Visiting Chautauqua, New York, is almost like peering into Norman Rockwells world decades ago. Chautauqua the lake is stunning, with Lucille Balls hometown of Jamestown on the southern edge. Chautauqua the village is dominated by charming early 20th century cottages, most of them immaculately maintained. Everywhere there are flowers, brick sidewalks, American flags, Adirondack chairs, and welcoming front porches. Concerts sometimes begin with the National Anthem. A bell tower on the lakeshore chimes out old hymns throughout the day. A paddlewheel steamboat called the Chautauqua Belle churns about off shore. The stately Athenaeum Hotel, built in the 1880s, overlooks the lake. Behind it is the large amphitheater which is the core of Chautauquas educational purpose.
Founded in the 1870s as a Methodist Sunday school training academy, Chautauqua evolved over the decades into an ecumenical summer camp that hosted often famous preachers and lecturers, interspersed with spiritual and quality secular music, and enhanced by poetry readings, book talks, and art classes. Chautauqua ignited a movement by the same name that spawned similar locations across America, often at lakes or the seashore. There were also traveling Chautauquas, often under pitched tents, coming to the people when the people could not come to them. For most Americans who lived in the remote countryside or small towns, isolated from higher culture, Chautauquas offered a window into a loftier world as seen through the prism of Protestant moral uplift.
Mass communication and transportation made most Chautauquas irrelevant. But some remain as popular and often fashionable vacation spots. The original Chautauqua is still the most storied. Reputedly William Jennings Bryan was here, as were Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Well known personages still lecture. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Brooks were there this summer. PBS documentarian Ken Burns will be there next summer. A PBS program about Chautauqua a few years ago featured E. J. Dionne.
Like other great mainline Protestant institutions, Chautauqua has long since moved away from its original purpose of vigorous Christian spiritual nurture. But there is still a strong churchly presence. Every day in the amphitheater starts with a sermon and worship. The major old Protestant denominations each have handsome houses where adherents, having made reservations well in advance, can reside, with a resident chaplain, and regular devotionals. There is also a Catholic and a Jewish House, as well as Christian Science.
As with most mainline Protestant churches, Chautauqua is attended overwhelmingly by older white people. The average age the final week of August that I was there seemed to be about 70. Streams of oldsters zipped about in motorized chairs and golf carts. That weeks lecture theme was health care in America, especially under Obamacare, and the audience of mostly white heads listened attentively.
Chautauquas director of religious life for the last 14 years has been former National Council of Churches general secretary Joan Brown Campbell, now age 81, but impressively robust. She made headlines in the 1990s for siding with President Clinton against the Republican Congress during the federal budget showdown in 1995. Campbell also championed the return of little Elian Gonzalez to Cuba after his mother died during her escape from Fidel Castros paradise. The NCC under Campbell had in fact hosted Castro at an ecumenical gathering in New York.
There was also Campbells high profile role in the black church arsons scare of that time. The NCCs Burned Churches Fund, oddly managed by a former apparatchik of Grenadas Marxist regime that exploded in 1983, raised many millions, part of which helped to forestall the NCCs own severe budget problems. But not for long. She left the NCC in a financial crisis that her successor, former Democratic Congressman Bob Edgar, temporarily alleviated with secular foundation funding.
Campbells years at Chautauqua seemed to have been more serene than her time at the NCC. This summer was her last as religion director, and she was the featured preacher the final week, which I attended. She recalled her summons to social justice activism as a Cleveland housewife impressed by Martin Luther King, Jr., her acquaintance with Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, and her urging national reconciliation during Clintons impeachment. Her sermon about the Virgin Mary seemed to minimize the importance of Marys physical virginity, emphasizing Mary as faithful servant and prophet.
The theological denouement for Campbell was her sermon urging Christianity to reject its exclusivity. She even reinterpreted John 17:21s call that they all may be one as not a summons to Christian unity but for global unity: Jesus says there will be one flock. . . . No one is in or out in the world of Jesus.
God cannot be contained in our own religion, Campbell said. Its not easy. We as Chautauquans have said we want to be a compassionate interfaith community. She insisted: We dont have to give up the strength of Christianity. Instead, We will need to be the best Christians weve ever been. The world belongs to one God of history.
In an interview with the Chautauqua newspaper, Campbell explained that her years at Chautauqua have changed me, elaborating:
To say that the 2 p.m. lecture is now interfaith and to understand what that means has had the most influence on my faith journey. I think it is the responsibility of a Christian not to take his or her faith and say, This is for everyone, but to honor the faith of others, to believe that their faith means as much to them as mine does to me.
This is hard for Christians, because we remember the call to go into all the world and make Christians of everyone. We can no more do that today than we can fly to the moon. We have come to believe that we are not responsible for converting the world, but to be fully and completely Christian.
Campbell celebrated that Chautauqua has resolved to spend the next 10, 15, 20 years learning to be interfaith; not just Christians, Jews and Muslims, but open to all faiths.
Its not quite the vision of the evangelism-minded Methodists who founded Chautauqua. But Chautauquas trajectory closely parallels mainline Protestantism as a whole, as liberal church elites preside over increasingly aged congregations, whose members dont fully agree with the theology but still remain loyal.
At the United Methodist House the week I attended the chaplain was the delightful president of a historic black seminary in the south. A native of Antigua reared in British Methodism, he offered a robust explanation of Methodisms traditional understanding of salvation. After one presentation, an older couple appreciatively approached him to say they wondered why they never heard messages like his at Chautauqua. The religion speakers instead all seemed instead to have an agenda, the husband noted ruefully.
Many other mainline Protestants doubtless have asked the same question over the decades about their declining institutions. The sunsets over Chautauqua Lake are gorgeous and symbolize seemingly the end of a stately Protestant era that bequeaths lovely facilities but that lost confidence in its own faith.
Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.