U.S. President Richard Nixon, left, and the Rev. Billy Graham, center, pray at the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton Hotel on February 1, 1973. (AP Photo)

For all of the influence wielded and attention received by American evangelicals today, one could be forgiven for concluding that evangelicalism and Christianity are synonymous in America. But such a mistake would have been impossible a few decades back, when the liberal “mainline” denominations outpaced and overshadowed evangelicals in the contest for control of Christianity’s cultural and political capital. As those denominations went into generational decline, evangelicalism filled the resultant gap, responding and adapting to circumstances that the mainline had shaped in various ways. Indeed, as David Hollinger writes in his new book Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular, these two strands of Protestantism must be understood in a “dialectical relationship” to one another rather than in isolation.

Hollinger is the Preston Hotchkis Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. His previous books include Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America and After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History. His latest book builds on his past work to explain the relationship between rival Protestantisms from the early twentieth to the early twenty-first centuries. Eric C. Miller spoke with Hollinger about the book over Zoom. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Religion & Politics: As you tell it, the story of American Protestantism in the twentieth century is the story of evangelical rise and ecumenical decline. Who are these factions, and how do they differ?

David Hollinger: The ecumenical side is what we have often referred to as the “mainline” denominations or the “Protestant establishment.” They have also been referred to as the “seven sisters,” the denominations that the Pew Foundation, Gallup, and other polling outfits classify as “liberal” Protestants—the Congregationalists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Northern Baptists, Evangelical Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, and Presbyterians. These denominations enjoyed tremendous power and influence during the first half of the twentieth century and saw that influence decline precipitously in the second half.

The evangelicals are a less institutionally integrated body of American Protestants, those most easily associated with several institutions: the National Association of Evangelicals as founded in 1942 by members of the old fundamentalist leadership trying to recast itself; Fuller Theological Seminary, established in 1947 by people who were really annoyed at the liberalism of Union Theological Seminary, the divinity schools at Yale, Harvard, Chicago, and others; and Christianity Today, founded with Howard Pew’s money and Billy Graham’s charisma in 1956 to counteract the liberalism of the Christian Century.

So, even though there would be a variety of people in the pews of the various churches who did not identify strongly with one or another of these categories, this is the divide as painted in broad strokes. Interestingly, the term “mainline” came into being just a few years before it was rendered crashingly anachronistic, about 1960. That term did register the strong class position of the old, classic denominations, but a better term for them is “ecumenical,” because it indicates the willingness of this tribe of Protestants to cooperate with a great range of Christians and with an even greater range of non-Christians. It is really odd that so many people today continue to speak of liberal Protestants as “mainline” when they are a dwindling percentage of the national population, and the evangelicals have far greater membership and public standing.

R&P: Why has evangelicalism grown and ecumenicalism contracted?

DH: Back in 1972, Dean Kelley wrote a book suggesting that evangelicalism was on the rise because it placed such strong moral demands on its adherents, and ecumenicalism was struggling because of its contrasting moral laxity. That theory has gained a lot of traction in the decades since, especially among evangelicals, but I think it’s wrong. Instead, I find that the evangelical churches flourished in the last third of the twentieth century because they offered a safe harbor to whites who wanted to be counted as Christians without having to confront the challenges of life in an ethno-racially diverse society and a scientifically informed culture. The old mainline church leaders were often out there promoting civil rights and Martin Luther King, they were very internationally minded and supportive of the United Nations, they were responsive to modern scientific advances, etc. In the 1940s and after, the liberal ecumenical intelligentsia mounted a vigorous campaign for a more cosmopolitan Protestantism committed to racial diversity, economic justice, a global consciousness, and a more welcoming and inclusive approach to the community of faith. Around this same time, the evangelicals were sending signals that none of this was strictly necessary in order to be a Christian. You could be a member in good standing of the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Assemblies of God, or the others without committing yourself to social justice or to any of these onerous, liberal standards. I think that the demands made by the ecumenical Protestants were simply too much for many white people who preferred Christianity in the evangelical mold.

R&P: Does that mean that evangelicalism was attractive to racists?  

DH: I would put it a bit differently. If you were a racist, the ecumenical churches made you feel guilty about it. The evangelical churches were more likely to put up with it as an unfortunate evil, a failure of the human heart that might eventually be overcome. When Billy Graham said in 1963 that the Black and white children of Alabama would walk hand in hand “only when Christ comes again,” he was not necessarily voicing a racist attitude, but a view of what the nation could expect from civil authority (not much of anything) and from faith in Jesus (lots).

R&P: A moment ago you referred to the intensification, in the early 1960s, of the campaign by the ecumenical intelligentsia to make Protestantism more cosmopolitan. What did that look like? What sort of demands were made?

