by Mark Edwards
Scholars of liberal Protestantism, UNITE!! Well, at least tell us what you are writing about. I imagine many in this field shared my profound appreciation of David Hollinger’s recent OAH Presidential Address on the legacy of American liberal (what he termed "ecumenical") Protestantism. While reading it, however, I wasn’t sure if I was attending a historiographical kegger or funeral service. The essay begs the question of if and how students of liberal Protestantism have figured out how to justify their work in the new era of conservative evangelical scholarship (sorry to invoke the "e" word here without the elaboration it needs). For a long time, many of the biggest names in American religious history shared liberal theologians’ conviction that conservative faith had been consigned to the backwaters of public life. The "Billys" (Graham, Hargis, and Bright) proved them wrong. Just as surprisingly, the Nolls, Hatches, Marsdens, and Carpenters, among others, rode the new evangelical invasion into the center of the historical profession. Today, topics in conservative religion attract some of our best talent, lead to some of our best publications, and garner some of our highest praises. I’m certainly not complaining about this development, as I, too, once delighted in trying to decode Francis Schaeffer, J. Gresham Machen, and the omnipresent David Barton. But, where are the historians of liberal Protestantism?
Following the Mead-Hutchison-Marty-Ahlstrom epoch—and I’m sure I’m leaving out some of readers’ favorite scholars by calling it that—advances in the study of liberal Protestantism began to come from outside religious history. Notably, many of the new cultural historians, including T. J. Jackson Lears (No Place of Grace, 1994), Richard Wightman Fox (see his Reinhold Niebuhr, 1986, along with several essays on liberal Protestantism, especially the one in New Directions in American Religious History, 1998), Susan Curtis (A Consuming Faith, 1991), and Lears’s student Eugene McCarraher (Christian Critics, 2000), recognized the importance of liberal Protestantism to American culture and politics. On the one hand, they moved the field beyond the "history of theology" approach generally practiced in earlier times. They were among the first to connect liberal religious development to broader transformations in American life, for which we should be grateful. Still, their analyses unintentionally echoed the condemnation of the first liberal critics like Machen and Walter Lippmann. I think Christian Critics is one of the most enviable and important syntheses ever written in the field of liberal religious history, but it is hard to come away from it thinking any of its subjects, let alone liberal churches, have a future. So, why keep studying liberalism? An answer after the jump.
Here’s one answer: Because we still know almost nothing for certain about liberal Protestantism, especially in the twentieth century. Besides the ongoing labor of veterans Gary Dorrien, Chris Evans, E. Brooks Holifield, and Mark Hulsether, among others, to affirm the relevance of the liberal religious tradition, there are the accustomed annual monographs and survey texts incorporating the Niebuhr brothers and Paul Tillich—the best among them Doug Rossinow’s The Politics of Authenticity (1998) and David Chapell’s A Stone of Hope (2004). But certainly Protestant liberalism after World War I involved more than revolutions in political theology and included persons other than the Niebuhrs and Tillich. A number of recent noteworthy texts in this field inspire hope, including Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp’s, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s, and Mark Valeri’s edited collection, Practicing Protestants (2006); Andrew Fuenstein’s Original Sin and Everyday Protestants (2009); Jason Roberts’s God-Fearing and Free (2010); and Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America (2011)—no doubt I’m again forgetting someone, to whom I apologize in advance. There’s also the ongoing work of international scholars such as Dianne Kirby, Andrew Preston, and Phillip Coupland. Alongside David Morgan and Heather Warren, Leigh Eric Schmidt continues to pioneer new investigations in and approaches to liberal religious study, and in July will be releasing an impressive edited collection with Sally M. Promey, American Religious Liberalism. Other forthcoming titles I’m aware of are Matt Hedstrom’s The Rise of Liberal Religion, which is already garnering significant praise, Thomas Rzeznik’s Spiritual Capital on religion and economics in Philadelphia, and my own rethinking of Christian Realism, The Right of the Protestant Left—which is expected to raise consuming spending levels by 3% globally.
Directly and indirectly, this new and upcoming scholarship addresses a number of unsettled questions: What exactly is "liberal" about liberal Protestantism? What are the subsets within the movement (modernist, evangelical, other)? What is the relationship between liberalism and the mainline churches? For that matter, what exactly does "mainline" entail (see the recent debates in this blog on the matter, as well as Elesha Coffman’s essay in Religion and American Culture)? What is the relationship between liberal Protestantism and the ecumenical movement (are "liberal" and "ecumenical" interchangeable terms)? What is liberal and mainline Protestantism as a popular and cultural formation and what lasting impact has it had on America (Hollinger offers a great starting point here)? How have race, gender, class, and sexual orientation constituted as well as transformed liberal and mainline churches? What is the connection, if any, between American religious liberalism and the current global reaches of Christianity? Finally, should we continue to accept the narrative of liberal/mainline religious decline and conservative evangelical triumph? Or, as Hollinger recommends, is it time to historicize the study of post-1960 American church life?
I’m sure there are many more questions to ask and studies to consider. This brief foray into liberal Protestant historiography is intended to start a conversation rather than finalize it. It looks to further the kind of self-critical community, in the field of liberal religious studies, that (it seems) is now enjoyed in conservative circles. To that end, please tell us what you are working on or have already published in this field. What do you think has been settled and what remains to be done? Where do we go from here?