By Alan Bean
The Christian Century has a fascinating interview with Berkeley Professor David Hollinger who argues that “ecumenical Protestants” (he intentionally avoids the word “liberal”) shifted American culture in positive directions because they were willing to go to the wall on issues like civil rights.
This view conflicts with Ross Douthat’s critique of liberal Christianity, expressed most recently in the New York Times’ Sunday Review that liberal denominations have declined numerically because they are “flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”
Hollinger disagrees. Ecumenical churches have suffered drastic numerical declines, to be sure, but for all the right reasons:
Ecumenical Protestants were way ahead of the evangelicals in accepting a role for sex beyond procreation and in supporting an expanded role for women in society. The ecumenical Protestants understood full well that the Jim Crow system could not be overturned without the application of state power, rejecting the standard line of Billy Graham and many other evangelicals that racism was an individual sin rather than a civil evil. The ecumenical Protestants developed a capacity for empathic identification with foreign peoples that led them to revise their foreign missionary project, diminishing its culturally imperialist aspects—and that led them, further, to the forefront of ethnoracially pluralist and egalitarian initiatives as carried out by white Americans. The ecumenical Protestants resoundingly renounced the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, while countless evangelical leaders continue to espouse this deeply parochial idea.
It could be that Douthat chooses to focus on the lame aspects of liberal Protestantism while Hollinger celebrates the heroic side of that tradition. Both are certainly part of the mix. The big difference is that Douthat describes Protestant Christians desperately trying to adapt to secular liberalism; Hollinger sees the ecumenical Protestant tradition establishing the foundations for secular liberalism on issues like civil rights, feminism, gay rights and a non-aggressive foreign policy.
Please read both articles and tell us what you think.