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David Hollinger on Christianity's Place on the Right—and the Left

The purpose of David Hollinger’s new book, Christianity’s American Fate, is twofold. Hollinger, the Preston Hotchkis Professor of History emeritus at UC Berkeley, first seeks to explain how Christianity in the United States became synonymous, in large measure, with conservative white evangelicalism. He then seeks to offer explanations for the decline of mainline liberal Protestantism’s influence on American culture and society.

Hollinger argues that as the mainline Protestant establishment embraced progressive ideas about race, gender, politics, and religion during the 1960s, some of its members felt uncomfortable with this rapid liberalization and turned to conservative evangelicalism instead. Many of mainline Protestantism’s more progressive members, however, came to believe that religion was no longer necessary for understanding the world, politics, and society; in turn, they embraced secular activism. Liberal Protestantism’s decline in the 1970s, Hollinger writes, coincided with the rise of conservative evangelicalism, thus explaining how religion became more conservative in the United States as society became more secular.

I spoke with Hollinger about the intellectual and political conditions that paved the way for mainline Protestantism’s decline, what its legacy holds for today, and whether its revival might be the key to overthrowing evangelicalism’s cultural dominance.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

DANIEL STEINMETZ-JENKINS: Let’s talk first about how you approached the subject of how religion became more conservative in the United States, while society became more secular. Your principle concern, and the root cause for this shift, is what you describe as the “epistemological crisis” that threatens democracy. Can you elaborate on what you mean by such an epistemological crisis?

DAVID HOLLINGER: I pick up on an observation of Barack Obama and many others: Lots of Americans believe patent falsehoods and live in epistemic enclosures that keep them from hearing even the most well-substantiated and carefully explained truths: about vaccines, climate change, election outcomes, immigration, and a host of other matters of public concern. I identify evangelicalism’s slowness to accept modern standards of epistemic plausibility as a major foundation for those enclosures. But I hasten to say that what is more distinctive about my argument is that evangelicalism has flourished as a safe harbor for white Americans who want to be counted as Christians without facing the challenges of a racially and religiously diverse society and a scientifically informed culture.

DSJ: Is there a way to reconcile your emphasis on “epistemological crisis” with growing wealth inequality since the 1970s?

DH: I would have said much more about this if we did not already have a splendid literature on those dynamics. Excellent books by Kevin Kruse and Darren Dochuk, explain the rise of the religious right in its historical context. Of course the increase of wealth inequality since the 1970s created an expanding population of desperate people eager for the easy confidences offered by evangelicals, but my book concentrates on how the previous fifty years of ecumenical-evangelical conflict set the stage for how people then react, religiously, to those late-twentieth century developments. I call attention to episodes in the relation of politics to religion that are rarely analyzed or even mentioned in the existing literature, e.g., the role of the ecumenical establishment in defining the terms of the debate.

Read entire article at The Nation