Elesha Coffman’s analysis of the rise of the Christian Century and mainline Protestantism is fascinating reading. Toward the end of the book, she recounts the reaction of the churchmen associated with the Christian Century to the emergence of Billy Graham—in particular, his founding of Christianity Today in 1956 and New York crusade in 1957. Coffman sees the differences between the Christian Century and Graham as a clash over what part of American culture must be resisted and what resources must be brought to bear on this resistance.

The emerging mainline had built a Protestant coalition around acquired cultural capital and the alignment of interests in promoting a civil religion for the sake of the nation. The moralism behind the social gospel supplied the basic framework in which love for neighbor would overcome structures of evil and build a commonwealth that realized the values inherent to the Kingdom of God. This was reinforced by a view of the Christian life as a process of discipleship fueled by liturgical continuity and sacramental efficacy.

The emerging Protestant mainline of the 1950s saw itself as the establishment and thus the soul of the nation. Both in liturgical and sacramental life as well as in facilitating proper legislation, human desire could be shaped and oriented toward God and the common good (neighbor love). Indeed, such an approach could even ally itself with the promotion of self-cultivation that John Stuart Mill advocated in On Liberty in which he supported the need to shape “the feelings and capacities which have the good of others for their object.”

At least, it could when wedded to John Dewey’s view that all of the aims and values that are genuinely desirable in education “are themselves moral.” The social aim of education is the shaping of the human person and this occurs not simply in freeing human consciousness from “tradition,” but in shaping and orienting it toward societal goods. Nourished by Dewey’s thought, Protestant liberals such as Charles Clayton Morrison, owner and editor of the Christian Century until 1947 could fuse social gospel into the civil experiment of constructive Protestantism united under a National Council of Churches. It was a comprehensive effort to shape the interests of human desire through an alignment of the interests of church and state around common aims and cultural capital.

By the time Billy Graham came along, the Niebuhr brothers had already launched their own assaults at the project of national and ecumenical unity espoused by liberal Protestantism. Through his return to a strong Augustinian view of humanity, Reinhold Niebuhr abandoned any effort to forge loving relations among humans through collective goodwill in favor of advancing justice at the level of human behavior through the use of power.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr argued that the dynamics of social groups and collective behavior actually oriented human impulses in destructive ways that produced immoral regimes and structural evils. To dislodge the power of collective self-interest requires a Christian realism that through political conflict serves to check group egoism. Niebuhr was not so much against shaping human desire as he was for recognizing the limitations of such an approach and the naivety about the human condition he found in Protestant liberalism.

As Coffman narrates, Niebuhr joined with others in the Protestant mainline in expressing a deep suspicion over Graham’s revivalism, which he interpreted as a vestige of a “perfectionist vision of the Christian faith.” In this sense, Niebuhr simply echoed the German Reformed tradition’s critique of Charles Finney even if Finney’s revivalism, coupled with Phoebe Palmer’s perfectionism, had advanced abolitionism and women’s rights before Seneca Falls. To commit to this kind of revivalism represented in Niebuhr’s mind another kind of naivety that distracted from the real work of forging coalitions that could assault social evil.

What lay behind this debate were fears of cultural assimilation and strategies for the shaping of society. In terms of the former, liberal Protestants were concerned about unbridled consumerism and an emerging mass culture while neo-evangelicals sought to buttress a world and life view that curbed socialism and a confessionless moralism on the part of liberal Protestants. The strategies differed as well, with Graham and company focusing on the conversionism that had been central to evangelical awakenings as the means to transform society and the liberal Protestants rallying behind an all-out assault on social ills.

These strategies identified priorities for both camps rather than representing some exclusive adherence to conversionism over social gospel or vice-versa. Moreover, the reworking of key doctrines like sin away from a personal condition and toward a social condition also meant that one could find Lutherans and Methodists on both sides of the spectrum. Even within a Lutheran denomination like the Missouri Synod one could find Martin E. Marty leading the charge in the Christian Century while the works of Walter A. Maier (d. 1950), the one time The Lutheran Hour radio preacher and Concordia Seminary professor were being advertised in Pentecostal publications and quoted in Christianity Today.

One theme that remains constant in this narrative is the fundamental agreement that, as two distinct institutional expressions, church and state must seek to shape human desire in ways that promote public goods without denying human freedom. This is still the case whether the shaping of human desire involves programs like the Affordable Care Act that seeks to orient humans toward care for the other or advocacy of programs that support a pro-life agenda. Everyone is a culture warrior trying to advance society while battling expressions of social life that do not promote the “common welfare.”

What is important here for my purposes is the great agreement between the two that Christian tradition has something to say about the shaping of human desire and thus about public life. Even secularists must admit that all governments seek to shape human desire in one way or another as part of forging a common life. As a position with definite views about human beings, secularism is not a value-neutral space in that project. On the contrary, everyone seeks to use institutions to shape culture and thereby orient desire. 

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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