Protestant Liberalism Revisited – A Conversation with Historian David Hollinger

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

Thinking in Public

Mohler:   This is Thinking in Public. A program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and culture issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. David A. Hollinger is the Preston Hotchkis Professor of History at the University of California at Berkley. He’s also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been an a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow with the Center of Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, and Harmsworth Professor at the University of Oxford. He’s the past President of the Organization of American Historians, and his latest work is After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History. Professor Hollinger, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Hollinger:   Thank you.

Mohler:   I have to tell you, the first of your books that came to my attention was it seems almost twenty years ago. And that was the book Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History. And since that time I have to tell you I’ve been a bibliographic voyeur of your writings.

Hollinger:   Well, thank you so much.

Mohler:   Gone after just about everything you’ve written.

Hollinger:   Good

Mohler:   I’ve even tracked down some of your less known works, and I just want to tell you I find your approach to intellectual history just absolutely fascinating. And I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation.

Hollinger:   Good

Mohler:   And it has to do with the fact that not only is your field of study of tremendous interest, but the particular topic of your latest book, the focus. Again the title of Professor Hollinger’s book is After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History. Professor, you make the point and indeed assert that protestant liberalism is missing from the narrative that many intellectuals, secular and otherwise, have about America in the 20th century.

Hollinger:   Yeah, and this has been very frustrating to me because one of the reasons I did this book is because I thought there was actually quite a lot of evidence that liberal Protestants were a big deal. And I think one of the difficulties is that a lot of historians just sort of haven’t taken religion seriously unless they think of it as sort of wacky. And, you know, it’s very confident for secular historians to think of fundamentalists as wacky but somehow liberals, well they can’t really be relevant, or they’re not relevant to the study of religion. And I think that’s a terrible mistake because if you really want to study all aspects of modern American history these liberal Protestants are such a big deal. If you look at the United States about 1960 almost everybody, there are exceptions, okay, they’re Jewish people on the Supreme Court, there are various prominent Catholics. But by and large, in 1960 if you were in charge of something big, if you had an opportunity to actually influence the direction of the society the chances are that you grew up in a white, Protestant milieu, and that you were probably affiliated even if nominally with one of the big mainstream, as we say mainline, denominations: the Methodists, the Northern Baptists, the Presbyterians, and so forth. And without getting into over determination without saying, “Oh yeah, liberal Protestantism explains everything,” I wanted to commend this and say, “Look this is who we ought to be taking into account. We’ve got labor unions. We’ve got civil rights organizations. We’ve got congressional activity. We’ve got courts. We’ve also got liberal Protestants. Let’s talk about them.”

Mohler:   Well, let’s talk about them. And, by the way, I like the way you make that argument in your book. You say back in at least the period through the 1960’s if you ran anything big you probably were a mainline protestant.

Hollinger:   Yeah. This is a factor about American history that we ought to confront whether you like it or not. A lot of people don’t like it. They sort of wish that American history were less Protestant than it is. And, you know, I just say let’s take history as it comes.

Mohler:   Well, I like the way you take on this issue because you’re not doing what I would classify as revisionist history here. But you are going back and very clearly documenting a story that just wasn’t told, and as you said, wasn’t thought to be interesting by many people. And yet you make an argument that goes beyond just the fact that Protestant liberals were formative and influential and even essential to the narrative. You go further to suggest that they actually over and against the prevailing assumptions of, well, everyone from evangelicals to seculars. The assumption is that they lost. You’re arguing, actually, that they won.

Hollinger:   Yeah. I think the way to assess the history of religion of all kinds is to talk about what its consequences are where ever you find them. And what you have with liberal Protestantism is that beginning in the 60’s its membership goes down. But a lot of the people who we might call post-Protestants continued to be effected by that Protestant sedition. So I think it’s important to look outside the churches and look at a lot of people who were formed by ecumenical Protestantism and what their role is in the society. In making that argument I picked up on a point made maybe fifteen or twenty years ago by N.J. Demerath, a sociologist, where does he teach, UMass, and he said in this article that liberal Protestants had achieved a cultural victory while organizational defeat. And I picked that up and ran with it a little bit. They idea being that some of these ideas like tolerance and pluralism and free inquiry and being respectful of various aspects of modernity these are the things that became very popular in American life as with the liberalization in many segments. And it was liberal Protestants who were pushing this. Of course it was contested. You know there were people, like Richard Neibuhr, who used to quarrel with his famous brother, Reinhold, that liberal Protestantism under the leadership of people like Reinhold Neibuhr was too worldly, was being organized too much, about its ability to advance liberal agendas that were generated outside the faith. That’s a very common complaint by more orthodox thinkers. But whatever we think of that argument and whatever we think about orthodoxy and however we stand on the really fascinating arguments between these two great thinks, the fact is, I think, that liberal Protestantism did enable, advance, and promote a number of classically liberal ideas in the culture as a whole. And that’s just something that historians need to confront.

