Episode Summary

After decades of neglect, there is finally a large and growing body of scholarship and journalism about the Religious Right, the powerful Christian Nationalist movement that rules the Republican Party from the heights of the Supreme Court bench down to the municipal voting precinct.

While there is a great deal of excellent research and reporting on the movement, it overwhelmingly tends to focus on the Christian Right as a political phenomenon and not as much as a religious one. As a result, we know a great deal about what the Christian Right does, but not why it does so.

Fortunately, David Hollinger, our guest in this episode is up to the task. He’s an emeritus professor at the University of California-Berkeley and the author of Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative And Society More Secular, which demonstrates that the Christian Right was first a theological reaction against a progressive tradition of Christianity that began emerging in the middle of the 20th century.

Roughly half of this episode is available to the public. Please subscribe to get access to the full video, audio, and transcript.



MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: David, tell us, first of all, in the introduction, you make a remark that I think is very important and that is that a lot of people who are not religious tend to have no interest in hearing about religious doctrine and think it is of no consequence to them. You disagree with that in your introduction. Tell us why.

DAVID HOLLINGER: I think that because of the large role Christianity has played in the United States and continues to play, even though we’re experiencing fairly rapid secularization right now. The ideas that are put forth in the name of Christianity and the people that fly the Christian flag have a lot of influence in the society.

So that’s why everybody has a stake in who controls Christianity in the United States. And it has seemed to me, Matthew, that the literature that we have doesn’t focus enough on this matter of what Christianity is and has been and where it’s going. So you might say that we’ve got a lot of books, and many of them are very good, on Christian nationalism as such, and what its threats are to democracy, and we’ve got quite a few books closely allied on why did evangelicals flock to Trump.

Well, those are good literatures, but almost never do those books, and articles, and op-ed columns ask the question that I designed my book to answer. And that is how is it that Christianity, a massive and multifaceted aspect of American life since the founding of the country– how did Christianity end up taking the form that it has now, the shape that it has now, and performing the role that it was now.

So I wanted to do a longer-term historical understanding of this and try to explain how we got there. And also to underscore the importance of religion in this.

So your opening point is very important to me and gets at something that’s very basic to this book. I think that if there is any one takeaway that I would like people to have from this book regarding that question, the question of how Christianity takes this form, we need to remember that the evangelical Protestantism of our time, including its very strong Christian nationalist manifestation, we need to understand that all of this develops, not in a vacuum, but it develops as a process by which the people that we have come to call evangelicals, and call themselves that, have rejected an alternate version of Protestantism that was readily available to them.

Another version of Protestantism that took a much more capacious view of what Christianity is, that was much more responsive to a pluralistic society. And I’m talking of course about what we sometimes call the mainline, the old-fashioned Protestant establishment. All those Presbyterians and Episcopalians and Methodists and Lutherans that were very prominent in American life right down through the 1960s.

Now, this is a group that pretty much controlled what Protestantism was until relatively recently. Now, these people, these liberal Protestants, these ecumenical Protestants, these mainline Protestants, during the 1940s develop a very ambitious program for trying to respond to changes in modern life.

And they take a strong stand against Jim Crow and racism throughout the United States, and they take a strong stand against colonialism and imperialism abroad. They develop in the 1940s a program to develop a more cosmopolitan Protestantism. Now as they do this a lot of rank-and-file Protestants, especially those coming out of the fundamentalist tradition are uncomfortable with this.

So evangelicalism develops as a response to the liberal Protestants, the ecumenical Protestants campaign for a more cosmopolitan Protestantism.

Basically the evangelical formation as we have it today, this whole tradition leading to Christian nationalism, this develops as a safe harbor for White people who want to be counted as Christians without facing two challenges that the leadership of the mainline Protestants say you really have to face. ‘You’ve got to face these challenges if you’re going to be a Christian in the United States of the 1940s, fifties, sixties, and seventies.’

Two challenges, first challenge, all these liberal Episcopalians and so forth are say, first challenge is we live in an increasingly diverse society, an ethno-racially diverse society. We have to have a response to this somehow. We have to deal with it. We have to confront its injustices and do something about it.

Second challenge: We live in an increasingly science informed culture. So learning, education, science, very important to understand. And we have to have a religion, we have to have a version of Protestantism, a version of Christianity that takes this into account and responds to it.

So the old literal reading of the Bible, the sort of stuff that the fundamentalist used to do, that’s just not viable anymore. So these are two challenges that the liberals are saying during the forties, fifties, and sixties got to do something about.

Now, many White people were uncomfortable with this. They are uncomfortable with having to face those challenges. Evangelicalism flourishes as a safe harbor for White Americans who do not want to face those challenges but are determined to be counted as Christians.

