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After Cloven Tongues of Fire

After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History

David A. Hollinger
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    After Cloven Tongues of Fire
    Book Description:

    The role of liberalized, ecumenical Protestantism in American history has too often been obscured by the more flamboyant and orthodox versions of the faith that oppose evolution, embrace narrow conceptions of family values, and continue to insist that the United States should be understood as a Christian nation. In this book, one of our preeminent scholars of American intellectual history examines how liberal Protestant thinkers struggled to embrace modernity, even at the cost of yielding much of the symbolic capital of Christianity to more conservative, evangelical communities of faith.

    If religion is not simply a private concern, but a potential basis for public policy and a national culture, does this mean that religious ideas can be subject to the same kind of robust public debate normally given to ideas about race, gender, and the economy? Or is there something special about religious ideas that invites a suspension of critical discussion? These essays, collected here for the first time, demonstrate that the critical discussion of religious ideas has been central to the process by which Protestantism has been liberalized throughout the history of the United States, and shed light on the complex relationship between religion and politics in contemporary American life.

    After Cloven Tongues of Firebrings together in one volume David Hollinger's most influential writings on ecumenical Protestantism. The book features an informative general introduction as well as concise introductions to each essay.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4599-6
    Subjects: History, Religion, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. CHAPTER 1 The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment: An Old Drama Still Being Enacted
    (pp. 1-17)

    In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence. In that 1963 meditation on American national destiny, fashioned as a weapon in the black struggle for civil rights, King repeatedly mobilized the sanctions of both Protestant Christianity and the Enlightenment.¹ Like the great majority of Americans of his and every generation, King believed that these two massive inventories of ideals and practices work together well enough. But not everyone who has shared this basic conviction understands the relation between the two in quite the same...

  2. CHAPTER 2 After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity
    (pp. 18-55)

    The life of human beings today “is cast in a multicultural context,” wrote the great comparativist Wilfred Cantwell Smith in 1960. “Every community on earth is becoming a minority in a complexity of diverse groups,” he continued. In this “age of minorities,” no particular “we” can any longer credibly claim superiority to any “they.” The most defensible solidarity is now “humanity itself,” insisted Smith, who then identified Christians, capitalists, communists, and Muslims as prominent minorities slow to recognize their true status. It was especially important, he asserted, to get the truth across to white people and “Westerners” who “seem almost...

  3. CHAPTER 3 The Realist–Pacifist Summit Meeting of March 1942 and the Political Reorientation of Ecumenical Protestantism in the United States
    (pp. 56-81)

    “I hope that the matter of the agreement not to discuss the war can be satisfactorily clarified,” Walter M. Horton wrote to the office of the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) in November of 1941, referring to a meeting of several hundred liberal Protestant leaders the FCC was planning for the following March. “I found some questioning about it” at a recent meeting of peace advocates, some of whom, Horton continued, expressed fear that if they went to the conference they would be obliged “to swear an oath not to say a word about the dominant reality on the horizon.”¹...

  4. CHAPTER 4 Justification by Verification: The Scientific Challenge to the Moral Authority of Christianity in Modern America
    (pp. 82-102)

    The Christian religion and modern science, it was once thought, present real obstacles to each other’s prosperity. No more, it would seem, except for fundamentalists and, at the other extreme, a few die-hard village atheists who don’t realize how anachronistically Victorian is the vision of a triumphant science eventually replacing religion. Scholars and moralists of a variety of orientations now analyze the historical relationship between science and Christianity as a story not of conflict but of “differentiation” and “divergence.”¹ No doubt this is an advance, but caution is in order as we invite ourselves to feel superior to John William...