Mohler:   You know Demerath does argue about a cultural victory even though mainline Protestants suffered.  And I think he’s right in organizational defeat. And you say one of the problems from your perspective as a historian is that even mainline Protestants themselves thought of their relative success in terms of their church membership rather than their cultural influence.

Hollinger:   Exactly. Although I am not … a brief for liberal Protestants the ones that do engage me on this and talk about my work, I try to convince them that there’s nothing wrong with being a prophetic minority. I mean anybody who knows anything about the history of Christianity can cite all sorts of examples where people did great things without having a large popular constituency. And I think Martin Marty was right in the direction that he began to take the liberal Protestant establishment even as early as the early 1960’s, in his writing on the Christian century. What he was saying, “Look guys, we’re no longer the whole show. The old Protestant establishment is now just one of many voices and it’s no longer like a Christian country in the way that people like Henry Van Dusan used to say in the 40’s. And so we should content ourselves to be a prophetic minority. And you have some liberal Protestants who would continue to argue that. But when I follow the twaddle about the decline of liberal Protestantism a lot of these peoples are really upset that they don’t have the numbers that they used to. And, again, that’s for them to figure out. But I try to give them a little bit of encouragement and say, “You know, there’s nothing wrong with being a prophetic minority.”

Mohler:   Well, I want to talk about the numbers in just a minute because that is part of the story. But you make the argument, and, quite frankly, in a way I haven’t seen anyone else make it. And that is that if you went back to the 1960’s for instance and you spoke of the America that mainline, or you call them ecumenical, Protestants on the one hand had, and then what evangelical Protestants on the other hand, the world looks a lot more like that the liberal Protestants wanted than the one that the evangelicals hoped for.

Hollinger:   I think that’s such an important point. And I’m glad that you picked up on that. If somebody else has said it I haven’t quite, but Demerath is probably the closest to saying that. And the reason the people don’t notice it more is because the symbolic capital of Christianity is now chiefly in the possession of evangelical Protestants, and there’s a lot of attention to this. It’s politically prominent. You’ve got all these Republican congressman and so forth, and Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin and all that stuff. And so people pay attention to that and they think that that’s where the action is. Well, a large part of the action is there, but once you get outside the Republican party, once you get outside some of the major evangelical Protestant circles, then you look at the country as a whole, well if you compared with Christianity Today with say in 1960. Then what the Christian Century would say in 1960, the Christian Century is actually more in keeping with popular views today that Christianity Today. That’s talking about the whole nations. So much depends on whether or not your frame of reference is Protestant or Christianity on the one hand, and the United States on the other. And a difficulty with many of the students of American religious history, and I suppose sociology and so forth, is that when they talk about the history of these things they only talk about what stays within the community of faith. Once you get outside the body of Christ so to speak then you have all this influence of liberal Protestants in the society as a whole. So, yeah, I think this thing about if you go back and read the kind of stuff that Carl Henry was writing in 1960 and then you look at the kind of stuff that Harold Fay and Martin Marty and these guys were writing, that in these cases we now days would find fault with it no matter what our political or religious orientation would be. We might be a little bit embarrassed by it in one way or another, but there’s no question who won the argument nationally. So that’s why it’s really important to say who controls the spiritual capital, the symbolic capital, of Christianity. Answer: the evangelicals by and large. Who controls politics and culture of the United States? The liberals by and large. I hope that makes sense to you.

Mohler:   Oh, it makes so much sense. That’s what I really wanted to talk about here and focus on. And as an evangelical I have to say that I think you hit that squarely at a point of not only accuracy but of profound importance. And Carl Henry was a personal mentor to me, and I would say that the world as it is now, you’re right, is far more in line with what Martin Marty, another good friend, would want rather than Carl Henry. And Martin Marty’s been able to see it through all these decades come to pass. In your article there is a chapter in the book entitled, “The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment: And Old Drama Still Being Enacted.” I read it first when it was published in Daedalus, you use two different moves; you identify two different aspects of this accommodationism that mainline Protestantism affected. And I’d like for you to talk about those two things. And the first of them had to do with a cognitive move. And that is the very essence, I would argue as a theologian, of theological liberalism.

