Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History

Article by   October 2014
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David Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History. Princeton, Princeton University Press 2013, ix + 248pp. $24.99/£17.99

The trajectory of mainline American religion has suffered significantly since their peak in the 1950s. Decreases in number of communicants and dwindling funds have forced budget cuts and staff layoffs in denominational headquarters. As E. J. Dionne states on the dust jacket of David Hollinger's After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History, "Liberal Protestantism is not appreciated enough, not studied enough and keeps getting written off as a movement destined to fade away." 

After reading Hollinger's book, however, one might well respond that denominational decline is hardly the whole story. As one of the most articulate advocates of liberal religion in America, David Hollinger, Professor of History at Cal Berkeley, has done his part over the past several decades to fill whatever void exists in the scholarship of liberal religion. While conceding liberal denominational decline, Hollinger's collection of essays explores liberalism's unheralded success in the public square. After Cloven Tongues of Fire is a bold celebration of Protestant liberalism's pervasive influence up to the present day. 

Hollinger has cobbled together nine previously published articles from his extensive scholarship together with a preface, introductory notes to each article and an epilogue to create a relatively coherent picture of Protestant liberalism's historic roots, major advocates and current status. 

His underlying premise is familiar to those who study church history. Ever since the Enlightenment, various figures have contended that because the worldviews of biblical religion became outmoded, they are unacceptable to modern sensibilities.  If Christianity is to survive, it must adapt itself to modern worldviews. Hence Hollinger's first chapter "The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment: An Old Drama Still Being Enacted." Scientific developments which include the Darwinian paradigm in natural history and advanced critical studies of the Bible caused Protestant intellectuals to reconstrue their inherited faith to "generate liberalized versions of Christianity."

Hollinger rests his case on the preposition "After" in his book's title. As illustrated by successive movements away from traditional orthodoxy there must always be an "after." He chooses the earliest manifestation of the Christian Church - the account of Pentecost - to justify the liberal, pragmatic vision. There must be an aftermath to "ecstatic moments" [read supernatural religion] wherein people testify "with cloven tongues of fire." Since Christianity's "mythic" account of its origin no longer conforms to post-Enlightenment moderns, its supernatural foundation has long since been largely jettisoned and replaced with God's work in the world through ordinary means. 

Hollinger poses two questions to launch his this-worldly, pragmatic version of Christianity: "What comes next? What does one do [my emphasis] in the world, in the prosaic routines of daily life, to act on this vision of human community inspired by the Jesus of Nazareth?" Some Protestants [read evangelicals who would retain Christianity's supernaturalism] might "remain focused vertically ... on the individual believer's relation to the Divine." But "liberalizing Protestants" focused instead on a "horizontal worldliness" [read Immanuel Kant's moralism and Schleiermacher's experiential substitution for biblical doctrines of atonement and original sin]. 

Because liberals find orthodox Christianity unsatisfactory on many levels, the essence of Christianity must be found within human experience.  Hollinger contends, "liberalizing Protestants, in their horizontal worldliness ... became great organizers, institution builders, and social reformers, searching for ways to enact what they understood to be Christian ideals within worldly affiliations and through their instrumentality." He assumes that any thinking person who confronts the claims of modern science and social science will acknowledge that traditional dogmas no longer satisfy. He asks, "Do the orthodox cling to doctrines that had been pasted onto the essential faith at a particular historical moment, and now mistake these anachronisms for the substance rather than surface of the faith?" Traditional doctrine and piety, therefore, cannot constitute the abiding essence of Christianity. 

If Kant found the basis in reason and Schleiermacher identified the ground of religion in gefuhl [feeling or intuition], where do contemporary liberals anchor their worldview? The answer lies in the writings of American pragmatists William James, C. S. Peirce and John Dewey. Hollinger's effusive comments on James' The Varieties of Religious Experience and Will to Believe testify to James' reputation as a patron saint of liberals. For Hollinger, "no one had a sharper sense than [James] of the difference between charismatic, mystical experiences and the worldly business of deciding what ideas and practices were true and right."  He allows that William James was "a very special kind of supernaturalist, a 'piecemeal' supernaturalitst ... [who] imagines a patchwork cosmos, with supernatural power here or there - one is not sure just where."

Most radically Hollinger admits that James "zig-zags even on the matter of whether he believes in God." James' new science of religious experience should "eliminate doctrines that are now known to be scientifically absurd or incongruous." Varieties of Religious Experience "promoted fellow-feeling with religious seekers with a Protestant temperament..." Perhaps Hollinger's most telling admission is that "James never offered a serious intellectual defense of a single, specific Christian doctrine." In chapter 6, "Damned for God's Glory: William James and the Scientific Vindication of Protestant Culture" he declares James "a good candidate for the archetypal post-Protestant."

While evangelicals may appear to exercise significant cultural power because of media exposure, the pervasive impact of liberalism is undeniable by the fact that liberals' "antiracist, antisexist, antihomophobic, anti-imperialist, nationalism-suspecting, supernaturalism-resisting program has been accepted by vast segments of the American public." Hollinger adduces liberals as "agents of change" in American society - African Americans who pursued civil rights, "social-scientific intellectuals" who propagated cultural relativism and labor unions who pushed for "egalitarianism" - as prima facie evidence of liberalism's agenda being fulfilled. 

Liberalism's pervasive influence outside the churches is explored further in chapters 3 and 4.  Chapter 3 traces the influence of Presbyterian layman John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower's Secretary of State, on pacifist and realist leaders at the "Delaware Conference" of March 3-5 in 1942. In chapter 4, "Justification by Verification: The Scientific Challenge to the Moral Authority of Christianity in America" Hollinger demonstrates that progressive intellectuals were taken by the perception that social scientists practiced "exactly the virtues for which Christianity was then most admired." Small wonder that scientists could be viewed as "successors to the clergy as the moral models for modern living." He cites Richard Gregory, editor of Nature, who bluntly admitted that his "grandfather had preached 'the gospel of Christ,' his father the 'gospel of socialism,' and Gregory himself the 'gospel of Science.'" 

