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Mainline people’s paper

11 April 2014

Harriet Baber looks at an exemplar of the US religious press

"The Christian Century" and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline
Elesha J. Coffman
OUP £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use code CT127 )

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 Times.

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.

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