Hollinger:   Yeah, there I talk about what I call cognitive demystification and demographic diversification. And these seem to me to be two really huge processes in American history when we talk about religion and what happens to it. Now the story of cognitive demystification even though that’s not the term that turns up very often, the concept is actually an old one because we talk about the Darwinian revolution and natural history. And when we talk about the development of biblical historical criticism, you know Charles Augustus Briggs and all those people, there we talk about a series of ideas that were embedded in a religious tradition that then become as we say demystified, meaning that the people in the Darwinian science thing and the people in the higher criticism were saying, “Hey, wait a minute, we’ve been the victim of a series of mystical ideas but they’re not really accurate. And we need to have an accurate understanding of what’s really going on.” So it’s an enterprise of demystification. And that’s sort of the standard story of secularization as told by all the great sociologists, you know Weber, Durkheim, and all these people. And so you have this process and it goes on in one episode after another. It’s also contested, people who are, “Oh, that’s not real science,” as Charles Hodge used to say. “Oh that’s science falsely so called.” …there are quarrels. They’re not saying it’s not contested. But the overall thing by the time they get down to the 20th century of massive numbers of educated people really saying that science is what tells us the way the world is about, and the Bible is a great set of stories that we can take or leave, but it’s not really something that tells us about the way the world is. So cognitive demystification is something that the liberals developed so that you have all these liberal versions of theology, all these liberal versions of what Christianity is. And William James is one of my great examples of that and there are a lot of others. I mean I would say Rauch and Bush, Lieber, I mean a lot of the great accommodationists, William Ellery Channing was a great cognitive demystifier. All the way down to Harvey Cox and some of the death of God theologians. So you’ve got all of that going on in and out of religious communities. Then at the same time you have demographic diversification. Now that’s something that’s not been discussed as much, and I think it’s really important because what happens is that a lot of Americans with their particular faith community find themselves in this radically, pluralistic, immigration intensive society, surrounded by a lot of other folks who have different tribal traditions, different ideas of what’s really true, different notions as to what even Christianity is. And so that’s why of course the United States is a great place for denominationalism. You don’t have denominationalism on nearly the scale developed in a lot of other societies, but you do in the United States; and this plural kind of stuff. And you have people who are sort of living next door that are really different from you. Now if you’re acculturated into a view that you know what’s real and you know what’s true and then you encounter a lot of people reasonably wholesome which you overcome the standard tribal antagonism toward them. And they seem sort of okay, but they have very different views. That begins to diminish the confidence in orthodoxy.

Now the great example of that in terms of the most educated segment of the population is the coming of Jewish intellectuals in the United States in the middle decades of the 20th century. What the Jewish intellectuals do to academia is really profound, so that you go from a 1920’s in which even secular universities had a de facto Protestant culture in a sort of default understanding that Protestantism was the common frame for everybody. And you get into the 1960’s where the universities become the most conspicuous institutional space in the whole United States where Christianity is not taken for granted as a sort of default frame for cultural development. So these people are not Christians and one after another the interaction that’s reported at Yale or Berkeley or Chicago or … whatever, you have these people that are really different and they don’t seem so bad. I mean they seem okay. Now this is paralleled by a really interesting development that I’m now writing a book on which is what happens with the Protestant missionary project. Now this is also an enterprise in democratic and demographic diversification.  Cause you get all these Methodists and Presbyterians. They go to China. They go to India. They’re going to convert the heathens. They know how bad those creeps are over there. They come back and they say, “Wait a minute. These people aren’t so bad.” So E. Stanley Jones in 1925 writes The Christ of the Indian Road, a book that sold more copies than Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, and he says, “Look all you Christians in Dubuque and Harrisburg, you should stop trying to impose your parochial … on the Hindus because those people like Gandhi are actually more Christ-like than you are.” This is a very tough speech coming out of a lot of the missionaries. So the missionaries come back and they undercut the provincial faith of a lot of the American … radical liberalizers. But the point that I want to make is that the Jewish immigration and the foreign missionary project are both episodes in demographic diversification that yield liberalization. So if you look at the history of the Presbyterians or the Congregationalists who are the big liberals in the 1940’s and 50’s? The bishop.


