Teaching With Authority?: The Changing Place of Mainstream Protestantism in American Culture

Bass, Dorothy C. “Teaching With Authority?: The Changing Place of Mainstream Protestantism in American Culture.” Religious Education 85(2):295-310, Spring 1990.

In “Teaching With Authority?”, Dorothy Bass addresses the decline of cultural authority in mainline Protestantism (or the “Protestant establishment”) in the 20th century from the standpoint of higher education. Products of the Reformed tradition, the denominations of the Protestant mainline—the Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopal, Methodist, Northern Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and some Lutheran churches—have traditionally been influential and primary arbiters of culture in America. Bass demonstrates how the development of higher education in America—from the “age of the (denominational) college” in the 19th century to the modern, secular, research university of the 20th century—has severely restrained the churches’ ability to shape educational directions and initiatives. <p> Although she recognizes the good that comes in dislodging mainstream Protestantism from a position of cultural dominance in education, Bass worries that the voice of the mainstream today is having trouble articulating and pursuing a “persuasive Christian vision for education” capable of dialogue with other, stronger voices of cultural authority in society. She offers five suggestions for bringing mainstream Protestantism back into the conversation: (1) resist the dominant (secular) culture’s assumptions to quantify success; (2) place less stress on the national identity of a denomination in order to recognize its vitality at the local, metropolitan and global levels; (3) forge new partnerships for transforming culture with the marginalized sectors of society; (4) consider disestablishment of the mainstream as a gift and blessing; and (5) continue the heritage of commitment to the good of the world. Bass counsels the churches to look to their own inner sources of authority if they are to “teach with authority” in culture.