Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.
This article appeared in the Christian Century October 24,1984, p. 979. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
On October 3, 1949, thirty-eight denominations set out to win as many as possible of the 70 million unchurched people of this country to a living evangelical faith. Realism soon shattered their plans, and if latter-day celebrators of belligerence, tribalism and hard-headedness disdain some of their goals, this does not mean they have nothing to teach us.
Historians must learn and teach others to judge the past in the context of the possibilities open to those living within it. To expect 16th century people to be at home, for example, with modern interfaith relations or feminism is unrealistic and anachronistic. However, grading is still possible, where it is advisable or necessary: some 16th century people did horribly with the possibilities then open to them. For instance, Luther and most of the Renaissance humanists were failures, even villains, in respect to Jews.
Overusing the gift of hindsight can also lead to condescension. Whoever sees everyone and everything in the past as silly should realize that on such terms all of us now alive will look silly a century from now -- or minutes from now.
Temptations to look at this magazine’s past with condescension are there. Many of The Christian Century editors’ hopes failed them; the cities they would build turned to ashes; their dreams for benign and civil Christian futures were thwarted not only by the malice of others, but because they were themselves naïve.
Without dropping critical guard as I turned any of the thousands of pages produced between 1946 and 1952, and finding much to criticize, just as often a different impression and emotion overtook me. Awe. Awe for the extent of the coverage, the ambition, the relative consistency, the suppleness, the coherence of a Christian philosophy that did not match -- or want to match -- the emerging world. There were, admittedly, some howlers, and I’ll mention one or two. There was occasional moral blindness, too much hope for human causes, and on and on. Yet consider the alternative: the meanness and shortsightedness of many people who did not dream dreams like the editors.
At mid-century, on January 4, 1950, the staff, under editor Paul Hutchinson, celebrated a half-century of being The Christian Century. They confessed nostalgic fondness for their original (1884-1900) name, the Christian Oracle. It was more fun, they joked, to pose as an oracle than to misname a century. “Viewed in the perspective furnished by fifty years, that optimism is now a far-off and almost forgotten thing. . . We do not see a Christian century, either now or in any century.” Time to throw in the towel? Hardly “Nevertheless, to the task undertaken fifty years ago of bringing this century, and all time and all the aspects of man’s life, under the rule of Christ, this paper remains committed. Forward to the Christian century!” And they continued. And here we are.
Religious life in the United States was changing dramatically in these years, as the religious community changed from a world of mainstream and established Protestant hegemony and privilege to one that openly acknowledged pervasive pluralism. The Christian Century editors, as the most plausible and responsible unofficial voices of what is today called “mainline Protestantism,” had the task of educating their readers and themselves to live creatively with this great shift.
The editors were sometimes dragged screaming into this new era. Witness the editorial of June 13, 1951, the last full-throated defense of the old: “Pluralism -- National Menace.” “The idea of a plural society is so new to Americans that many will not even understand the term.” The editors offered only a negative portrayal of pluralism -- one modeled after the Dutch Verzuiling. (They didn’t use the word, happily for their readers.)
Verzuiling meant a columned life -- a republic with complete and separate institutions for, say, Protestants and Catholics and Jews. Fearing that Catholic schools would form a strong base for a subculture, and worried about the decline of the public schools as the junior wing of American public religion’s informal church establishment, the editors reared up.
A nostalgia similar in ways to that of today’s religious New Right was evident in the magazine. In the good old days, the editors believed, Americans spoke “the same language” and had “the same cultural background,” as well as many other important “sames.” The editors still favored immigration quotas to limit the lumps of peoplehood that could not be blended into homogeneous America. For a long time the system had been successfully digestive; it could cope with non-Protestants as impotent minorities. But now Catholicism was large and powerful, with leaders who would “like to alter certain of the basic concepts upon which American democracy is founded.” This was not quite the old nativism; the editors had no heart for that. Yet they could not swallow the changes easily.
Borrowing definitions from J. S. Furnivall, the editors thought pluralism was comprised of “two or more elements which live side by side, yet without mingling, in one political unit.” Such a society can have “no common will”; anomie and instability will result, with union only on fiscal concerns or national defense. How then express a social will? How be other than vulnerable to communist or other ideological propaganda? Blaming Catholics for proliferation of Catholic parochial schools, labor unions, civic clubs, veterans’ organizations and political lobbies, the editors feared that Protestants would compensate with their own self-interest groups. The editors did not notice the extent to which these already existed, and that, in a way, they were speaking for what no longer was the “same” America, but one particular set of interests. Yet through all these years in subtler editorials and choice of articles, they showed awareness of that changing world.
