After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History
David A. Hollinger
Princeton University Press, 2013
248 pp., $49.95
Hollinger's autobiographical essay, written to explain why he became an historian, provides a vivid account of his conversion from a parochial to a cosmopolitan outlook.Born in 1941, he spent his earliest years in Idaho, where his father served as a Church of the Brethren pastor. His family was deeply shaped by its Pennsylvania Brethren and Mennonite heritage and, as is typical in pastors' families, David learned to categorize people by whether or not they went to one of the "right" churches. The Hollingers had a progressive social outlook and identified with ecumenical Protestantism. They moved to California and his father left the pastorate but remained very active in the church. David's church-dominated upbringing continued as he attended the denomination's local La Verne College in Southern California.
One especially formative experience took place in the fall of 1960, when he and some other La Verne students were traveling from a national meeting of Brethren youth leaders in Ohio. Their car broke down in Oklahoma and their group was refused public accommodations because one of their number was black. At La Verne itself, very few of the students shared David's intellectual interests. He was also exposed to Southern California's politically conservative evangelical culture. He was shocked to find churchgoing people who had never heard of Albert Schweitzer. He was also deeply put off by the emotionalism of Southern Baptists whom he met. His mother, who had been raised in the Church of the Nazarene, had warned him against such things.
The real turning point came, as one might well imagine, in his subsequent years as a graduate student at Berkeley, where he enrolled in the fall of 1963. When he arrived, he had never been to a social event where wine was served, had never met an atheist or a communist, and had met so few Jews that he "had trouble distinguishing them from persons of Italian extraction." He soon came to realize, as someone pointed out to him, that as an Anglo-Saxon Protestant he was in a minority among his graduate student peers, most of whom were Jewish. No other student had a church-permeated background anything like his own.
Hollinger became deeply fascinated with the theme of tensions between provincialism and cosmopolitanism. He embraced cosmopolitanism and universalism. He wrote his dissertation on a Jewish philosopher. He married a Jewish young woman. Some of his most important later writings have been on the role of Jews in shaping secular culture, on getting beyond multiculturalism toward a "postethnic" America, and on cosmopolitanism and human solidarity. One of the themes of the present book is that of how "demographic diversification," or intimate contact with people of other backgrounds, challenged the Protestant accommodation with the Enlightenment and led to increasing emphasis on cosmopolitan Enlightenment themes at the expense of distinctly Protestant teachings. In his own case, he also sees his commitments to universalism and to cultivating trans-ethnic human solidarity as related to a universalist strain in the Brethren tradition. But like many post-Protestants, he found that the particularities of Protestant theism too often stood in the way of true ecumenism.
It is easy to appreciate, then, why someone who has been a champion of such a socially universalist trans-ethnic outlook should view those of us who want to strengthen the public academic presence of particularist faith-informed viewpoints as entirely misguided. That is especially so if our faith-tradition can be identified as, even broadly speaking, "evangelical." As his characterizations of mainline Protestant long-term success indicate, Hollinger evaluates religious outlooks largely on the basis of whether or not they have progressive inclusivist political implications By such standards, evangelical Protestants, taken as a whole, get very low marks. Especially when the Religious Right speaks of returning America to its Christian roots, a political and intellectual universalist will see warning signs of a reversion to a Protestant-dominated America far more pernicious than that of the tolerant ecumenism of mid-century. So when we Christian scholars argue for more openness to our ideas in the academy, Hollinger sees that as playing into the hands of the Religious Right.
Hollinger speaks for many secularists in the academy, and we can learn from his perceptions and concerns. He is correct that establishmentarian Christianity has difficulty providing social and political equity in the presence of demographic diversification. So the best response is to make clear that we stand for non-Constantinian anti-establishment Christianity that favors equity in pluralistic settings but is not primarily about politics or the social order. I know from experience that people like Hollinger are not reassured by such declarations in the light of the long history of Christian establishmentarianism. Nonetheless, one might hope that eventually our scholarship and our behavior might convince some such critics that more thoughtful versions of traditional Christianity might be encouraged as an alternative to the less thoughtful and more populist versions.