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How Liberal Protestant Activists Shaped America

Gene Zubovich is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, as well as a Kluge Fellow at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. He is the author of “Before the Religious Right.” 

On April 19, 2022 at 4pm, Zubovich will discuss “Before the Religious Right” in a public event with the Kluge Center. Register here to attend in person or watch virtually.

This is part one of a two-part blog post. Check back next week for part 2.

How did you come to write this book and how did your thinking about liberal Protestants develop as you researched and wrote it?

I did not expect to write a book about the history of liberal Protestants in the twentieth-century United States. I was surprised when I came upon a book calling for an end to segregation in the 1940s written by a white Congregationalist minister. As I looked into it, I stumbled upon an intellectually and politically vibrant (and also deeply-flawed) religious world that I knew little about. Liberal Protestant ministers and churchgoers were involved in the creation of the New Deal. They fought to end Jim Crow, and were key players in the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I decided to write a book about the social politics of liberal Protestants from WWI to the Vietnam era. But as I researched their ideas and political mobilization on the issues of race, the economy, and US foreign policy, I concluded that you could not understand what they were doing in the US without making sense of their international engagement. They were involved in the ecumenical movement, which began in the early twentieth century and brought together Protestant and Orthodox denominations across national boundaries. Out of these international networks came new ideas about world order, sovereignty, and human rights. The foreign and domestic, and the global and the local, were linked together for liberal Protestants.

Before the Religious Right ultimately became a history of how international debates about human rights and world order transformed American domestic politics from the 1910s through the 1960s. It is a book about the rise and fall of a new way of thinking about the world and its consequences for life in the United States.

What was it about American Protestantism that made for fertile ground for activist political engagement?

Today, if you are inclined to do good in the world, you have a number of paths you could take. There are a variety of humanitarian and human rights groups, organizations for women’s rights and racial justice, and so on. But not long ago, many of these secular organizations did not exist. Many of the groups working in these fields were religious ones.

If you were inclined toward activism, your religious community could provide both moral sanction and institutional resources. It could shield you from accusations of being a radical or a communist. Liberal Protestant denominations especially had both the theological and financial resources to create a vibrant political culture. They also had the political connections to be effective in US politics, since they tended to represent the vast majority of America’s elites prior to the 1960s.

Theologically, they were heirs to the “social gospel” tradition that emphasized saving peoples’ bodies as well as their souls. The idea that building “the kingdom of God” on earth was a matter of saving one soul at a time seemed antiquated to them by the early 20th century, a relic of America’s agrarian past. This combination of theological warrant and political connections, at a time before today’s robust secular NGO landscape, made liberal Protestant activist groups an appealing choice for many folks who might have otherwise not become politically engaged. In this way, liberal Protestantism was a gateway to political activism for many Americans during the twentieth century.

How did liberal Protestants deal with what we might call the divisive “culture war” issues of the time?

One of the major themes of Before the Religious Right is the way that divisions within the liberal Protestant community paved the way for our contemporary political polarization. These divisions played out in several ways. The most important was the clergy-laity gap in values.

As many of the ministers, bishops, and denominational heads had turned to the left politically, most churchgoers remained skeptical of the need to fight racism, economic inequality, or gender inequality. Conservative activists used this clergy-laity gap to stage rebellions in the name of the laity and tried to wrest control of the cultural capital of Christianity from left-leaning clergy.

Another division was regional. In the US South, clergy committed to segregation began taking cues from the modern conservative movement and began using the rhetoric of states rights and majority rule (instead of evoking biblical curses and God’s commandments) to defend Jim Crow.

The Cold War created another fault line, as folks like Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Congressman Walter Judd stopped cooperating with liberal Protestants and found they had more in common politically with evangelicals. In all these cases, people who soured on the liberal Protestant leadership began to build bridges to the conservative movement and to likeminded evangelicals and Catholics. In the middle decades of the twentieth century we can see the emergence of recognizably “liberal” and “conservative” religious identities and the coalescing of the religious right.

 

One thing that surprised me while reading was the measured, sometimes positive, view the subjects of your book took towards the Soviet Union, despite its official opposition to organized religion. How did these religious individuals reconcile the USSR’s official atheism with their hopes for social change?

I found this surprising as well. We know that during the 1930s many Americans on the left were interested in the Soviet experiment and sometimes cooperated with domestic communists in “popular front” organizations. But I thought, mistakenly it turns out, that the militant atheism of the Soviet Union would be so off-putting that liberal Protestants would be more hawkish toward the USSR than most Americans. I was also surprised how many liberal Protestants remained ambivalent or opposed to the Cold War.

Much of the scholarship on this community focuses on figures like Reinhold Niebuhr, who became a stalwart Cold Warrior, but so many others were looking for ways to thaw relations with the Soviet Union, and especially with communist China. Liberal groups, like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, courted religious groups behind the iron curtain and were some of the earliest and loudest voices calling on the US to diplomatically recognize mainland China and for the UN to extend membership to the country. They did this because they believed including communist countries in the international system and maintaining ties with their civil societies would have a reformatory effect in those nations.

Methodist Bishop Bromley Oxnam and Presbyterian missionary Richard Shaull also wanted Christianity to be a viable alternative to communism. The religion needed to address economic, racial, and imperial exploitation to lure young people away from socialism without succumbing to the “materialist” philosophy or “totalitarian” tactics of Marxism. They paid a heavy price for this pragmatic approach during the Cold War and were called to account by religious leaders—like evangelist Billy Graham and Cardinal Francis Spellman— who made their careers on anticommunism. Oxnam was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 to answer charges that he was too soft on communism.

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