What if Historians of Liberal Protestantism Threw a Party and Nobody Came?



20 comments
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?

20 comments:

Kevin M. Schultz at: June 29, 2012 at 9:35 AM said...

Hi Mark,

It's an interesting question you pose, one that I think we've all pondered. But then I read the next 7/8ths of your piece and I was much less distressed. There are a lot of folks out there writing a lot of really interesting stuff! There is no definitive treatment on the subject, which may be what we all are sensing, and it seems that even considering Hollinger's argument, we are still living a conservative era shaped so much by your Billys, Chucks, Jameses, and more. Part of what was brilliant about the Hollinger piece was its argument that we are living in the liberal Protestant era too, we just don't know (their ultimate triumph, he argues, especially regarding race, led to their numerical decline. It's interesting to ponder if today's "nones" are yesterday's liberal Protestants, although that's perhaps too harsh on yesterday's liberal Protestants. At any rate, my new work isn't on these folks direction, but on a couple of outsiders looking in, attacking what liberal Protestantism had wrought from both the left and the right. In the mid-century it wasn't yet the aging dowager, but it was getting there!

H. White at: June 29, 2012 at 9:55 AM said...

I'd be at that party as a historian of postwar liberal Protestantism-- I'm working on a book about Mainline Protestants and gay rights history. Hollinger's work had briefly touched on the kind of story I'm telling-- about liberal Protestant's influence on both public rhetoric and on-the-ground organizing for LGBT rights.

Laura Levitt at: June 29, 2012 at 11:31 AM said...

Nice job! These are great questions. As someone who has worked on questioning the loyalties of American Jews to classical liberalism in the context of the liberal Protestant ethos of the US, I guess the challenge I see is working through the ways that this discourse, the discourse of "secular liberalism" is always already haunted by the Protestant. How, given this, do we begin to denaturalize the ways that these discourses seem to always already constitute the unmarked, the given especially perhaps in some strange ways in the academic discourses of Religious Studies and the study of North American Religions? I find Tracy Fessenden's work very helpful in addressing these questions. And to add to your list of works on Liberal Protestantism, I also recommend Pamela Klassen's Spirits of Protestantism, and the collection After Pluralism. In After Pluralism there is a terrific critical essay by Janet Jakobesen on ethics after pluralism that get at some of these ongoing challenges. I think there is a great deal of strong work out there and your essay certainly makes this clear as others have already suggested! Thank you!

Edward J. Blum at: June 29, 2012 at 12:52 PM said...

I would add Randal Jelks's book on Elijah Mays here and Barbara Savage's on religion and black poltiics; W. E. B. Du Bois was certainly part of liberal Protestantism. I hope we can avoid "liberal Protestantism" being a subtly raced marked category like "evangelical".

Edward J. Blum at: June 29, 2012 at 1:04 PM said...

heck, one can read Schultz's book as saying that liberal Protestants helped define themselves by excluding topic of race in favor of community across religious traditions

Michael J. Altman at: June 29, 2012 at 1:32 PM said...

Great post, Mark! I'd love to hang out and listen to what folks are saying at this party. I'm not writing exclusively about liberal Protestants in my dissertation but I deal with a lot of 19th century liberal religious folks as I trace out American representations of Hinduism before 1893.

I think Ed's point about race is spot on. I've been writing the chapter on Unitarians and Rammohun Roy, a Bengali monotheistic Hindu reformer. Rammohun's theology aligned nicely with American Unitarians' and he also picked fight with Calvinist missionaries in Calcutta, endearing him to Unitarians in New England. Race never comes up as Unitarians praise Rammohun. Rather, he was first labeled a "Hindoo Unitarian" and by the time he died in 1834, most Unitarians thought he was a Unitarian Christian. In Rammohun's case racial difference was ignored in the name of recognizing religious similarity.

Allow me to also plead for a little 19th century love at the party. While there is a lot of 20th century work on liberal protestants going on now and coming down the pipe, I still think we need more work on the development of liberalism. Leigh Eric Schmidt has done a lot but more is left to be done--but that always seems to be the case, doesn't it??

Edward J. Blum at: June 29, 2012 at 2:06 PM said...

19th century white liberal Protestants and slavery: see Molly Oshatz's neat new book from OUP

Mark T. Edwards at: June 29, 2012 at 2:41 PM said...

Point taken, Ed. Actually, I cringed a bit even using the identifier "liberal Protestantism" because I think it's already a racially charged term. I'm not sure that simply adding Mays, DuBois, MLK, to the liberal Protestant "roll" is the way forward (maybe that's an unfair characterization of your point?). Rather, I think we need to go deeper: Not just more studies of liberal Protestant persons of color, but how liberal Protestant ideas and institutions themselves have either constituted or reflected our racialized society; besides pioneering studies of liberal Protestantism and gay civil rights, we need to "queer" liberal Protestant practices themselves (along the lines of Kathryn Lofton's work on fundamentalism). In other words, I'm not sure we yet know what liberal Protestantism is; perhaps we're still too reliant on terminology from the "history of theology" years? I won't put too fine a point on this, though, since my own work on Christian Realists more or less assumes rather than interrogates the culture of white male privilege still operative in liberal theological circles in the interwar years.

Matt Hedstrom's current research on liberal religion and race should address some of these concerns, as well as bridge the 19th and 20th centuries.

Finally, I thought Schultz's argument was that the "tri-faith" concept--which certainly might have passed over persons of color in an accustomed liberal Protestant moment of one-worldism--unintentionally ended in a religious communalism, a kind of soft multiculturalism which actually made it easier for the second CRM to promote its message of interracial brotherhood. Or, did MLK the liberal Protestant overlook persons of color just like the NCCJ supposedly did? Perhaps Kevin can correct us concerning his important work.