DH: Leading voices in this spasm of self-criticism by ecumenicals included Harvey Cox, Gibson Winter, John A. T. Robinson, and William Stringfellow. In a series of scorching books, these writers complained that churchgoers remained in thrall to outmoded ideas about the Bible and were failing to meet the social obligations Jesus of Nazareth had laid upon them in Matthew 25 (“I was hungry and you gave me food,” etc.). When Cox finished his best-selling The Secular City by calling for an end to all God-talk while Christians worked to free the captives, readers knew that the engines of the campaign for a more cosmopolitan Protestantism had opened to full bore.

R&P: You write that the arrival of Jewish immigrants and the departure and return of ecumenical missionaries helped set the stage for this divide. Why were they so influential?

DH: Missionaries had enormous credibility with the leadership and the most educated of the rank-and-file at all of the ecumenical denominations, who were very sensitive to the testimonies being brought back from India, China, Japan, the Arab world, and other distant places. From about 1900 to about 1950, these churches devoted their Sunday night services to missionaries home on furlough. All through that period, if you attended the regional assemblies of these denominations, the keynote speaker would be a missionary home from some exotic place. Their recurrent testimony that American Christianity had become too parochial, too provincial, too narrow, and too disconnected from the rest of the world was extremely powerful to the well-educated and often-prominent members of these congregations.

The Jewish element in this story comes from the opposite direction. As the ecumenical missionaries were sensitizing Americans to the latest developments in Asia, Jewish immigrants were bringing modern European culture into the United States. Prior to the first wave of Jewish migrants from the 1880s to the 1920s, the U.S. was one of the most intensely Protestant societies in the world, and it was confronted in these decades by an influx of new residents without any Christian background whatsoever. As Jews achieved rapid upward social and economic mobility, they constituted a de facto threat to Protestant cultural hegemony. Unlike the Catholics, who were less mobile, established Protestants continually ran into Jews in the service professions, in medicine, law, and business, in the labor unions, and especially in New York City, which was the cultural and economic capital of the nation. The Jewish presence and disproportionate influence in New York helped acclimate establishment Protestants to religious and cultural pluralism.

One point that I am particularly eager for my book to get across is that both of these influences occurred during the great immigration interregnum. Between 1924, when Congress shut down massive immigration, and 1965, when they reopened it again, there was hardly any immigration to the United States. The foreign-born population in 1970 was only 4.7 percent. So during this time, the ethno-racial diversification of the nation was driven primarily by Jewish immigrants, at the same time that missionaries exercised their greatest impact on the Protestant churches. As I see it, these two groups, at this historical moment, presented an important pair of cosmopolitan critiques of American provinciality.

R&P: As ecumenicals developed this broad vision of Christian globalism, evangelicals were drawn to a narrower Christian nationalism. Why?

DH: Evangelicals wanted tools to consolidate the community of faith and to separate it from outside influences. The American nation seemed an ideal instrument, since its population and culture had been so strongly Protestant from the start. So, when ecumenicals of the 1940s and 1950s got more and more committed to global communities and critical of American narrowness, the evangelicals tried to amend the Constitution to write God and Jesus right into it. They tried this in 1949, and again in 1954. These efforts failed, partly because leading ecumenicals sided with the 41 Jewish organizations that formally protested.

R&P: How closely have these developments in American Christianity tracked with developments in American politics? Is it as simple as ecumenicals sorting into the Democratic Party and evangelicals into the Republican?

DH: It used to be less simple than that. As late as 1960, a lot of the ecumenicals were liberal Republicans. That changed, largely because of the Republican “Southern strategy” developed during the Nixon years and pursued, later, by Ronald Reagan. Party leadership determined that white evangelical Protestants were a likely constituency for them, and they very intentionally cultivated a relationship there. That started the Republican Party in the direction that it has been moving ever since—increasingly sympathetic to traditionally minded, white Southerners. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has worked to consolidate support from everyone else. Had the Republicans not chosen the Southern strategy when they did, and had Reagan not chosen to launch his presidential campaign standing on the graves of the martyrs in Neshoba County, Mississippi, then we probably would not have seen such a sharp division of the political parties along religious lines. No Democrat has won a majority of white voters in a presidential election since Lyndon Johnson.

R&P: Looking back, are the ecumenicals tragic heroes and the evangelicals triumphant villains in this story? Or is it more complicated?

DH: The ecumenical leadership included many virtuous individuals, but we should see them for what their circumstances made them. They were caught up in a force field in which descent and doctrine, wealth and war, trade and travel, science and sentiment, and a host of other elements in motion made them into the relatively global individuals they became. My book tries to show that differences in education, theology, class position, and cross-cultural contact pushed ecumenicals and evangelicals in different directions. They were competing with one another for control of the franchise, you might say: which group can represent the Christian project in the United States at a given moment? The old Protestant establishment held that franchise for a long time. Then evangelicals managed to claim it for themselves.