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After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History
After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History
David A. Hollinger
Princeton University Press, 2013
248 pp., 49.95

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George Marsden

Whose Pluralism?

David Hollinger on liberal Protestantism.

David Hollinger is a wonderfully insightful American intellectual historian who is probably best known in evangelical intellectual circles as one of the most vocal and persistent opponents of the project of bringing explicitly faith-informed scholarship into the mainstream academy. On that topic, Hollinger, who is usually mild-mannered and generous, sometimes goes ballistic. So in his most recent book, After Cloven Tongues of Fire, a collection of essays billed as about "Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History," he includes two essays with the provocative titles: "Enough Already: Universities Do Not Need More Christianity" and "Religious Ideas: Should they be Critically Engaged or Given a Pass?"

I should say at the outset that I consider David Hollinger a friend. We once spent a semester as visitors in the same academic department, and I think we struck it off as kindred spirits in many respects. Even when we discussed our wide differences regarding Christian scholarship, I think we always did so amicably. That is in good part thanks to his being the amiable and generous person he is. Our affinities arise also from the fact that we both had strongly Protestant upbringings and we study many of the same things. After Cloven Tongues of Fire is not only autobiographical in the sense most history books are, but it also contains a candid autobiographical essay. The volume's title suggests historical themes that parallel the autobiographical. After the charismatic intensity of Pentecost has passed, liberal Protestantism and post-Protestants often still embrace a version of that early Christian ideal of one unified humanity. Like many who have left the church, Hollinger is a champion of "love your neighbor as yourself" who would apply that rule in ways that put many of us church people to shame.

Hollinger writes from an explicitly post-Protestant perspective, a viewpoint that fosters many acute insights into the historical topics he discusses. American culture today, he argues, is best understood as post-Protestant. As late as 1960 anything big in America was likely to be run by someone of Protestant background. In the mid-20th century mainline Protestants could till speak as though they had a proprietary oversight of the culture as a whole. One of Hollinger's most important themes is that Protestantism had succeeded in retaining its influence in mainstream culture by accommodating itself to the American Enlightenment. Darwinism had threatened to disrupt that accommodation, but post-Darwinian Protestants found various ways to preserve aspects of their heritage that could survive in the new scientific age. The volume includes three illuminating, empathetic, but devastatingly critical essays on William James's agonized efforts to reconcile the essence of religious experience with modern science. Reinhold Niebuhr, who in turn made his own accommodations to modernity, was still widely applauded when he insisted that themes drawn from the Christian, or at least Judeo-Christian, heritage were essential to a healthy public life. In the meantime a brilliant cadre of Jewish intellectuals were arguing effectively that American life should be grounded on more consistently secular and universal enlightened principles.

By the 1970s Niebuhr's world had largely disappeared. Mainline Protestantism's proprietary outlooks had dramatically receded, and its denominations were declining numerically. The Religious Right tried to fill the cultural vacuum by offering its own version of a Christianity-based America. Yet, even though mainline Protestants have diminished numerically, institutionally, and in influence, Hollinger suggests that they have in a sense "won" in that they have helped to shape a more tolerant, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-imperialist, supernaturalism-resisting American public culture. Hollinger admits this evaluation is hyperbolic; still, he thinks "there is something to it."

But enough already about illuminating historical points—let's get to his polemics. Hollinger has been dead-set against the project that many readers of this magazine would endorse: the project of making mainstream intellectual life more open to scholars who explicitly ask what difference traditional Christian theism or other religious-intellectual traditions might make in understanding and relating to the rest of reality. After Cloven Tongues of Fire not only reiterates that opposition, it also offers important insights for understanding why such an honorable and clear-headed person would so strongly oppose what seems to many of us an eminently reasonable proposal.

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.

That being said, I find Hollinger's fears greatly overblown when he warns that more openness to various explicitly religious viewpoints in the post-Protestant mainstream academy might threaten its freedom from religious dominance. Hollinger sees mainstream academia as having won a hard-fought struggle to establish critical distance from Christian hegemony and he fears that victory may be reversed. Outside the academy, he warns, conservative Christian views are still largely the norm rather than the exception. So he fears that more openness to explicitly Christian scholarship might somehow lead to a reversal of that valuable historical development.

I can agree with Hollinger that the disestablishment of Protestant hegemony in mainstream universities in the early 20th century was a necessary and desirable response to the demands of a more pluralistic public culture. But that happened generations ago. Nobody younger than Hollinger or myself remembers even its last stages. As Hollinger suggests, ecumenical Protestants and their many allies "won" in the past half-century in establishing a more diverse and open public culture. The mainstream academy is not a place where such openness could be reversed. But I also think that the disestablishment of Protestantism involved an overcorrection that favored non-theistic outlooks and marginalized religious views more than was necessary. So now a willingness to evaluate religiously-based outlooks on their merits, instead of as covert efforts to regain lost political authority, would be a step toward a more healthy balance of various religious and secular viewpoints.

