The idea that American Protestantism has a “mainline,” or ever did, was born in irony. The mainline is usually identified with seven Protestant denominations, all of which were small in their heyday of the 1950s. Moreover, just after they acquired the name “mainline,” they began to shrink. The idea of the mainline had a basis, but it had little to do with numbers. The mainline churches assumed a leadership role in American society, they built a large stock of cultural capital, they crafted a persuasive rhetoric about modern Christianity and America, they built an ecumenical national church, they were (and still are) overrepresented in the corridors of power, and they served as guardians of America’s moral culture. One of the best ways to see how they did it is to track the history of the Christian Century magazine, the flagship of mainline Protestantism.

For many years I have been telling colleagues and graduate students that somebody ought to write this story. Nobody understood twentieth-century ecumenical Protestantism better than the founder and editor of the Christian Century, Charles Clayton Morrison. Though forgotten today, he influenced this tradition more than almost anybody. In addition, Morrison wrote an unpublished autobiography chock-full of insights about his ambitions for the Century and how he kept it going.

Academic fashions long ago turned against everything associated with the unfortunately named mainline. The mainline would have done slightly better to stick with its other names, “liberal” and “ecumenical.” But denominations and formal ecumenism are hopelessly passé by any name, so Morrison and the Century had to wait for Elesha J. Coffman, whose graduate advisor at Duke, Evangelical historian Grant Wacker, realized what was odd about this situation. Thus, we finally have an account of the Christian Century ’s role in the rise of the so-called Protestant mainline, in a book that tells only part of the story, but does so splendidly.

Coffman, who teaches church history at Dubuque Theological Seminary, presses hard, with a nod to social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, on the concept of cultural capital. She argues rightly that mainline Protestantism richly illustrates both meanings of the term “mainline”: principal, as belonging to the first rank, but also conventional, as belonging to the mainstream or middle-of-the-road. It is exceedingly difficult to be first rank and conventional at the ?same time.

The story begins with a tiny Disciples of Christ magazine, the Christian Oracle , founded in 1884 in Des Moines, Iowa. A typical denominational organ, it helped Disciples carry on their early nineteenth-century Restorationist heritage, which had Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian roots. The church’s Presbyterian founders, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, sought to restore the anti-hierarchical democracy of early Christianity; their efforts yielded a Disciples tradition advocating church unity and minimal church tradition. By the late nineteenth century the Disciples had a conservative wing and a liberal one, the latter especially in Chicago, where the Christian Oracle moved in 1900 and changed its name to the Christian Century. Eight years later the magazine folded, and young Disciples minister Morrison bought it at a mortgage foreclosure.

Like many Protestant ministers of his time, Morrison came from a clerical family of humble means, and he cherished the liberal theology movement for rescuing him from an unhappy choice between letting go of Christianity and trying to believe unbelievable things. Liberal theology taught that the Church had no future if it opposed modern science and biblical criticism, and the Social Gospel taught that Christianity has a mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice.

From the beginning, Morrison wore his Social Gospel liberalism proudly, already writing in his distinctly forceful, clear, vivid, and arresting prose style. He later recalled: “By the end of my first year, the Christian Century had become something more than a journalistic organ; it was distinctly identified with a cause”the cause of liberalism.”

The Century was pushy about its ecumenical bias. Morrison said that denominationalism was a spiritual disaster that prevented the Church from winning souls and society to Christ. The Church should be unified on the basis of Christ and his Gospel and nothing else. This was in fact conventional Disciples’ theology, but Morrison called it ecumenism. He knew very well that the tiny and mostly conservative Disciples church did not provide much of a basis for the magazine. To succeed, he had to attract the audience of progressive ministers that he believed was out there. In 1917, the Century quietly announced that it was no longer a Disciples organ, having become “An Undenominational Journal of Religion.”

Morrison never really acknowledged that he had a business model or even business acumen. In his telling, he gave himself wholly to a winning idea”Social Gospel liberalism”and the Century “just growed,” like Topsy. What mattered was that he stuck to this idea, he had the independence to do so, and he resisted the secular temptation, enabling the Century to thrive while rivals struggled and crashed.

