Monday, May 30, 2011

Mark Noll: When Historians Attack

...and misuse their scholarly authority
One in a series
by Tom Van Dyke

[Previous in this series was a strong objection to a politically-tinged Washington Post op-ed by respected, acclaimed and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis.

I rely here on Paul Harvey's essay "Jesus and Jefferson: Mark Noll Reviews Dochuk and Williams in The New Republic," since the full essay is behind TNR's subscriber-only firewall.

Over at his excellent groupblog Religion and American History, Paul Harvey writes

Here's a discussion of interest to many: Mark Noll reviews Daniel Williams' God's Own Party and Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt in the most recent The New Republic.

Noll writes:
"...neither of these writers carries out the moral evaluation, that, especially, in tandem, their volumes make possible..."

But is it the historian's job to make such moral evaluations? And by what standard?

"Yet neither Williams nor Dochuk addresses directly what should be one of the most compelling questions about the political history they describe so well: what exactly is Christian about the Christian right..."

Who decides "what is Christian?" The historian? The theologian? Which theologian? Ratzinger, Barth? Pat Robertson? Jim Wallis?

I realize Mark Noll is becoming the go-to gold standard for religion and history, but where is his theological authority in such matters?
"It would have done much more good, and also drawn nearer to the Christianity by which it is named, if it had manifested comparable wisdom, honesty, self-criticism, and discernment."

Oh? Well, this is theology or contemporary partisan politics or both, but are such judgments the province of the historian? May a historian likewise criticize "social gospel" politics as un-Christian? By what authority?

As to the history of the thing, it seems to me Jesus and "Jefferson" had made peace long before Jefferson was born, in the pre-American Calvinist "resistance theory" that executed one British king and exiled another in the 1600s. [More on that here].

Is Calvinist resistance theory Christian? A theologian might dare say no [and some do, per Romans 13]; however, the historian must say yes, since the British Christians embraced it, as later did the Americans.

If "Jesus and 'Jefferson'" is a theological miscegenation, it was not a uniquely American phenomenon, nor only the province of the 20th century American "right." Further, the historian's job is to report what happened in the past and assess its prevailing norms, not substitute his own.

Much has been made of a certain "pseudo-historian" and the propriety of his mixing of history and partisan politics.

Mark Noll is no "pseudo-"historian, but an accomplished historian, an award-winning historian, and on the faculty at Notre Dame. Neither is he directly involved in partisan politics, as that other fellow is. And neither are Noll's words here strictly an attack, although they certainly are a critique of the modern evangelical "Religious Right."

[It should be noted Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind vaulted him into prominence as a public intellectual, its thesis basically that "there is not much of an evangelical mind." Coming from an evangelical himself, from a faculty member of an evangelical-minded college [Wheaton] at that, Noll certainly made his splash in the greater public sphere.]

Which is fine, for a public intellectual, even a theologian. But when one reads an acclaimed historian such as Dr. Mark Noll of Notre Dame reviewing history books in a respected intellectual journal such as TNR, it's surely proper for the reader to assume he has his historian hat on, not his theologian hat, not his political pundit hat.

I think Dr. Noll has mixed his hats here, and improperly: this review is neither fish nor fowl, but a miscegenation not unlike mixing Jesus and Jefferson, which he explicitly questions.

Perhaps Calvinist "resistance theory" was bad theologically; perhaps the American revolutionaries were theologically wrong in embracing it. Perhaps the Religious Right of the 20th century was wrong in picking up that tradition.

But there's a difference between those who make history and those who study it. The historian owes his readers the facts about the people of bygone days, not his opinion of them.

As for Mark Noll's personal "moral evaluations"; theological evaluations about "what exactly is Christian about the Christian right" or whether "[i]t would have done much more good, and also drawn nearer to the Christianity by which it is named"; or his political evaluation of whether it "manifested comparable wisdom, honesty, self-criticism, and discernment," frankly, my dear, these things are above his pay grade as an historian: We shall make up our own minds, thank you, sir, and we all wear our own hats on religion and politics with equal authority. That's the American way.

