Summer Reading 2013

It’s Labor Day and the start of another school and church year. Up until three years ago Linda and I would have been fully immersed in campus life. For Linda, the school year would begin in mid-August so for her the first Monday in September was less a beginning than a brief break. For me it meant preparing for the opening convocation at Pacific School of Religion and my annual sermon in which I tried to set the tone for the year.

Now Labor Day is much mellower for the McKinneys. On Cape Cod this is the end of the summer season as many of our neighbors return to the mainland and to their other lives. At the peak of our season all 90 homes in our little village are occupied. By Columbus Day only 15 families will remain. We can expect another 6-8 weeks of lovely weather so will continue to enjoy the beach on good days. Our Friday shopping trip takes three hours in the summer but only two hours in the off-season and except for certain weekends the traffic jams approaching the Cape’s two bridges will be mostly gone until next Memorial Day when the cycle begins again.

Work life picks up a bit after Labor Day even for “retired” folks. Linda returns to the classroom on Wednesday evenings working with new immigrants building their English skills. Beginning this week I’m teaching an online course for Hartford Seminary. It’s an introduction to American Religious History, a course I used to teach every other year in a traditional classroom setting that I’ve now adapted for an online environment. My 11 students are from all over the world and I’m looking forward to getting to know them as we encounter material that always excites me. I’m also working on a couple of consulting projects, including one that looks at alternatives to traditional interim ministry.

One thing that continues throughout the year is reading. Back in my seminary president days I would share thoughts about books that I enjoy and I’ve continued to do this a couple of times a year.
When we moved from Berkeley to the Cape I gave away two-thirds of my library. This was not easy but I’m glad to have done it. Most of what remains of my library covers three fields: Congregational Studies, Mainline Protestantism and American Religious History. Those are also the areas in which I still purchase print versions of books. Beyond those fields I rely on local libraries and e-books for my iPad.

This has been a remarkable year for books on Mainline Protestantism, otherwise known as Ecumenical or Liberal Protestantism. I’ll mention four books that now take their place on a shelf that includes, for example, most of the works of Martin Marty, Bill Hutchison, Gary Dorrien and dozens of sociology colleagues. The four new books are all by historians, which may say something about changes in the field itself. Twenty years ago we saw lots of “mainline religion” books by sociologist friends such as Bob Wuthnow, Clark Roof, Dave Roozen, James Hunter and others. Now historians are weighing in as well and this is a welcome development.

Berkeley historian David Hollinger caused quite a stir a few years ago in his presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in which he claimed that what he calls Ecumenical Protestantism had been understudied and underappreciated. His book, After Cloven Tongues of Fire, includes that presidential address and other writings. I’ve commented at some length on Hollinger’s presidential address at so will try to be brief here.

Hollinger challenges the narrative that sees ecumenical Protestantism as the “loser” in the contest with evangelical Protestantism. Hollinger focuses on both traditions’ relationship to the wider culture, arguing that while ecumenicals were “increasingly defining themselves through a sympathetic exploration of wider worlds, evangelicals consolidated ‘home truths’ and sought to spread them throughout the world.” The ecumenical Protestants’ encounter with diversity followed from a renewed appreciation of the story of Pentecost. They were asking, in effect, “what happens next” after cloven tongues of fire. What came next for ecumenical Protestants, says Hollinger, was a preoccupation with mobilizing constituencies to address social evils. They were more concerned about social welfare than with the state of individual souls.

Hollinger points to the importance of self-interrogation on the part of ecumenical Protestant churches and their leaders as one of the distinguishing features of this era. In short, says Hollinger, “...many ecumenical leaders were giving themselves hell.” He cites many of the figures who participated in this self-interrogation process, highlighting, for example, Episcopal lay theologian William Stringfellow as well as Bishop John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City.

By the 1960s, with the struggle for civil rights, the emergence of a reinvigorated evangelicalism, an expanding gap between church leadership and churchgoing laity, the loss of some of the social standing of the old Protestantism establishment, the center could no longer hold. Here Hollinger challenges the complacency of the ecumenical elites: “[Thinking that the center could hold] was a complacent assumption of ecumenical leaders that rendered them more comfortable with rigorous self-interrogation yet slow to see what now seem, in the perspective of history, to be the risks to their institutional standing this self-interrogation entailed.” Further, “The radical progeny of the ecumenists had less incentive to return to their party in the two-party system of Protestantism.”