The Century pulled away from a crowded field of denominational periodicals and from the two gold-standard magazines of religious journalism, the Independent and the Outlook. Some denominational organs were ably produced, but all suffered from a headquarters mentality and a numerically small base. The Independent and the Outlook, though historically Congregationalist, were independent and thus did not face the temptation to the parochial and party-line. But the Social Gospel had a tendency to breed secular children, and both of its major magazines turned secular in pursuit of social relevance and larger audiences.

Morrison knew he was getting somewhere when, in the 1920s, Congregationalists became the Century ’s leading audience, followed by Presbyterians, Baptists, and Episcopalians. By 1928, he had 35,000 readers”impressive for a magazine featuring seminary-level theology. Morrison always hoped for lay readers, but targeted the intellectual and spiritual needs of ministers. He yearned for the cachet of Harper’s or the New Republic and thus felt the temptation to secularize. Yet he stuck to what had already worked for him, judging that the Independent and Outlook had lost their way by secularizing. Morrison had a favorite story about a dream his business manager had in approximately 1926. In the dream, Morrison was drowning in Lake Michigan, and just before he drowned he thrust up his hand and cried, “Keep it religious! Keep it religious!”

In the 1920s Morrison had two obsessions: abolishing war and defending Prohibition. Social Gospel ministers were ashamed of the pro-war sermons they had given in 1917 and 1918. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr, and many other ministers vowed never to do it again, and the Century cheered them on, promoting Morrison’s involvement in the international movement to outlaw war. His other obsession, Prohibition, flowed straight from the Social Gospel commitment to Christianize society. For Morrison, Prohibition was a milestone moral achievement. A good society cared about the moral character of its people and the social ravages of alcohol.

Morrison found a fire hydrant of opinions in Niebuhr. He urged Niebuhr to keep sending articles, although he and Niebuhr disagreed about the 1928 presidential election, an augur of things to come. Niebuhr was turning socialist at the time; Morrison held out for Herbert Hoover and Prohibition, and Niebuhr was incredulous. As usual with Niebuhr, he changed his mind about politics before rethinking what he believed theologically. But Coffman keeps theological discussion to a minimum, which is problematic when dealing with a profound theologian like Niebuhr. Morrison, too, though hardly a profound theologian, had an operative theology that influenced the Protestant mainline.

Though Coffman does not mention it, in 1933 Morrison published The Social Gospel and the Christian Cultus, the most illuminating account ever written of the legacy and limitations of the Social Gospel. He observed that the Social Gospel had succeeded spectacularly at the seminary level. It was taught at every seminary that he respected. An entire generation of pastors had been trained in it, but its reach usually stopped with them. Every minister knew somebody who got fired for preaching about economic democracy or biblical criticism, and as a result many preached innocuous church-talk and kept their real beliefs to themselves.

Morrison had a theory about what happened and what to do about it. The Social Gospel recovered the religion of Jesus, he reasoned. “Thy kingdom come” was the center of Jesus’ teaching, and the Church was supposed to be a Christ-­following fellowship that welcomed the stranger, loved its enemies, and helped to bring about the commonwealth of God. But this idea of what the Church was supposed to be contradicted the church that existed. Modern Christianity proposed something that had never been done”making the kingdom ideal of Jesus central to the Church’s religion.

Early Christianity had the kingdom ideal, Morrison explained, but without an established church. Then the Church obscured the kingdom ideal by building an institutional church. Then the Social Gospel tried to reclaim the kingdom within the established church. But that did not work. The radical religion of Jesus did not fit into the “cultus of existing Christianity”its total theological, ethical, liturgical, and cultural expression.” Morrison put it emphatically: Christianity had never taught that the Church should exist for the sake of the kingdom. This idea was distinctly modern, a novelty of the Social Gospel. If modern Christians wanted to reclaim the Gospel of Jesus, they had to completely reinvent the cultus of the Church.

Meanwhile, ministers labored in churches where congregants still believed in biblical inerrancy, six-day creation, and a myth of origins about the exclusive truth of their denomination. Coffman has a poignant section about the letters that ministers wrote to Morrison. Many thanked him profusely, grateful for the Century ’s substance and inspiration. Some were feisty, telling Morrison that he should get a clue about what they were up against. Many were sorrowful, telling stories about dogmatic congregants, anti-intellectualism, reactionary politics, and having to hide their beliefs. “An acute sense of isolation permeated many of the letters,” Coffman notes. “For them, the Century constituted the only link to the kinds of people and conversations they had found so stimulating in college or seminary.”