Mohler:   This conversation with Professor David Hollinger is really important because even though we’re talking about Protestant liberals these same issues, especially the twin issues of cognitive demystification and demographic diversification, these are things that have direct impact on evangelical Christianity as well. We’re watching in a sense how mainline Protestants, liberal Protestants, responded to the challenges of modernity by these two moves. And it’s often easy for us to imagine that evangelicals are innocent of these two moves ourselves. But we need to watch, we need to look a little more carefully, to see just watch mainline Protestants were doing with these two big intellectual moves.


Mohler:   Professor Hollinger, when you talk about cognitive demystification you’re talking about what the prophets, the early prophets of secularization, called the loss of enchantment, or disenchantment, and what more modern sociologists like James Davison Hunter called cognitive bargaining. In other words, in the conflict, you might even say the collision, between theistic truth claims, indeed revelational claims based on the Scriptures as Christians with the claims of modernity, this creates an intellectual crisis. You’re suggesting as I follow your argument that the liberal Protestants actually rather successfully in terms of a cultural strategy accommodated by this mechanism of cognitive demystification. And it put them at a better position at least culturally speaking to effect change in the culture.

Hollinger:   That’s right. We need to understand that religion in America, Protestantism in America, consists to a very large extent of this accommodation with the enlightenment. And that’s really quite different than what happens in France or Germany or many of the European countries because the United States is such a Protestant, religious intensive country to begin with. So a lot of the intellectuals that are embedded in that, even the scientists, are very eager for the harmony of science and religion. So they come up with this series of strategies for doing this, and one of the reasons that the Darwinian controversy was such a big deal in the United States is that so many of the religious thinkers were eager to come up with ways that they could accommodate evolution and still be Christians. And, again, the more orthodox types, like the Princeton theology people and so forth, they didn’t want any part of it. And then after 1911 the fundamentalists didn’t want any part of it. But the massive majority of American church-going Protestants especially the intellectuals that were part of Andover Seminary and so forth, or the preachers they went very far in the direction. Henry Ward Beecher is an example of that, you know, stick with a lot of the British evolutionists. I think that the history of liberal Protestantism in the United States consists very largely of a determination on the part of Protestant leading intellectuals to bring the enlightenment into Protestantism rather than treat the enlightenment as an enemy of Protestantism.

Mohler:   And about a decade ago in a journal article you made the point that in the higher educational environment a science is recognized to have cognitive superiority. So, this cognitive demystification especially in the context of the university culture where mainline Protestants definitely started the elites educated, the culture being formed, they basically had to bend to this cognitive superiority of science. So the accommodation I’m going to argue was pretty much one way. It wasn’t a truce between science and theism. The Protestant liberals basically just had to accept the overwhelming sense of the cognitive superiority of science and just deal with it.

Hollinger:   I would say that it’s a two way street if you count the doctrines of the liberal Protestants as in some way authentically Christian because they have different ideas. I mean if you look at somebody like Newman Smyth or George Harris around the turn of the century. Or if you look later at somebody like Shailer Matthews at Chicago, you look at a lot of the people that Gary Dorrien talks about in his magnificent history of American theology, you know, these guys are affirming Christianity by their own lights. And so what they’re saying is that as a result of the progress of science we are able to articulate a more authentic and workable Christianity because we have at our disposal a lot of stuff that the Nicaean fathers didn’t have. We have at our disposal a lot of things that Jesus didn’t have. We have a lot of stuff at our disposal that the Reformers didn’t have. Martin Luther was a good guy, but, you know we’ve got science; he didn’t. So, there’s a matter of taking all of these resources, and I think a lot of these liberals would view the entire history of Christian thought as a series of accommodations with what contemporary circumstances were, and that they were opposed to these — orthodoxy. It’s like somehow people in the 17th century got everything right. So the Hasidic Jews have got Judaism right. The Amish have got Protestantism right. So, what the liberals are saying is, “Wait a minute. All of those are historically contingent moments in the development of the faith. So, we now in 1896 and 1926 and 1946 we’re going to do the best we can on that.” Now that’s what liberalism is. So when Gary Dorrien and the other students of liberalism talk about liberal thought that’s what they mean by it. Now from an orthodox perspective you can argue that all this is just a mistake. Well these people are just selling out. “Oh, they’re not Christians; they’ve gone over to the other side.” So I understand that there’s room for contest there, and there were quarrels about that; but the story that I tell in my book, it’s a standard story of liberalization through cognitive demystification demographic diversification.