Wiki tells us Mark Noll's scholarly credentials are these:

Noll is a graduate of Wheaton College, Illinois (B.A, English), the University of Iowa (M.A., English), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A., Church History and Theology), and Vanderbilt University (Ph.D, History of Christianity)

If Dr. Mark Noll wants to put on the theologian's hat, OK, or the political pundit's hat. But---and this goes for anyone else in his acclaimed and exalted position as an historian---he must make clear what hat he's wearing. Just let us know.

In reviewing two scholarly historical works here, albeit in TNR, the gentle reader could not be blamed for assuming Dr. Noll has his professional historian hat on, and not the political pundit's or theologian's.

The last thing the historian should do is mix in his own religion and politics! When Mark Noll is writing as a theologian---or personally as a Christian, or as an evangelical Christian---or as a partisan and/or pundit, all I ask is that he let us know which hat he's wearing. I hope I'm not being unfair here, asking that certain lines be drawn.


Daniel said...

It does seem to be an odd critique. A historian reviews a historical work, finds that it is a good history, but wishes it had been something other than a history.

But based on the excerpts, it seems to me that it is pretty clear which hats Noll is wearing and when. Yes, he is mixing hats, but who is being fooled? I agree that it can be a bit frustrating to read an article looking for some interesting historical analysis and then find politics or theology, but it is obvious that it is politics or theology. TNR is not an historical journal and its readers may be disappointed to read an article addressing the religious right if it fails to include some bashing.

Full disclosure: In the early 1980s, I was one of those smug college students wearing a button that said, "The Moral Majority is Neither".

Tom Van Dyke said...

In the early 1980s, I was one of those smug college students wearing a button that said, "The Moral Majority is Neither."

Yah, and that seems to be Mark Noll's subtext, Daniel.

I'm not very interested in Mark Noll as a theologian or political pundit, though. My protest is that his readers will accept his scholarly authority [and he has much] as an historian here. As a theologian or pundit, he has no more authority than the next guy.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Check the first hyperlink.

Naum said...

Um, no.

Advanced degrees in theology and church history from a "Divinity School"?

That gives him plenty of "authority" chops to make these sorts of discernments against the currents of neo-fundamentalism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Jon. Link fixed.

Mr. Naum, are you reading Mark Noll here as a theologian?

jimmiraybob said...

But is it the historian's job to make such moral evaluations? And by what standard?

Moral evaluation does not have to be proscriptive or devotional or particularly theological. In this context moral evaluation could mean comparative and analytical, and it would then be the responsibility of the author to support his/her arguments and analyses. Or at least that's how I read it.

And if that's the case, then why would it be beyond the reasonable realm and proper "authority" of the historian, speaking within an area of their learning and research (which it appears Noll is doing) to do so if they feel that it's withing the scope of the work?

Other than constructing an artificial barrier against knowledgeable and intelligent people to openly discuss ideas, what is the purpose of accusing Noll, or by extension, the authors under review, of improper use of his/their authority if they had waded into an analytical discussion of the underlying moral dimension of their stories?

Not having read the full review either, or the two books under discussion, I can only assume that they are engaged in intellectual exploration and not trying to nail down a party plank or religious confession.

The informed and critical reader can be the final arbiter.

Having said that, I do realize that some people will rely solely on the perceived authority of the author (or speaker) but I'd rather have to combat that than censor the expression of ideas by the very people that are best equipped to do so.

Tom Van Dyke said...

JRB, are you reading Mark Noll as a pundit?

Naum said...


Noll is qualified to serve in both capacities.

And why should there be a distinction between these "hats", as they do often overlap (especially for a practicing Christian versed in church AND history)?

That does not mean all should uncritically accept all that he states, but I think it fair enough to grant authority over the average blogger…

Tom Van Dyke said...

Here's the thing, Mr. Naum: Theology and politics are matters of opinion. Scholarly history is ideally all fact.

Where Daniel sees an "odd" essay, I see a false flag, a presumably scholarly [peer] review of two scholarly books, which Noll notes withhold "moral evaluations," which again would be merely opinion. To my mind, the two authors have done their job and met their professional obligation.

Now, when Noll questions the very Christianity of other people's politics, that's a serious charge.

When Darryl G. Hart takes his swipes at the Religious Right at, it's clear he's speaking as a theologian if not a preacher, and representing "Two Kingdoms" theology of the J. Gresham Machen wing of Reformed theology.

