Culture Changers: David Hollinger on What the Mainline Achieved

Article excerpt

IN HIS PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS to the 2011 meeting of the Organization of American Historians, David Hollinger focused on the contributions and successes of ecumenical Protestants in their mid-20th-century encounter with diversity. Hollinger, professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, specializes in American intellectual history. His survey The American Intellectual Tradition is a widely used textbook. Among his other books are Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity, Science, Jews, and Secular Culture and Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism.

In your account of mid-20th-century Protestantism, you use the term ecumenical Protestant instead of mainline, mainstream or liberal. Why do you make this choice?

I use ecumenical because it is much more specific historically and analytically than mainstream or liberal. Mainstream is a term that is too general and can cover almost anything. Liberal, too, is a term that you can apply to culture or politics as well as theology.

Ecumenical refers to a specific, vital and largely defining impulse within the groups I am describing. It also provides a more specific and appropriate contrast to evangelical. The term evangelical came into currency in the midcentury to refer to a combination of fundamentalists, Pentecostals, followers of holiness churches and others; ecumenical refers to the consolidation of the ecumenical point of view in the big conferences of 1942 and 1945.

We've become so accustomed to the narrative of "mainline decline" that it is difficult to get our minds around a more nuanced version of this story. How do you tell this story?

The ecumenical leaders achieved much more than they and their successors give them credit for. They led millions of American Protestants in directions demanded by the changing circumstances of the times and by their own theological tradition. These ecumenical leaders took a series of risks, asking their constituency to follow them in antiracist, anti-imperialist, feminist and multicultural directions that were understandably resisted by large segments of the white public, especially in the Protestant-intensive southern states.

It is true that the so-called mainstream lost numbers to churches that stood apart from or even opposed these initiatives, and ecumenical leaders simultaneously failed to persuade many of their own progeny that churches remained essential institutions in the advancement of these values.

But the fact remains that the public life of the United States moved farther in the directions advocated in 1960 by the CHRISTIAN CENTURY than in the directions then advocated by Christianity Today. It might be hyperbolic to say that ecumenists experienced a cultural victory and an organizational defeat, but there is something to that view. Ecumenists yielded much of the symbolic capital of Christianity to evangelicals, which is a significant loss. But ecumenists won much of the U.S. There are trade-offs.

We usually say, "The victors write history," but here you seem to be saying, "The victors refuse to claim victory." Why is that?

The victors are slow to claim victory because they too often assume that numbers of church members are what counts most. If they had a more capacious understanding of the ways in which religion can function in society, they might be able to feel more pride in what happened. The great Anglican archbishop William Temple used to say that any church aware of its deepest missions would be willing to cease to exist if it advanced its ultimate goals.

The press and many spokespersons for evangelicalism dominate the conversation about American religion by trumpeting the numerical flourishing of evangelical fellowships of many kinds, and ecumenical Protestants have often accepted the terms of the conversation set by the evangelicals and the predictably numbers-first press.

What role did ecumenical Protestants play in shaping contemporary culture that are perhaps too easily forgotten today? …