Mohler:   I think to make the point you make in your book, you actually take it all the way when you use an example such as John A.T. Robinson, bishop there in Great Britain, you make the point that this cognitive demystification went all the way to practical atheism. In which there was no theism whatsoever. And you also make, and I think almost poetically, you make the point that for many people, especially in the intellectual elites, liberal, and you choose to call it ecumenical Protestantism, and I understand why, but liberal Protestantism basically became, and I think this is your phrase, a “halfway house to a post-Protestant secularism.” It was a way out.

Hollinger:   Definitely. And I think that that point has to be made firmly and unapologetically while at the same time insisting that this is not necessarily a paleological thing where everybody follows the halfway house. Halfway houses are sometimes places that people stay forever. So I don’t want to be in the position of saying all of Protestantism is somehow doomed to some secular future. Although there are sociologists now who would say that – Steve Bruce, David Boaz – I mean a lot of people to some extent. I don’t think Mark Chaves would go that far. But a lot of the sociologist are seeing more and more indications of the demise of Christianity, and they’re more inclined than we historians to do — kind of stuff.

Mohler:   They have been for a long time. That’s not new.

Hollinger:   No, they have. But I’m saying that right now, I mean, I think for a long time after Peter Berger and David Martin and some of these other guys pulled back, there was all this talk about post-secular and how secularization had been a mistake. But you know the last five years the kind of stuff that’s coming out now, you have a resurgence of secularization theory. And my point now is not to make a judgment about that. What I’m saying is that from the point of view of the history that I write I always want to recognize that you don’t know what the future is going to be. And while a lot of people who went into liberal Protestantism as a halfway house to secularism, that doesn’t mean that everybody is going to do that. I mean a favorite example of mine, actually, to switch to the liberal Catholics, is Jim Carroll, who you probably know. And this fantastic book of his, Practicing Catholic, he published four or five years ago, there he is a savage critic of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. I mean defending his own Catholic stuff, and he says the only way I can become a true Catholic was to leave the priesthood and so on. But I mean there you have the vindication of Catholic liberalism. Now I would never want to be party to anybody who said, “Oh Jim Carroll isn’t a real Catholic.” You know it’s not my judgment to say that he’s not a real Catholic. What I can say is that ideas very much like Jim’s are those that some people go through on their way to something else. And I just think that’s a historic reality. We historians are probably a little too stiff about resisting predictions. So I’m acknowledging that with some of language probably betrays a little bit more of the sociology than it should.

Mohler:   I think the halfway house metaphor though is very helpful. It explains a reality that, historian or not, one who looks at mainline Protestantism can see. When you talk about these two moves of accommodation that were characteristic of the Protestant liberals, cognitive demystification and demographic diversification, you know, Peter Berger, and you mentioned this kind of shift in the last few years in secularization theory, Peter Berger has come back to say that he thinks now the major impact of secularization in the United States is what he calls pluralization, very much like your second move here.

Hollinger:   I’ll have to go back and look him up then. That’s good. I haven’t followed him recently.

Mohler:   Well, he talks about how the existence of plural worldviews has actually been far more secularizing than the hard truth claims of modernity. In other words the evangelicals, I’ll just say, I think have had a stronger set of defenses against the anti-supernaturalism of the elites than against the pluralization, or, as you would say in the demographic diversification. All of a sudden having an eighteen year old goes to college, and moves into the dorm and they’re people with alternative worldviews all around them. He’s never seen that before. That turns out, I think, to be a more potent engine for accommodation on the evangelical side than the anti-supernaturalism.

Hollinger:   That makes perfect sense to me. I’m glad to learn that there’s more and more evidence of that consistent with what I’ve been arguing for the good.

Mohler:   When you talk about mainline Protestants just to continue the story, you do get to the numbers. And even as Demerath did twenty years ago almost, you point out the fact that numerically mainline Protestantism or liberal Protestants have basically disappeared into the mainstream culture. But you point out that this wasn’t all due to the intellectual moves. You point out that there was a fall off on the birth rate that came even prior to this.

Hollinger:   This is a huge thing and my colleague, Mike Hout the sociologist, has been very important in making this clear. Because what happens is that the ecumenical Protestant milieu was much more friendly to the idea that women should be doing a lot of stuff other than following Ephesians 5:24, and that it was fine for them to be out in the world and in the work force, and sex for reasons other than procreation was just fine. And so you have the liberals then moving in a direction, accepting contraception at a much earlier time, so in the whole baby boom years, Presbyterian women only averaged 1.6 births; whereas evangelical Protestants averaged 2.4 which is many more even than the Catholics. And you know we always have this twaddle about Catholics not having birth control. But the evangelical Protestants then produce all these young people. So I think that birth rates are very important. And then that sort of feeds upon itself because the liberal Protestants find themselves with fewer and fewer women of childbearing age. So they don’t bear as many children cause there aren’t as many of them to bear children. And then in the meantime a lot of the young people have decided that they’ve had enough of this, and that secular views as they invite them from Harvey Cox and all these people mean that sticking with the old faith isn’t that important. We can liberate the captives as Harvey Cox put it by going into — or something else.