Interesting, but for those of us outside the Reformed tradition, or outside Protestantism or outside Christianity, this is all inside baseball, intramural theology battles. Hart has nothing to say to we "civilians," esp if it were in a secular forum like The New Republic.

Further, Dr. Hart in these contexts is implicitly making a theological truth claim, that his is the correct way to interpret the scriptures, Luther, or God's Will.

Such claims are way above our pay grade, we who have no dog in the fight. Neither are they fact, and therefore history.

Now if Mark Noll wishes to write as a public intellectual, he must fly under his true colors, and argue why the Religious Right has been imprudent. If he wishes to write as a theologian, he must make his case why he questions just what is Christian about the Religious Right.

And if he writes as a theologian, I repeat my previous question, which theologian can speak with authority, and for whom? The Pope can speak for the Roman Church, but once you hit Protestantism, there are few who are authorities on what is and isn't acceptable normative theology. The very conservative Al Mohler is as much an authority as Mark Noll, and perhaps more so, since he appears to represent the evangelical mainstream more than Noll does.

Daniel Williams' God's Own Party and Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt are, by most accounts, admirable scholarship, and to my mind the ideal for the historian's approach. Moral evaluations and theological truth claims are for the reader to make. The historian's job is to provide just the facts, ma'am.

Keep in mind my protest here is formal---not based on the truth of falsity of Noll's content. I would make the same objection to an historian who questioned the theological validity, the "Christianness" of "social gospel" politics. If he wants to write an op-ed, fine, we'll know what hat he's wearing, but it shouldn't be under cover of a historical book review.

I insist on a strong demarcation between fact and opinion, between scholarship and punditry, let alone theology or preachifying, and that's my argument here.

Daniel said...

My frustration with the essay (o.k. the excerpt) is similar to yours, Tom. But I say, don't sweat it because I doubt that anyone is fooled. If a historian, in a historical essay says a particular Christian movement is not Christian, I think the only people impressed that the statement is backed by historical authority are people already anxious to believe the statement.

Some of the smug will be impressed by Noll's authority to tell them what they already know. The rest of his readers will recognize opinion of the sort that Noll is just as qualified to give as me, you, or Barth. Now locating the position of the religious right within American religion is sometimes an interesting historical pursuit, but it doesn't seem that Noll is doing that.

Daniel said...

I assume we agree that Noll's readers understand that questioning the Christianity of the movement, he is not questioning whether it fit within the historical movement(s) by that name, he is questioning whether it is consistent with the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. If he is pretending to continue to wear the historian's hat, then he is complaining that the book focused too much on 20th century history and should have delved as well into the history of the 1st century.

I doubt that many readers would see it that way. Readers recognize when a historian turns to polemic I see a bit of a non sequitur, but not a false flag. Rather like if I reviewed a book in my area of expertise (law by the way) pronounced it solid, then complained that I would find it more useful if it contained some good bread recipes.

John C. Gardner said...

It seems to me that the context of the review article would be a clue to the writer's intention. For example, if Eric Foner(a left of center writer and historian) wrote a review in the New York Review of Books or the New Republic I would be alerted to the potential or actual fact that his commentary might include both polemics and/or historical commentary. I would also be aware that when Dr. Guelzo writes for the National Review that his views might vary from a review in the Journal of American History. I have read the Noll review and did not find it terribly polemical.
John C. Gardner
Professor Emeritus

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - "JRB, are you reading Mark Noll as a pundit?"

In this instance, I'm reading him as a reviewer. The role of a review is not just to fact check but, at least in part, to tease out what might have been and/or to fuse together otherwise unconnected ideas - Noll brings his insight and does both in a creative way that I appreciate.

I don't read him so much as chiding the authors but pointing out another dimension of their work that can be addressed. Noll has provided fodder for thought as well as for additional research possibilities (do you think a university professor misses the significance of possible research topic for potential grad students).

Again, this is a review not a rigorous, stand-alone, thesis - different purposes and different standards.

A good work of either genre doesn't just tell you what to think but provokes independent and critical thought. If I get a chance to read either, or preferably both of the books in question, I will read it/them with a greater depth than had I not read the small part of Noll's review that's been available.

jimmiraybob said...

