Past Imperfect: History and the Prospect for Liberalism – I

by William R. Hutchison

Dr. Hutchinson is Charles Warren professor of American religious history at Harvard Divinity School.

This is the first half of a two-part article. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 1-8, 1986, p. 11. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Does liberal Protestantism — as a species of thought, faith and social commitment — have a future? Religious liberalism, thus understood, is doing rather well and does assuredly have a future.

Although the term liberal Protestantism carries several meanings, and is thus more than a little troublesome, the choice of that label enables one to begin with an upbeat answer. Does liberal Protestantism -- as a species of thought, faith and social commitment -- have a future? I believe religious liberalism, thus understood, is doing rather well and does assuredly have a future. If one had been asked, instead, about the prospects for a certain set of denominations usually called the mainline churches, such an emphatic response might not be possible. The mainline churches ("oldline," as some have suggested, is probably the better term) , while they won’t pass away, will predictably continue to experience losses in "market share" within the American religious economy. As populations shift, as overall church adherence expands, and as religious forces rearrange themselves, these bastions of an earlier, heavily Northern and Eastern Establishment will "decline" further from the amazing degree of domination they enjoyed in the first part of the 20th century. They have been undergoing a process of that sort, at the rate of 4 or 5 per cent in most decades, since the 1920s. This process probably will continue for the foreseeable future.

But the loss of institutional hegemony should not be equated too readily with a weakening in the various forms of liberal impulse -- theological, ecumenical, social, political. The spirit of liberalism, like other spirits we are told about, bloweth where it listeth. A famous and often-married actress was asked, during one of her seasons of respite between husbands, whether she would do it all again. She replied that she would -- but with different people. Liberalism, like evangelicalism or most other important isms, will perdure, but there’s no reason to suppose that it must express itself always and forever through the institutional forms within which it flourished in the past.

Some will want to dispute or qualify my contention that liberalism persists, and will persist, through changing embodiments. Many, both liberals and others, are convinced that the impulse itself is enervated and has little prospect of making further contributions to our religious and cultural life. Yet most of those same observers, when pressed for an opinion as to where the vital juices are flowing in contemporary American religion, will call our attention not only to born-again conservative evangelicalism, but also to movements and tendencies that stand in a direct line of succession to the liberal traditions.

To prefer the label "postmodern" for liberation theologies, as Harvey Cox does, may be legitimate and useful. And the fact that moderates and dissidents among the Southern Baptists or Missouri Synod Lutherans have not called themselves liberals is understandable. But such impulses, along with the broader currents of social Christianity and critical biblical scholarship that have been running within the new evangelicalism since the 1950s, surely owe a great deal -- just how much scarcely matters -- to historic liberalism. With such major centers of the new evangelicalism as Fuller Seminary now showing a good deal more affinity to neo-orthodoxy than to fundamentalism (see Gerald T. Sheppard, "Biblical Hermeneutics: The Academic Language of Evangelical Identity," Union Seminary Quarterly Review 32 [Winter 1977, pp. 81-94]), surely we must be cautious both about assuming flatly a "decline" of classic liberalism and about implying a one-to-one relation between the liberal ideologies, whatever their current condition, and the oldline denominational structures.

If the fate of liberalism and the fate of certain denominations are two different issues, they are both important issues. I shall try to address both of them, especially at those points where they intersect. I intend to confine myself to the three points that preachers traditionally allow themselves (more aptly, perhaps, the three wishes that fairy-tale characters are always granted just before they are turned back into frogs) I wish, first of all, that one might avoid the statistical traps that lie in the path if one relies too much on changing church membership figures -- in this case the figures that are supposed to show drastic decline and weakening in oldline Protestantism since the 1960s. Second, I wish one would forego the equally perilous nostalgia trips that transport one to an earlier -- and I think mythical -- America of serene moral and religious consensus. Finally, I shall single out, as the most neglected (although not necessarily most important) desideratum for liberal thinking and strategy, something I would like to call a positive theology of pluralism.

