Winter 2012

The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment

David A. Hollinger

Throughout its history, the United States has been a major site for the accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment. This accommodation has been driven by two closely related but distinct processes: the demystification of religion's cognitive claims by scientific advances, exemplified by the Higher Criticism in Biblical scholarship and the Darwinian revolution in natural history; and the demographic diversification of society, placing Protestants in the increasingly intimate company of Americans who did not share a Protestant past and thus inspiring doubts about the validity of inherited ideas and practices for the entire human species. The accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment will continue to hold a place among American narratives as long as “diversity” and “science” remain respected values, and as long as the population includes a substantial number of Protestants. If you think that time has passed, look around you.

David A. Hollinger, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1997, is the Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the immediate past President of the Organization of American Historians. His publications include The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion Since World War II (2006), Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity: Studies in Ethnoracial, Religious, and Professional Affiliation in the United States(2006), and “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” Journal of American History (2011).

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence. In that 1963 meditation on American national destiny, fashioned as a weapon in the black struggle for civil rights, King repeatedly mobilized the sanctions of both Protestant Christianity and the Enlightenment.1 Like the great majority of Americans of his and every generation, King believed that these two massive inventories of ideals and practices work together well enough. But not everyone who has shared this basic conviction understands the relation between the two in quite the same terms. And there are others who have depicted the relation as one of deep tension, even hostility. Protestant Christianity, the Enlightenment, and a host of claims and counterclaims about how the two interact with one another are deeply constitutive of American history. We often speak about “the religious” and “the secular,” or about “the .  .  .


  • 1Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” The Christian Century, June 12, 1963, 769–775.
To read this essay or subscribe to Dædalus, visit the Dædalus access page
Access now