I tell a story in the book about motive and about the gay and lesbian Methodists moving out of the Methodist church because they found it so oppressive. So I think that there are a lot of things that are related to birth rates and they’re cultural. I mean it’s not that birth rates occur in a vacuum, but the birth rate differential had to do with intellectual and cultural distinctions between the ecumenical liberal Protestants on one hand and the evangelical Protestants on the other. It’s a crucial part of the story, and Mike Hout is chiefly responsible for it.

Mohler:   There are deep theological issues involved there as well. And one of the interesting sidelines to that would be the immediate response to the contraceptive question in terms of mainline Protestants. And the literature is really thick because you’ve got these mainline Protestants celebrating the contraceptive revolution with rather triumphalisitc language suggesting that this is really going to be a disaster for Catholicism.

Hollinger:   Yep. Oh well of course these mainline Protestants were vehemently anti-Catholic, I mean that’s a very important part of this story.

Mohler:   Well you make the point that they were far more anti-Catholic than anti-Semitic.

Hollinger:   Oh, absolutely. Well, you know, Catholics are not mentioned in the Bible. Jews are. That doesn’t sort of tell the whole story. But indeed Catholics were a great threat. I mean all these people in the Federal Council of Churches back in the 1940’s and 50’s, people like G. Bromley Oxnam, they were very deeply anti-Catholic. And you know a lot of support, Paul Blanchard, Blanchard is a very interesting character in the history of American religion, insufficiently analyzed and I think underappreciated. But that was part of this whole anti-Catholic thing that went on at the time. And then if you look at what the Catholics were doing, I mean they were like opposing the dissemination of birth control information in the state of Connecticut. And it was like it wasn’t as though there was nothing to discuss. So when I say they’re anti-Catholic, I don’t just mean that they’re biased although manifestly they were. But they were also dealing with some actual concrete issues that you could be concerned about even if you were not biased.

Mohler:   It also got to the issue of intellectual authority because you make the point in your earlier work that as the Jews came into the university culture the mainline Protestants discovered that they were Jews by identity, even many cases by practice, but there was no intellectual authority that was in any way a rival to the educational establishment. Whereas on the other hand the Catholic Church is by its definition constituted around a teaching magisterium and was not so easily accommodated in the university culture.

Holllinger:   Absolutely. That’s very crucial. And one of the reasons again that the Jews are so important in this context is because they all espoused epistemic universalism. And then when you get feminism and black power and so forth you have although eventually those ideas are discredited very widely but you have a kind of gender and ethno-racial essentialism according to which there’s a black perspective on things. Or Carol Gilligan used to say there’s a female voice and all this kind of stuff. Well, nobody said in 1958 that there was a Jewish voice, at least no one who made it in American academia. So that’s again why the Jews are very special because they carry out demographic diversification and in the process they espouse the epistemic universalism of the enlightenment. So many of them are secular to begin with, so it’s the combination of the secularity of the Jewish intelligentsia coming in from Europe, and the fact that they’re so different, that’s what really makes them crucial players in this whole process. Now they were actually not as upset about the Catholics as the Protestants. I mean they saw the Catholics as the minority, and they sort of were annoyed by them, but they thought that they were in the thrall of medieval superstition and all that. But they really weren’t worked up about it. Whereas the liberal Protestant establishment was very afraid that the Catholics would take over the country, and that’s one of the reasons why they developed National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches because they feel that ecumenical unity is the only way to stop the Catholic —

Mohler:   So let me ask you to look at the present. And I know you’re a historian and that’s where you’ve been doing so much work. But you are telling a story pretty much up to the present here. And looking at the present, maybe even speculating about the future, what do you see as the future prospects for mainline liberal Protestantism? Where does it go from here?

