I heard it used differently, to describe the particular kind of secularism that arises when an individual, a group, or possibly a whole society ceases to identify as Protestant but carries forward a lot of Protestant ideas and impulses.

Two moments that clarified this for me: (1) Amy Kittelstrom calling attention to A Rap on Race, the dialogue in which James Baldwin declares himself to have left Christianity and Margaret Mead insists that he hasn't; (2) Kenzie Bok (who writes on John Rawls) describing modern American political philosophy as a jungle gym on which modern political philosophers play without realizing that it was built by Protestants. Or, as the latter discussion continued, maybe post-Protestantism is a house, or maybe it's a prison. At any rate, I am now convinced that this is a very useful line of analysis, and we're going to be hearing a lot more about it in coming years.

Freight and vehicle: David Hollinger used this image in the midst of a discussion about what happens when institutions dissolve or change radically. Was the institution merely the vehicle for a particular kind of (ideological) freight? What happens to the freight without the vehicle? Or are institutions more than vehicles--to use another binary David employed, not merely instrumental, but definitional? Ecumenical Protestants cared so much about their institutions, not just as vehicles for their ideas, but as goods in and of themselves. Why did they care? What happened in those institutions that didn't, perhaps couldn't, happen anywhere else?

Theology: "Did [subject of this paper] have a theology?" I heard that question after my presentation on Margaret Mead, but versions of it swirled around other papers as well. The question wasn't hostile, but its repetition made me wonder, What is "a theology"? Do even scholars of ecumenical Protestantism and post-Protestant secularism have such an old-fashioned understanding of theology (it means quoting Bible verses, describing attributes of God, and name-dropping other theologians, right?) that our research subjects don't qualify as theologians? Considering that my ASCH paper in January is on Mead's theology, I'm going to have to come up with some answers on these questions quickly.

Rest assured, ideas spinning out from Berkeley will be making appearances at USIH later this month and at ASCH/AHA in January. It's a good time to be studying ... whatever we call this.


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