SHEFFIELD: So in terms of the history, the challenges, they’re trying to reformat Christianity in America, but they’re doing it in response in large measure to their contact with other traditions of religion, both Christian and non-Christian, which they encountered themselves through missionizing, through greater contact with Europeans.

And Christianity in Europe changed quite a bit before that. There’s a saying that God died on the first day of the battle of the Somme in World War I. So Europe was going through a tremendous amount of religious change internally.

And you had the advent, especially in Germany, of scholarship that began to question the text of the Bible itself and the emergence of the documentary hypothesis such that, that it was evident, it became evident that the Bible especially the first several books of it were not the product of one person. In fact they were the product of many people. And it was a hodgepodge of traditions that were shoved together and–

HOLLINGER: Absolutely.

SHEFFIELD: And you do talk about also that when they were performing missionary work in other countries that were non-Christian, that that changed things for them as well. Can you talk about both of these two developments?

HOLLINGER: Yeah. If we were to, if we were to ask the question, why is it that these liberal Protestants became so determined in the 1940s to launch this campaign for a more causal Protestantism? There are several things in the background there. And one is the larger development of thought in Europe of the analysis of the Bible, the historicization of the Bible, the development of a liberal approach to Christianity, that’s certainly going on.

And the leaders of these denominations are educated in seminaries during the 1920s and thirties where they learned all that stuff from the Germans. They really do learn that. But there are two more immediate things that really push these folks in the forties, and one of them is the foreign missionary project.

So beginning in the 1890s, especially when a lot of missionaries go abroad, the American missionary project goes back earlier to the 19th century, but from about 1890 to 1940 thousands of these American Protestants go to China, India, the Middle East, Japan. And the thing about them is that they come back, I mean, they went off, they went abroad to make the rest of the world more like American Protestants.

But while they’re abroad, they tune in to a lot of different things and they become more respectful of diversity. They become more respectful of non-Christian religions. And so they, and especially their children, come back to the United States, come back to their churches, come back to their denominational assemblies, come back to their schools and colleges, and they criticize the provinciality of American life generally and of American Protestantism in particular.

So one thing that drives them is that they are determined to create a Protestantism that is more responsive to the diversity of the world. They discover through the missionary project that the expanse of humanity is much broader than just a lot of sort of vacant beings who are there just waiting for the benevolence and the instruction of American Protestants. Rather, these people have cultures and societies that are substantial and that we need to take account of, and from which we might even learn something from.

So that’s one thing. Second thing that’s more immediate, that’s happening at the same time is Jewish immigration. So you have a small number of Jews in the United States, about 4 percent of the population in 1920, that continues down through the World War II era. But the thing about the Jewish migration is that it’s culturally prominent Jews, unlike the Catholics, and there are many more Catholic immigrants than there are Jewish immigrants. The Jewish immigrants achieve rapid upward social mobility. And they also have a much higher level of literacy, much higher education than the Catholic immigrants do.

And many of them bring from the old-world artisanal skills and commercial experience. So as a result, you have a population of non-Christians who achieve rapid social mobility. And by 1920, between a fifth and a quarter of the population of New York is Jewish. Now this then continues down through the twenties and thirties, and then in the thirties when you get all of these intellectuals, all these people like Einstein and so forth coming in from Europe, that adds another dimension to this.

Now the point about these Jews is not so much that they’re Jewish or even Judaic, and many of them are not Judaic actually, they’re often very secular. The thing about them is, they’re non-Christian. So for the first time in American history, you have a conspicuously present, a very prominent cultural presence in the United States that doesn’t even share a Christian background.

Now, the Catholics, they’re at least Christians, okay? So the notion of America as a Christian civilization, you can somehow accommodate that, even amid the rampant anti-Catholicism. That’s very common among Anglo Protestants. But the thing about these Jews is that they, they’re not even part of a Christian background.

So as a result, they constitute a challenge to Anglo-Protestant cultural hegemony in the United States. This is especially seen in the university. Jews are subject to a lot of discrimination before the 1950s and American universities to be sure, but they’re prominent enough. So the most educated of these Protestants, the people that are running the Methodist Church, the people that are running the Episcopal church, the ones that are sensitive to what’s going on in the missionary project, they are also sensitive to the diversification of American life.

Now at the same time, of course, they’re aware of Jim Crow and the evils of discrimination against Black people. But what really hits these people afresh is the Jewish migration. So the Jewish migration and the missionary experience abroad are sort of twin influences to move these people in a more cosmopolitan direction.

And the way the Black population then comes in is that they realize that one of the first things they have to do is to address racial injustice in the United States. So they begin bringing in Black leaders. So people like Howard Thurman, Channing Tobias, Benjamin Mays. By the early 1940s, these really prominent Black intellectuals and Black preachers are brought into the leadership of the Federal Council of Churches.