In the 1930s, nearly every mainline denomination vowed never to support another war. Some issued ringing statements condemning the war business as anti-Christian. Niebuhr, having played a sizable role in building up Social Gospel pacifism, began to turn against it in 1932 with his icy, slashing, brilliant polemic, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Human groups never willingly subordinate their interests to the interests of others, he argued. Morality belongs to the sphere of individual action; there is no such thing as a moral group; and politics is always about struggling for power. Thus the Social Gospel’s appeal to reason and Christian love was maddeningly stupid.

Liberals howled that Niebuhr had invented a Christian ethic that got rid of Jesus, so, three years later, he addressed this issue in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics , contending that the teaching of Jesus has no relevance in the social sphere except as an impossible ethical ideal. A very personal debate erupted over this argument, yielding further charges of misrepresentation and “fighting dirty” between Niebuhr and the Century editors. Coffman skillfully recounts the in-house back-and-forth, noting that by 1941 Morrison detected an “evil spirit” in Niebuhr’s polemics, and Niebuhr sharply told Morrison to stop claiming that they were friends.

Each side offended the other with statements about what counted as a Christian position. The Century urged that it was possible for a mainline denomination to become a peace church. The anti-war proclamations of the 1930s suggested that Morrison might be right. By 1941, however, liberal Protestants fiercely debated whether Nazi fascism had changed the moral calculus, and Niebuhr broke from the Century to found Christianity & Crisis magazine. Then, one December morning, the Empire of Japan obliterated the pacifist ethos of the Protestant mainline, leaving Morrison with little company.

Had the Century stuck with Morrison’s tendency to equate his anti-war position with the mind of the Church, the magazine would have disqualified itself from its leading role in the glory years of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It should be noted, however, that Morrison would have disputed Coffman’s repeated description of him as a pacifist. He regarded himself as a pragmatic peacemaker”not a doctrinaire pacifist”who took the teaching of Jesus as seriously as possible. He had a similar position about liberalism. Liberalism was simply the method of free inquiry, not a position about anything. On the latter issue, Niebuhr rightly countered that liberalism had an ample supply of doctrines and presuppositions. Liberals did not deserve to win if they were unwilling to defend their position in an argument.

Nine months before Pearl Harbor, Time magazine magnate Henry R. Luce issued a manifesto in his other magazine, Life , on what he called “The American Century.” The entire world, Luce proclaimed, stood to gain from being led by the great American colossus. Morrison blasted Luce incredulously, calling his pronouncement a “counsel of madness,” an obnoxious call for “American imperialism,” and “an appeal to our national egotism.” The previous year, Morrison had opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection, charging that FDR was an American-style fascist who militarized a peaceful nation. Now Time and Life wanted America to dominate the world, just as Morrison pleaded that it was not too late to stay out of World War II. At the end of that fateful year, he bitterly contended that Pearl Harbor could have been prevented, but now Americans had to support their nation at war.

Coffman aptly sets Luce’s “American Century” against Morrison’s Christian Century to account for the postwar establishment. Both visions were loaded with mainline presumption, but Luce’s routed Morrison’s, shaping a new public consensus that the Century struggled to accommodate. By the end of Morrison’s editorial run in 1947, much of what he cared about had been eviscerated, yet the Century came into a moment of glory for things it shared with Luce, Niebuhr, and the Protestant establishment. These things defined the idea of the mainline. Coffman calls it the idea of “a unified American Protestantism, culturally dominant, socially progressive, fulfilling its obligation as a shepherd of the nation’s soul.”

The Century had to scale back to a modest version of a still-grandiose agenda. There was plenty of work to do if liberal Protestants were willing to make the essential adjustments. It was still their job to look after America’s moral culture, preserve a role for religion in American life, expand the ecumenical movement, and, perhaps, revive the dream of a cooperative world order, or at least contain communism. The mainline could still claim its Social Gospel legacy, while dropping the fantasies about economic democracy and reinventing Christianity. By the end of the 1950s, the movement even had a new name befitting its establishment status: the mainline. It was enough to be culturally powerful”except that this was threatened too.