As for the effect of liberal religion on education, Hollinger readily acknowledges contributions made by evangelical Christians prior to liberalism's rise. But again, one must look "after" their past prominence. Whereas Christianity was previously privileged by American educators, as the result of liberals' rising influence "mainstream academia [now] maintains a certain critical distance from the Christian project." The battle to achieve a secular educational system is virtually complete. Hollinger's views are captured well by the title of chapter 9: "Enough Already: Universities Do Not Need More Christianity." He cites epistemic issues as the primary reason for such a hard line. Since "the boundaries of the epistemic communities that define discussion in the learned world are no longer coterminous with the Christian community of faith", the current dominance of liberal ideas is beyond dispute. In chapter 10, "Religious Ideas: Should They Be Critically Engaged or Given a Pass?", he contends that unless a person is willing to "conduct the business of [democratic] polity within premises that are particular to that polity and not to any of the yet more sectarian persuasions that may be present within it" one should "stay out of politics."

Liberal religion has gained a seat at the table of intellectual ideas because it has acceded to this epistemic principle. If this is true, critics may well ask how has liberalism gained legitimacy as being genuinely "Christian?" Hollinger poses and answers that question only briefly: "Where, after all did we get liberal religion? We got it out of orthodox religion. Especially did the great biblical scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth century [sic] provide the cognitive context for a variety of liberalized religious faiths, including the capacity of many Christians to absorb the Darwinian revolution in science." Nowhere does Hollinger seriously engage the historic doctrines of Christianity. Liberals, especially those who draw so deeply from the pragmatic paradigm concur with James who felt no compunction to defend a single specific Christian doctrine.

Liberals' minimizing or outright rejection of traditional doctrine mirrors Friedrich Schleiermacher's modus operandi of compromise when as a founder of the University of Berlin he had to contend for theology even to be offered in the academic curriculum. As a quintessentially Enlightenment academy all subjects were to be taught from the point of view that knowledge was not something fixed and authoritative but rather in the process of being developed. Theology could be taught within these confines as a critical Wissenschaft [science]. Only what could be demonstrated using rigorous critical methods of Enlightenment thinking and then situated within the broadest context of other similarly established relationships counted as knowledge. Enlightenment thought thus became the Procrustean bed on which Christian ideas had to be submitted. As a result Schleiermacher rejected a historic Fall, the traditional doctrine of original sin and substitutionary atonement. No wonder that by the time pragmatism had emerged doctrines of propositional revelation were rejected as irrelevant. Because they focused on an individualized, privatized and therefore outmoded view of religion, Christianity must be adapted to meet mounting social problems - racism, women's rights, the plight of the poor, homophobia, economic disparity - call for workable solutions that minister to society's collective needs. 

Finally, no account of liberal Protestantism in America would be complete without reference to Reinhold Niebuhr. Hollinger utilizes his epilogue both to probe Niebuhr's contribution to liberal Protestantism and draw his argument for liberalism to a close. As the most acclaimed advocate of liberalism in his generation, Niebuhr more than fulfilled Hollinger's accommodation thesis. In a checkered career Niebuhr embraced and then rejected pacifism. He rediscovered and reformulated the doctrine of sin in his Christian realism by saying that human sinfulness was "inevitable but not necessary." 

Hollinger cites Niebuhr's critics such as Princeton's Walter Kaufmann who "curtly dismissed him like a failed undergraduate." But it is just at the point where secular scholars dismissed Niebuhr that Hollinger extols him. Whereas critics dismissed Niebuhr because he embraced the Judeo-Christian worldview, Hollinger contends that Niebuhr emerged as an exemplar of the post-Protestantism that Hollinger wants to champion: "Typically, Niebuhr presented a series of quite general virtues as products of Christianity, without explicitly denying the possibility that these virtues might be cultivated and propagated without Christianity." 

There is a supreme irony in all of this. Niebuhr, the anti-secularist who by advocating democracy, mankind's imperfectability and the idea of just war actually promoted an agenda that secularists could embrace, in Hollinger's words, "equally well." Niebuhr was clearly a transitional figure. He declined an offer of special professorship at Harvard because he could not fit in with Harvard's secular department of philosophy or be marginalized by being associated with the campus's Divinity School. Although he lived in decades where Protestantism was still dominant, that era was running out of intellectual capital to contend with an increasingly secular context. 

Therefore Niebuhr represents the transition to Christianity's next stage, one in which its primary focus embodied the ideals shared with secularists that would drive American culture forward. As Hollinger put it, "The importance of being able to label something you valued as 'Christian' diminished for multitudes, especially the more educated, and the label once thus devalued, was all the more easily grabbed up and its meaning defined by groups very different from those whose leadership of the nation Niebuhr had taken for granted." Hollinger cites the remark by Gary Dorrien that Niebuhr helped to create "the naked public square into which the Christian Right later rushed with the zeal of the old abolitionists and social gospelers."

Hollinger's excellent summary will hardly convince readers of reformation21 of the superiority of the liberal version of Christianity. His volume poses another social vision as a substitute for the biblical gospel. His book is absolutely essential reading, however, for those who want to keep their fingers on the pulse of liberal religion in America - its roots, its advocates, its social agenda and its strategy for keeping liberals' version of the faith in the public eye.


Dr. W. Andrew Hoffecker is Emeritus Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.

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