Now, this whole project is pretty much a top-down operation in other words. So if you go into the average Methodist or Presbyterian church in Kentucky or Missouri, or even Pennsylvania or California, you’re not going to find a really strong emphasis on doing away with Jim Crow.

You find some of that, but this is a top-down operation where, you might say, the ecumenical intelligentsia, educated biblical scholarship– really struck with the significance of the missionary experience abroad and surrounded by all of these smart, well-educated, articulate Jews from the migration from Europe– they’re affected by all of this, and they want to do something about it. Because they think that the kind of Protestantism coming out of the fundamentalist tradition and being enunciated by some of the evangelicals of the forties just doesn’t get it.

And it’s indeed in response to this, in response to this campaign for a more cosmopolitan Protestantism developed in the wake of these conditions that I’ve described, that evangelicalism, as we know it comes into being as a point-by-point refutation and opposition to the ecumenical mainline liberal Protestants.

I’ll give you some institutional examples. In 1942, we have founded the National Association of Evangelicals, which is designed as a lobby group to contest the influence of the liberal Protestants to the Federal Council of Churches. We have then in 1947, Fuller Theological Seminary established in California to counteract the Union Theological Seminary, Pacific School of Religion, Harvard Div school, all these liberal seminaries.

In 1956, you have the founding of Christianity Today founded to go against the Christian Century, the liberal Protestant house organ. So it’s institutionally, and it’s connected also with right wing political money.

It’s interesting that Christianity Today gets its start when one of the big oil magnates, Howard Pew, gets fed up with the liberal Protestants because he doesn’t think that they’re fighting against the tradition of the New Deal.

So Howard Pew takes all of his millions and millions of dollars, which he’s been supporting the liberal Protestants and gives all this money over to Billy Graham. And Billy Graham’s dad, and they found Christianity Today and they support a lot of these evangelical operations. So evangelicalism comes out of a religious conflict, no question about it, but it’s also supported by right wing political money that understand very early on that this is a constituency that they can use.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly. And just give a little background on Howard Pew a little bit and who he was. And Howard Pew, he was not the only person involved in this, was he?

HOLLINGER: No, he wasn’t, but he was the richest. And so, and he was also the most explicit.

So the National Council of Churches, which is a pretty strong operation in the 1950s with many denominations affiliated with it, they are taking a pretty strong egalitarian line and they support the traditions of the New Deal, and they think there’s too much economic inequality in the United States.

And they like to quote the Sermon on the Mount so Jesus of Nazarus seems to think that everybody ought to be treated equally.

And Howard Pew, he thinks this is a mistake and so he organizes a lot of Presbyterian and Episcopalian businessmen and they constitute a committee, which he calls the National Lay Committee to influence the National Council of Churches to get them to adopt laissez-faire principles, we should not have government regulation of the economy at all.

So he presses this, and the leaders of the National Council of Churches won’t have anything to do with this. So there, there’s a fight on political grounds, and it’s at this point that Pew moves his millions over to the other side.

Now, there are other people that are involved in this. There’s actually a couple of very good books on that. I mean, Kevin Kruse has a very good book on the economic conservatives and the growth of the religious right. Darren Dochuk also has an excellent book on this. So that particular episode is quite out there and well discussed in the literature.

What I think is not understood as widely is that the religious motivations that a lot of the evangelical Protestants have at this time. Religiously, they’re attacking an alternate religion, an alternate Protestantism. They’re attacking a Protestantism that is friendly to the New Deal, that is friendly to African-Americans, that is critical of American foreign policy in the world.

In 1958, the National Council of Churches is by far the largest American organization to come out in favor of the diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China. Now, Howard Pew has a conniption.

I mean, at this point, a lot of the right-wing people, including Christianity Today, they’re outraged Billy Graham’s dad tries to get the Congress to investigate the leading Presbyterians that are in favor of the recognition of the diplomatic recognition of red China.

So there’s a quarrel going on which involves a lot of these rich people, but it also fundamentally involves a different understanding of what Christianity should be. So Billy Graham comes along. He’s very important all the way through the fifties and sixties, prominent even in the late forties.

But he’s crucial to understanding this because Billy Graham says, you got to accept Christ, and people go to his altar to accept Christ. Well, what does that mean? Well above all, it means that you can accept Christ without worrying about Jim Crow. You can accept Christ without worrying about imperialism.

You can accept Christ without worrying about economic inequality. You can accept Christ without worrying about science. You can accept Christ without worrying about how the different books of the Bible were written. You can accept Christ if you’re loyal to your spouse. You help your neighbors when they need it. You follow the Golden Rule. You avoid same sex relationships. You avoid pornography.

SHEFFIELD: And you say that you accept Jesus into your heart.

HOLLINGER: That’s true. Yeah. So what I’m getting at is that there are a series of things that you can do that are actually not so demanding.

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