Morrison saw it coming. His last editorial series for the Century, published in 1946, was titled “Can Protestantism Win America?” Despite being progressive about almost everything else, Morrison had never granted that religious diversity beyond the boundaries of the Federal Council of Churches added anything of value to the nation. His editorial successors at the Century, Paul Hutchinson and Harold Fey, tried uneasily to sustain this presumption without saying it too impolitely. Morrison shook his head: Ecumenical Protestantism was killing itself with politeness.

The book version of Morrison’s plea, published under the same title, put it aggressively. There were two rising threats to American Christianity: Roman Catholicism and secularism. Billy Graham was not yet famous, and Morrison could not imagine that fundamentalism would become culturally powerful. He was very worried, however, that secularism and Catholicism were getting stronger. Atheists and Catholics had every right to vie for influence, he allowed. What galled him was that liberal Protestants refused to fight, or even recognize that they were in a fight for America’s soul.

Morrison admonished that winning converts was the mark of any serious faith: “The missionary spirit is of its essence.” After the Social Gospel petered out, though, liberal Protestantism stopped trying to win converts. Liberal Protestants shunned all words smacking of missionary zeal; they liked to pretend they were not in competition with Catholicism, and they took pride in being secular, which was a self-liquidating attitude. They were too ecumenical, too secular and soaked in relativism to evangelize for anything.

Within Protestantism, Morrison argued, ecumenism was a good thing; in fact, it was desperately necessary. But liberal Protestants were making ecumenism look ridiculous by asking Catholics to join it. Protestantism was about freedom and democracy, while Catholicism was about dogmatism and authoritarianism: “Protestantism cannot cooperate ecclesiastically with a dictatorship. It must make a clear-cut decision to accept its task of winning America to Christ without any illusion that it has a collaborator in Roman Catholicism.”

Morrison implored liberal Protestant leaders to stop minimizing their core beliefs in the hope of creating a wider ecumenism. This strategy, he insisted, was a loser. It would not modernize Catholicism, and it would never win America. Moreover, the greatest threat to America’s soul was ascending secularism. Protestantism was not losing members to the Catholic Church, but it was losing multitudes to the culture of disbelief.

There was a bitter irony here, which Morrison stressed. Liberal Protestantism had tried valiantly to accommodate modern culture, only to be snubbed by it: “The assumption that modern culture has been moving toward a Christian goal has been the undoing of Protestantism. It has weakened its will and confused its faith. Too long has Protestantism stood in awe of modern culture. Its sense of mission has been obfuscated by the messianic pretensions of science, by the prestige of public education, and by the benefits which technology and an ever enlarging state paternalism were conferring upon the people.”

Though mainline Protestants were building churches across the landscape and setting attendance records, Morrison was not impressed. Postwar America, oozing superficial religiosity, didn’t come close to the Social Gospel vision of a good society. It had no spiritual depth and no passion for social justice. Moreover, the Protestant churches were disadvantaged by lacking a competitive history. They had never had to “win” America, since they assumed that America was culturally Protestant. Now they were paying for their privileges and their secularism.

Morrison urged them to change course before it was too late. The resurgent Protestantism that was needed would be militant, united, and theologically purified. It would get rid of the denominations, form an ecumenical super-church, and proclaim that Christ is Lord. Everything else was divisive and sectarian; it had to go.

In other words, Morrison ended exactly as he began, learning nothing from the decades of cultural pluralization that he lived through. “Can Protestantism Win America?”was an echo from a lost world. A few years later the terms “WASP” and “mainline” gained currency. Both were markers of a changing cultural consciousness. The former term reflected the startling idea that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants constituted one American ethnic group among others. The latter term registered that there were other kinds of Protestants, although the term obscured that they, whoever they were, were the majority. With this shift in consciousness, Morrison’s dream of a victorious “Protestantism” became an object of ridicule. The bland unconsciousness of hegemonic white Protestant Americanism was no longer possible.

Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray does not play a role in Coffman’s account, but Morrison clashed with him over these issues. Murray stewed over Morrison’s book, wrestling with a belief that Murray was trying to give up, that the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism were incommensurable. Murray struggled with the disagreements among American Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and secularists that seemed, to him, to obviate meaningful discussions across religious lines. Yet Murray burned at Morrison’s prejudiced way of putting it. He countered that no group should have dominant cultural privileges, and he insisted that pluralism was a justice issue.

