Barton Swaim, reviewing Elesha J. Coffman’s The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline for the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), wrote this: Nor were the editors [of the Christian Century] above dirty tricks, at one point even hiring an investigative reporter to find some impropriety in [the Billy Graham] organization’s finances. None came to light, but in something of a scoop, Ms. Coffman has discovered documents linking the revered historian Martin Marty to the rough anti-Graham campaign. As far as Coffman’s book goes, I have only the usual quibbles that a historian voices when reviewing the work of another historian. It is Swaim who is unfair to the magazine.
It has become cliché to note that we live in a world of information overload. Being cliché, of course, does not make it any less true. We professors are well aware of our inability to keep up with the fantastic production of new knowledge in our own specialties, yet the torrent of words overwhelms not only scholars but all readers. Who can possibly read all the books, magazines, journals, newspapers, blogs, tweets and posts worth reading? And what is worth reading, anyway? This deluge is often ascribed to the digital revolution, and indeed the internet and pervasive connectivity have greatly expanded our reading options. Nevertheless, the historically minded will recognize in our current situation merely the ongoing ripples of earlier information revolutions.
For Elesha Coffman, the pre-1960 Century is a window on the gap between an educated elite and a mass population of churchgoers.
I keep seeing T. F. Charlton's Jason Collins post everywhere, and with good reason: Tim Tebow is an example of how the public face of Christian athletes, like the public face of American Christianity in general, is overwhelmingly white—despite the fact that black Americans are the racial demographic most likely to identify as “very religious.” A recent Barna poll found that Tebow is by far the most well-known Christian professional athlete in the U.S. (with 83% awareness from the public), with retired white quarterback Kurt Warner a distant second at 59%. Robert Grifﬁn III (RGIII), a black quarterback who’s had a far more successful season with the Redskins than Tebow’s had with the Jets, trailed at 34%. It's a good point, but I don't think it's the whole story.
The Barna Group's recent religious freedom poll is pretty interesting. Evangelicals overwhelmingly support religious freedom and are concerned about its possible demise—yet a majority of them also believe that "traditional Judeo-Christian values should be given preference."
Maybe what sociologists call mainline decline is God pulling us away from external things so we can rediscover our union with God in love.
Readers familiar with Ross Douthat's column might expect his new book to be moderately conservative and carefully nuanced. It is neither.
In a recent interview with the Century, historian David Hollinger talks about his preference for the phrase “ecumenical Protestants” to describe non-evangelical mid-20th-century American Protestants, instead of the more frequently used terms “liberal” and “mainline.” “Ecumenical” refers to a specific, vital and largely defining impulse within the groups I am describing. It also provides a more specific and appropriate contrast to evangelical. The term evangelical comes into currency in the mid-century to refer to a combination of fundamentalists and Holiness, Pentecostals and others; ecumenical refers to the consolidation of the ecumenical point of view in the big conferences of 1942 and 1945. I appreciated this shift in vocabulary because I have long disliked both the terms “liberal” and “mainline” to refer to whatever-kind-of-Protestant it is that I am.
Ross Douthat's gotten a lot of pushback for using his soapbox to complain that liberal Christianity lacks "a religious reason for its own existence." And with good reason—it'd be nice if the national paper of record's faithiest columnist could at least spin a fresher argument against us mainliners. My favorite response so far comes from the always entertaining Sarah Morice-Brubaker.