Before considering these three points I will state, as fairly as I can in a few sentences, what seem to be the most common reasons for questioning the survivability of liberal Protestantism. The usual assertions are (1) that this kind of religion is today on the defensive; (2) that the defensive posture is occasioned by the flourishing of "conservative churches" (although the alleged liberal enervation is also seen in more autonomous terms); (3) that the growth in religious conservatism and conservative churches is itself the result of widespread reaction against "secular humanist" values and against those who hold such values; (4) that our society as a whole has been experiencing a breakdown in moral consensus, a loss of moral coherence somehow connected with a decline in oldline Protestant dominance; and (5) that some or all of these happenings have been quite sudden, so that the early 1960s can be taken as a kind of benchmark -- as a time before the fall.

One might phrase the survivability question more poignantly as "Whatever Happened to the Old Main Line?" or, ‘Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone." The answer in much current commentary would seem to be: "Not long at all. You just missed it." But that answer is wrong or misleading -- and in such a way as to skew projections for the future. We need, at this juncture, not so much to be "saved from the ‘60s" (in Steven Tipton’s wonderful phrase) as to be saved from the ‘60s statistics.

Those who point with alarm to a precipitate decline of the oldline churches and a sudden thriving of conservative ones are not, of course, referring only to numbers. Yet some specific analyses, and countless casual assertions, have taken the apparently shifting figures for membership and attendance, especially since 1965, as signaling a grossly and suddenly changed situation. Such inferences have been prompted especially by the fact that a few oldline denominations in these years have shown negative growth. Although decline in absolute numbers does not give a qualitatively different signal from the declines against population growth that we had seen quite regularly in earlier statistics, minus signs are admittedly eye-catching and scary.

The first problem here is that, minus signs or not, the fluctuating growth rates for the oldline churches (quite healthy growth during the postwar revival; decline during the 1970s; some recovery in the first half of the ‘80s) tell us little if they are not compared, and compared over a number of decades, with the growth rates for the conservative churches. I would go further: in the absence of such historical controls, we are lured into just the kind of dubious suppositions -- for example, about allegedly increased defections from oldline to conservative -- that have plagued recent discussions.

I cannot claim to have attempted an exhaustive quantitative study. Given my skepticism, perhaps natural in a Quaker, about correlations between quantities and vitalities, I am unlikely to do that. But if one looks only at the most accessible figures for religious groups from 1920 to 1985, the prima facie case for a recently increased "movement" from oldline to conservative churches is simply not there. If you wish to contrast an alleged liberal disarray, since the ‘60s, with evangelical purposiveness and consensus, that’s fine, and it can’ perhaps be argued on other grounds. But the idea that the statistics of church adherence (even before we consider the enormous changes and varieties within evangelicalism) will support such a contrast is faulty. Indeed, in historical perspective the figures for membership and attendance could easily be used to argue that the so-called conservative churches have been growing less spectacularly over the past 20 years than in the period from 1920 to 1965.

Will Herberg tried to tell us in the mid-’50s that, despite a conventional wisdom to the contrary, conservative churches had been booming since the Scopes trial; and at a rate roughly three times that of the oldline churches. Those observations were rephrased by Pitney Van Dusen and others, at the end of the decade, as admonitions to the liberal churches that they had better take account of "third-force Christianity." The point was regularly confirmed and reiterated as scholars like Joel Carpenter studied the very-much-alive fundamentalism of the second quarter-century. Yet too many of our analysts have now, seemingly, forgotten about those earlier realities.

