Headlines earlier this summer pointed to gains among mainline Protestants in numbers not seen for decades. Findings released by the Public Religion Research Institute in July indicate that people who identified with the Protestant groups most notably known for theological liberalism and social activism had grown by three percentage points (from 13 to 16 percent of the U.S. population). As Bill McKibben explains in the New Yorker, the narrative for the last 35 years about white American Protestantism has featured mainline Protestant decline in contrast to the growth of white evangelical Protestants.
But now that white evangelicals are known more for Republican politics (and possibly white nationalism), mainline Protestants look like a religious group more in the center of American religion and society. In the words of Diana Butler Bass, the old Monty Python sketch about the dead parrot may now be true of the Protestant mainline: “‘We’re not dead yet.’ We’ve just been awaiting resurrection.”
That reinvigoration of liberal Protestantism appears to have received a setback if the news of Harvard University’s appointment of a new head chaplain is any indication. Greg Epstein, a 44-year-old atheist — who grew up Jewish — is the new president of chaplains at the institution founded in 1636 by Puritans, arguably the most conservative of 17th-century Protestants.
At his website, Mr. Epstein describes his work as “building an inclusive community of atheists, agnostics, and allies” which includes “a new model” for celebrating life, and promoting “reason and compassion, and better the world for all.”
Epstein identifies as a humanist on his website. His book, “Good Without God,” is indicative of his approach. It is a response to atheists who attack religion, positing that atheism can (apparently) be an ally of believers. As described by other chaplains at Harvard, Epstein not only excels with agnostics and “nones” (students of no religious identity) but facilitates dialogue across many faiths.
According to Margit Hammerstrom, the Christian Science chaplain at Harvard, “Greg is known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths.” An engineering student echoed that appraisal. “Greg’s leadership isn’t about theology” but about “cooperation between people of different faiths and bringing together people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves religious.”
Ironically, facilitating dialogue among the world’s religions used to be what set liberal Protestantism apart from its rivals (evangelical and conservative). Harvard was squarely in the tradition of liberal religion going back to 1703 when Congregationalists in Connecticut founded Yale to correct Harvard’s departures from received teachings. A century later, Harvard appointed its first Unitarian professor in theology, an indication that belief in the Trinity was unnecessary for advanced learning in higher education.
Harvard’s position at the cutting edge of liberal Protestantism led eventually in 1960 to the foundation of the Center for the Study of World Religions. This institution expanded upon Harvard’s previous strength of bridging Christianity and Judaism to facilitate the study and awareness of “the world’s major religious and spiritual traditions.” As a liberal Protestant institution, Harvard was a testimony to the reality that only a cosmopolitan Protestantism, one unimpeded by denominational or doctrinal tests, could facilitate understanding among the world’s many faiths.
Whether Mr. Epstein will succeed where liberal Protestants before him did not is anyone’s guess. Samuel Goldman, for instance, wonders if the students who take solace from Mr. Epstein’s humanism will find those convictions satisfying beyond undergraduate life. Also unclear is whether the Harvard chaplain can build bridges to white evangelicals. In response to a question on National Public Radio about the influence of the “religious right,” Mr. Epstein replies the Secular Student Alliance was appealing to students in the most conservative regions of America because they “feel oppressed by a lack of inclusion religiously.” As was the case a century ago among white Protestants, Mr. Epstein appears to be contrasting inclusive believers to exclusive sectarians.
However successful Mr. Epstein’s tenure at Harvard may be, his appointment does put a damper on the enthusiasm that greeted news of mainline Protestantism’s growth this summer. Liberal Protestants had always been an example of believers who adapted their faith to the realities of the modern world — from politics and science to the multiple claims of non-Christian religions. It was the version of Protestantism best suited for a world of diversity and tolerance. That idea no longer makes sense at Harvard.
D. G. Hart is a distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College and writes about Christianity in the United States. He is the author of several books, including most recently, “Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant” (Oxford University Press).
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