Hollinger on the Protestant Dialectic

The July 2011 edition of the Journal of American History includes David Hollinger’s article, based on his Presidential Address, “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity.” In it, Hollinger describes the social thought of those mid-century Protestants, whom he calls “ecumenical Protestants,” who quit thinking in particularistic Christian and American terms and instead began to recognize that “the diversity of the human species and the diminution of inequalities within it were intimately bound up with one another.” Seeking justice between peoples became a more important calling than seeking to convert non-Christians.

Hollinger’s essay claims to make two important contributions. First, he argues that a better understanding of mid-century ecumenical Protestant thought helps us come to terms with “the dialectical process by which ecumenical Protestants lost their numbers and their influence in public affairs while evangelical Protestants increased theirs.” More: “Politically and theologically conservative evangelicals flourished while continuing to espouse popular ideas about the nation and the world” — such that the United States was an exceptional nation because it was founded as a Christian nation — ideas “that were criticized and abandoned by liberalizing, diversity-accepting ecumenists.” Ecumenical leaders did not speak for their congregants. In this, Hollinger adds complexity to accounts of secularization that focus on non-religious free thinkers, such as David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Not enough intellectual historians focus on what my friend Bo Peery calls the Christian Left, except perhaps to take note of Niebuhrian realism. So I find this claim uncontroversial.

Hollinger’s second claim is more provocative. He contends that ecumenical Protestants might have lost their grip on Protestant America, but they helped pave the way for a more diverse multicultural America. In making this argument he draws a compelling analogy. I quote Hollinger’s penultimate paragraph in its entirety to give you a flavor:

However we assess the contemporary scene and however we may speculate about the future, certain historical realities ought to be clear. The evangelicals gained the upper hand in the struggle for control of Protestantism just as the Republicans gained the upper hand in the struggle for control of the South. In both cases, the triumph was facilitated by the decisions and actions of the rival party. This analogy, like any, can be carried too far, but just as the nation got something in return for the loss of the South to the Republican party, so, too, did the nation obtain something in return for the loss of Protestantism to the evangelicals: the United States got a more widely dispersed and institutionally enacted acceptance of ethnoracial, sexual, religious, and cultural diversity. This sympathetic engagement with diversity that has become so visible and celebrated a feature of the public life of the United States is the product of many agencies, but prominent among them are the egalitarian impulses and the capacities for self-interrogation the ecumenical Protestants brought to the great American encounter with diversity during the middle and late decades of the twentieth century. Those impulses and capacities generated a cascade of liberalizing consequences extending well beyond the diminishing domain of the mainstream churches, running through the lives and careers of countless post-Protestant Americans distributed across a wide expanse of secular space. Our narrative of modern American religious history will be deficient so long as we suppose that ecumenical Protestantism declined because it had less to offer the United States than did its evangelical rival. Much of what ecumenical Protestantism offered now lies beyond the churches, and hence we have been slow to see it.

Compelling stuff, perhaps. But were ecumenical Protestants that influential? Isn’t it more plausible to argue that they were caught up in a new zeitgeist that they had little to do with? In other words, is it correct to attribute, even in part, multicultural America to the influence of ecumenical Protestants? Does Hollinger’s celebration of the ecumenical-multiculturalist vanguard ignore the ways in which multiculturalism has worked so well alongside corporate rule, as I have discussed here and here and here? Obama is a nice synecdoche for this matrix. As the nation’s first black president, he calls attention to a “more widely dispersed and institutionally enacted acceptance of ethnoracial, sexual, religious, and cultural diversity . . .” And yet Obama has proven time and again to appease corporate interests — made evident yet again in his role in national debt ceiling ridiculousness.