The Right of the Protestant Left

Today's guest post comes from Trevor Burrows, a Ph.D. student at Purdue University. His primary interest is post-Civil War religious history, with an emphasis on ecumenical history, interreligious relationships, and questions of religious pluralism. His post reviews the new book by our frequent contributor Mark Edwards, The Right of the Protestant Left. Note: the asterisks in the review go to the "footnotes" for this blog entry, which may be found at the end.

by Trevor Burrows

Review of  The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism. Mark T. Edwards. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 286 pp.)

Reading through Mark Edwards’ The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism, it is hard not to recall David Hollinger’s recent reassessment of the narrative of liberal Protestant decline in the twentieth century.  Although Hollinger acknowledges the sharp downward trend of mainline church membership in the late-twentieth century, he encourages scholars to take a broader view of ecumenical aims and successes, and to recognize that a loss of visibility in American public life should not necessarily be interpreted as an unqualified failure.  In a July 2012 interview with The Christian Century, Hollinger described the mid-century ecumenical community as comprised of risk-takers who asked “their constituency to follow them in antiracist, anti-imperialist, feminist and multicultural directions that were understandably resisted by large segments of the white public, especially in the Protestant-intensive southern states.”*  For Hollinger, contemporary America’s general acceptance of cultural diversity as a social good ought to be understood, in part, as a legacy of mainline Protestantism’s “egalitarian impulses and [its] capacities for self-interrogation.”**  The Protestant Left’s struggle with diversity bequeathed to “post-Protestant” America a set of principles and goals that in turn shaped, and continues to shape, dominant notions of American pluralism, religious and otherwise.