Hollinger:   You know I wish I had better answer to that than I do. Because one possible path for them is more of the same, and I’m not sure that would be a bad thing. Another possible path for them would be more energetic engagement against evangelicals, and I’ve been at a number of forums where this is debated. And somebody will stand up and say Harry Emerson Fosdick was not afraid to attack the fundamentalists; we are. Shouldn’t we do more about this? And then there would be arguments back and forth as to whether that wouldn’t be destructive in the long run. And then you get into this fascinating discussion as to whether from a local Protestant point of view the salient solidarity is the community of faith or is the salient solidarity a liberal view generally. Now if the salient solidarity is the liberal view generally then liberal Protestants, liberal Catholics, and secularists, secular liberals can all be part of the same thing, and the enemy, if I may, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

But then there’s another way of looking at it. And that is that the community of faith is the salient solidarity. And evangelicals and the ecumenical should not be so quarrelsome with one another. And we need to find an alliance whereby to deal with the real enemy which is secularism. So I heard these arguments carried out. I don’t have a strong feeling about it. The one prediction that I would mention is this: I think that evangelical Protestantism of the kind that is voiced in politics by Governor Perry in Texas by Sarah Palin by Michelle Bachmann by Senator Coburn in Oklahoma, and so forth, I think that particular style of evangelical Protestantism is going to continue to be a very prominent feature of American life for a long time. I don’t agree with the people who say it’s about to go away. Now the reason I think that is because of the Electoral College and because of the way the congress is organized and because of the redistricting. What this means is that one of the major political parties, the Republican Party, given its constituency, it has great opportunity to continue advance this particular style of religion. And so people who are invested in that are very likely to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to them by the Republican Party. And so I think that just the way that if we do have the Electoral College and if the congressional district is organized differently then the big blue states, California, coastal California, New York, Boston, Chicago, and so forth, would have a much greater role in American public affairs than we do. If that were the case then evangelical Protestantism with its political alliance with the Republican Party would be more likely to diminish. But given the political context I think evangelical Protestantism is here to stay. And I keep telling my friends, “Get used to it.”

Mohler:   Indeed, in your book you summarize the research of Robert Putnam and David Campbell when you write, “There are fewer and fewer political liberals in any church, and fewer and fewer political conservatives outside the churches.” So there’s a very clear distinction.

Hollinger:   Yeah, that’s a remarkable fact, I think, about American politics today.

Mohler:   Well, Professor Hollinger, thank you for a most interesting conversation and for a most important new book. I’ll look forward to your new book on the impact of Protestant missions on this liberalizing tendency.


Mohler:   Well I think you can see why I was looking forward to that conversation with Professor David Hollinger. The chapters of his new book, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History, have been coming out in academic journals and they have definitely been a very interesting introduction to where he was going as this book now finds its final form. He’s looking at American Protestant liberalism. And by the way he refers to liberal Protestants as ecumenical Protestants as over against evangelical Protestants because he thinks the word liberal can easily be confused with political liberalism and because the mainline as he says is just an anachronism. So ecumenical Protestants on the one hand and evangelical Protestants on the other have both suffered a relative disinterest from many historians. But it’s David Hollinger who now comes back to say the neglect of an interest of Protestant liberals, in these ecumenical Protestants, means that you really can’t tell the story of the 20th century. As a historian that’s the story he wants to tell. His field is intellectual history and he is a master in that field; indeed, a very dominant figure. And when you look at this newest book you note that what Professor Hollinger is doing is filling in the gaps in a story that tells us how we arrived in the 21st century in terms of the major intellectual moves of the last century. And many of the people making those moves were, as he said, mainline Protestants. Indeed, I really like the way he has of expressing the dominance of these mainline liberal Protestants in their era. As he says, even into the 1960’s if you were running almost anything big in America you were probably a mainline Protestant. You thought of yourself as an Episcopalian, or a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Congregationalist, members of the Disciples of Christ church, or a Northern Baptist. You saw yourself, and, by the way, the overwhelming majority of those were Episcopalians, the higher you got in the establishment. Or if not Episcopalians, then Presbyterians, then you saw yourself as very much a part of the mainstream. And as Hollinger makes very clear you wanted to stay in that mainstream. As the mainstream secularized as the full impact of modernity as they intellectual challenges of the enlightenment came upon them, especially with full force in the 20th century, mainline Protestants responded by accommodating. That accommodationism came in the two forms that Professor Hollinger so well describes. Cognitive demystification, that’s the theological or ideological move whereby theistic truth claims are cut down to size so that they fit within a secular worldview. And as Professor Hollinger makes clear, perhaps more clear in his writings even than in this conversation, when you had the theistic truth claims come over against the claims of science and the academy, science always won. Over ten years ago Professor Hollinger wrote about the necessity of people who are looking at intellectual history to recognize the cognitive superiority of science in the academy to such an extent that not only Christianity, but for that matter, even those in the liberal arts had to bend intellectually to the superiority of science and its truth claims if they wanted to be at the heart of the intellectual experiment there in the 20th century. Cognitive demystification is what we would otherwise call theological liberalism. It is the accommodationism whereby the anti-supernatural truth claims of the enlightenment force an accommodation in theology and the surrender of significant doctrinal content.