And, I should add, the job of the review is to engage from the perspective of the reviewer. Informed perspective is not mere opinion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

A good work of either genre doesn't just tell you what to think but provokes independent and critical thought.

Ah, JRB, but Noll's review certainly did tell us what to think!


Thank you, Prof. John C. Gardner. I cannot tell if you are the JCG who is emeritus prof of English [Rochester] or of Physics [Oregon].

I reckon it's the English one; a Ph.D in Physics is no better than his facts; there is no interpretation or opinion in physics except as speculation.

Regardless, as one who wears a historian hat---unaccredited---but an English major [!], I draw the line at history.

You speak of Eric Foner, who---as I'm a gentleman of the right---I have found to cross the boundaries I speak of as well. You yrself clearly think of him as a partisan [left as it so happens].

Mark Noll, frankly, I thought of him as a straight-up historian. Until now. I knew he had his quarrel with his fellow evangelicals [his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind], but as stated above, I have no dog in that fight. I set that off from his historical scholarship.

I admire Gordon Wood tremendously because although he clearly leans a bit to the right


he stands on his head to separate his scholarship from our contemporary politics. He clearly [to me anyway] wants his historical/scholarly work to last for the ages, untainted by our current and transitory politics and issues.

So if we are to put Mark Noll down at the level of Eric Foner as a polemicist, well, I reckon that is my point. This does not mean we discard Foner or Noll or Joseph Ellis [see link at the top of my original post] as liars or bogus historians; it does mean that they themselves, through their extracurricular writings, have put a red flag on their own scholarly work, that we must read them skeptically instead of with trust.

You mention Dr. Alan Guelzo, and indeed I highlighted one of his essays here:

an essay published in the conservative National review. The difference here is---and we might fairly call Dr. Guelzo a gentleman of the right, we all do have our POV---that Guelzo wrote a formal treatise, an essay, an argument. He made that argument and backed it up. He didn't do a partisan drive-by, questioning his political opponents' theology and Christianity.

Further, I bet he'd rather that it appeared in The New Republic, an organ of the center-left. It might have had more effect.

And had Mark Noll expressed his sentiments in such a formal essay in TNR [or National Review], I'd probably have less of a problem with it.

Thx for responding, Dr. Gardner, and I did not think or hope my objection and essay here would pass without comment or objection. I think it's something we all need to discuss and my original post and argument is admittedly in need of refinement, honing and challenge, all of which have been supplied here by our gracious commenters.

John C. Gardner said...

I am John C. Gardner, Professor of Accountancy Emeritus(and a business ethicist). I admire all the historians that you mention. I also think that the dual roles of historian and polemicist can be problematic.
Thank you for writing such a stimulating commentary. It is important for all of us to follow the facts where they lead. I myself am a Christian, social conservative, and generally a man of the right.
Guelzo is an outstanding historian.

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - "Ah, JRB, but Noll's review certainly did tell us what to think!"

Then you did get around to reading the whole thing? Is it out from behind the paywall? I'll have to catch up.

Tom Van Dyke said...

JRB, pls do let me know what you find. I stand ready for retractions as appropriate.

I am uninterested in an historian's "moral evaluations" or his theology. Or yours or Angie's or mine, really, in this context. The world is lousy with opinions.

I'm pretty much uninterested in a theologian's theology if I am not part of his church, although I find Darryl G. Hart and his "Old Life" Presbyterianism principled and admirable, much like HL Mencken found Hart's J. Gresham Machen admirable and principled although he didn't buy a goddam word of it.

As for Noll's politics/partisanship or anybody else's, I'm even less interested in the context of this blog, which is religion and American history.

I'll thank Prof. Gardner for his reply at this juncture, and will reiterate that had Mark Noll written formally and openly along the same lines as Alan Guelzo, I'd be probably OK with it.

Although I think questioning the Christianity of somebody else's politics stinks to high heaven, period. [Darryl Hart and his like excepted, for reasons given.]

Brad Hart said...

VERY interesting angle, Tom.

I think that truly "objective" history is u likely (especially on the level of a Mark Noll/Eric Foner) because, well, who wants to read that kind of boring sh*t. History is much more than simple dates and obscure provisos; history is about people, cause and effect. As a result, it is impossible to completely eliminate personal bias. Heck, the simple fact that Noll, Foner, Wood, etc. Have chosen their specific eras of interest reveals a bias; they chose one period of history to be of greater interest to them than the others.