Edward J. Blum at: June 29, 2012 at 3:54 PM said...

Mark, who's publishing your book? Of course I don't think simply adding people to the role works, but Du Bois, for instance, was a regular church attender in the 1950s at an Episcopal church and had William Howard Melish fly out to Ghana for his funeral in 63. Hard not to count him in. Curtis Evans is really the person who is going to deal with all of this so deeply in his book on race and the FCC. I think Kevin's point that whenever race (ie how African Americans fit into the nation), everybody ran like crazy. It was one thing for relatively liberal Protestants-Catholics-Jews to interact, coexist, kinda like each other, but still have their struggles and identities. Quite another to reach across the line that stretched back to slavery days.

Edward J. Blum at: June 29, 2012 at 4:02 PM said...

and why not add black folks in? it would offer more to the study. We could see how liberal Protestant African Americans transformed academic disciplines: Du Bois, Carter Woodson, E. Franklin Frazier, Pauli Murray. When we look at that list, we realize the Protestant liberalism was VITAL to changing US history, the study of religion, sociology, and even American law!

Edward J. Blum at: June 29, 2012 at 4:03 PM said...

Sarah Azaransky's book on Pauli Murray could be on this list.

Dan Sack at: June 29, 2012 at 6:13 PM said...

I'm starting work on the Great Depression, which will be significantly (if not exclusively) concerned with liberal Protestantism--a veritable Niebuhr-fest, with some congregational studies thrown in. And Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture (2000) was pretty focused on the mainline.

Mark T. Edwards at: June 29, 2012 at 6:52 PM said...

Thanks, Ed. I'm certainly not against "adding black folks in." Indeed, as you suggest, liberal/ecumenical/mainline (you pick) has included African Americans for a long time--beyond DuBois and Mays, look at the numbers of African American seminary students at Union and Oberlin during the 1920s and 1930s, including Miles Horton of Highlander Folk School fame. A proper survey of liberal Protestant history should feature African American voices prominently. It's not an either/or. What I'm saying is that, besides what you're recommending, we need to better understand how liberal churches, even those championing civil rights, still have constituted and/or reflected the growth of a racialized society post-1960. It's not just evangelicals who've been reluctant to accept the structural analyses of Black Power and on.

My book's being published by Palgrave Macmillan. It comes out next week.

Darren Dochuk at: June 29, 2012 at 8:12 PM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darren Dochuk at: June 29, 2012 at 8:15 PM said...

Great post! Seems to me we're about to enjoy an "historiographical kegger" where the study of liberal Protestantism is concerned...and as you (and the many other fine scholars listed and participating here) suggest, it's about time!
I encourage you all to read Mark's splendid book.

Mark T. Edwards at: June 29, 2012 at 8:47 PM said...

Thanks for pointing us to Evans's work, Ed. The FCC/NCC (not to mention World Student Christian Federation and World Council of Churches) are largely untapped fields for investigation.

Kevin M. Schultz at: July 1, 2012 at 4:13 PM said...

Great thread here. I've been without internet for the past few days, which is kind of like being in the 14th century or something, so I'm now only getting back to this. The point about race in my book is that a lot of the folks trying to forge inter-religious amity chose very deliberately to keep African American out of the forefront of their organization in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Not all of them--the local affiliates of the NCCJ in places like New York were very active in promoting interracial endeavors even if the national body was resistant. When the civil rights movement came along, they quickly jumped into the movements, saying, falsely, we've been with you all along. That said, my book is about interfaith efforts, which included some but not all liberal Protestants. I think it's fair to say liberal Protestantism was split quick dramatically on the issue of race, especially considering that many African Americans fit themselves into its broad definition, as Ed makes clear.

A few other thoughts: read Molly Oshatz's book, it's good on the origins of 19th century, and it deals with race. Also, Mark: where the book release party? DJ?

Mark T. Edwards at: July 2, 2012 at 5:39 AM said...

Kevin: I hear they're going to be fireworks across the nation on the 3rd and 4th, no doubt in honor of my book release. As my book costs more than most fireworks demonstrations combined, I think this is an appropriate recognition on America's part. I'll let you find the appropriate music for the occasion--AMERICAN IDIOT, maybe?

:)

Mark T. Edwards at: July 2, 2012 at 7:47 AM said...

On a more serious note, though, what is the relationship between "interfaith" and "liberal?" Could the NCCJ, for instance, still be situated in common identifiers like "ecumenical" or "mainline?" Wasn't the NCCJ initially a project of the Federal Council of Churches, a flagship of national ecumenical efforts as well as of the theology of liberal evangelicalism?

Are terms like liberal Protestantism/mainline/ecumenical now useless because of their reductionist tendencies, their narrowness, or whatever? If not, what is the way forward for studies centered around those labels? Personally, I'm encouraged by the movement to on-the-ground studies of liberal Protestant institutions, congregations, activists, etc. I think Hollinger's challenge to us is to produce the kinds of syntheses being written on conservative faith by the likes of Dochuk and Moreton. Evidence presented in RELIGION AND THE BUSH PRESIDENCY suggests that liberal/mainline/ecumenical voters are just as relevant to our political landscape as the religious right.

Jill Gill at: July 5, 2012 at 12:41 PM said...

Thanks for your post, Mark! It is incredibly exciting to see the burst of scholarly activity around liberal Protestantism. With respect to studies on the FCC/NCC, my recent book on the NCC and the Vietnam War (Embattled Ecumenism) uses that period as a lens through which to explore the causes of ecumenical division and decline. My findings support Hollinger's assertion that their prophetic positions (not only on race but also foreign policy) contributed to their marginalization.

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