Hollinger contends that an unanticipated result of the ecumenists’ accommodations to the 1960s was a serious questioning of the indispensability of Christianity that had still prevailed among the elite proponents of an ecumenical vision. For many, “Christianity became one of a number of useful vehicles for values that transcended that ancestral faith. For such people Christianity of any variety became a strategic and personal option rather than a presumed imperative.” He continues, “... thousands of children of the old Protestant establishment found that Christianity was not so indispensable to the advancement of the values most energetically taught to them by their Methodist and Congregational tutors.”

The children of the ecumenists did not go away and they did abandon not the values that had been passed on to them. “The post-Protestant endeavors are a major feature of modern American life, yet our recognition of them has been obscured by a survivalist bias, by which I mean a preference for if not a commitment to the survival of Christianity in general and of the institutions of ecumenical Protestantism in particular.

This is a brief summary of a complex argument that cries out for attention from Mainline Protestant churches and their leaders. Too often we think of this tradition’s struggle for contemporary relevance as a matter of effective management of its resources or as a failure of leadership. Hollinger reminds us that ideas are at stake as well. Maybe I’m missing it but I don’t know where this discussion is taking place in Protestant religious and theological circles today. And that’s too bad.

The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline by Elesha J. Coffman is an engaging historical study of what is arguably the most important public voice of what Hollinger refers to as “Ecumenical Protestantism.” I have been a subscriber, a faithful reader and an occasional contributor to the Century since the 1960s. I can think of no other publication that is more important for Mainline Protestant clergy and lay leaders or for those who want to track this important Protestant subcommunity. My sense is that editorially the Century is as strong as it has ever been. It is the “paper of record” for news of the national denominations and of the ecumenical movement. While it’s not always timely, it is fair and balanced (dare I use this phrase), cautiously liberal in theological and political orientation and scrupulously nonpartisan.

Having said that, I would not, however, call the Christian Century the “voice” or “the most enduring icon” of Mainline Protestantism as two of the book cover’s endorsers do. Coffman actually helps us understand why this is not the case. Born as a somewhat esoteric publication for a Disciples of Christ audience, in 1908 its new editor, Charles Clayton Morrison pursued opportunities to expand its scope and influence beyond the Disciples. Its authority would be based less on its editor’s charisma than on its claims to cultural capital. Close ties to the University of Chicago would be an important source of that cultural capital in the hands of a new breed of cultural entrepreneurs.

Coffman says that Morrison faced two challenges that would remain central throughout his career: “how to pitch a magazine written by and for an educated elite to an audience broad enough to pay the bills.” In fits and starts the Century slowly left its “denominational harbor,” becoming in 1917 “an Undenominational Journal of Religion.” The Century was moderately successful in building its readership during the 1920s with a major circulation campaign that “nearly burst with self-congratulation,” describing its ecumenical subscriber base as “the religious and moral leadership of this continent.” The Century’s liberal religious competition was struggling. Morrison noted that his publishing peers “went down in this decade like ten-pins on a bowling green” while secular rivals such as The Nation and The New Republic were thriving.

By the late twenties the Century’s role was becoming clearer. Here is Coffman’s summary:

…the Century exercised its most powerful influence in the process of mainline identification, both in the sense of defining which writers, institutions, and ideas belonged to the emerging mainline tradition and in the sense of offering readers an opportunity to identify with that tradition. The Century’s role in this process was especially significant because the mainline did not have generally recognized boundaries – or a name – in this era. In many ways, the movement’s center of gravity was the Century.

This is a very important point. The Century played an important role in insisting that there was a religious mainline and the Century helped to define it. Various individuals and institutions were at its center. Furthermore, the magazine was a symbol of status for its readers.

