Christianity’s Place in the Left and the Right

Christianity’s Place in the Left and the Right

Christianity’s Place in the Left and the Right

A conversation with historian David Hollinger about the rise of evangelicalism, the decline of mainline Protestantism, and if the country has truly become more secular.


The purpose of David Hollinger’s new book, Christianity’s American Fate, is twofold. Hollinger, the Preston Hotchkis Professor of History emeritus at UC Berkeley, first seeks to explain how Christianity in the United States became synonymous, in large measure, with conservative white evangelicalism. He then seeks to offer explanations for the decline of mainline liberal Protestantism’s influence on American culture and society.

Hollinger argues that as the mainline Protestant establishment embraced progressive ideas about race, gender, politics, and religion during the 1960s, some of its members felt uncomfortable with this rapid liberalization and turned to conservative evangelicalism instead. Many of mainline Protestantism’s more progressive members, however, came to believe that religion was no longer necessary for understanding the world, politics, and society; in turn, they embraced secular activism. Liberal Protestantism’s decline in the 1970s, Hollinger writes, coincided with the rise of conservative evangelicalism, thus explaining how religion became more conservative in the United States as society became more secular.

I spoke with Hollinger about the intellectual and political conditions that paved the way for mainline Protestantism’s decline, what its legacy holds for today, and whether its revival might be the key to overthrowing evangelicalism’s cultural dominance.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Let’s talk first about how you approached the subject of how religion became more conservative in the United States, while society became more secular. Your principle concern, and the root cause for this shift, is what you describe as the “epistemological crisis” that threatens democracy. Can you elaborate on what you mean by such an epistemological crisis?

David Hollinger: I pick up on an observation of Barack Obama and many others: Lots of Americans believe patent falsehoods and live in epistemic enclosures that keep them from hearing even the most well-substantiated and carefully explained truths: about vaccines, climate change, election outcomes, immigration, and a host of other matters of public concern. I identify evangelicalism’s slowness to accept modern standards of epistemic plausibility as a major foundation for those enclosures. But I hasten to say that what is more distinctive about my argument is that evangelicalism has flourished as a safe harbor for white Americans who want to be counted as Christians without facing the challenges of a racially and religiously diverse society and a scientifically informed culture.

DSJ: Is there a way to reconcile your emphasis on “epistemological crisis” with growing wealth inequality since the 1970s?

DH: I would have said much more about this if we did not already have a splendid literature on those dynamics. Excellent books by Kevin Kruse and Darren Dochuk, explain the rise of the religious right in its historical context. Of course the increase of wealth inequality since the 1970s created an expanding population of desperate people eager for the easy confidences offered by evangelicals, but my book concentrates on how the previous fifty years of ecumenical-evangelical conflict set the stage for how people then react, religiously, to those late-twentieth century developments. I call attention to episodes in the relation of politics to religion that are rarely analyzed or even mentioned in the existing literature, e.g., the role of the ecumenical establishment in defining the terms of the debate.

DSJ: Perhaps the main thrust of your book is dedicated to explaining the rise and fall of mainline liberal Protestant Christianity. Can you talk a bit about what made mainline Protestantism fundamentally different from Protestant evangelicalism, and why those differences did not bode well for its continued popular appeal?

DH: The ecumenical Protestantism that, about 1960, began to be called “mainline” channeled through Christianity the Enlightenment’s critical perspective on belief and its generous view of human capabilities. In so doing, ecumenical Protestants developed a set of relatively cosmopolitan initiatives against which evangelicals reacted, and by which the evangelicalism of the era since World War II has been almost entirely defined. Ecumenical Protestantism’s openness to the larger world eventually led to its own decline, as many persons born into ecumenical denominations were caught up in the diversification and secularization of American society and abandoned the churches of their parents. The proudly pluralistic, multicultural ethos of the United States by the 1990s looked much more like what the ecumenicals of 30 years earlier wanted than what was desired by their evangelical rivals. Ecumenical Protestantism has lost some of its appeal because it was largely a stepping stone, historically, to the post-Protestant secularism that has led to there now being 29 percent of the population professing no religious affiliation at all. Did ecumenical Protestants win the country while losing the church? Not quite, but there is something to the hyperbole.

DSJ: Given its differences with evangelicalism, some might argue that what the country needs is a revival of mainline Protestantism. “If only we had liberal Protestantism,” so the logic goes, “these evangelicals could be kept in check.” What do you think about this nostalgic view of things?

DH: If the ecumenicals could reclaim the franchise, so to speak, the country would be a lot better off. Non-Christians may think they don’t have a dog in that fight, but they do. Even at this time, when Christians are a smaller proportion of the American population than ever before, lots of power is in the hands of anyone who convincingly claims to speak for Christianity. But the idea of an ecumenical renewal needs to be balanced with two other ideas. One, lots of post-Protestants and post-Catholics—people who were culturally formed by Protestantism or Catholicism but no longer affirm their ancestral faith—are splendid allies for liberal Protestants; they can work together. Two, it is possible that many evangelicals will change and become less enemies of pluralism and science. Evangelicals often feel uncomfortable acknowledging their gradual liberalization, but there are signs of it.

