Marilynne Robinson is a Christian in a country that increasingly isn’t. She belongs to the American “mainline,” a collection of Protestant denominations with deep roots in European history, reliably liberal politics and, if current demographic and attendance trends continue, just a few decades to live. Why should the mainline be disappearing? And why would anybody care if it did? In her most recent books, a collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, and a novel, Lila, Robinson poses these questions but only partially answers them. Her reply to the first question is never fully satisfying, perhaps because she has much in common with the movement that is largely responsible for the mainline’s decline. The second question is even more difficult, but Robinson the novelist gives a better answer.
Liberal mainline denominations—like the Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and certain strains of Lutheranism—never represented the whole of American Christianity, but as recently as the middle of the last century their adherents numbered in the scores of millions and included almost all of America’s political and cultural elites. Since then their fall has been rapid and steep. Between 2000 and 2010 the United Church of Christ (Robinson’s denomination) lost nearly seven hundred congregations and over three hundred thousand members, bringing its total membership to less than half what it was in 1957. Other mainline denominations are in similar straits. The decline of their membership and prestige is one of the largest but least-understood shifts in postwar American life, and in several essays throughout The Givenness of Things, Robinson tries to diagnose its cause and offer a remedy.
In “Awakening,” first published in the Financial Times, she tried to explain the state of American Christianity to a foreign audience. America, as Robinson sees it, is sharply divided along a single religious and political line. On the one side stands the religious right, which she regards as “outrageously forgiving of one another and themselves, and very cruel in their denunciation of anyone else.” On the other stands a left-leaning “form of secularism that is contemptuous of religion—religion being for these purposes identical with the unbeautiful phenomenon that now so loudly claims the title for itself.” In the rest of the essay she turns to the history of an all but forgotten alternative: her own kind of liberal Protestantism.
Following her title (“Awakening”), she points out that the great awakenings of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were more than outbursts of religious enthusiasm. They were genuine reform movements that promoted “enhancements of the status of women, broadening of access to education, mitigations of social and racial inequality.” Denominations like the Methodists, Unitarians, Quakers and Robinson’s own Congregationalists formed the backbone of the abolitionist movement and first-wave feminism, whose 1848 Seneca Falls declaration was signed in a Methodist church. Their beliefs, she argues, motivated their social missions. If all human beings were made in the image of God, and were therefore spiritual equals, then slavery was clearly sinful. Robinson calls the civil rights movement a third awakening, which was “led by the black church, and sooner or later had the support of all the major denominations.”
She then turns to a recent and, for her, perplexing development. Mainline churches have set this proud history aside. In her own lifetime she has witnessed “the uncoerced abandonment by the so-called mainline churches of their own origins, theology, culture and tradition.” This abandonment, she thinks, has had terrible consequences for American public life: “the mainline churches, which are the liberal churches, in putting down the burden of educating their congregations in their own thought and history, have left them inarticulate.” Robinson presents herself as a voice crying out in the wilderness, speaking to and for a people who have all but disappeared.
Many of the other essays in The Givenness of Things strike a similar tone and follow a similar line of argument. Robinson laments some ugly aspects of American public life, like the prevalence of gun violence or the popular reduction of human motives to economic self-interest. In response, she unearths old figures from Christian history and shows how their faith led them to fight against the kind of ills we still suffer from today. Robinson’s implication, sometimes stated and sometimes not, is that if mainline Christians would allow their religious doctrines to inform their political commitments, then their prophetic voice would sound again and their numbers would swell, to the benefit of both their churches and the nation as a whole.
Robinson’s story is appealing, especially for those who are neither contemptuous of religion nor members of the religious right. But the strength of a political movement depends in no small part on the depth of its members’ convictions, and belief as strong as Robinson’s (let alone the abolitionists’) is rare in the mainline today. For all her knowledge of American Protestant history, she has left out the crucial chapter: her own. Mainline leaders of Robinson’s generation worked tirelessly to convince their congregations to accept and even welcome strangers, the rapidly increasing proportion of Americans who did not look like them or believe what they believed. The trouble is, they didn’t do so by engaging more deeply with their history and doctrines, but by deliberately casting history and doctrine aside.
Before the 1960s, the overwhelming majority of American political and education institutions had Protestant histories, leaderships, memberships and missions. Along with senators and judges, Harvard still turned out ministers and theologians, as it had since the 1600s. Politicians and business leaders, like John Foster Dulles and Harvey Firestone Jr., were also regular members of inter-mainline counsels, which made confident pronouncements on everything from race relations in the United States to America’s role on the world stage. In the minds of clergy and laymen alike, their churches and nation held common interests and ideals, which were complementary if not one and the same. There was a glaring problem with this arrangement, of course. It excluded Catholics, Jews, blacks and atheists from nearly every position of influence in American life. As FDR put it to one of his cabinet members, a second-generation Irish immigrant named Leo Crowley: “Leo, you know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here on sufferance.”
Waves of postwar immigration made an already inequitable situation untenable, and mainline leaders were in a position to do something about it. Hard as it may be to imagine today, some of the country’s foremost public intellectuals from the Thirties to the Sixties were mainline theologians. Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine, advised politicians and sold books by the millions. They focused on the church’s social obligations, which they emphasized at the expense of the exclusivity and particularity of traditional doctrinal claims. In one famous formulation, Tillich argued that Christianity was just one of many ways to touch “the ground of being.” Symbols, religious and otherwise, all inadequately represented their ineffable subjects, but they also pointed beyond themselves to this ground of being, which Tillich called God. If Tillich was right, then mainline Protestants had no reason to distrust people of other faiths. Perhaps their beliefs were not so different after all. Harvey Cox went one step further. In his hugely popular book, The Secular City, he declared that “rather than clinging stubbornly to antiquated appellations … perhaps like Moses, we must simply take up the work of liberating the captives, confident that we will be granted a new name by events of the future.”