One frequently cited bar graph has been used to suggest, for the decade 1965-75, a severe diminution of seven mainline Protestant bodies by contrast both with their gains in the preceding ten years and with the continuing growth of selected conservative churches (see Jackson W. Carroll et al., Religion in America, 1950 to the Present [Harper & Row, 19791, p. 15) The gap in growth rates for 1965-75, as shown on that graph, is more than 29 percentage points (an average loss in the oldline denominations of 8.9 per cent against average gains among the conservatives of 20.5 per cent) This is indeed a substantial difference, but it does not approach the difference in growth rates recorded for the same religious groups in the 1930s, when the discrepancy amounted to 62 percentage points. It is smaller than the gap discernible in the 1920s, and only slightly larger than those for the ‘40s and ‘50s (see Yearbook of Amen can and Canadian Churches for the years 1920-1984) (I have made these calculations without including one denomination on the Carroll graph -- the Lutheran Church in America -- whose antecedents in earlier decades are too complex for reliable figuring. Inclusion of the LCA among the mainline bodies would decrease the gap between mainline and conservative growth rates for 1965-75.) One can grasp a little better what such percentage-point differences mean by noting that between 1920 and 1960, the conservative churches represented in this particular sample experienced an average growth of well over 400 per cent, while their oldline competitors were able to show, on average, a 40-year increase of 78.4 per cent. It is common to explain such vast differences by speculating that conservative churches must surely have begun with smaller numbers. That would apply in some cases; in others, such as the Southern Baptists and the Missouri Synod Lutherans, it would not. (The Southern Baptist Convention, which increased by 334 per cent, began at a figure larger than any oldline body save the northern Methodists.) In those instances, moreover, in which a small membership base is a factor before 1965, it usually is afterward as well.

A good many such corrections and variables could, in any case, be accepted without much affecting the main point: if differing growth rates were really a matter of people marching from one kind of church to the other, recent liberal or net losses would appear somewhat less alarming than the Great Trek we would need to posit for some earlier periods. By extension, if we were to take changes in church population as indicating in any significant degree how people react to liberal tendencies in the oldline churches and the ecumenical movement, we might find ourselves trapped into concluding (mirabile dictu!) that liberal policies have been acting to stem an earlier flow from liberal churches to conservative ones.

The differences between American Baptist and Southern Baptist growth rates have been considerably smaller in 1960-85 than they were in 1935-60. Are we to suppose that the liberalism of the American Baptists has been keeping potential defectors in the fold? An absurd suggestion, to be sure; but not much more absurd than the conclusions induced by overinterpretation of the oldline churches’ faltering and sometimes negative membership statistics after the early ‘60s. Not only were these churches leveling off from the heady gains of the postwar revival era (the main Presbyterian bodies from 1940 to 1960 had gained adherents at more than twice the rate of the preceding 20 years) , but just as important, even more than before they were "losing" members and potential members because the regions in which they were strongest were "losing" population. The South, since 1960, has grown by 45 per cent, while the Northeast has expanded by a modest 11 per cent. And if the population "moving" to fast-growth regions did not clamor for congregational churches, that was at least partly because the churches already there -- in rank defiance of our stereotypes -- by this time were not bound to be different from those they had left behind.

(Chart here, p. 14)

size between 1920 and 1985, realigning its elements in what were natural and healthy ways, the percentage of Protestants belonging to member churches of the Federal or later National, Council of Churches -- bodies not adhered to by Southern Baptists, Mormons or Missouri Synod Lutherans -- decreased gradually but with great regularity. The accompanying graph shows, for those years, FCC/NCC membership as a percentage of the total constituency of non-Roman Catholic Christian churches.

One sees by this measure, as by others, that for the oldline churches it was the higher growth rates of the 1950s that were unusual, not the relatively lower ones that set in after the early ‘60s. The immediate postwar period was, for the oldline establishment, a brief shining moment that is not a particularly good benchmark for subsequent "decline.

Many of us, it may be recalled, were not so sure that the crowding of the suburban churches in the ‘50s had constituted a shining moment in the first place. When the statistics leveled off in 1963, and Time magazine announced that the great postwar revival was over, church leaders were quoted as "thankfully saying ‘Amen."’ Bishop John Wesley Lord and a dozen others told reporters that now the churches could get back to real religion. In what one cleric called the "boom of numbers and dollars and buildings," too many suburban parishioners had been recruited, as Bishop Lord remarked, "who had been starched and ironed before they were washed." Although the churchly commentators of that moment might be suspected of putting a good face on things, their reactions were, on the whole, consistent with the reservations most of them had voiced throughout the revival. On this ground, too, we should think twice before taking the years around 1960 as a standard against which the current vitality or impotence of the churches is to be measured.

