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Presbyterians and the American Mainstream

Darryl G. Hart

Mainline Presbyterianism is making a come-back. Michelle Alexander, a civil rights attorney who dented national discussions of race with her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,[1] recently decided to leave Ohio State University Law School to teach and study at Union Seminary in New York City. She admitted that her choice to work at arguably the most liberal of mainline Presbyterian seminaries was an odd one since Alexander was not reared a Presbyterian or in any church. But she has also become convinced that the difficulties surrounding race relations in the United States will not find a measure of resolution in better law or policy. Instead, Americans need to pay attention to the “profound moral, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of justice work.”[2] That explanation works at one level, but can anyone imagine Alexander leaving Ohio State for Fuller Seminary, Gordon-Conwell, or even Westminster Theological Seminary? Chances are that these institutions were not on her radar, thanks to Union’s location in New York City, but also to the much closer proximity of Union to the people, institutions, and finances that go into the leading secular law schools. In other words, for all of Union’s challenges of late—with enrollment, finances, building maintenance, and institutional identity—it is still much more likely to attract public intellectuals than an evangelical or confessional academic institution is.

In the “world” of US Presbyterianism, the PCUSA is still the largest and the most American. Of the largest denominations—with the PCUSA topping the list at roughly 1.6 million, the PCA at almost 400,000, the EPC at 170,000, and then the also rans—the Associate Reformed at 40,000, the Orthodox Presbyterians at an ever constant 31,000, and the Covenanters (RPCNA) at 6,000—denominational identity seems to be closely calibrated to a communion’s social location. Whether size is a product of proximity to the mainstream is another question. But even in the little and opinionated OPC, communicants and pastors have a sense that Orthodox Presbyterianism is closer to the American mainstream than either the Associate Reformed (which is slightly larger) or the Covenanters. Here, as much as Orthodox Presbyterians might hate to admit it, their denomination’s roots in the PCUSA account for whatever sense of cultural superiority the OPC can muster with a straight face. The ARPs and the Covenanters were and still remain predominantly ethnic communions where loyalties to defining moments in Scottish church history loom much larger in denominational identity than mainstream Presbyterianism’s participation in the narrative of US history. Both the Seceders and the Covenanters had theological and political reasons for cultural isolation in the United States that never occurred to Orthodox Presbyterians for whom the general expectations of the mainline churches about the place of Protestantism in national life have only been questioned at certain flashpoints in the denomination’s history. One of my favorites was the OPC general assembly’s 1956 report on the Boy Scouts. Here an institution about as American, religious, and wholesome as they come, failed to measure up to the OPC standards. The Boy Scout’s god was too generic and moralistic for the God revealed in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

The desire to be mainstream may be hard to shake for Presbyterians who trace their origins to the PCUSA or think of the United States as a Christian nation, but David Hollinger’s recent and much invoked argument that mainline Protestants did not lose but actually prevailed over evangelical Protestants in the culture wars should come with warnings.[3] In a rebuke to the historical literature of the last three decades that has featured evangelical Protestantism and the Religious Right as the dominant if not mainstream of white American Christianity, Hollinger observes that the United States has actually become what liberal Protestants in the mainline churches wanted—secular, inclusive, and cosmopolitan. Rather than viewing the decline of mainline Protestantism simply from the perspective of “Christian survivalism”—whether the mainline survives among members and institutions—Hollinger proposes that a better perspective is to regard mainstream Protestantism as a “halfway house” to secularism. “The diversity-preoccupied aspects of public American life today,” he asserts, “look much more like what the editors of The Christian Century in 1960 hoped it would look like than what the editors of Christianity Today were projecting as an ideal future.” [4] He explains that individualism, freedom, pluralism, tolerance, democracy, and intellectual inquiry were all goals of Protestant ecumenists, and those ideals’ triumph in the wider culture depended partly on the churches’ advocacy. Much of what the churches advocated has taken root in the United States, and so observers and scholars have been slow to give proper credit to mainstream Protestantism. Hollinger points to the YMCA’s removal of Christian from its name and going simply by “the Y” as evidence of the mainline’s “cultural victory.”

[H]ere an organization that began in the nineteenth century as fervently evangelical and then in the twentieth century became increasing ecumenical and egalitarian has, in the twenty-first century, proclaimed itself to be virtually secular and in the name of diversity.[5]

The problem with this interpretation—aside from giving Protestants more reason to take credit for creating the United States (a progressive version of America founded as a Christian nation as it were)—is its whiggish understanding of the modern era. Whether Hollinger intends or not, his point suggests that the telos of Protestantism was modern multi-cultural America. Why Hollinger does not examine Americanism and Protestantism as distinct identities with the churches becoming increasingly liberal as they became more American is not clear. If Hollinger’s point is that Protestantism was the chief carrier of American norms until the arrival of full-blown multi-cultural America, he would be employing a form of Protestant exceptionalism that rivals the old Religious Right’s claim that the United States began as a Christian nation. It is as if the Protestant Reformation was chiefly an on-ramp to the highway of liberal society with the United States as the fulfillment of Zwingli’s Zurich and Calvin’s Geneva.

Another way of assessing mainstream Presbyterianism is not to use American political norms as the standard but the teachings of European churches that implemented ecclesiastical reform. In other words, what if American Presbyterianism was not the gleam in the eye of Martin Bucer, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin back when they were persuading Swiss city councils to embrace and defend the true religion? Did they imagine that removing papal authority and the Mass from the Western Church was simply a warm up for creating a society in which the churches would underwrite a nation with resources to end two world wars and defeat Soviet Communism and that made a creed of individualism, freedom, pluralism, tolerance, democracy, and intellectual inquiry? Another way of asking this is to wonder why rejecting the confessional state and established churches of early modern Europe for the modern liberal order that separated church and state was insufficient for Presbyterians to become American. Why could American Presbyterians not retain beliefs about limited atonement or the eternal decrees while also affirming a federal government that was silent about God and severed ties between church and state?