On some fronts, there were many things to cheer. Scores of pages were devoted to the organizations that at mid-century advocated a republic in which all humans had hope. Similarly, for people like Christian Century writers and readers, there were reasons to hope that much human harmonizing would unite behind symbols associated specifically with the Christian church and the name of Christ. Polite, mannered and tolerant about most world religions (if nervous about a more aggressive Islam), the magazine betrayed a kind of Christian triumphal or imperial bearing. No other religion could do as much as Christianity to promote justice and peace. Then, the editors could turn around and criticize Christianity -- including their own kind -- for its apathy and moral flaws.
Today the concept of a republic or federation seems farfetched. Invoking visions of “spaceship earth” or “global village” or United Nations or World Council of Churches, or the oikoumene of ecumenism sets oneself up to be marked as naïve, silly or utopian. At mid-century, however, there were signs that people might begin transcending denominational, tribal and national boundaries for common survival and interests.
And the naïve, silly and utopian Christian Century editors cheered. With almost wearying frequency they monitored, criticized, reported on and hoped for the United Nations, UNESCO, and other “united” and “federated” agencies of state and church. The Korean War was another tragic setback for their hopes, but they were untiring.
Briefed to suspect them of unsophisticated leftism in world affairs, a reader will quickly find that the editors were suspicious of Marxism, had moved far from socialism -- though they allowed some contributors to defend it -- and were extremely critical of the Soviet Union. These were Senator Joseph McCarthy’s prime years, and the editors stood guard against his encroachments on liberties. They hoped for progress after China’s Communist Revolution, but always worried for liberties and for the Christian future there. If during the 1930s they had occasionally published articles that saw positive possibilities in the Russian regime, such articles were rare in the Century during the 1950s.
In American politics, they were critical of Harry S. Truman, beginning with his use of the atomic bomb. Maybe it did save lives, but the war could have been ended through other means. Japan, it was said, was ready in January 1945 with the very terms the United States accepted in August; why had we not agreed earlier? Why build resentment and Japan’s will to revenge? Why not at least have demonstrated the A-bomb’s power before dropping it on cities? Why not? Whoever might consider the magazine as naïve about science and progress would do well to turn to the editorial “Man and the Atom” (August 22, 1945). It took a sort of sorcerer’s apprentice view of what science, under Truman’s unleashing of negative atomic power, was doing and could do. Science was a threat, not a messiah. One week later there was “America’s Atomic Atrocity,” a theme for years of concern about responsibility, regulation and the like. “The atomic bomb can fairly be said to have struck Christianity itself.”
So wary of Truman were the editors that some sort of wishful thinking must have left them ready for Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. (I promised a howler.) The Christian Century was as caught as the Chicago Tribune with its premature headline announcing the Dewey victory. A week before the election the magazine had nominated Christian statesman John Foster Dulles as Dewey’s secretary of state. Then on November 10, 1948, having gone to press just before the election, the Century advised President-elect Dewey on atomic control. The next issue had to open with “Whatever became of that President-elect? How wrong we were!” The magazine ate crow for several issues as the letters to the editor show.
On the international scene, one major theme of these years was Zionism, focusing on the birth of Israel in 1948. The editors and most contributors did not support the state of Israel as created, or the way it was created. Frequently writers expressed regret over wartime policies toward refugees and immigrants, including those in the United States. There was constant and genuine concern for the Jews who survived the Holocaust. By now, however, the Reform Jews -- with whom the editors had sympathized from Balfour Declaration times in 1918 to the prime of Hitler around 1938 -- were largely persuaded, for understandable reasons, by the political cause of Israel. So by 1948 they were no longer sources or allies for the editors. Thus the editors were reduced to magnifying pathetically small and marginal groups, like the American Council for Judaism and other vestigial anti-Zionist voices.
Yet editorials of those years foresaw more clearly than one could have wished the forthcoming Arab-Israeli hostility. The Century did better than many in representing the valid cause of those displaced by the new state, but only very reluctantly did it come to terms with the reality of Israel.
When the editors felt that they had to cover the emerging pluralism in this country, most frequently they reported on the “menace” of assertive Catholicism. In the January 21, 1948, issue they published the full “Manifesto by ‘Protestants and Other Americans United”’ for separation of church and state. POAU was the last coalition between liberal and conservative Protestants -- Morrison, the editor, and Louis D. Newton, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, were two of the five signers, and middle-of-the-roader John A. Mackay of Princeton was typical of another part of the spectrum.
