"The Christian Century" and the Rise of the
Elesha J. Coffman
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LIBERAL "mainline Protestant" churches in the United States
occupy a niche much like that of the C of E in the UK: at once a
religious default and repository of cultural capital. The
Christian Century, the mainline's house organ, occupies a
position in some respects comparable to that of the Church
The religious-studies scholar Elesha Coffman traces the cultural
history of The Christian Century from its beginnings, as
an in-house Disciples of Christ publication, through the decades
during which it was the voice of liberal Protestantism in the US,
until 1960 - the high watermark of mainline Protestantism. The
Century serves as a lens through which Coffman examines
the development of mainline Protestantism during the period, and
the social and political environment in which it was embedded.
The liberal Protestantism that the Century articulated
both absorbed and reacted against characteristically American
cultural preoccupations. Authors and readers,a self-conscious
"Christian intelligentsia" dominated by liberal Protestant clergy,
absorbed American pragmatism from the conservative Evangelical
tradition as well as secular sources - notably the pragmatist
philosophy of John Dewey. Neither mainliners nor their Evangelical
antagonists had any interest in metaphysics or fine points of
theology. For both, religion was a means to ulterior ends. But,
while Evangelicals worked to save souls, mainliners relentlessly
pursued social improvement.
Half a century after the end of Coffman's history, mainline
Protestantism was collapsing, and the Christian Century
had shifted from a weekly to bi-weekly publication schedule.
By the standards of many liberal clergy, however, mainline
Protestantism was a roaring success. Christianity as they
understood it was primarily, if not exclusively, a social and
political agenda. By the mid-20th century, that agenda was being
advanced very effectively by secular progressives. Liberal clergy
could reflect that the seed that they planted died but brought
forth fruit. If the job of Christianity was to promote human
welfare and social justice, religion was no longer necessary.
The mainline Protestant leaders whose tireless civic engagement
Coffman chronicles were remarkable for their lack of interest in
metaphysics, religious devotion, liturgy, or anything that would
ordinarily be regarded as "religious". By the late 20th century, it
was virtually a given among those of us who were trained in
mainline theology that religion was "escapist" and either actively
or by default socially and politically conservative. The choice
seemed stark: you could be a secular - or crypto-secular -
progressive, or a conservative - not both.
That dichotomy persists: Americans are increasingly divided
between a conservative Evangelical working class and a liberal
secular élite. Coffman's study of the mainline Protestant leaders
who established, maintained, and supported The Christian
Century sheds light on the way in which this division, a
source of ongoing culture wars, evolved.
Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the
University of San Diego, in the United States.