Popular images pointing to a conservative and liberal polarization of American religious life abound in early 21st century American culture. Such images tend to oversimplify the nuances and complexities of religious experience, but they do capture much truth. In their study of clerical authority and the hopes and struggles of theological schools, E. Brooks Holifield’s God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America (2007) and Glenn T. Miller’s Piety and Profession: American Protestant Theological Education, 1870-1970 (2007) provide a wealth of information on religious life through the prism of clergy. While the polarization of liberal and conservative Christianity is not their focus, the authors’ work does reveal the price clergy paid for embracing liberalism.
Beyond the mid-19th century, “liberals abandoned theories of biblical infallibility, questioned traditional assumptions about biblical authorship, and described the Bible as the product of a ‘prolonged historical process.’” By the early 20th century the influence of the clergy “was narrowing.” Whereas liberal clergy concluded that the “troubled profession” was due to insufficient professionalism, conservatives responded differently with their focus of building numerous Bible colleges, each training the laity and clergy in evangelistic work. Liberals did continue to hold power in the mainline seminaries, “but the conservative voice held forth in most Protestant pulpits.” By 1967, the conservative Southern Baptists “surpassed the United Methodist Church as the largest Protestant denomination.” The situation worsened for mainline Protestant denominations after 1970: they lost members, money, and missionaries. Theologically, Protestants were as “divided as they had ever been.”
Holifield claims that mainline Protestant losses had little to do with liberal theology or church shortcomings. Shrinking congregations occurred because mainline families had fewer children than conservative families and mainline denominations “had greater difficulty retaining the allegiance of their children.” But this begs the question, why did liberal churches fail to retain the allegiance of young people?
Miller takes a closer look at the clergy education of Protestants from the mid-19th century to late 20th century. There was much promise for theological education in the 1870s, but modernizing forces were at play in theological classrooms as more seminaries implemented “the new liberal theology.” Carried by a modernist wave that began with German scholarship and augmented by Darwinism and social Christianity, most American seminary educators sought to advance theological scholarship, much of which challenged traditional biblical interpretations. Polarization of seminary professors and the laity was inevitable. Miller contends that theological education shifted to coincide with the exalted status of “the professional” whose expertise could meet the challenges of modern life. Theological educators desired “both the symbols and the trappings of this brave new world.” To no surprise, worldly standards defined winners and losers in a distinct way. Liberal seminaries adopted a particular narrative; they saw opportunity when the educated minister rather than the African-American Pentecostal preacher was more likely to receive an invitation at cultural and social events such as a graduation ceremony. Tensions were palpable between “the ideal of a professional ministry” and the ethos “that religion, to be real and authentic, had to come from a heart that was unencumbered by worldly concerns.”
The liberals’ “aggressive church politics” positioned Protestant conservatives as “outsiders,” but conservatives fared well with Main Street America. Statistics and other indicators demonstrated that conservatives and liberals had a diverging record on church membership vibrancy. Surprising to many, conservative Protestant churches preaching a message of sin and salvation thrived with both young and old. Often seeking cultural relevancy, many liberal Protestant churches struggled with diminishing memberships. In the long run, it appears that trendy theology had a much more negative impact on sustained church growth than some want to admit.