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  • Liberal Protestantism in 20th-Century America:An Interview with David A. Hollinger
  • Randall J. Stephens

David Hollinger is Preston Hotchkis Professor Emeritus in the department of history at the University of California Berkeley and a former president of the Organization of American Historians. Hollinger has authored a variety of books on American intellectual history, including Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (Basic Books, 1995) and Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History (Princeton University Press, 1998). His most recent book is After Cloven Tongues of Fire (Princeton University Press, 2013). Historically Speaking editor Randall J. Stephens recently spoke to Hollinger about ecumenical Protestantism and the relationship of religion to politics, culture, and intellectual history.

Randall J. Stephens:

How did you become interested in liberal Protestantism and its place in American history?

David Hollinger:

I have always been interested in the relation of cosmopolitanism to provincialism, and in the relation of religion to science. I wrote about these relationships off and on for a number of years, and in the process became increasingly aware that many of the individuals and episodes I studied were connected to a huge presence in 20th-century American history that had commanded remarkably little attention from mainstream historians: liberalized, ecumenical Protestantism. This awareness intensified in recent years while I have been doing research for a book about the transformative effect of the Protestant foreign missionary endeavor on American life in the 20th century. The more I studied the missionaries and their activities within their home culture, the more impressed I was by the magnitude of the so-called “mainline,” quasi-established churches down through the 1960s, and the more surprised I was that such a big deal in modern American history had been studied by so few people outside of the divinity schools and the church-related colleges and universities. Most of our historiography of 20th-century American religion is about evangelicals, not about the liberals against whom the evangelicals revolted so successfully.


You write about your graduate school experience at Berkeley in the early 1960s. Did the intellectual and social ferment there have an impact on your work?


The things about my graduate years at Berkeley that most affected me were not “Sixties intensive,” you might say. It was reading the decidedly non-Sixties works of Perry Miller, Joseph Levenson, Thomas Kuhn, and Lionel Trilling, as I explain in the relevant chapter of After Cloven Tongues of Fire, that left the strongest deposits in my head and had the most to do with my later choices of topics and styles of research and writing. But I read these works while surrounded by and participating in the Free Speech Movement and the antiwar movement, and there is no doubt that this experience sharpened for me a great many issues about scholarship and its relation to politics. I was especially marked by the contrast I observed between the great critical integrity of many of my professors and fellow graduate students, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, what seemed to me the embarrassing foolishness and reductive politics of so many others within the same ranks. The “Sixties” for me was an occasion to learn the importance of telling the serious scholars from the pretenders, the politically wise from the ideological hacks, and the truly ethical individuals from the sanctimonious blowhards. Not everyone would agree with my sense of where the lines were to be drawn, but draw them I did. In recent years I published appreciative memorial essays to Mario Savio and Reginald Zelnik (Zelnik was my chief political mentor) in which I tried to explain where I drew those lines and why. I also learned how important campus governance was, and as a result spent much of my career active in the affairs of faculty senates.

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Union Theological Seminary, New York City, ca. 1910. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


The story of the decline of mainline Protestantism is familiar to many who study religious history. But you write that “if the nation rather than the community of faith is one’s referent point, the liberalizers have been anything but...


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