With a liberal slant, historians reconsider legacy of religion


For decades the dominant story of postwar American religious history has been the triumph of evangelical Christians. Beginning in the 1940s, the story goes, a rising tide of evangelicals began asserting their power and identity, ultimately routing their more liberal mainline Protestant counterparts in the pews, on the offering plate, and at the ballot box.

But now a growing cadre of historians of religion are reconsidering the legacy of those faded establishment Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, tracing their enduring influence on the movements for human rights and racial justice, the growing “spiritual but not religious” demographic, and even the shaded moral realism of Barack Obama — a liberal Protestant par excellence, some of these academics say.

After decades of work bringing evangelicals, Mormons, and other long-neglected religious groups into the broader picture, these scholars contend, the historical profession is overdue for a “mainline moment.”

In the last year, some half-dozen books on the subject have been published; Princeton and Yale have held conferences dedicated to religious liberalism, and the recent annual meetings of the American Historical Association and the American Academy of Religion included panel discussions on the topic.

“We now have quite a lot of good stuff on evangelical Protestantism,” said David A. Hollinger, an intellectual historian at the University of California, Berkeley, who delivered a provocative presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in 2011, defending the legacy of what he called ecumenical Protestantism.

“But we ought to be studying the evangelicals,” Hollinger added, in “relation to the people they hated.”

Hated is certainly the word, and the feeling went both ways. In a 1926 editorial on the Scopes trial, The Christian Century, the de facto house magazine of mainline Protestantism, dismissed fundamentalism as “an event now passed,” a momentary diversion along the march to modern, rational faith.

But by the 1940s evangelicals were mobilizing against the United Nations and other causes endorsed by mainline leaders, many of whom were later denounced as Communists in Christianity Today, the magazine founded in 1956 by the Rev. Billy Graham. The Century shot back, running editorials denouncing Graham as a Madison Avenue-style huckster leading a “monstrous juggernaut” that threatened to “set back Protestant Christianity a half-century.”

Graham’s magazine won the immediate battle for readers, surging past The Century in circulation within a year — a sign, Elesha J. Coffman argues in her new book, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline, that The Century’s editors, mostly trained at the same elite institutions, were never as representative of the Protestant majority as they claimed to be.

But other scholars take a markedly different view. In After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History, published in April by Princeton University Press, Hollinger argues that the mainline won a broader cultural victory that historians have underestimated. Liberals, he maintains, may have lost Protestantism, but they won the country, establishing ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism, and tolerance as the dominant American creed.

Hollinger’s argument generated much chatter among his colleagues when he first presented it at the 2011 meeting. But his sometimes pugnacious new book, he said, is just a “punctuation mark” on the recent spate of work reconsidering the left-hand side of the American religious spectrum, which includes titles like Matthew S. Hedstrom’s Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the 20th Century; Jill K. Gill’s Embattled Ecumenicism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War and the Trials of the Protestant Left; and David Burns’ Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus.

The surge of interest in liberal religion, many say, reflects the renewed vitality of religious history more generally.

Jon Butler, a Yale University scholar who is working on a history of religion in modern Manhattan, said, “Religion comes in an incredible number of forms.”

The dizzying varieties of American religious experience, scholars say, has roots nearly as deep as old-time religion. At the University of Virginia, Hedstrom teaches a popular class called “Spiritual but Not Religious,” which traces the evolution of American spirituality from the 19th-century Transcendentalists to Alcoholics Anonymous, yoga, and “the gospel of Oprah.”

Today’s “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon, Hedstrom argues, owes a strong debt to midcentury liberal Protestantism. In his book The Rise of Liberal Religion he traces the role of religious book clubs — which helped turn titles like the liberal pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick’s On Being a Real Person (1943) into best sellers — in creating a broad-based “middlebrow religious culture” that emphasized personal ethics and inner experience over theology.

“The focus on personal religious experience being at the heart of religious life, which does come out of liberal Christianity, seems to me alive and well,” Hedstrom said.