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Michael S. Horton


Who's Got the Center?

Critics of the "two-party model" of modern American Protestantism (fundamentalist/modernist; conservative/liberal; evangelical/mainline) claim to have found a via media. But the "center" is not innocent. It is a real place on the map, which demands that all "others" be related to it as margins to the mainstream.

Re-Forming the Center: American Protestantism 1900 to the Present, edited by Douglas Jacobsen and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., Eerdmans, 1998, 492 pp.; $28, paper

"If you label me, you negate me." I'm not certain who said this first, but I'm quite sure it was someone raised in California during the seventies. Nevertheless, there is a rising tide of far more nuanced reaction against modernity's rigid and simplistic categories. Individuals and movements, perhaps partly due to hubris and partly due to legitimate distinctives, wish to have their unique positions entered into the public record, defying neat and homogeneous taxonomies. To engage in a bald example of such type-casting, it is a case of the social historians taking revenge on their elders, the intellectual historians. It is time to abandon the one-dimensional mapping and acknowledge the diverse topography of the American Protestant landscape.

In his 1970 work, Righteous Empire, veteran American religious historian Martin Marty articulated what has come to be called the "two-party" thesis. According to that scheme, as Douglas Jacobsen and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., summarize it,

since the late nineteenth century two Protestant parties (the "private" party and the "public" party) have dominated the American religious landscape in much the same way as the Republicans and Democrats have dominated the American political scene.

Among others, George Marsden, especially in his Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980), strengthened this two-party reading of American religious history. But it was especially James Davison Hunter's binary opposition of "orthodox" and "progressive" types in Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991) that fortified this thesis with alarmist rhetoric. It is this thesis, so dominant in the popular imagination, which the editors and authors of Re-Forming the Center wish to call into question.

The book grew out of an effort to move "beyond the two-party system of American Protestantism" ...

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