The other historical force that Hollinger identifies, in addition to demographic diversification, as having disrupted mainstream Protestantism's hegemonic accommodation to the Enlightenment, is "cognitive demystification." In the face of modern scientific findings, many honest people have found it impossible to credit the supernaturalist claims of traditional Christianity and biblical revelation. Hollinger speaks of this demystification as though the issues involved were definitively settled long ago. So he says: "If Christianity is basically right and its hold on the North Atlantic West is justified by its truth value, the logic of mystification proceeds, then its decline among the intelligentsia must be the result of misunderstanding or fraud." He goes on to observe that being more open to Christian viewpoints in the name of pluralism typically "means accepting forms of evidence and reasoning that were once plausible within disciplinary communities in the social sciences and the humanities but no longer are." He sees the good reasons for the academy to set up its secular epistemic boundaries as "too obvious in the intellectual history of the last three hundred years to bear repeating here." He also repeatedly applies the term "Christian survivalist" to those who are committed "to the survival of Christianity amid the influences that appear to be diminishing it in the North Atlantic West."

I find these arguments to be astonishing, coming as they do from such a sophisticated intellectual historian. They seem to assume a simple progressive history of modern human thought, where the more advanced dominant beliefs of one era, particularly those bolstered by the authority of modern science, replace the more primitive views of earlier eras. The latter will struggle to survive for a time but eventually will have to succumb to the advance of a consensus of collective human truth. That is a view that was common when Hollinger and I came on the intellectual scene in the mid-20th century. C. S. Lewis, who was no slouch as an intellectual historian himself, referred to it at the time as "chronological snobbery." Particularly Lewis was referring to the supposed demystification of reality based on generalizing from the practical successes of the naturalistic scientific method. Lots of mid-century people agreed with Rudolph Bultmann when he said it was impossible to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles in the age of "the electric light and the wireless." It turns out that Lewis was right and Bultmann was wrong. Just as an empirical fact, a great many 21st-century people, including many Christian intellectuals, do find it possible to believe in such things in the age of modern science. Hollinger and others may think they are benightedly wrong-headed in doing so, and he may want to argue with Christian philosophers about what are legitimate warrants for their beliefs. But it is not a good argument to claim that there is a consensus among the educated that these issues have been settled.

One might also take into account the 21st-century version of demographic diversification. Multifaceted ethnic and religious diversity does indeed undermine claims for Christian cultural and political hegemony. But rather than exclusively reinforcing demystification, as it tended to do in the first half of the 20th century, it can also reinforce openness to "mystification." Demystification is still strong in much of the North Atlantic West, but the North Atlantic West is not the center of civilization. Around the world, highly supernaturalist religions—including many varieties of Christianity—are doing a lot more than surviving. Furthermore, as 21st-century America is becoming more diversified, it is not always becoming more secularized. Rather, the waves of new immigration have included many highly religious people representing every world faith. Some of these believers are highly educated. So, it seems strangely dated and parochially Western to speak of the intellectual and cultural triumph of secularism as though it were a settled matter. That is not to engage in the chronological snobbery of saying the later is necessarily better. It is just to say that in these days it will not do to act as though non-theistic views should get an epistemic pass any more than should Christian views.

So how are we to deal with the question of religion in American public life in this new circumstance? Hollinger holds on to the idea of a more consistent privatization in public life. When he asks whether religious ideas should "be critically engaged or given a pass," he is speaking directly only of politics. He makes the reasonable point that politicians who declare religious bases for their views should not be immune from having those views critically examined. He also quotes approvingly a campaign statement in which Barack Obama said that when people are motivated by their religion to bring certain views into public life they need to explain them in terms that will fit with principles shared by people of many faiths or no religious faith. That makes sense as simple practical politics. It does not, however, necessarily entail greater privatization. It might be a formula for more public acceptance of frank identification of various religious motives and beliefs, in addition to offering arguments that look for shared common grounds. It also seems to me to be an argument for more explicit discussions of our various religious and secular viewpoints in the academy. Politics is not a suitable place for serious discussions or debates about anything, let alone religion. But the public academy can provide just such a forum. It should be a model for dealing with issues of diversity, including religiously based diversity, in public life. For instance, a secularist such as Hollinger strongly holds a number of beliefs about human rationality and moral principles. The public academy provides the best place where there might be debate about whether non-theistic assumptions provide adequate grounds for such views or whether some sort of theism might provide better grounds. Those issues are not going to be easily settled, of course, but universities are the best places where such civil discussions should continue to take place and be encouraged.

George M. Marsden is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief (Basic Books).

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