Now Professor Hollinger is not himself a mainline Protestant. Writing as a secular historian he makes that very clear. And he basically thinks that move on the part of mainline Protestants was both cogent and wise. In other words it kept them in the mainstream. And that second move demographic diversification, the reason why the liberal Protestants were there before evangelicals is because the liberal Protestants were in the places where this kind of demographic diversification happened first; for instance, in the American university campus. And as this pluralization, as Peter Berger would call it, takes place you have people beginning to perhaps even less consciously than before trim their intellectual sails, begin to minimize some of their theistic truth claims, begin certainly to surrender any kind of claim of exclusivity, especially the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is where Professor Hollinger speaks of epistemic universalism as one of the entry prices, the ticket prices, into the cultural mainstream. What we’re looking at here is also a very honest assessment of Protestant liberalism. Honest in the sense that I think Professor Hollinger is exactly right. If you  had the editorial boards of The Christian Century and Christianty Today reconstituted from the 1960’s the world would be more like that that the editors of The Christian Century wanted and clearly articulated in terms of their hopes; far less than that of the editorial board of Christianity Today. Now what’s questionable is the extent to which mainline Protestants really had anything to do with that. They certainly did follow the accommodationist’s moves that Professor Hollinger demonstrates here and illustrates. But the extent to which that actually shaped the culture, that remains to be analyzed. And that’s where many other historians coming along after Professor Hollinger and before him would say you know all this is true, but we’re not certain how important it is. Professor Hollinger thinks it’s important because it’s an essential part of the American story. And he makes this clear by looking at figures such as John Foster Dulles and others who were so central in terms of American life in the 20th century, and could not have thought of themselves as anything other than Christians; and in particular as Protestants. And in his case Presbyterian

There is so much in this conversation that should prompt our thinking. One of the things that certainly came to my mind is the way that Professor Hollinger contrasted the ecumenical Protestants with the evangelical Protestants in birth rate. But I wish our conversation would have been able to continue to what comes after birth rate. And that’s the retention of those who were born to the families of these two different groups. Because as Professor Hollinger makes clear, the evangelicals were not only having more children, as he says, they had more children and they kept them. One of the stories that is essential to telling the tale of liberal Protestantism in the 20th century is especially in the last five decades the virtual inability of mainline Protestants to keep their own children. And Hollinger tells why as he says, “When these churches secularized, their children found a way to be secular without needing the church.” And that should be a very cogent warning to evangelicals who are facing many of the same temptations even now. But that’s the bigger part of the story, isn’t it?

Looking at the history of mainline Protestantism and at Protestant liberalism we come to understand cognitive demystification is the temptation that still is always around us. It is only getting more intense as a matter of fact in terms of the pressures of late modernity. The enlightenment challenges are still everywhere around us, perhaps even more taken for granted in an increasingly secularized society. And yet evangelicals, most of whom at least have the concern about cognitive demystification, are often far less concern about demographic diversification, or again as Peter Berger says, pluralization. And so our young people arrive in the intellectual context of the college or university and in so many cases then if not before they run into rival truth claims and worldviews and they don’t know what to do. And I think a clear case can be made that this demographic diversification has been far more an engine for theological accommodationism among evangelicals than has cognitive demystification. In other words, we’re better at recognizing theological accommodationism when people say that’s what they’re doing rather than when we see it the result of where they’re living.

If you want to understand the mind of the age or the mind of the ages behind us, you have to look at intellectual history as a very serious discipline. And no one has contributed more to that in America’s public and educational life then David Hollinger. It was a privilege to have this conversation with him. And I hope these ideas have prompted thinking on your part as well so that this will lead to a conversation far beyond Thinking in Public.

Before I close I want to invite you to join us here on The Southern Seminary Campus on September 26 for one extraordinary day to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Carl F.H. Henry. Hosted here in convenient partnership with the Beeson Divinity School, Fuller Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Union University, this one day event will feature addresses from some of evangelicalism’s most prominent theologians and the heirs of Henry’s legacy. 100 years after his birth, Carl Henry’s vision for a confessional and global evangelicalism remains as timely as ever. For more information go to

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.