From the beginning, Protestants in America felt some interdenominational unity simply because they were all Protestants—named by their protest against Rome. The United States never experienced a state-sponsored Catholic Church, capable of oppressing dissenters. Still, even in this country, the Protestant imagination was formed by works such as John Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs, and it retained a collective image of the Reformation as a time when Protestants of every stripe were martyred for their faith by the Jesuitical priests of the Roman Antichrist.
“Universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown in 1607 and vigorously cultivated in all the thirteen colonies,” as John Tracy Ellis wrote in his groundbreaking 1956 history, American Catholicism. Inflamed by immigration worries in the nineteenth century, that bias would break out in forms such as the Boston mob’s burning of an Ursuline convent in 1834 and the Blaine Amendments of the 1870s, which wrote into state constitutions a ban on the use of public funds by religious institutions. Even in calmer periods, the anti-Catholic foundation of Protestantism, the essential protest against Rome, helped form the peculiar national institution of mutually antagonistic churches somehow operating socially as a unity.
Social class fits in somewhere here, as well: the old cultural remnants of Mainline wealth, breeding, and assurance. The established upper classes in Protestant America—the Boston Brahmins, the Upper Tenth of New York, the inhabitants of Philadelphia’s Mainline: all the Social Register types up and down the Eastern seaboard—hardly welcomed the waves of emigrants from Catholic Europe during the nineteenth century.
The twentieth century would bring its own examples. Take, for instance, the peculiar case of James Pike, the Episcopal bishop of California in the 1960s. His fame seems to have declined in recent years. Who now remembers much about the man? Still, he deserves not to fade entirely away, for he was an all-American . . . well, an all-American something, though what, exactly, remains unclear. A churchman, certainly, and a public celebrity—but perhaps, beyond all that, a genuine cultural symbol: his moment’s perfect type and figure.
As it happens, Pike’s family was Catholic when he was born in 1913. He didn’t become an Episcopalian until after his second marriage, in 1942, while he was a government lawyer in Washington—and he didn’t enter the seminary until after his service in the Second World War, when he was already in his thirties. From that moment on, however, his rise was meteoric. By 1949 he was chair of the religion department at Columbia University and chaplain of the school. In 1952 he became dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and in 1958 he was elevated to bishop of California—all this as a convert in a church that prided itself on its old-fashioned composure and careful discernment.
Many in the denomination mistrusted him, but Pike was the irresistible man, the torchbearer of the time: his face in every photograph, his signature on every petition, and his blessing on every cause. He first achieved fame in the early 1950s (as fame is measured, at least, by praise from the New York Times) with his attacks on the Catholic Church and its opposition to contraception. In the later 1950s, he burnished his image in the fight against segregation. And by the mid-1960s, he seemed constantly in the news—Bishop Pike denies the virginity of Mary! Bishop Pike rejects the dogma of hell! Bishop Pike denies the Trinity!—all while announcing publicly his embrace of Gnostic mysticism and appearing on a televised séance to contact the ghost of his dead son.
In 1969 he and his third wife drove off into the wadis of the Israeli desert, where he died, dehydrated and alone, as his wife hiked ten hours back from their stranded rental car. “It was our first time in the desert,” Mrs. Pike later told the press. “We didn’t take a guide. We were very stupid about that.”
But, in truth, there was something stupid from the beginning about the charismatic and charming James Pike. Oh, he was smart enough to sound intelligent, and he was extremely savvy about the star-making power of the press. In another sense, however, he was merely riding his unconscious awareness of the age, discarding doctrine in the name of ethics, and he was always feckless: dangerously irresponsible, refusing to think his way through causes and consequences.
“Practically every churchgoer you meet in our level of society is Episcopalian,” he wrote in a letter to his mother, urging her to join him in his move away from Catholicism. It is an astonishingly revealing line: unselfconscious, lacking any reference to faith, openly rolling together class and anti-Catholicism to form the great motive for conversion. From there to an Episcopal bishop’s throne was only a few small steps—“barely twelve years,” as Time magazine pointed out in a fawning 1958 story about Pike’s arrival at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
The path doesn’t seem much different today. The Episcopal Church used to be “larger percentagewise,” the current presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, admitted to the New York Times at the end of 2006. “But Episcopalians tend to be better educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.” Episcopalians, she said, aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children—indeed, “it’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.” Applauding her parents’ decision to leave the Catholic Church and become Episcopalians when she was nine, Bishop Schori added, “I think my parents were looking for a place where wrestling with questions was encouraged rather than discouraged.”
Schori is by no means a radical, as such things are counted these days in the Episcopal Church—the home, after all, of V. Gene Robinson, the openly homosexual bishop of New Hampshire, and John Shelby Spong, the retired bishop of Newark, who has denied even the possibility of meaningful prayer. She seems, rather, a fairly typical liberal Protestant: a rentier, really, living off the income from the property her predecessors purchased, strolling at sunset along the strand as the great tide of the Mainline ebbs further out to sea.
