Part I – Learning from the Past
Chapter 4 – The Mainline Protestant Tradition in the Twentieth Century: Positive Lessons and Cautionary Tales.
By Max L. Stackhouse and Raymond R. Roberts. Stackhouse is the Rimmer and Ruth de Vries Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life at Princeton Theological Seminary and director of the Kuyper Center for Public Theology. Roberts is an author and pastor.
The authors start their discussion of public policy in mainline Protestantism during the Twentieth Century by noting the cultural upheaval at the beginning of the period. There was rapid economic change, increased immigration and increased urbanization. Reform movements were addressing slums, corporate business practices and crime. A split began to emerge within the Protestant ranks. Evangelists like Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday held revivals to achieve individual conversions and thereby save society. Many mainline Protestants participated in these movements as well, but there was a growing sense that personal conversion was not enough. Systemic issues needed to be addressed.
Led by thinkers like Washington Gladden, Richard T. Ely, Walter Rauschenbusch and Shailer Matthews, mainline Protestants began to throw there energies into efforts to “Christianize the social order.” They created para-ecclesial organizations like the YMCA and YWCA, settlement houses and mission societies. The strategy eventually became what is referred to as the “Social Gospel.”
The Federal Council of Churches was formed in 1908 consisting of the American Baptist Churches, the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Churches in America, the Congregational Christian Churches who joined with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to become the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church, along with several African-American denominations. This group generally became synonymous with mainline Protestantism. Their first public policy statement, which addressed the need for a number of social and economic reforms, was called the “Social Creed.”
The authors point out that the mainline Denominations were generally optimistic about their efforts to make the Twentieth Century the “Christian Century” up until at least the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The authors write,
This movement had its triumphs, but many in the leadership of mainline Protestantism, those in the seminaries and those in the church bureaucracies, became more and more alienated from American society and sometimes even contemptuous of piety and patriotism of most church members. The “New Left” movements against the Vietnam War, with which many mainline clergy identified, alienated many politically; the common view of these same clergy that capitalism was the source of selfishness and poverty while socialism had the message of community and sharing alienated many economically; and the development of “situation ethics” and “contextualism” in morality alienated many culturally. (79)
Stackhouse and Roberts go on to note that the mainline Denominations have declined in membership by about one third over the last third of the century. Meanwhile, evangelical churches have been growing.
The authors then turn their attention to the cultural engagement by the mainline Protestants as the seek to determine what can be learned from the mainline experience. The following headings are those of the authors.
A Century of Engagement
Stackhouse and Roberts point out that cultural engagement in the early Twentieth century was the continuation of a tradition extending back to the Puritans. However, in the Twentieth Century, mainline Protestants began to believe that those denominations that would later become known as the fundamentalists and evangelicals too narrowly defined the church in terms of personal conversion and personal piety. As the mainliners pursued their agenda of greater cultural engagement they increasingly become exposed to international issues and there was a growing integration of activity and thought with other fellowships on a global scale. With this in mind the authors turn to four topics for analysis.
The early Twentieth Century economic engagement by mainliners was influenced by the thinking in Max Weber’s highly influential “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” The basic thesis was that the Reformation heritage had instilled values of disciplined investment, industry, and thrift in its adherents. Therefore, capitalism was a by-product of Reformation Christianity. (I might add that this thesis is rejected by scholars today.) The mainliners believed that industrialization was the best way to a prosperous economy but they wanted to soften the raw edges.
As things progressed toward the middle third of the century, the thinking of scholars like Rienhold Niebuhr and “Christian Realism” began to have influence. Joined by theologians like Paul Tillich and Karl Barth on both sides of the Atlantic, this school of thought held that selective use of Marxist analysis could yield important critiques of capitalism. Nevertheless, they were aware that much of socialism,
…was driven by utopian illusions, a false anthropology, and a militant contempt for profound religion and its social meanings. … Still, they conveyed a suspicion of capitalism to their students, even if it was capitalism constrained by growing bodies of law and by democratic policies that gave unions and government power to check the abuses of a free market, and that provided a safety net for widows, orphans, the ill, the elderly, and handicapped citizenry. (83)
The civil rights movements and the “War on Poverty” refocused much of the mainline agenda in the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, liberation theology, which embraced a more explicit Marxist analysis, became the perspective adopted by developing and poor nations. Many seminaries and bureaucracies in mainline Protestant denominations embraced this theology to the point that the authors claim it became the “unofficial orthodoxy in the activist wings.” Liberation theology was widely rejected by the rank and file in the mainline denominations and the radical commitment to this view only served to alienate and isolate denominational leaders from their members. There were many in scholarly fields who also opposed the exploitation of poor but believed that democratic capitalism was still the appropriate response. The authors suggest that these folks were "pilloried" by colleagues and mainline leaders.
Some began to turn to “Secularization Theory” which taught that modernization, urbanization, and technological development inevitably led to secularization, a theory widely disputed by scholars today. Nevertheless, this thinking continued to hold considerable sway among seminarians and church leaders, further alienating them form people in their pews.