  5. CHAPTER 5 James, Clifford, and the Scientific Conscience
    (pp. 103-116)

    However diverse our opinions of William James today, we generally agree that the great pragmatist was right about one thing: the pretensions of the Victorian “positivists.” James exposed the epistemological naïveté of these cultural imperialists. He celebrated openness of mind over the arrogant, dogmatic closures we associate with the nineteenth-century scientific intelligentsia. These contemporaries of Darwin ascribed to the sciences a God’s-eye view, and to the world a set of hard features discoverable by men and women bold enough to replace fantasy and superstition with facts. These Huxleys and Tyndalls and Cliffords thought themselves a new priesthood, and, while telling...

  6. CHAPTER 6 Damned for God’s Glory: William James and the Scientific Vindication of Protestant Culture
    (pp. 117-137)

    When William James died in 1910, his lifelong friend Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. remarked that when James dealt with religion, he had tried “to turn the lights down low so as to give miracle a chance.”¹ Many items in the James canon feed this suspicion. YetThe Varieties of Religious Experience, James’s most sustained treatment of religion, constitutes a proposal that even the most private, mystical experiences offered as evidence for religious belief be brought out into the open, be made, indeed, the primary subject matter for “a science of religions,” an empirically oriented, publicly warranted inquiry...

  7. CHAPTER 7 Communalist and Dispersionist Approaches to American Jewish History in an Increasingly Post-Jewish Era
    (pp. 138-169)

    In the late 1950s, there came to a head an often animated controversy over whether the federal census of 1960 should include religious categories. The census had changed its character from decade to decade, but had always counted people by what were then called, and by the Census Bureau today are still called, “races.” Never had the federal census counted people by religion. In the middle 1950s, a time when religious identity was especially popular among Americans—this was, after all, the era of Will Herberg’sProtestant-Catholic-Jew(1955), which powerfully reinforced the idea that religious rather than racial or class...

  8. CHAPTER 8 Church People and Others
    (pp. 170-189)

    When I was a child in Idaho, I learned that human beings were divided into groups. There were church people, who were good, and not-church people, who were bad. Within the ranks of the church people, there were more refined distinctions. Mormons, Catholics, and Pentecostals went to the wrong churches. Methodists, Presbyterians, Brethren, Mennonites, Lutherans, Quakers, and Congregationalists were prominent among those who went to the right churches. I did not know that it was possible to divide people up into groups on any basis other than what churches they went to, or whether they went to church at all,...

  9. CHAPTER 9 Enough Already: Universities Do Not Need More Christianity
    (pp. 190-198)

    Universities have reason to be proud of having created, within the most Christian of all industrialized societies of the North Atlantic West, a rare space in which ideas identified as Christian are not implicitly privileged. Our leading colleges and universities once shared in a pervasive Protestant culture, to which they owe a great deal. Now, however, mainstream academia maintains a certain critical distance from the Christian project. This critical distance is consistent with the drift of science and scholarship in the North Atlantic West. Not everyone is happy about this critical distance. The very topic “Religion and Higher Education” generally...

  10. CHAPTER 10 Religious Ideas: Should They Be Critically Engaged or Given a Pass?
    (pp. 199-210)

    Would the democratic public culture of the United States be well served by a robust, critical discussion of religious ideas? Or do principles of ethical propriety and political prudence encourage us instead to ignore each other’s ideas about religion, however silly they may seem?

    Two recent developments give point to these questions.

    One is a striking increase in the number and intensity of demands for a greater role for religion in public affairs, and for more “flexible” and “realistic” approaches to the constitutional separation of church and state.¹ Faith-based initiatives are widely supported by leaders of both political parties. The...

  11. EPILOGUE: Reinhold Niebuhr and Protestant Liberalism
    (pp. 211-226)

    Reinhold Niebuhr made war safe for American Protestants. He performed other historic functions, too, but this one was central to his becoming a national sage in the early 1940s and it is the key to a sound understanding of the roles his ideas later played, and did not play, in the public life of the United States until, and beyond, his death in 1971. Even in the twenty-first century, debates about his legacy focus on war: Niebuhr’s “realism” has been invoked in defense of the wars made by President George W. Bush, and with equal fervor against the hubris and...