But you point is still valid, Tom. Crossing the lines between religion, politics, science and history can make things pretty messy. How do we clear things up?

Tank goodness for the American Creation blog! :)

jimmiraybob said...

Brad - Crossing the lines between religion, politics, science and history can make things pretty messy.

But that is the situation on the ground. The entry into and influence by a conservative evangelical Christian movement on the politics of the nation is the historical event at question.

Before Noll stated, "Yet neither Williams nor Dochuk addresses directly what should be one of the most compelling questions about the political history they describe so well: what exactly is Christian about the Christian right?", he lamented that a "... depressing proportion of that writing [regarding the rise and continued effect of right-wing evangelical politics] has featured ideological excess instead of analytical rigor.”

And he cites as examples: "...anxious books ... with titles such as Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America; Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism; American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century; God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It; and Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right.

Noll apparently sees a chance to extract a more rigorous analysis of the question, "what exactly is Christian about the Christian right?" by using the foundation laid by Williams’ and Dochuk’s work. Hardly a call for partisan hackery.

Noll may have an answer in mind but that does not guarantee that others undertaking the challenge would come to the same answer. If fact, given the subject matter, politics and religion and historical interpretation, I doubt that.

If Noll displays a bias it's that he feels that the evangelical Christian-Political alliance has produced a mixed bag and that the movement, overall, has never developed a comprehensive political philosophy to include the complexities of modern social-political interaction.

And that leads to what I think is a fair, central and fundamental question, how much of the movement is Christian and how much of the movement is reactionary politics wrapped in a Christian flag.

To partition this question to the priestly/theologian class alone as having proper authority silences the voices of others also participating in the messy endeavor of maintaining a pluralistic society and politics and the history that emerges.

Having read the complete review I strongly disagree that Noll is telling us what to think as he is giving us food for thought based on his informed perceptions. We are free and hopefully able to agree or disagree with his take.

Anonymous said...

Noll's review can be found at this weblink

I will comment on it later.

Anonymous said...

As a historian (not a theologian), Mark Noll’s book review is consistent with all of his many books and essays. The first six and two-thirds pages are “straight” review, mostly praiseworthy of both books efforts to explain the origins of the modern “Christian Right.” It is not until the last two paragraphs that he criticizes both works for not making it clear that “in the recent United States, evangelical conservative politics has been a movement without a philosophy.” He then cites (by title only) three great Roman Catholic documents that illustrate what he means by a “political philosophy” that attempted to address the “complexities” of the modern world.

The historical contexts and contingencies of Rerum Novarum (1891, second Industrial Revolution, gilded age), Quadragesimo (1931, Great Depression) and Mater et Magistra (1961, the atomic age, Cold War) were unique, but for Noll they represented a coherent “political philosophy” that it is the duty of Christians and Christian churches to resist those elements within economic systems (capitalism or socialism), technological advances, ideologies (Nazism, communism, fascism) or political policies that threaten or undermine human dignity and freedom. Rather than rail against Glenn Beck’s unhistorical “crusade” against the mere mention of “social justice” as something un-American and un-Christian, Noll contrasts the “anger, energy and zeal” of Christian evangelicals like Charles Finney or Billy Sunday, who simply railed against slavery as sin or championed prohibition as the harbinger of “heaven on earth,” against the three papal encyclicals that championed human rights, workers rights, peace, the common good, and social justice while opposing excessive inequality, injustice and alienation.

Noll is not criticizing the Christian Right as a “political pundit,” but as a frustrated historian. He is railing against the “selective use of history” on both sides in the “culture wars. Noll would like to see the “clean sea-breeze of the centuries” (quoting C.S. Lewis for the title of Chapter Seven in his book, The Search for Christian America) “manifest” a much-needed “wisdom, honesty, self-criticism and discernment” among right-wing American Christian evangelicals in particular, and all Americans in general. - JMS

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Moral evaluations" are not the historian's job, nor is evaluating "what is Christian."

As an example of playing it straight with theology, partisan politics, and punditry, I offer George Wiegel in First Things here. There's no doubt which hats he's wearing.

