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The intellectual and religious historian David Hollinger is the author of nine books, most recently Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular, from Princeton University Press next month. A book that “traces the rise of the evangelical movement and the decline of mainline Protestantism’s influence on American life,” Christianity’s American Fate also makes a powerful argument about why political historians need to understand not only what Christianity is but what it has been as evangelicals peeled themselves away from religion’s liberal and cosmopolitan national vision.

Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Professor Hollinger. You can also talk to him if you live in or around New York City. This Wednesday, September 28, the Committee on Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research will host a talk by Hollinger, followed by a Q & A. You can register and get details here.

Claire Potter [CP]: There’s a big question that threads through Christianity’s American Fate: even if an American isn’t a Christian, that person needs to pay attention to Christianity. Why?

David Hollinger [DH]: Because Christianity remains so important in the United States: who controls it, and the uses to which it is put, impact everyone. Evangelical Protestants have become a prominent political foundation for the Republican Party. I don’t think anyone who cares about American democracy can ignore Christianity.

We’re now confronted with a remarkable paradox. Our increasingly secular society is saddled with increasingly religious politics. Religion is ever-more prominent in Supreme Court decisions and in the statements that candidates for political office make. Politics are not only more religious, they are more Christian. 

CP: You argue that there’s nothing stable or predictable about Christianity over time. What forces have pushed Christianity in different directions?

DH: What counts as Christianity in any given place depends on who’s got the franchise. The Christian project has taken a lot of different forms in the last 2,000 years. But the forms it takes depend on someone being able to build a critical mass of people willing to accept those forms as Christian. Whatever ideas, interests, and values they bring in from outside then define Christianity in that particular case. They get the franchise.

Why is this important? Well, a couple of weeks ago, Michael Gerson, a columnist for The Washington Post, who is anti-Trump and pro-evangelical, wrote that the enthusiasm for Trump among evangelicals misunderstands what Christianity is. His answer to this is to go back to Scripture: we have all these great quotes from Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, and stuff like that. These passages are core to a liberal Protestant orientation, and Gerson says: “Well, this is what Christianity is.”

I rather like the kind of Christianity that Gerson is advocating. Still, he needs to come to grips with the historicity of the Christian project as a whole and with the historicity of its various versions.

There is no primal essence to Christianity that we can get to by looking at the Bible and comparing the ideas and practices of any particular group claiming to be Christian. The Bible consists of more than 30,000 versions written over several centuries by many different kinds of people. The notion that we can discover what true Christianity is by just looking at the Bible and seeing it somehow more clearly than other people have is a mystical, deeply anti-historical claim.

Americans cannot be reminded often enough, a point made by John Fea and other 19th-century historians, that many white Southerners believed that holding slaves and advocating for slavery was Christian. It was not something that they did despite their Christianity. It wasn’t in tension with their Christianity. It was a sign of their Christianity. These were smart, well-educated, multilingual, sophisticated people, and their view of Christianity accommodated human slavery.

So yes, Christianity is something that’s very malleable. Look at the history of Protestantism. You’ve got one group after another that fixates on one little piece of Scripture, and this turns out to be everything. What are the dynamics of baptism, for example?

CP: Let’s pursue the divide between ecumenical, mainline, or liberal Christianity and evangelical Christianity. Why is that divide broadly important to the history of American political culture?

DH: The ecumenical-evangelical divide, as it’s existed in this country since World War II, reflects the tensions within American Protestantism from the start. On the one hand, revivalist groups proselytized, and more confessional groups like the Episcopalians and the Unitarians didn’t proselytize.

But there are other differences. In Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1964), Richard Hofstadter described the 19th-century tradition of evangelicalism: its literalness, its narrowness, and its Manichean tendencies to define things in extreme and absolute terms. That 19th-century tradition was rigid about what counted as Christianity. On the other side, there were liberals who spent a lot of their time reading historical criticism: how Genesis was pieced together, that lots of the letters by Paul were not written by Paul, and that the Book of Isaiah was written by two or three authors, centuries apart.

