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Opinion | The Religious Roots of a New Progressive Era

By “inhabit” I mean play the role that for most of our history was played by Mainline Protestantism — the whole collage of respectable denominations, Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Baptists, their churches sharing town greens and their ministers hobnobbing, divided by mild class distinctions as much as by theological debates, competing amiably for congregants, eyeing Catholics and Jews and Mormons uneasily and looking down on fundamentalists, preaching liberty and middle-class morality and assimilation, secure in their Christianity and their Americanism.

This sketch is all cliché, but the clichés reflect an important, underremembered reality: For most of our history, American liberal democracy was a Protestant project, its principles undergirded by Protestant theological assumptions and its norms shaped and reshaped by currents in the Mainline churches.

To push a metaphor for a moment — if the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were the bones of the house that all Americans inhabited, then the Protestant Mainline was a combination interior decorator, building inspector, homeowners’ association and zoning committee. Any question that the liberal order didn’t answer, across most of our history, was answered by Protestant consensus or litigated by intra-Protestant debate. (What were the limits of religious liberty? Should society regulate sex, and how? Should society regulate alcohol consumption, and how? What values should be taught in schools and universities?) And when the Mainline couldn’t come to an agreement, as in the long theological dispute over slavery and racial equality — well, then part of the house burned down and had to be repeatedly reconstructed.

But all that belongs to the past, because in the decades after Eisenhower, the Mainline suddenly collapsed — declining numerically and losing overt influence in all the institutions, elite and local alike, that it once animated and defined. What took its place, in the upper echelons on the meritocracy, was an assumption that liberalism didn’t need a religious ghost in its machine, that you could just have a liberal culture instead of a Protestant culture, and all the important questions could be worked out through reasoned arguments that required no theological priors, no Bible-bothering, no authority higher than the Supreme Court or capital-S Science.

This was a naïve view, and to the extent it was actually operationalized it generated an arid, soulless liberalism, a meritocracy short on wisdom and memory, animated by unhappy status-seeking and aspiring only to its own perpetuation.

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