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How Liberal Protestants Shaped America, Part 2

This is part two of our interview with Gene Zubovich. For the first part, click here.

What drew the attention of activist Protestants towards international affairs, and what impact did that have?

In Before the Religious Right I discuss the work liberal Protestants were doing to fight racism, economic inequality, and to reshape American foreign policy. They knocked on doors in San Francisco to organize against racially-restrictive housing covenants. They filed briefs in landmark Supreme Court decisions. In other words, liberal Protestants were at the center of some of the most important domestic political debates in the mid-20th century.

What scholars have not paid enough attention to is the ways these causes fit into a broader view of world order, an outlook I call “Protestant globalism.” People like Methodist activist Thelma Stevens believed local and global events were intertwined. You can’t have world peace without justice in your community and vice versa, they would say. Protestant globalism emerged out of the ecumenical movement—which began bringing Christians together across national boundaries in the early 20th century—and reached a high point during the 1940s when enthusiasm about the United Nations was at its height.

Even after this way of seeing the world became less popular, Protestant globalism still had an enduring impact because so many of the new ideas it generated about human rights, racism, colonialism, economic inequality, and American foreign policy became institutionalized in this community, and in the US more broadly. Take one example: most liberal Protestant denominations established lobbying offices in Washington, DC for the first time in the 1940s to pressure Congress to adopt the UN treaty. But even as the UN faded from view, these lobbing groups carried on their political organizing on a wide array of issues. They’re still operating today. Long after the original motivations faded, the ideas and practices generated by liberal Protestants in the heyday of Protestant globalism continue to shape our world today.


What is the legacy of the liberal Protestant movement today, when activist Protestantism is more associated with conservative evangelicals to most Americans?

There is a rich scholarship on evangelicals that emerged in the last two decades. However, taken together, these books create a misleading impression about the influence of evangelicals on American culture and politics, especially before the 1970s. My book offers a gentle corrective to the evangelical-centered narratives that predominate in the study of modern US history.

Older scholarship on liberal Protestants emphasizes their “decline” beginning in the 1960s. Liberal congregations began shrinking and churchgoers in their denominations grew older and older. I think the decline narrative is misleading for a few reasons. Millions of liberal, ecumenical Protestants continue to go to church, build communities, and remain active in politics. Although they get less attention than evangelicals, they continue to shape US culture in important ways. Figures like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were shaped by the liberal Protestant tradition.

As importantly, we can see the influence of liberal Protestantism well beyond its community. Many of the religiously unaffiliated, the so-called “Nones” who are now the largest “religious” group in the United States, exhibit some of the cultural and moral values promoted by liberal Protestants earlier in the twentieth century. We can also see liberal Protestant influence on the modern human rights movement.

So many of the values, laws, and institutions that shape our world today were at least partly created by liberal Protestants, including the language of dignity and human rights. If we use the cultural and political impact of a community as the measure of its influence, instead of its headcount, we can dispense with the decline narrative altogether.

Why did you decide to title your book “Before the Religious Right” when it focuses on religious liberalism? Where do you see the origins of the religious right in this period of liberal Protestant fervor?

The title is a testament to our short historical memory. Like many others, I grew up in the aftermath of the religious right’s ascendancy and did not understand that from the 1920s through the 1960s liberal and left-leaning religious leaders were some of the most important and influential figures in the country.

The title also refers to an argument I make in my book about the origins of the religious right. The activism of liberal Protestants against racism, economic inequality, and America’s military-industrial complex deeply divided their community and created an opening for the rise of conservative evangelicalism. Some of the resistance came from powerful elites, like Congressman Walter Judd and oil magnate J. Howard Pew. They first fought against these political initiatives in the liberal Protestant community and, after failing to stop them, ultimately decided to throw their political and financial support to evangelicals.

Other resistance came from churchgoers, especially white, wealthy churchgoers, who could not understand why their ministers were marching in Selma with radicals like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis. Evangelicals played up these divisions in the so-called “mainline” churches and used the intramural fights to create an opening for themselves. The rise of conservative evangelicalism, and the religious right more broadly, emerged partly through its political conflict with liberal Protestantism. I hope that my book, in some modest ways, helps us understand the political and cultural landscape in which we live today.

For more on Gene Zubovich and “Before the Religious Right,” watch our recent event on the book.

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