Liberals Rising, Part II: An Interview with Matthew Hedstrom

Harry Emerson Fosdick
by Mark Edwards

Here's Part II of my interview with Matthew Hedstrom about his new book, The Rise of Liberal Religion.  In this installment, Matt reveals what Jesus would REALLY do.

4. ME: The very title of your book suggests a kind of liberal cultural ascendancy. How does your work intersect with the idea of a “mainline” religious establishment that crumbled during the 1960s and 1970s?

MH: I’ll start with an extreme argument and backtrack from there: liberal Protestantism, at its very core, wants to achieve its own extinction, or at least its own irrelevance. Postmillennial theology desires the Kingdom of God on earth, and believes that human beings, with divine grace, can achieve it. The idea is to redeem the culture—redeem the world—through full participation in it. This is in contrast to a bunkered fundamentalism that aims to save souls but otherwise remain safely removed from a corrupt and corrupting world.

So, from this vantage point, cultural success and institutional decline should go hand in hand. And in many ways they have. The liberal focus on ethics, progress, and this-world salvation means religious liberals can achieve their righteous ends by working for the Peace Corps or Amnesty International or the Human Rights Campaign, or through social work or psychological counseling, or through cultural efforts like literacy promotion. If saving souls is your metric, you’ll do that work through churches or parachurch ministries. But if redeeming the culture and world is your goal, many more avenues are available for doing your religion. Most scholars of American Protestantism seem to have implicitly accepted the terms of the debate offered by religious conservatives, and look only at church life as a measure of religious vitality.

Now the backtrack. The categories of course are not this neat. Religious liberals care about church life, including the saving of souls, however that might be understood; and religious conservatives have done immense social and cultural work (for good and ill, I’d add). The whole Religious Right stands in contrast to what I have presented, in a way. But I think the larger, basic point remains: institutional decline and cultural victory can go hand in hand, and in this case, I think, have.

My book is not primarily political, so I don’t write much about the ways religious liberal impulses have been sublimated into social and political activism, though it does come up here and there. My story is more about culture and spirituality—the term I use, along with spirituality, is “religious sensibilities”—and so I argue that book culture was a critical mechanism for the broad dissemination of liberal religious sensibilities, especially psychological, mystical, and cosmopolitan spirituality.

5. ME: You are of course aware of David Hollinger’s recent work on liberal (“ecumenical”) Protestants. He also has wonderful things to say about your book. How do you see your work relating to his, especially his claim that liberal Protestantism was a “halfway house” to secularism? Has religious liberalism been a secularizing force in American life, or does that notion deny the real religiosity of self-identifying religious liberals?

MH: I read Hollinger's OAH address just as I was finishing the manuscript, and I think it’s fantastically important. He’s been a kind supporter of my work, as you noted, and I have been strongly influenced by his. My basic reply is the classic academic hedge: yes and no. Certainly, for some, liberal accommodations to modernity have been such a halfway house, though I’d add that in these cases it’s not the liberalism that’s doing the secularizing, but the larger intellectual, economic, political, and demographic forces to which liberalism is also responding.

But in my study I see religious liberalism as a response to modernity designed to keep folks in the religious fold. This was the explicit aim of many of the book promotion efforts I write about—they wanted to reach religiously minded people who had already left the church. “Spiritual but not religious” was not born yesterday!

Let’s look at Harry Emerson Fosdick, probably the most famous preacher in the United States from the 1920s through the 1940s. He was a star on radio, a bestselling author, and the founding preacher of the Rockefeller-backed Riverside Church in New York. As the leader of a major church, he clearly cared about church life. Yet in As I See Religion, his bestseller from 1932, he argued that the heart of religion is reverence for personality—by which he meant the sacred uniqueness of each human being as well as the divine personality—and experiences of beauty, which for him were the clearest pathway to the transcendent. These sensibilities might be cultivated in church or they might not.

Is this secularization? What Hollinger calls Christian survivalists—those who can only see religion as the perpetuation of a certain kind of Christianity—might think so. I guess I’d say that for some, liberal Protestantism is precisely what has allowed them to remain Christian. For others, it has been a halfway house to post-Protestant and post-Christian religious sensibilities. But this is transformation of religion, not secularization.

6. ME: What is the right question to be asking ourselves now: Is there a future for liberal religion in America, or are we all religious liberals now? In what direction should future studies of liberal Protestantism head? Do you see a need for more “on the ground” studies of religious liberal communities of the sort that scholars of evangelicalism are now offering?

MH: Since I’m a historian, I’ll pass on the prognostications, since, as the investors say, past performance is no guarantee of future trends. But I see no abatement on the horizon.

As for the field of American religious history, I think we’re entering a period of exciting vitality in the study of liberal religion, including but not limited to liberal Protestantism. I have graduate students now doing exciting work on Howard Thurman, for example, and Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly. I was pleased to be part of a working group put together by Leigh Schmidt and Sally Promey that in many ways, I think, points out where this field is heading. I’d especially recommend the introduction to the American Religious Liberalism (Indiana, 2012) volume that came from this project.

In particular, I think there’s much to be done on liberal religion and race, including African-American liberal and humanist traditions; on liberalism, missions, and empire; on the arts; and on the work of religious liberals in NGOs, electoral politics, and other “secular” social and political endeavors. I’m greatly looking forward to reading Molly Oshatz’s new book, Slavery and Sin (Oxford, 2011), for example, and I could imagine similar work being done on twentieth-century feminist and gay rights movements. And so much more.    

[ME: Be on the lookout for Heather White’s book on Protestant churches and gay rights, forthcoming from UNC.]

MH: I’ll close with this thought. Robert Orsi and others have demonstrated, persuasively I think, the liberal religious biases and presuppositions built into the very foundations of religious studies. One of the primary challenges in our corner of the academy is still that age-old liberal conundrum—how to tolerate, understand, and even respect the illiberal. But the shaping power of liberalism is all the more reason to study it critically and carefully, not shy away. I’d like to see us arrive, as a field, at a point where we can examine the varieties of religious liberalism and their political and cultural and religious influences, not in a triumphalist way, or in a derisive way, but as simply one critically important strain of American religious and cultural history. It’s a field ripe for new and creative work, and I hope my book contributes to this endeavor in a lasting way.

[Be sure to check out Matt's reflections at Religion Dispatches as well]


Tom Van Dyke said…
How do you see your work relating to his, especially his claim that liberal Protestantism was a “halfway house” to secularism?

"Halfway house" is apt; Wilberforce said the same of the unitarianism fad.

Popular Posts