Hollinger’s revision of the narrative of Protestant decline is convincing in many respects.  After a period of relative neglect from scholars, liberal Protestantism is enjoying increasing attention from religious historians, and the work of Hollinger and others will no doubt shape analyses of the mainline/ecumenical/liberal church for some time to come.  Yet Mark Edwards’ The Right of the Protestant Left offers a subtle challenge to Hollinger’s depiction of “antiracist, anti-imperialist, feminist and multicultural” ecumenism by pointing to the old Protestant left’s conservative and conserving impulses.  Indeed, Edwards’ recovery of Christian Realism and the ecumenical community encourages us to rethink the basic left/right, liberal/conservative framework that informs our understanding of liberal Protestantism, and to recall that community’s own tendency toward the sort of grand designs of Christian dominion that we more frequently associate with conservative evangelicalism.
Edwards’ work traces the intellectual and cultural influences that informed the philosophical and theological development of the Christian Realist community.  To this end, he begins his study with a review of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Progressive and Social Gospel milieu in which many of his Christian Realist subjects came to maturity.  Edwards argues that although Realists were always a theologically and practically diverse group, most embraced an ideal of local participatory democratic reform as an important check on the power and potential encroachment of large-scale centralized government.  What caused Realists and many in the ecumenical community concern after World War I was the ever-looming threat of nationalism and other secular ideologies as all-encompassing and totalitarian in nature.  The Christian Realist community envisioned a world in which small groups of responsible Christian citizens, united in a corporate, transcendent, and transnational body of Christian spirit and practice, could reclaim the globe as an essentially Christian community.  Realists hoped that such a community would counter the depersonalizing and demoralizing forces of secularism, materialism, and unrestrained nationalism. 
Much of Edwards’ text works to outline the details of this vision.  To do so, he reaches beyond the celebrity personalities of the Niebuhr brothers and Paul Tillich and into a much larger network of Realist thinkers, including Henry Van Dusen, William Bennett, Walter Marshall Horton, and other participants of the now-famous Theological Discussion Group (TDG).  While TDG has received attention in previous scholarship, Edwards uses a wide range of archival and published sources to uncover commonly-held principles, as well as points of difference and contention, between the group’s members.  What emerges from his research is an image of Christian Realism that seems significantly grounded in paradox.  Realists emphasized corporate Christian unity even as they privileged notions of responsible citizenship via small-scale local associations.  They responded to modern theological disputes by turning to older high-church models of liturgy and worship, hoping to find in the recreation of common practice, rather than doctrine, the foundation for renewed and expanded experiences of Christian community.  And Realists helped to invigorate a new spirit of radical inclusiveness across cultural and even religious boundaries, yet they did so with an understanding that such diversity would serve to inaugurate, in the end, a truly Christian world civilization.  Even the labels used to describe Realist thought and practice, such as “Evangelical Catholicism” and “adaptive traditionalism,” speak to the centrality of paradox across the Realist spectrum.
Although Edwards spends much of his time detailing the development of the Realist vision, his larger historiographical argument concerns the purpose and effects of Realist thought and practice.  He argues that positioning Realists on the left/right spectrum is a fool’s errand.  Realism is best understood as simultaneously conservative and progressive, as an effort to uncover a third path between an unmoored liberalism and a sheltered and shallow fundamentalism.  Speaking of Depression-era Realist thought, Edwards describes the movement’s efforts as “medievalist in intent [...], modernist in method, and postmodernist in outcome” (68).  Such an assessment gets at the core of the Realist ethos and vividly conjures the hybridity and experimental attitude that ran through the Realist project.
What most concerns Edwards, however, is the underlying “totalitarianism” of that project.  In their efforts to design a transnational Christian community that could counter totalitarian and secular trends of the twentieth century, Realists frequently raised their own model as the model for global communion and failed to truly incorporate non-American and non-European bodies into ecumenical deliberations.  They worked to impose Realist approaches to Christian unity upon the World Council of Churches and unintentionally excluded many of the communities they sought to bring into the global Christian fold.  Similarly, Realists supported freedom movements at home and abroad in theory, but they struggled to determine the church’s relationship to such movements in practice and worried about the potential for such movements to disrupt the stability and local collective unity that they idealized.  Furthermore, an anti-Roman Catholic mood permeated much of the Realist community’s work even through the late ‘60s, highlighting the firm limits that restricted Realist ideals of inclusivity. 
In short, Edwards wants us to remember that Realist ambitions for a global corporate Christian body were not always as inclusive in practice as they appeared in theory, and that the Realist strain of conservatism could easily lapse into the sort of encompassing totalitarian project that Realists sought to undermine.  In the two closing chapters of the book, Edwards makes Realist ambitions particularly clear by exploring connections, explicit and implicit, between Christian Realists, traditional conservatism, the new evangelicalism of Billy Graham, and the radical liberalism of groups like SDS.  It is perhaps fitting that the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr and other Realists can be traced to members of each of the three groups, showing just how paradoxical and even chameleon-like Christian Realism could be.
Edwards’ text provides an excellent overview of the movement’s origins and its development, and he carefully situates his analysis against other cultural and intellectual trends of throughout the twentieth century.  Of particular value is his effort to follow Realists and their influence through the height of the Cold War and into the late ‘70s.  Like any text, The Right of the Protestant Left has its flaws.  Edwards does not always spend as much time unpacking dense Realist concepts as one would like, so the movement’s content can sometimes feel vague and overly abstract.  Similarly, Edwards never quite situates Realist members and their thought against other components of mid-century liberal Protestantism, leaving the relationship between Realists and the broader ecumenical community unclear.  The reader is left with the impression that Realists dominated the liberal Protestant establishment from the early ‘30s onward, but challenges or alternatives to Realist thought from within the ecumenical community are not detailed.
These are minor points that do not detract from Edwards’ larger achievement.  He has provided us with a much-needed exploration of not only Realist thought, but also of Realist intent, and through his analysis has encouraged us to reconsider our tendency as scholars to rest easy upon the traditional dichotomies of left/right or liberal/conservative.  Furthermore, his interpretation and recovery of the global ambition of the Realist project should give historians pause as we begin to revisit and revise the standard narratives of liberal Protestant establishment and disestablishment.  We should not be too quick to assume that ecumenism’s tendency toward self-criticism was easily translated into an untempered or unqualified penchant for diversity, nor should we forget that liberal commitments to ideals of inclusion could fall short, if not lapse into their own brand of totalitarian religious design.  As we reconsider the legacy of the liberal Protestant establishment, we must turn a closer eye to determining what exactly was “left” in the old Protestant Left, and to recognize the unique brand of conservatism that ran through the ecumenical community and beyond.