DSJ: One wing within liberal Protestantism that does strike me as an essential loss to leftist politics is its anti-war tradition. You state, for instance, that its members—most notably Martin Luther King Jr.—were some of the earliest and most vociferous opponents of US military action in Vietnam. Indeed, the pacifist-oriented wing of liberal Protestantism played an essential role in peace movements throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Is it a coincidence that secularization of the mainline, which your book describes, coincides with the decline of the peace movement after the Vietnam War? Obama, for instance, seems much more influenced by the political realism of Reinhold Niebuhr than MLK.

DH: The anti-war tradition within mainline Protestantism was indeed substantial for many decades, culminating in widespread ecumenical opposition to the Vietnam War. But the broad anti-war movement was a major context for the decline of the mainline churches, because many people discovered that they did not need religion to understand why the Vietnam War was wrong. The anti-war movement was a great incubator of post-Protestantism: Religiously driven participants in the anti-war movement found themselves in the company of non-Christians who were just as resolute as they were.

DSJ: Let’s transition back to evangelicalism. Is there something new about the epistemological crisis of evangelicalism? What are the differences between the evangelicalism of the 1970s—its rejection of evolution, its demand for prayer in schools, its claims of the country being a Christian nation—and the problems that evangelicalism presents today?

DH: The difference is mostly one of power. The Republican Party has cultivated white evangelicals as a key voting bloc, and it has worked wonderfully. The epistemic closures in which many evangelicals lived in the 1970s or 1950s or 1930s were formidable, but they were not encouraged and relied upon by a major political party, or kept enclosed by the availability of Fox News and other mass media freed of the “fairness doctrine” that regulated news media until the Reagan administration.

DSJ: You seem to argue that the decline of the liberal mainline gave birth to the good values of the Democratic Party or to progressive possibilities that remain unrealized. But what do you make of the argument that sees the mainline as giving birth to the New Left, which itself played a decisive role in ushering in the neoliberal era?

DH: Of course, some of the roots of the New Left were in ecumenical Protestantism, and many of the young Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc., who participated in the New Left eventually became post-Protestants. I see myself as more fully demystified, working in the Darwinian tradition, holding that religious collectives, like other movements, are contingent entities generated, sustained, transformed, diminished, and sometimes destroyed by the changing circumstances of history. Does that mean that history is, as Hegel thought, a slaughter bench on which the Logos is tortured by events? Perhaps, but that’s too mystical a thought for me.

DSJ: Given the current political order of things, what positive purpose can liberal Protestantism, decades in decline, serve beyond itself now and in the future?

DH: I don’t have a strong sense of this, but I do argue that the liberal Protestant intelligentsia has been slow to challenge evangelicals in public debate on biblical interpretation. The ecumenical leadership has kept up a sophisticated conversation in the seminaries about biblical hermeneutics, but the public has reason to believe that the ecumenical/evangelical divide is mostly about racism, sexism, and homophobia. I believe it is fair to observe that the ecumenical intellectuals have been relatively silent in public about how deficient they find evangelical views of the Bible. As a result, the ecumenicals have yielded to evangelicals much of the symbolic capital of Christianity.

Might the ecumenical intellectuals have more openly and clearly proclaimed that the Bible is a literary document containing profound and instructive passages that, when integrated with modern social and intellectual experience, can serve as a cultural anchor, a foundation for community, and a source of ethical inspiration? Many theologians have insisted that the Bible is to be read not in relation to supernaturalism, but as a set of inspiring stories. Harvey Cox famously repudiated supernaturalism more than a half-century ago, but his successors have been slow to plant their flag in the Bible, with the result that the Bible belongs to the evangelicals more than ever. Can the ecumenicals reclaim the Bible? Perhaps. But to do that, you have to actually make arguments, and in public.

DSJ: Did the midterm elections reveal anything new about evangelical voting patterns?

DH: About 80 percent of evangelical voters supported Republican candidates in the midterm elections, which is the same level of support they gave to Trump as a presidential candidate. The data experts have yet to break down the vote into more precise segments, so while it is possible that evangelicals, like other voters, moved away from the Trump-chosen, election-denying candidates and supported other Republicans, the evidence for that has yet to appear. Yet here’s the big thing about the midterms: In the electorate as a whole, the strong support for abortion rights indicates a willingness of many voters to resist the theocratic trend of recent American politics. Since my book calls for exactly such resistance, I am heartened by this result. Yet the struggle to save democracy is far from over, and evangelically inspired Christian nationalism remains a formidable threat to it.

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