In contrast to evangelicals, liberals began to see Christianity as a historically specific project that could be responsive to changing life circumstances. This becomes the social gospel. So, you get a tradition of educated, pro-science, pro-progressive politics on the one hand and those that are making strict claims about the Bible on the other. That produces the fundamentalist-modernist disputes of the 1920s.

By the 1940s, many mainline denominations—the Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and so forth—also developed a cosmopolitan aspiration built upon the modernism of the 1920s and 1930s. They wanted American Protestantism to be less provincial, to be able to speak to a wider world and to respond to new conditions by reading the Bible in the light of a modern experience.

These cosmopolitans supported the United Nations and civil rights for Black people. At the same time, evangelicals—the inheritors of the fundamentalist tradition—worried that the United Nations was insufficiently Christian and that getting involved in winning civil rights for Black people was meddling in politics. They believed that whatever might be evil about racism was an evil of the human heart, not something that required political action. These anti-cosmopolitan Protestants come out of that fundamentalist tradition. But they were embarrassed by the term “fundamentalist” because it was associated with the Scopes trial and similar forms of anti-intellectualism. So, they adopted the term evangelicalism.

Traditionally, “evangelical” applied to any kind of proselytizing activity. But especially with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947, and Christianity Today in 1956, the “evangelicals” acquired a series of prominent national institutions promoting this shift.

CP: How did these differences between evangelicals and mainstream Christians play out?

DH: The so-called Protestant establishment—the big mainline denominations with strong class positions—thought that the future belonged to them. For example, many of them came out strongly as Cold War critics. In 1958, the liberal National Council of Churches became the first large national organization to advocate the diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China, while evangelicals were apoplectic about that idea. Sex education in public schools was almost entirely a liberal Protestant project pushed by Congregationalist and Methodist organizations and their pastors. So, the liberal, ecumenical leaders accepted diversity in theology, while the evangelicals doubled down on their claim that the Bible was “inerrant” and carried an unchanging message.

But these ecumenical Protestants were more important historical actors in the last hundred years than is usually noticed, partly because liberal Protestants defined the terms on which evangelicals achieved prominence. Evangelicals became visible by rejecting one thing after another that liberals proposed. So, evangelicalism didn’t flow entirely out of its own dynamic: it achieved definition against the ecumenical agenda. George Marsden famously and correctly argued that the fundamentalist movement is best understood as a conglomeration of groups opposed to modernizing the Christian faith. The same dynamic is in play with the ecumenical-evangelical rivalry: the liberals define the terms of the conversation.

Another historically important thing the ecumenical leaders did was to open up a lot of intellectual and cultural space. Liberal Protestantism became a flexible domain where many young people were urged to explore the rest of the world. Partly as a result of that, a lot of them leave. They looked at that world and said: “Hey, I don’t have to stay a Presbyterian. I can become something else.”

CP: You describe the cosmopolitan project of the ecumenical Protestants as being strongly influenced by two prior cosmopolitanisms, which you characterize as “Jewish cosmopolitanism” and “missionary cosmopolitanism.” Can you say more about that?

DH: The millions of Jews that came into the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave the United States a substantial population of people who did not share a Christian background of any kind and who gained rapid upward social and economic mobility. These people, no matter what their personal orientation toward Judaism or their opinions about America, constituted a formidable challenge to the idea of a Christian America.

Jewish immigrants brought contemporary European culture into the mainstream of American public life. By the 1940s, ecumenical Protestants had become highly sensitive to the need to make America a place fully welcoming to non-Christians and more responsive to the culture of modern Europe. By the end of the 1950s, many of them were openly thanking Jews for making America a better place.  

In the meantime, missionaries serving abroad had their own American provinciality sharply challenged. In the early 1920s, about 25,000 American missionaries were abroad, mostly in China, India, Japan, and the Arab world. Their numbers were not large, but their symbolic importance was because many Americans invested in missionary projects. Many of these missionaries were upper-class: Yale, Princeton, Holyoke, Amherst, Oberlin. They were well educated and highly articulate, and they returned from their experience abroad determined to reconfigure Americans’ relationship with the world.