As a matter of note but not relevance---I resist engaging Noll or JRB on the content of their attacks on the Religious Right---Wiegel is a Catholic scholar [Noll is an evangelical protestant], and argues the "what is Catholic" question of politics somewhat differently than mere "social justice."

Noll repeats his "Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" meme here, that the American evangelical tradition doesn't have the rigor and history of Roman Catholic social science, which is many centuries old. As this is Main St. for Noll, he is entitled to judge, as it may even be empirically provable enough to qualify as fact. At least it's arguable enough to be put forth as fact.

But "moral evaluations" and "what is Christian" are in the realm of opinion, and at that, of the theologian or pundit, not the historian.

jimmiraybob said...

"I resist engaging Noll or JRB on the content of their attacks on the Religious Right"

Nice touch. Will you be writing the book first or going directly to screen play: When Open Inquiries Attack; the story of evangelical Christians and heathens teaming up to brutally attack America's most sacred political movements?

I call dibs on Clooney for my character.

Tom Van Dyke said...

My objection would be the same if an historian inserted his opinion that the Religious Right are more authentically Christian for their defense of traditional Biblical sexual morality, or morally praiseworthy for their opposition to abortion.

My objection is formal, the question of objectivity and subjectivity, of the line between opinion and fact.

And quite right, JRB: you know it's always been my position here at the blog that once we descend into contemporary partisan politics, all useful discussion is lost. As Brad Hart notes, our POVs and biases are evident enough through our choices of topic; we don't need to gild the lily with polemics.

Anonymous said...

Tom - I agree with your emphasis on thinking historically. So would Mark Noll. But very few historians adhere to your "amoralist" position that moral judgments serve no useful purpose. As noted by Goldwin Smith, "justice has been justice, mercy has been mercy, honor has been honor, good faith has been good faith, and truthfulness has been truthfulness from the beginning." (Meyerhoff, Phil of History, 225)Noll is clearly inhabiting the middle ground in his review.

But he was not making just a "moral evaluation" or judgment of the Christian Right. He presented an objective analysis - by way of a comparison - about the Christian Right's lack of a coherent political philosophy or clear understanding of the complexities of American history. - JMS

Tom Van Dyke said...

I stipulated that much, JMS. I think Noll goes further.

Noll repeats his "Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" meme here, that the American evangelical tradition doesn't have the rigor and history of Roman Catholic social science, which is many centuries old. As this is Main St. for Noll, he is entitled to judge, as it may even be empirically provable enough to qualify as fact. At least it's arguable enough to be put forth as fact.

But "moral evaluations" and "what is Christian" are in the realm of opinion, and at that, of the theologian or pundit, not the historian.

Naum said...

/sigh, all "historian" work is subjective in the sense -- in what assumptions are made, the envelope of historical consciousness of the age when the writing is done, the filter that only peers at the "winners" (or even those that focus on "people's history"), etc.…

And there is a "boundary" which separates Christian from non-Christian -- yes, it is fluid, it morphs with the times, but there's always been consensus on who's in, who's out (and I am not speaking of heaven/hell/salvation as the current Rob Bell evangelical brouhaha), but what defines "Christian" or Jesus follower. What are essentials? Believe in Jesus, or belief plus action and philosophy not in direct opposition to the Gospel (i.e., impossible to be an Ayn Rand devotee and a "practicing" Christian as the moral systems are complete odds with each other).

In recent decades, fundamentalism, once confined to the edges, has transformed into neo-fundamentalism and captured the evangelical mind trust.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I agree, Mr. Naum. The historian can speak to "what is Christian" normatively in a time or place.

However, to adjudge "what is Christian" in a theological sense belongs to the theologian, and even then, his authority extends only to those who share his norms.

For a historian, for instance, to question the Christianity of the growing number of churches supporting same-sex marriage would be a total crossing of the line I'm drawing here.

One could say that in our time it's still non-normative Christian theology, but that's as far as the socio-historical facts take us before crossing into opinion.

And of course, the centuries can turn the non-normative into normative. In the days of Luther, "Protestantism" wasn't even called that, and was decidedly non-normative. Today, it's simply "Christian."

And since 2/3 of the world's Christians are Roman Catholic, Protestantism is still non-normative!