The Reagan-Thatcher elections changed and reversed much of the ideology of past economic thinking. Countries around the world are now struggling to throw off statist governments and become free market democracies. As globalization spreads, there is a widening gap between the richest and the poorest but there is also a rapidly expanding middle class across the globe. Mainline traditions find themselves wrestling with how to responsibly shape capitalism in a global society.
Stackhouse and Roberts note that at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, mainliners were focused on domestic issues and largely isolationist. They feared that involvement in international politics would corrupt politics in the United States. The “Christian Realists” began to emerge in the middle third of the century emphasizing human sinfulness and the tendency toward corruption. They tended to defend democracy as they challenged fascism and communism.
The Federal Council of Churches issued a statement in 1942 called “The Six Pillars of Peace” that outlined a post World War II strategy for peace. However, the advent of nuclear weaponry challenged conventional thinking and “just war” thinking re-emerged as the dominant paradigm for thinking about these issues. Just war theory contained the ideal of not targeting noncombatants. As time went by, applying just war theory in a nuclear age seemed problematic and most mainline denominations adopted a de facto pacifist position.
As noted in the section about economics, there was decided shift to Marxist critique in the 1960s and 1970s. The nature of political engagement changed.
“Many defined political engagement less as building coalitions to advance policies called for by clear theological principles, and more as using the techniques of the protest demonstration to oppose policies or practices in operation.” (88)
Also underway in the later decades of the Twentieth Century was a deconstruction of America as a Christian nation. Stackhouse and Roberts conclude this section by noting:
“Many have given up efforts at Christianizing society by means of overtly advocating biblically and theologically based principles in public life, in favor of intentional “inclusivity” and “diversity” couched in liberal political terms. This has left many mainline Protestants searching for new ways to faithfully engage a pluralistic and fallen society.” (89)
III. Family and Cultural Institutions
Stackhouse and Roberts write that mainline Protestants carried forward Victorian era ideas of family well into the Twentieth Century. With the rapid change in technology and the advent of World War II, many opportunities opened up to women that had not previously been available. There was tremendous change happening within the family and many mainline leaders were reluctant about "imposing their values" in a time of redefinition. In keeping with the trend to look to science and experts for guidance, mainliners “…offered pastoral care ministry that tended to be strong on 'therapeutic' care and weak on normative guidance about the conduct of life.” (90)
With radical changes in values in the 1960s, a virtually secular view of marriage as a private temporary contract took hold replacing the classic sacramental and covenantal views. Feminist theologies emerged that criticized traditional forms of marriage as patriarchal. Support for gay rights led many denominational leaders to “…mute their support for traditional heterosexual marriage.” (91) The authors note that to date mainline denominations have made little concerted effort to address the dissolution of the family.
Stackhouse and Roberts go on to note a couple of other trends that emerged. Starting in the 1960s, the mainline Protestants largely abandoned the radio and television airwaves to fundamentalists and evangelicals. Particularly confounding to the authors was the abandonment of higher education, divesting themselves of institutions that had been founded to train future leaders for church and society. The authors suggest that in there preoccupation to address economic and political realms, mainliners lost sight of the importance of the institutions of civil society including the growing influence of the corporation.
IV. Sources of Authority
Stackhouse and Roberts use the “quadrilateral” idea of authority (i.e., our authority for faith and life is based on Scripture, tradition, reason and experience) in their analysis of soruces of authority. This is usually associated with Methodism but the authors believe it is reflective of most of Twentieth Century Christianity. The conflict has been over the emphases.
Natural and social sciences were embraced by mainliners to the point that the authors describe the social sciences as the hand maidens of the Social Gospel. Reason and science would help purge Christianity of pre-modern superstition. Evangelicals tended to distrust science, human reason and higher criticism, resorting to either anti-intellectualism or rationalist apologetics to keep the Bible as the center of authority. The authors note that the impact of the influential Karl Barth tended to be skepticism toward “natural reason” and toward reliance on experience, leading to an array of responses from nondisclosure of what influenced one's ethics to a postmodern rejection of correspondence between words and the world. They also note that, “Toward the end of the century, liberation and feminist voices claimed that the experience of oppression conveys authoritative knowledge.” (97) This led to a tendency to rely on experience alone to judge other sources of knowledge. In recent years, there has been much debate and conversation about the mainline and evangelical sources of authority and attempts are being made to reconcile authority issues.
1. Theological Guidance – Mainliners use of biblical themes and understandings in an endless attempt to be the Church “reformed and always being reformed.”
2. Common Cause – Mainliners have had an inclination toward ecumenical partnership in achieving witness and ministry.
1. Speaking without a base – The tendency to “speak the truth to power” without an underlying base of support, thus alienating leaders from the grassroots of the church. Evangelicalism has had a much better sense of the need to “…build grassroots communities of commitment willing to shape life not from the top down or from the bottom up, but from the center out, in civil societies where it is lived.” (99)
2. Doing without Transformation – “…The propensity for many mainline Protestants to think that God calls the church to do, rather than to be.” (99) This tends to lead to a trivialization of personal piety and the need for individual transformation.
3. Neglect of Institutions – Mainliners have favored movements instead of institutions. They have been more preoccupied with protesting institutions rather than incarnating them.
All in all I think the authors have captured well the major themes. I generally share there final assessment.