‘Onward Christian liberals’
Marilynne Robinson’s essays and the crisis of mainline Protestantism
in Marilynne Robinson
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This essay examines Robinson’s imagination of American church history and her interventions into current church politics. In her view, recent American church history is defined by the tension between the Protestant mainline and evangelicalism. The two key essays for the expression of this view – “Onward Christian Liberals” and “Credo” – are both defences of liberal Protestantism, with its spirituality of uncertainty and its political emphasis on social justice, and critical of the evangelical focus on personal conversion and neoliberal political associations. In The Death of Adam and, more recently, The Givenness of Things, Robinson worries over ‘the effect of marginalising the liberal churches and elevating fundamentalism to the status of essential Christianity’, curiously blaming the Protestant mainline for the decline of the mainline itself. This essay therefore foregrounds Robinson’s questioning of the relationship between liberal churches and their congregation, asking questions about the history and politics of the American church to shed light on its centrality to Robinson’s political imagination.

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