When the PCUSA began with its First General Assembly this was precisely what happened—namely, revising the church’s creed in a way that made sense of the American experience. The heart of the 1787 revision was to alter the twenty-third chapter on the civil magistrate. In paragraph three of the original, the divines asserted that the civil magistrate has

authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses of worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.

In addition, the magistrate’s authorities included calling synods, being present at them, and insuring that “whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.” In 1640s England with a state church still the rule and Christendom the assumption, granting Parliament such broad power made sense.

But ecclesiastical establishment did not make sense in the British colonies soon to be the United States of America. Consequently, the American divines changed the twenty-third chapter so that the magistrate became merely a “nursing father” whose duty was

to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest in such a manner, that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging, every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.

In addition to encouraging all the churches, the magistrate should not “interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise” of any Christian denomination. The American revisions added that the magistrate should protect “the person and good name of all their people” such that no one, “upon pretense of religion or of infidelity,” should endure any “indignity, violence, abuse, or injury.” From this change to the twenty-third chapter followed relatively minor ones in chapters twenty and thirty-one which had also granted the magistrate power within the internal affairs of the church. This was Presbyterian-styled Americanism.

In contrast, Americanism was a problem for Roman Catholics, and in 1899 Leo XIII condemned it mildly as a heresy mainly because Roman Catholicism was a package. With popes standing supreme not only over all bishops but also over all princes, republics, and city councils—in theory, to argue as Americanist bishops did that the church should adapt to US forms of government, democracy, individual freedom, and the separation of church and state was to break with a social theory that popes had developed at least since the high middle ages and then went into overdrive after the French Revolution. So for instance, when John F. Kennedy told Texas ministers in 1960

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him,

he was not following church teaching on politics. Neither was he being a good Roman Catholic when he added,

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.[6]

The Second Vatican Council revised the underpinnings of Roman Catholic political theory, but as late as 1962 a Roman Catholic who favored republican secular governments over throne and altar arrangements was deviating from orthodoxy.

In contrast, when American Presbyterians revised the Westminster Confession’s chapter on the civil magistrate, they were breaking with both the Covenanters’ understanding of monarch, Parliament, and church as well as the Church of Scotland’s status within the United Kingdom’s ecclesiastical establishment. But few suspect that John Witherspoon or Charles Hodge or William G. T. Shedd were heretical Presbyterians for abandoning European patterns of church-state relations. So why did mainstream Presbyterianism’s affirmation of the United States’ political order lead to an embrace of America’s later cultural pattern as incoherent and chaotic as American moral, educational, sexual, and aesthetic standards may be?

For a long time, mainstream Protestants took pride in receiving the kind of credit that Samuel P. Huntington attributed to Calvinism when he wrote as recently as 2004 that “the unique creation of the American creed” owed to Reformed Protestants known as Puritans.[7] But somewhere around the 1960s with political debates about sex, race, and war, mainstream Protestants backed away from that kind of Christian nationalism and let evangelicals and Rush Limbaugh have it. The problem was that Presbyterians were also abandoning their religious identity—being Presbyterian added value to being American. Once being Presbyterian or mainline Protestant became largely indistinguishable from going to an elite secular college or university and voting for Democrats for the White House, people wondered why be Presbyterian? What value does it add to what an American can do by some other state or non-government agency?

Milton J Coalter, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks were aware of the problem when they wrote the last volume in the major analysis of The Presbyterian Predicament. Almost twenty-five years ago they observed:

The central challenge before mainstream Protestants is to recognize our cultural and religious displacement and the need to recover our identity as Christians and bearers of particular traditions that contribute to the richness of the Christian family. We are being thrown back on our own resources and on God, who steadfastly sustains and guides us through all the predicaments in which we find ourselves.[8]

That recognition prompted the authors’ recommendation of a “theological agenda” that would prompt the church to recover its identity. The problem for Presbyterians who inhabit (or want to) mainstream American circles is that theological agendas are impolite. In the 1920s J. Gresham Machen understood the conflict that was opening between Presbyterian theology and mainstream American culture. Modernism was, after all, the self-conscious adaptation of Christianity to modern culture. Machen understood that if Presbyterians were to preserve the faith they confessed, they would have to do more than sing, as they did every Reformation Sunday, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.” Now that the bankruptcy of such adaptation is apparent, American Presbyterians are understanding how alien and sideline Reformed Protestantism is to mainstream American society.

Endnotes

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2010).

[2] Paul Caron, “Michelle Alexander Resigns From Ohio State Law Faculty For Seminary, Valuing ‘Publicly Accessible Writing Over Academic Careerism’; Law Without ‘A Moral Or Spiritual Awakening’ Cannot Bring About Justice,” TaxProf Blog, September 25, 2016, http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2016/09/michelle-alexander-resigns-from-ohio-state-law-faculty-for-seminary-valuing-publicly-accessible-writ.html, accessed November 28, 2016.

[3] David A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[4] Ibid., 46.

[5] Ibid., 49.

[6] John F. Kennedy, Speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, September 12, 1960, available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16920600, accessed November 28, 2016.

[7] Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to American National Identity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 68.

[8] Milton J Coalter, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks, The Re-forming Tradition: Presbyterians and Mainstream Protestantism (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 287.

Darryl G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, January 2017.

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