My plea is not that we abandon statistical criteria, but that we use the recent statistics with far more caution. More particularly, social-scientific analyses have usually been too casual about one essential kind of "control" the historical kind. Are the liberal churches declining? Well -- to use an old rejoinder -- compared with what? The seriously researched comparison has been not to past rearrangements of the religious landscape, but to concurrent growth in "fringe" and conservative religion.

Even those much-exploited comparisons, as I’ve suggested, too often treat evangelicalism as though we were living in 1955 rather than in 1985. In what senses, exactly, are the no-longer-tiny Evangelicals for Social Action unmentionable in relation to "liberal Protestantism"? Aside from the abortion issue, not many. Is the thriving, 40,000-member Peacemaker organization among the Southern Baptists not to be placed, in our analyses, somewhere near Clergy and Laity Concerned? In more individual terms, do we really mean to allow the Methodist family from Dayton that joins the Baptists in Houston to become a statistic of political or ideological change? Such migrants may or may not belong in a discussion even of theological change.

When, on the oldline-liberal side of the ledger, we speak of such things as withdrawal from foreign missions or from sponsorship of higher education, we might refer also to the phenomenal growth of religious studies (not predominantly under conservative sponsorship) in public and private higher education and to the manyfold increase in overseas agencies doing very much what liberal Protestants did in the heyday of foreign missions. When we find that youthful defections from religious affiliation were significant in the mainline losses of the ‘70s (Wade Clark Roof and Christopher Kirk Hadaway, "Denominational Switching in the Seventies: Going Beyond Stark and Glock," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 18 [December 1979], pp. 363-77) , surely it is relevant to inquire whether or not that has been the case in the past; we should consult some of the numerous studies and plaints on that subject -- beginning perhaps with Washington Gladden’s Columbus, Ohio, survey of exactly a century ago: The Young Men and the Churches: Why Some of Them Are Outside, and Why They Ought to Come In. When trying to glimpse the future, on this same point, we might take seriously Robert Wuthnow’s warning, in 1976, that "predictions about religious trends based on data from the past decade are likely to be highly misleading ("Recent Patterns of Secularization: A Problem of Generations?" American Sociological Review 41 [October], p. 862). Wuthnow proposed that "as successive age strata mature. . . there may well be a return to more traditional religious commitments." We should, further, consider the degree to which the suburban church boom after 1945 was affected by the return of lost sheep (trailing their little lambs) from the late ‘30s.

On many fronts we must monitor the indicators and figures already appearing for the 1980s. In matters of some significance, such as congressional "representation" of religious groups, the enormous and disproportionate visibility of the oldline bodies continues (in 1984, 67 Episcopalians, one Pentecostal) ; the "losses" have been to Roman Catholic and Jewish representation, not noticeably to right-wing or even "evangelical" Protestantism (Albert Menendez, "The Changing Religious Profile of Congress," Church and State [January 1983], pp. 9-12; Christianity Today, "Members of Congress Hold Ties to 21 Religious Groups" [January 18, 19851, pp. 61 -64) Even in the membership sweepstakes it appears that the NCC bodies may do reasonably well in the 1980s. Of the six oldline churches (the Presbyterians having now amalgamated) whose negative figures for the 1970s were discussed earlier, none has decreased at the same rate in the 1980-85 reports (covering 1978 to 1983) Three have declined at substantially lesser rates. Two have virtually held firm. One (the American Baptists) has grown. (The American Baptist figures, I realize, have risen partly because the data collection method they used in the ‘60s and ‘70s has been abandoned. [Baptist "losses" had been affected, earlier, by that method.] But there has been a gain of 20,000, or roughly 1.5 per cent.)

I am willing, in fact, to hazard a prediction about the trendier media reports and worried conference papers of 1990. We may be in for titles like "Mainline Protestantism: Why Is It Growing?" or "Yuppies, Late Marriage, and the Sunday School Boom," or even "The Suburban Captivity of the Church."