Morrison’s pacifism brought strains to the magazine as the crisis deepened in Europe, which led Reinhold Niebuhr and others to found Christianity and Crisis. For a long time the Century, under Morrison, was able to position itself as shepherd to the idea of a unified American Protestantism, an idea that as Coffman point out was “a social construction, advanced by elite individuals, flawed in many ways, but nonetheless real and meaningful to millions of Americans.” The Century held to the ideal but was not terribly successful in implementing that vision whether in the public or the ecclesiastical sphere. By the 1950s, competing voices such as Christianity Today magazine and others challenged the Century’s role as the iconic voice of American Protestantism. Coffman notes that the Century was slow to recognize that its real audience was not the whole of Protestantism but a particular slice of it.

Coffman’s history brings us only to 1960, which is not a bad place to break. I use “break” rather than “end” because the story continues. I’m struck, however, by ways the tensions of the Century’s early years remain alive not only in the magazine but in Mainline Protestantism more broadly. These involve tensions between denominational loyalties and ecumenical dreams, relations between religious elites and masses, tensions between representing religious liberalism and a religious “left,” diversities of various stripes and, yes, leaders’ egos.

Hollinger and Coffman both make the point that Mainline Protestantism in the Twentieth Century was dominated by religious elites. Both authors note that its leading proponents had difficulties reaching persons in the pews of old-line churches. The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century by Matthew Hedstrom takes a very different approach to this issue. Hedstrom explores the world of “book culture” in America, specifically what scholars of popular literature call “religious middlebrow culture.”
Scholars who have emphasized the institutional struggles of Mainline Protestantism have missed, Hedstrom argues, the fact that, in Christian Smith’s words, “that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.” Echoes of David Hollinger and others!

Hedstrom argues that
The “cultural victory” Smith and others observe happened not because more Americans joined liberal churches, but because liberal values and sensibilities became more and more culturally normative

. …I maintain, in contrast, that religious liberalism flourished beyond the bounds of churches, making this a story or rise rather than of decline. In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s we see most clearly the ties between institutional Protestantism and the wider culture of religious liberalism that was then reaching critical mass.

So here is Hedstrom’s thesis in brief:

In many ways, in fact, liberal elites were the victims of their own success, as their drive for a universal spiritual language and true pluralism – a drive rooted, at its core, in their own sense of Christian ethics as much as in their desire to remain culturally relevant -- made their grasp on power, centralized and hierarchical as it was, increasingly untenable. The cultural victory of liberal Protestantism actually contributed to its institutional decline, partly because religious individualism naturally resists institutionalization. But even more, as religious liberals embraced notion of redeeming the entire culture, they found increasingly meaningful outlets for their religious energies outside the churches, both in social activism and in cultural programs such as reading promotion.

Hedstrom argues, correctly I think, that one needs to look “farther afield” than the churches themselves, which takes him to the world of publishing and reading. For me, this was a new world and a fascinating one. I was only vaguely aware of the history and complexity of “secular” religious publishing and of the role of Mainline Protestant elites in shaping its intellectual and spiritual agenda. Many of the leaders who play prominent roles in Coffman’s history of the Christian Century appear again here as shapers of the Religious Book Club as well as the National Conference of Christians and Jews and its Religious Book Week. Hedstrom’s chapter, “Inventing Interfaith” is a remarkable illustration of the inner workings of what William Hutchison called the religious establishment.

Hedstrom is one of the careful, yet bold young scholars (mostly, but not all historians) whose work is represented in American Religious Liberalism, edited by Leigh Schmidt and Sally Promey. This is the product of two conferences on religious liberalism held at Princeton and Yale in 2008 and 2009. Edited collections of papers are often a mixed bag but this one is pretty darned good. It is an introduction to important work being done across the religious spectrum that looks “further afield” than traditional religious institutions.

This mini-essay has gone on far too long but I should note for the record that I don’t just read deep books on Mainline Protestantism and related topics. I also read a lot of trashy fiction, most of which doesn’t merit serious commentary!

What I have not read is a single page of a Harry Potter book or more than a few chapters of 50 Shades of Gray (which is resting uncomfortably on my iPad). As penance, I picked up JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which I enjoyed very much. She does a nice job of capturing class dynamics in small English villages. I then read The Cuckoo’s Calling, which she wrote under the pen name Robert Galbraith. It’s a solid detective story suitable for a warm day at the beach, a long flight or a quiet evening in a cottage on Cape Cod.

Have a great fall and Happy Reading!