From about 1900 down through the 1930s, missionaries had a great impact on seminary preachers, preachers of large urban congregations, and officials of the Protestant denominations. Significantly, the period from 1924 to the early 1970s was also a great immigration interregnum when average Americans lost touch with the world. Few immigrants came to the United States, so demographic diversification, which was so important before 1924, and has been significant since the 1970s with the opening up of immigration, shrank for almost 50 years. Only 4.7% of the United States population was foreign-born in 1970.

CP: You suggested earlier that “Christian” is a dynamic rather than static category and that today, evangelicals’ capture of a whole political party has frozen the idea of what it means to be Christian.

DH: Today’s Christian nationalists want to shut down a conversation about what the implications of Christianity might be for the United States that has been going on for some time. Liberals, the ecumenical Protestants, began to quarrel with the notion of a Christian America itself by the late 1950s and ’60s.

Until then, the notion that this was a Christian country was pretty largely accepted, and any number of political and other figures affirmed this. However, partly due to Jewish cosmopolitanism and missionary cosmopolitanism and the greater involvement of the United States in the world following World War II, there was more of a sense among liberals that Christianity was not such a big deal if you took the whole world into account. Post-war decolonization also plays into that dynamic because it made the liberals all the more aware of the diversity of the human species and the need for authority to be more widely distributed.

None of this pleased the leaders of evangelical denominations because Christian nationalism represents an effort to freeze what Christianity is and what America is. This required and still requires distorting a lot of American history. Did our founders want the United States to be a Christian nation? Many scholars have long since refuted that. Yes, an overall Protestant culture pervaded the society, but Christian nationalists push the point beyond that. Similarly, evangelicals were interested in decolonization mostly insofar as those new nations could be Christianized. For example, the growth of Christianity in the Global South, much of which is Pentecostal, has been generally welcomed by American evangelicals.

But there are also other influences. I don’t think that we would have the kind of Christian nationalism that evangelicals advocate now in the United States were it not for the Republican Party’s Southern strategy in the 1960s and 1970s, which appealed to evangelical Protestants as a political constituency.

CP: You describe yourself as “post-Protestant” in the introduction. What do you mean by that?

DH: The overwhelming majority of post-Protestants come from ecumenical Protestantism and some from evangelical Protestantism. As more and more of the children of liberal Protestants left their natal churches in the last half-century, they carried with them into the secular domain what historian Martin Marty calls a “Protestant deposit.” To identify myself with this bunch of people, there is a lot of stuff we absorbed from Protestantism, and it affects how we behave. Post-Protestants tend to push, in secular contexts, the same values, orientations, and priorities found among the liberal Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.

The great value of post-Protestant as a concept is that it gives particularity to secularism. Very often, secularism is framed as a sharp dichotomy with religion:  some people still go to church, and some do not. That second group is called “nones” by social scientists. In other words: “What is your religious affiliation?” “None.” Twenty-nine percent of the population say they have no religious affiliation. Many of the “nones” are post-Protestants, and we can have a sharper understanding of United States culture if we understand how many secular people are shaped by religious values.

CP: Why should Americans read this book right now?

DH: They should read this book to better understand the resources available for saving our democracy and to be better equipped to undermine and weaken white evangelical Protestantism, one of the main sources of anti-democratic sentiment in the United States today. There are people around the country who could easily become more critical of evangelical Protestantism than they are. I think there’s too much timidity about it and too much of a tendency to say that evangelical Protestantism is something that’s been taken over by outsiders.

We should remember that evangelicals tried, in 1949 and again in 1954, to put God and Jesus in the Constitution. The Christian nationalism of our own time is not new. Evangelical clergymen have been in a position to disabuse the faithful of many of their illusions and have been in a position to help them better understand the world. Many have succeeded in that, but a lot have failed. I see my book as, among other things, a critique of the evangelical clergy for not doing more with the power and influence they have to turn evangelical churchgoers away from many of the obscurantist, racist, homophobic, sexist, and imperialist ideas that are driving politics today.

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This interview first appeared in slightly different form on her Substack, Political Junkie.

David Hollinger is a member of the American Philosophical Society and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Harmsworth Professor of the University of Oxford, and past President (2010–2011) of Organization of American Historians.