How ecumenical Christians lost the church but won the nation

“Ecumenical Protestants” Berkeley historian David A. Hollinger calls us—Methodists, Presbyterian, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, members of the United Church of Christ, Lutherans, and a miscellaneous collection of other Christians. More clearly than liberal or mainline, Hollinger declares, ecumenical distinguishes us from Evangelical Christians—Pentecostals, fundamentalists, people in the holiness churches—who now have assumed the dominant role in American religious life.

Hollinger makes this point in an interview with Amy Frykholm published in Christian Century (July 11, 2012) under the title “Culture changers.” From the 1940s onward, and especially in the 1960s, the leaders of the ecumenical churches “led millions of American Protestants in directions demanded by the changing circumstances of their times and by their own theological tradition. These ecumenical leaders took a series of risks, asking their constituency to follow them in antiracist, anti-imperialistic, feminist and multicultural directions that were understandably resisted by large segments of the white public, especially in the Protestant-intensive southern states.”

After reading the Frykholm-Hollinger interview, I followed up by searching out and reading the 30-page lecture in which Hollinger develops these ideas at considerable length: “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” It was his presidential address, which he prepared for the 2011 meeting of the Organization of American Historians (published in the June 2011 issue of The Journal of American History).

The paper is especially interesting to me because it lays out the major narrative line for my own ministry (I was ordained in 1952).  The events, personalities and struggles which Hollinger describes succinctly and appreciatively were the dominant features of movements in which I participated. With historical calm, he summarizes books, sermons, and publications that radicalized the discussion and inspired leaders of the ecumenical churches in my generation to speak and act courageously for causes they had espoused.

Especially prominent in these culture-changing activities were efforts to overcome the idea that America is a Christian nation endowed with the responsibility to Christianize the world. A second set of activities sought to overcome the divisions in human life, in the United States and around the world, that kept women in subordination to men and people of color in various forms of segregation and discrimination.

Hollinger describes the gap between leaders of the ecumenical churches and increasingly large portions of their lay constituencies. He also demonstrates that at this critical moment the evangelical churches seized the initiative by speaking out in favor of the Americanism and social segmentation that ecumenical church leaders were seeking to overcome.

The significant shift in market share during these years, Hollinger believes, is accounted for, in large part, by the evangelical advocacy of the very ideas that ecumenical church leaders were deploring. He compares what happened in church life to the transformation of American politics when, under Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic Party advocated similar values and lost the south to the Republicans.

Here is where the story turns. “Ecumenical leaders may have lost American Protestantism,” writes Hollinger (citing N. J. Demerath III), “but they won the United States. The ecumenists campaigned for ‘individualism, freedom, pluralism, tolerance, democracy, and intellectual inquiry,’ observes Demerath, ‘exactly the liberal values that gained rather than lost ground in the public culture of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century.’”

All across the country, the internationalist and multi-cultural views have been taken up by the members and former members of the ecumenical churches, by secularists, by people of Jewish and other faiths, even in growing numbers by the younger generations of evangelical churches.

Hollinger (who states that he is not an ecumenical Christian) seems fully relaxed as he shows how the leadership in developing a finer social structure around the world is being assumed by secular institutions. His example is the YMCA, once a bulwark of aggressive Christianity, which is about to drop Christian from its title.

At the same time, he suggests that “voices like that of the Christian Century and the intellectual leaders of the ecumenical seminaries and denominations should more aggressively criticize the religious ideas proclaimed by the most visible of the evangelicals in American life today.” Secular intellectuals and journalists can comment on these matters constructively, “but believing Protestants have an authority with the faith-affirming public that the rest of us do not have.”

Since I am a religious historian, I appreciate the cool detachment with which intellectual historian and Berkeley professor David Hollinger describes this era of American religious and cultural life.

I confess to being emotionally involved in this discussion, however, because I understand myself to be one of these ecumenical leaders whose church is disappearing even though its ideas continue to flourish across America. I’m confident that I will have more to say about this story of religion in America and what it means to churches like the one I love.

One Response to How ecumenical Christians lost the church but won the nation

  1. Gene Hill says:

    I wonder where I fit at the Table, but yet I know I am welcome at the Disciples table, and feel comfortable there. But I see myself as an “Evangelical Christian” with an open, ecumenical spirit. A graduate of the “world’s largest multi-denominational seminary” (Fuller), I am one that probably prefers to “err,” if I must, on the more conservative/moderate side. But I view myself as embracing others’ views and ways out of a deep respect for who they are, and their own rights to view and interpret the scripture as they see fit… Great blog, Keith!

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