POAU intended to be vigilant about all excursions across the ‘‘wall of separation,’’ and it often scored Protestant groups. It was occasioned, however, by fears that Catholicism was getting too large a piece of the pluralist pie, A celebrated series by future editor Harold E. Fey on “Can Catholicism Win America?” operated on an almost universal mainline Protestant assumption. Oversimplified, the belief was that if Catholic growth were sustained and reached 51 per cent of the population -- though a smaller figure could do -- it would alter and dominate the country’s institutions. Why? Because the Catholic Church was monolithic, united, authoritarian and mobilizable the way Protestant churches were not. The manifesto reads, along the way:
A powerful church, unaccustomed in its own history and tradition to the American ideal of separation of church and state, but flourishing under the religious liberty provided by our [I am allowed one sic?] form of government, and emboldened by the wide diffusion of a false conception of tolerance, has committed itself in authoritative declarations and by positive acts to a policy plainly subversive of religious liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution.
It is hard to think one’s way back to the times before Vatican II, before ecumenical and self-critical Catholicism, before non-Catholic awareness of intra-Catholic conflict and the like, to reconstruct a plausible basis for such understandings. Today intrusions or violations of “the wall” come as readily from aggressive Protestants as from Catholics. As things stood at mid-century, however, the “even-handed” POAU soon took on the image of an anti-Catholic group. Fifteen years later as the magazine became a leader in interpreting Vatican II Catholicism, it progressively distanced itself from the POAU heritage, but in 1949, Charles Clayton Morrison -- retired as editor, but still a contributing editor -- gave an article-length defense of POAU objectives (February 23). “This movement is not anti-Catholic in the sense of opposition to the Catholic Church, as such.” But. . . And the Vatican ambassadorship issue arose again under Truman, provoking far, far more editorial response than it deserved. At the same time, the editors stayed alert to positive signs in Catholic theology and social thought, even as they answered a fearful Yes when they asked, “Can Catholicism Win America?”
Given the public visibility and growth of the evangelical-pentecostal-fundamentalist Protestant sector in recent decades, it is interesting to see how marginal it looked to the mainstream up to 1952. It is instructive to monitor the coverage of the young evangelist Billy Graham, who received fairly neutral and certainly not wholly negative comment during these years.
In the news section of December 28, 1949, the Minneapolis correspondent began to introduce the name. “Who is he?” Minneapolitans were asking of Graham, fresh back from a sensational Los Angeles campaign, which the Century’s Los Angeles correspondent had failed to note at the time. This “blond, hard-hitting Southern Baptist preacher,” handpicked to head the fundamentalist Northwestern Schools in St. Paul, remained an unknown. Gradually the editors began moving Graham toward the front pages, but they did not connect him with the large-scale revival of the evangelicalism that they thought ecumenical Christianity was leaving behind.
Today it is hard to re-create the sense of cultural space that mainline Protestantism occupied -- and was gradually having to share with Catholics, Jews and conservative Protestants. Articles on “cults” were relatively rare during those 15 years. “I Am” claimed a million members; Moral Re-Armament demanded watching. Yet if “center and periphery” and “mainstream and marginal” are blurred and confused today, the power of center and mainstream was unquestionable then. I do not think this was a mere illusion of power, though the editors were not past being blind to limits of their threatened world. The reporting, not the editorializing, confirms the power of the mainstream.
Picture today anything like the “America for Christ” banner across the October 19, 1949, issue. “The die is cast. American Protestantism is committed. On October 3, thirty-eight denominations set out to win as many as possible of the 70 million unchurched people of this country to a living evangelical faith.” It was to be a 15-month “march against the pagan secularism, spiritual illiteracy and open unbelief of the majority of our citizens.” A variety of tested methods would be used widely in a United Evangelistic Advance by 35 million church people. “It deserves to succeed. It must not fail.”
One reads little in followup during those 15 months. If the advance failed, that would “reveal that Protestantism has wasted its magnificent American heritage and is no longer the major spiritual force in the mature life of the nation it brought to birth, cradled in infancy and guided in youth.” The editors saw this as an hour of decision for Protestant influence.
Why did the mainstream lose its will and strategic position? The Century pages give some clues.
Never overlook the power of nontheological factors. Let me half speculate and say that the fate of common Protestantism was much tied to “downtown” -- downtown Seattle and Minneapolis and Kalamazoo. Downtown churches and ministers became prominent simply by being downtown. Then white Protestants would converge in rallies of thousands, whether for Reformation festivals or moral causes or morale-building celebrations. The suburban dispersal caused a loss of coherence and commonality, thus the decline of church federations and joint activities.
Add to this the gradual loss of enemies. Group coherence came from the fear of the Catholic or secularist menaces, and when the leadership turned ecumenical and open to God’s activity beyond the walls of the churches, they sapped themselves of certain energies. Not that the editors felt Protestants had won or were winning the world, leaving no enemies out there. But the old bogeys were disappearing; Catholicism was changing, and Protestants who came to know Catholic neighbors lost their extreme negativism.
