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How Protestants Have Made Accommodations

Keeping an eye and ear on hourly, daily and weekly incidents and trends in zones where “religion and public life” intersect is one thing.
Taking looks at such incidents and trends in half-century cycles is another. These longer-range surveys provide perspective.

A Rip van Winkle returning from 1965 to the scene this month would not have been surprised to hear of the Catholic bishops’ blast at the Health and Human Services birth control initiatives. Catholic leaders have reacted thus for almost a century.

Picture the surprise of an awakened van Winkle, however, as he saw the radical embrace of raw political power by evangelical pastors massed in militancy to join Catholics in reaction.

“Evangelical” in this case has become the code word for the ever-expanding population of conservative Protestants who joined and join some Catholics on the front lines of cultural warfare.

They may be great-great-great grandchildren of 19th-century Protestant activists, but in most of the 20th century such activists had backed off and changed their mission.

In 1970 in “Righteous Empire,” I could speak of evangelicalism as largely “private Protestantism,” which “accented individual salvation out of the world” over against what latter came to be called “mainline.” It had been “‘public Protestantism,” which was more exposed to the social order and the social destinies of citizens.

Note: there remain plenty of “mainline” and “public” Protestant activists in action today, but the cameras and microphones have turned attention from them.

What is going on and what has gone on with the mainliners, who have left a cultural niche or a political canyon to be occupied by activist “public Evangelicals?”

In one word, “accommodation,” specifically “The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment” – the title of a Daedalus article by Berkeley professor DavidA. Hollinger, who tutors me and so many others.

Hollinger argues that two main trends led to shifts of accent in “public” Protestantism. It “accommodated” to the heritage of the Enlightenment, the movement of ideas that characterized the ideological outlook and practice of most of the national founders – no fundamentalists they! – and eventually of most academic and literary heirs of those founders.

The accommodation to Darwinian evolution and many other scientific challenges came more easily to mainliners, who performed many kinds of services in cultural life.

But these occurred at expense to their institutional power, the loyalty of church members, and much of their hold on cultural and political life.

The heirs of fundamentalism and other now-evangelicals may have accommodated to other “worldly” influences – I’d list “the market” and “nationalism,” etc. – but they held the line on many intellectual and cultural trends.

Hollinger adds: mark the change in political power when, thanks to civil rights legislation, the mainline mainly lost the South.

He also points to the drastic demographic shifts beyond the move to the South. The change in immigration laws in 1965 robbed the northern “white-ethnic” liberal accommodators of their former hegemonic position.

The election of Catholic John Kennedy was another symbol of this shift.

How evangelicals, often rejecters of the Enlightenment in the name of the heritage of partly putative “Christian America” founders, will use their power will be fateful for the American future.

But these now-“public Protestant” evangelicals are here to stay.

For younger and newer interpreters of culture, as Hollinger sees it, they are virtually the only game in town, in the consciousness of post-1965 Americans.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.