* Amy Frykholm, “Culture Changers.” Christian Century, July 2, 2012.

** David A. Hollinger, "After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity," Journal Of American History 98, no. 1 (June 2011): 21-48.


Curtis J Evans at: December 26, 2012 at 12:03 PM said...

Thanks, Trevor, for this very helpful and thorough review. Looking forward to reading this work. Two points struck me: the argument that Christian realists "embraced an ideal of local participatory democratic reform" and "privileged notions of responsible citizenship via small-scale local associations." How did this view of local groups affect their understanding of concrete local congregations? Were they one among other groups to be engaged in this project of realizing a broader Christianity community? Or were some of these leaders sanguine about what local congregations could or would actually do? The second major issue that struck me was how this broader work, specifically Edwards' book, challenges us to rethink easy labels of right/left or liberal/conservative, an issue that is very much on my mind as I continue my research on the Federal Council of Churches and its diverse constituency. I was struck by the emphasis on traditional liturgies and common practice as the basis of a shared Christian vision. My sense is that for a huge swath of ecumenical Protestantism this attempt to recreate or adapt an older liturgy has been more crucial than shared doctrine as the basis of Christian identity and perhaps this is one among other factors that should at least give us pause in how we use the term "liberal" to describe certain elements of mainline Protestantism (or I should note that I simply offer this as one rather inchoate thought). In any case, so good to see this rich work deepening and complicating our notions of what constituted ecumenical and liberal Protestantism in the 20th century.

Trevor Burrows at: December 29, 2012 at 4:57 AM said...

Curtis -
I think that the first item you point to, the theoretical and actual relationship of local congregations to Protestant leadership and the larger body of believers, stands out as a very interesting subject for further research. I came away with the sense that there was some tension within the Realist vision here. On the one hand, the local assembly was considered crucial to the building of the larger community. In this sense, the adopting of traditional liturgical practices and aesthetics was an effort to connect the local to the global (and vice versa). These external practices could create a space in which a sort of collective searching could take place, as epitomized by the ideal of the discussion group, without sacrificing the stability of the community. More concretely, the church would act as both incubator and microcosm of responsible citizenship and authentic living. Yet Edwards' analysis is useful here because his acknowledgement of the conservative strain within Realism points out that some saw society (and arguably the church?) in quite hierarchical terms, embracing the idea of a "responsible aristocracy" alongside notions of family and local community. I think there's a lot of room to explore both sides of the equation: how leadership envisioned the role of congregations, and how congregations understood themselves within the larger body and in relation to ecumenical leadership.

But that's just off the cuff - perhaps Edwards might chime in?

Mark T. Edwards at: December 29, 2012 at 9:51 AM said...

Thanks, Trevor. Once again, you've explained my work and its trajectory better than I have myself. "Tension" is certainly the right word--Peter Viereck's term "conservative socialism" I think best encapsulates the Realists attempted mediation between the ideal of democratic governance and the practicality of elite rule.

As far as Realist connection to local churches, I was amazed at how often Realist theologians spent time with local congregations around the country and world. Perusing their travel books and diaries, for instance, I noticed that they sometimes had multiple speaking engagements (3-5) in different cities on the same day! (I had to cut a lot of this from the book but it's in the dissertation). That said, the Theological Discussion Group, like the ecumenical movement it was a part of, was a place for religious seekers dissatisfied with the political conservativism and moderate evangelical theology of most mainline churches pre-1970. The WCC never became the predominantly layperson-led movement that Francis Miller and Henry Van Dusen had hoped it would be.

I don't explore this quite enough in the Epilogue, but I think mainline churches today are closer to what the Realists had wanted--combining a more progressive political orientation, the freethinking of participatory democratic procedure, and the adaptive traditionalism of Roman Catholics and Anglicans/Episcopalians. Perhaps someone else more knowledgeable can confirm or disavow that claim.

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