Protestant theology was in fairly good shape then. The major theologians of Euro-American neo-orthodoxies were not remote academics: Karl Barth preached in the prisons, and Reinhold Niebuhr was a circuit-rider. Theologians made Time covers and were publicly recognized, while they also kept credentials in the academy. One envies book review editors who could critique Baillie and Baillie and Berdyaev and Buber and Bultmann and Barth and Brunner and Bonhoeffer, and still have 25 other letters of the alphabet to review. One enjoys reading how the editors wrestled with the legacies of Alfred North Whitehead and John Dewey, who died in this period, or Albert Schweitzer, who visited America. Another decade’s round of the “How My Mind Has Changed” series found the Europeans less remote than before from American concerns, and the Americans more alert to the critical theology of Europe. The editors had plenty of judgment calls to make, but they did enjoy the game.
At the same time, mainstream Protestantism, somewhat symbolized by Eisenhower’s bland piety, had so blended with the woodwork of its America that it lost visibility, color and vitality. Judaism, familiar in suburb and on campus, was making new moves. Catholicism was becoming a regular partner and ally with non-Catholics on the civic, social and humanitarian scene; despite the aggressiveness of the Cardinal Spellmans, there were also cooperative sides. Billy Graham was making evangelism and evangelicalism visible. And a new vitality had come to secular thought in the postwar years.
All these advanced at the expense of mainstream Protestantism, which tried a bit to be mean, but meanness didn’t stick. The editors found themselves developing “Plan B” for America. Whoever has read about religious change almost anywhere in the world has to be impressed how this shift occurred in America with no dead bodies, no (to my knowledge) physical wounds from intergroup squabbles, and fewer psychic scars than one could have expected. The retreat or yielding, in other words, was in part strategic, often principled -- and editors of this magazine, who had much at stake in the shift, played a significant part in the move.
A review of these years finds the magazine involved in some historic causes, while continuing to neglect others. There were signals that the “racial revolution” the civil rights cause -- was dawning on the horizon. When the magazine noticed or stimulated it, it tended to side with the angels. Yet there was a general understress, even neglect, of this cause that white Protestant liberals were slow to champion.
The postwar years brought a few better signs on the “women” front. Margaret Frakes published a remarkable series that singled out prominent churchwomen, and occasional articles advocated enlarged roles for women in religious and national life. It would be dishonest to represent equality as a high-priority cause, however. The question of whether Catholic parochial-school children were to ride public school buses free of charge drew more ink and blood than the cause of justice for women or blacks. To recall the set of propositions that opened this article, one can make justifiable judgments here: Some people were advancing causes of racial minorities and women better than liberal Protestants or Christians in general. At least the editors did not retard the cause; they kept alive a consciousness that could quickly be vitalized when the change began to come. Then the magazine wrote happier chapters that stimulated such change.
Alfred Schutz has spoken about “imposed” and “intrinsic” relevance. World War II imposed on The Christian Century an agenda that the editors could not dodge. They reached into their resources and responded appropriately. In the years of peace that followed they found themselves “intrinsically” relevant, since many parts of their vision could now help shape a world. The editors were at home in a world that formed the United Nations and the National and World Councils of Churches. These agencies -- always subject to the editors’ severe criticism -- at least embodied international and ecumenical ideals of moving beyond the tribalism that had killed and hurt so much. Realism, more than is usually acknowledged, marked the writings of these editors. If events soon shattered their plans, and if latter-day celebrators of belligerence, tribalism and hard-headedness disdain some of their goals, this does not mean they have nothing to teach us. One can profit by re-examining their compromised positions, as on Israel, or their blind spots, as on Catholicism. But better lessons may lie in the consistency of their Christic concern, in their love for the republics of politics and letters, and in their wrestling with the problems of pluralism, as both menace and promise.
Theirs was hardly a starry-eyed optimism; they knew that struggles were inevitable in the future of the world, the country and the church. What sustained the editors through all the years was articulated at the very beginning of the postwar period in an August 22, 1945. editorial, “The Church’s Responsibility.” “The apocalyptic end of the war” lay upon the church a responsibility to “preach to modern man the good news of possible salvation.” Faced with Catholic clericalism, Orthodox binding, European Protestant devastation, confrontations with old and new paganisms, the irrelevance of much of American Protestantism, and ominous signs that, by standards of human judgment, the church was unequal to its task, the editors relied on a secret for hope. “That secret is found not in its own strength but in the power which surges into the church again and again from its living head, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Christian Century did not want to miss out on any seven days’ worth of events or ideas related to that secret or its power and source. Readers got the point.