Murray was sensitive to the irony of Morrison’s argument that Protestantism had wrongly accommodated secular culture and thus lost its spiritual and public power. Like Morrison, he believed that American Christianity was in a life-or-death struggle with secular disbelief. Like Morrison, he believed that nearly everything precious in the American experiment was at stake in the secularization of American culture.

But Murray had a contrasting strategy for holding off the tide of secular destruction. It was to respond creatively to religious pluralism. To respect the diversity of religions was to reject the usual options of watering down Protestantism, stripping religion from the public square, treating democracy as a substitute for religion, or reducing religion to values. Murray got many things wrong, and some of his claims are still up for grabs. But the crucial thing”respecting religious diversity”he got brilliantly right.

There are four main interpretations of the 1950s heyday of the mainline. Some say it was the golden moment of American Protestantism, when Protestant leaders forged a national church featuring commanding assemblies of the National Council of Churches. Some say it was a triumph of illusion, when Protestant leaders built an impressive façade upon sand. Some say it hollowed out the historic denominations and contributed mightily to their demise. Coffman affirms all three while adding her version of the fourth option, the “cultural victory” thesis. Several others have taken this line, notably Jay Demerath and Christian Smith, but Coffman provides ballast for the case that liberal Protestantism succeeded by insinuating its values into American culture.

The mainline helped to unify American society, and it spoke for American values in ways that most Americans appreciated. It preserved the idea that the United States was a nation with the soul of a church, and it did so in a way that made religion respectable. But most Americans were not interested in formal ecumenism, or even weekly low-key organized religion, so Protestant churches got diminishing returns for their efforts.

During these years, however, America experienced a resurgence of fundamentalist and near-fundamentalist religion. In 1956, a handful of conservative Evangelicals clustered around Sun Oil millionaire J. Howard Pew, and the now-famous Billy Graham founded Christianity Today magazine to provide an alternative to the Century. It dwarfed the Century from day one. Christianity Today issued an initial print run of 285,000 copies, secured nearly 40,000 subscribers in its first year, and went on to more than triple that figure. The Century, meanwhile, had oscillated between 30,000 and 40,000 subscribers since the mid-1920s, as it still does.

In 1958, Christianity Today commissioned a nationwide survey of Protestant ministers conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey. It asked ministers to categorize themselves theologically. The results were: 39 percent conservative, 35 percent fundamentalist, 14 percent liberal, and 12 percent neo-orthodox. The Christian Century had probably never represented more than 15 percent of America’s Protestant clergy. But it made an outsized imprint on American society by presuming and acting otherwise. Coffman notes that the Century carried on as though it spoke for the American Church, “convinced that a statistically accurate picture could be utterly wrong.”

Vast parts of this story are left untold in Coffman’s account, notably the American liberal Protestant role in creating the United Nations and World Council of Churches, and how the mainline dealt with America’s original sin of racism. Near the end Coffman mentions a scathing letter from Gardner Taylor, a Baptist pastor in Brooklyn, protesting that the Century did not mention a single black congregation in its series on great American churches. And she notes that the mainline played an active role in the civil rights movement. Otherwise, racial justice is barely mentioned in this book, which ends the story in 1960, five years after Martin Luther King Jr. entered the national stage.

But subverting an established narrative is precisely what dealing with racism does. The Christian Century espoused a theology of progress and idealism during the very period that African Americans were stripped of their voting rights, subjected to the brutalities of Jim Crow segregation and abuse, and terrorized by an epidemic of lynching. If Christianity had any ethical meaning in this context, it should have given highest priority to the ravages of racism. Instead, the Century rarely said anything, even about lynching. What it did say, here and there, sometimes with a brave word, is important for the record. What it did not say, while the Congress on Racial Equality organized sit-ins through the 1940s and early 1950s that the white press ignored, is equally important.

In its own way, however, Coffman’s book makes a powerful point through its silence. Had the book crossed into the 1960s, there would have been a chapter featuring King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which the Century published, and clergy getting arrested to abolish Jim Crow. As it is, we are left with a picture of white supremacy playing out in the heyday of the mainline, with very little notice from its flagship journal that American religion contributed mightily to America’s greatest evil.

Gary Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University.

Articles by Gary Dorrien

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