To be saved, we need only to realize that God already loves us, just the way we are, Schori wrote in her 2006 book, A Wing and a Prayer. She’s not exactly wrong about God’s love, but, in Schori’s happy soteriology, such love demands from us no personal reformation, no individual guilt, no particular penance, and no precise dogma. All we have to do, to prove the redemption we already have, is support the political causes she approves. The mission of the church is to show forth God’s love by demanding inclusion and social justice. She often points to the United Nations as an example of God’s work in the world, and when she talks about the mission of the Episcopal Church, she typically identifies it with the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals.
Her Yahweh, in other words, is a blend of Norman Vincent Peale and Dag Hammarskjöld. And through it all you can hear the notes of Bishop Pike—not the lyrics, perhaps, but always the melody. There’s the same cringe-making assumption of social superiority: “Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates” than the lower classes of Catholics and Mormons. For that matter, there’s the same unselfconscious declaration of superiority even to faith: We’re theologically more advanced precisely because we don’t have a theology—we have “a place where wrestling with questions” is “encouraged rather than discouraged.”
The Mainline, however, shifted to a surprising degree in the fifty years between Bishop Pike in 1958 and Bishop Schori in 2008. Pike was newsworthy precisely because he seemed contrary to type: a chaplain to the establishment who campaigned against that establishment. Schori seems instead a solid, unexceptionable instance of her type: a representative of the moods and politics of the establishment Episcopalians who elected her their presiding bishop.
Early in 1953, Pike refused an honorary degree from the Episcopalians’ seminary in Sewanee, Tennessee, because of the school’s segregation. “The Church has never regarded the civil law as the final norm for the Christian conscience,” he wrote in the noble peroration of his letter of rejection. (Although, in characteristic Pike fashion, he sent the letter to the New York Times before he sent it to Sewanee.) As it happens, the man was not far out of step with his church; even in the South, Episcopalians were moving quickly toward support for integration, and, just a few months later, the school began admitting black students. Still, it seemed—and was widely reported as—a new thing when the dean of St. John’s Cathedral denounced one of his own church’s seminaries. To create a parallel instance of apparent class betrayal, Bishop Schori would have to do something like take to the pages of Human Life Review to attack her congregants’ support of legalized abortion.
She’s not likely to do that, perhaps mostly because abortion offers a key measure of the changes in the social class of liberal Protestants over the past fifty years. The role of abortion, and of feminism generally, deserves its own chapter in any telling of the Mainline story. But here’s a small case study: After the attacks of September 11, 2001, I was at the Episcopalians’ National Cathedral in Washington, on a panel to discuss violence and religion. The evening began with a prayer from Jane Dixon, the cathedral’s temporary bishop, and her invocation was as revealing as any short speech could be of the concerns of the contemporary Episcopal Church.
While asking the divine gifts of wisdom for the speakers and understanding for the listeners, Bishop Dixon was vague—not merely failing to name the name of Jesus but straining to phrase all her requests in a passive voice to avoid even naming God: “May we be given . . . may it be granted to us . . .” When her prayer unexpectedly swerved toward abortion, however, her language suddenly snapped into hard specificity as she reminded God that “America at its best stands for the spread of rights around the world, especially the right of women to choose.” The discussion that evening, she prayed, would not turn vindictive, for we could not condemn the destruction of the World Trade Center until we remembered that “even in the United States, people have bombed abortion clinics.”
The important thing to understand here is the social shape of these issues and their uniform acceptance by a certain class. Bishop Dixon was speaking the language of Bishop Pike, and yet, at the same time, she was not shocking her listeners. She was, rather, confirming them in their settled views. Sometime after the 1960s, everyone in the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church became Bishop Pike—with the perverse effect that Pike’s ostensible rebellion turned, at last, into the norm. Formed in the victory of civil-rights activism, a new version of the social-gospel movement became the default theology of church bureaucrats in the Mainline. The churches “increasingly turned their attention to the drafting of social statements on a variety of contemporary problems,” as the religious historian Peter J. Thuesen has noted, and their statements “revealed a shared opinion among Mainline executives that the churches’ primary public role was social advocacy.”
The result is an ethical consensus unfailingly consistent with the political views and cultural mores of a particular social class—in fact, the class of professional women in the United States since the 1970s. Certainly on the question of abortion, and probably on the question of homosexuality, such bishops as Jane Dixon and Katharine Jefferts Schori face no serious opposition among the elite of their denomination in the United States. The Episcopal Church remains the chaplaincy of an establishment, but it is an establishment much diminished—in class, numbers, and influence—for only Pike’s heirs have stayed in the church bureaucracy, and they have no one to speak to except themselves.
H.L. Mencken is usually credited with dubbing the Episcopal Church of the 1920s “the Republican Party at prayer.” The Episcopal Church today seems hardly distinguishable from the small portion of America that is the National Organization for Women at prayer.