Religion 804: Mainline and Liberal Protestantism

The readings this week have examined mainline and Liberal Protestantism, in particular the print culture that accompanied religious expression in the twentieth century and the shifting role of missionaries after World War II. These works by Elesha Coffman, Matthew Hedstrom, and Sarah Ruble present a perspective of broad, liberal protestantism that balances and challenges the conservative narratives offered by Kruse and Moreton and offers a nuanced reading of how various groups responded to a shifting political and cultural world.

Both Coffman and Hedstrom utilize print culture to describe the period between 1920 and 1950. In The Christian Century, Coffman examines the growth of a single religious periodical into a national magazine with wide distribution and influence. In Coffman’s interpretation, The Christian Century is understood to be a vehicle by which elite thinkers exerted significant influence. She adopts Pierre Bourdieu’s Cultural Capital as a framework for describing these contributors- accessing both their credibility and elitism in her critique. The “coalition of highly educated, theologically and politically liberal Protestants” was an elite cadre interested in shaping society, politics, and religion. They saw themselves as “social, progressive, modern, liberal, or ecumenical” but Coffman suggests that that they represented the emerging Mainline [Coffman 8]. Contributors to The Christian Century wielded significant power in defining the Protestant response to the public and social ideas and events at this period. They utilized print to influence and educate, linking themselves to a network of elite institutions while also seeking to represent the national voice of Protestantism. Editors and contributors to the Christian Century, in an effort maintain economic viability, moved the publication away from denominational affiliation to an undenominational identity [Coffman 61]. This shift positioned The Christian Century to “reach beyond Protestantism” to contend with the intersection of religion and politics [Coffman 79]. Still, the publication touted the rhetoric of, and appealed to, “the educated, the liberal, the urbane, the reformers, the influential.” [Coffman 79]. Even as editor, Charles Morrison, “believed he represented the Protestant majority,” it is unlikely that a significant number of layreaders read the magazine [Coffman 108]. Coffman’s work fills a significant historiographical gap. While a number of historians have emphasized the decline of Mainline Protestantism after World War II, Coffman suggests that these existing narratives have yet to describe the contours of this group before WWII.

In a similar project, Hedstrom examines cultural programs of reading as “mechanisms of popular religion and spirituality in modern America” in The Rise of Liberal Religion [Hedstrom 4]. The emergence of a distinct “middlebrow” religious culture between 1920 and 1950, he suggests, fostered a “spiritual cosmopolitanism” in middle-class Americans. Through programs of consumption that took several forms (a Religious book week in the 1920s; the Religious book club in operation from 1927 onward; and the Religious books round table of the American Literary Association) reading promoted an individualism of religious experience and expression.  These “middlebrow” readers embraced a faith that was “outside the bounds of churches” [Hedstrom 6]. The consumption of interfaith books turned reading into an act of piety that displaced power in traditional denominational worship and asserted of religion into daily experience [Hedstrom 220]. Hedstrom utilizes the notion of lived religion to describe this process. Though these lists were cultivated by an elite group of liberal protestant booksellers, publishers and civic leaders, Hedstrom suggests that these books were selected to appeal to (and shape) middle-class concerns. Hedstrom also reframes the declension narrative, suggesting instead that the decrease of institutional attendance after WWII reflected not a decline but a diffusion of devotion. Both Hedstrom and Coffman make excellent use of print resources, looking across multiple texts to identify these intellectual and cultural shifts. In dealing with print culture, both address publishing practices and marketplace consumption in useful and meaningful ways.

Ruble’s project, The Gospel of Freedom and Power, is set apart from both of these texts. This work deals with the major shifts in thinking about mainline and evangelical missions since WWII. While she makes significant use of text, including The Christian Century, the focus of this slim book is the public debate regarding missionaries and missions, the public perception and conversation rather than particular historical actors or specific missions. Ruble examines these conflicting rhetorics about power and influence abroad, suggesting that the cultural texts of the period between 1920 and 1960 reflect a growing concern with what it meant to be American and an attempt to make sense of missions and their role in the post-war world [Ruble 2]. Across this period, Ruble identifies a shift in attitude toward imperialism in mission efforts and an engagement with anti-colonial movements. Power plays an important role in this text as public conversations contended with changing attitudes about Americans’ role in missions abroad. Historical actors struggled to make sense of their conceptions of power, of equality and of difference. Ruble largely contends with three groups: Mainline Protestants, Evangelical Protestants, and Anthropologists. Each of these groups struggled with notion of missions, resolving these tensions in different ways; Mainliners “both took up the cause of freedom (variously defined) for people abroad and asserted, implicitly and otherwise, that they know what freedom should look like” [Ruble 21]. They saw themselves as promoting “universal values such as democratic process and religious liberty” [Ruble 32]. Evangelicals were more concerned with separating freedom and gospel, identifying and responding to nationalism by modifying their structures and behaviors. Anthropologists were critical of mission efforts, advocating autonomy and positioning themselves as “arbiter of what constituted true freedom.” [Ruble 119].  Placing this work alongside Coffman and Hedstrom, Ruble offers a perspective on how conversations about religiosity changed after 1950.

The three texts this week shared an interest in the development of and spread of ideas regarding religion, and all were interested in understanding the role of mainline Protestantism in the twentieth century. Hedstrom and Coffman overlapped significantly in their use of print and rhetoric of a marketplace. Both focused on the influence of a particular group; elite/middlebrow, and suggested a loosening of denominational bonds, but not a weakening of faith. All three texts sought to uncover the changing expression of religion in the face of broad ideological shifts. However, particular voices are missing from each of these texts. For example, by focusing on a single publication Coffman has made it difficult to identify how this The Christian Century might have differed from other texts of this period, or how readers incorporated these ideas in their lives. In large part,  non-elite voices are missing as is any full discussion of race and gender. Though there is a chapter on readers, their perspectives are largely missing and the scope of influence in laypeople’s lives remains unclear. Despite these gaps, all three texts offer an important examination of religious expression in the twentieth century.

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