Before the Religious Right
Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States
- ISBN: 9780812253689
- Published By: University of Pennsylvania Press
- Published: March 2022
About twelve years ago, the historian Kevin Schultz and I co-wrote an article entitled “Everywhere and Nowhere” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, March 2010). In it, we contended that religion was “everywhere in history, but nowhere in mainstream historiography,” referring there specifically to the writing of American history by historians.
That thesis, happily, has not survived the past decade of scholarship. The recent New York Times best-seller Jesus and John Wayne (Liveright, 2021) provides one excellent example, as do a tide of books on religion and foreign policy, the CIA, the New Deal, the FBI, missionaries, labor movements, political movements, the New Right, the New Left, the political middle, Oprah, television, rock music, jazz, and . . . the beat goes on.
Now comes this essential work, Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States, a revised PhD dissertation from a student of scholar David Hollinger, who himself has been key in transforming our idea of “mainstream” Protestantism. In this extensively detailed, impeccably researched, powerfully argued book, Gene Zubovich contends that a particular form of ecumenical Protestantism “was at the heart of mid-century liberalism” (12), and that these Protestants fundamentally shaped “movements to eradicate racism, to reform the economy, and to transform America’s role in world affairs” (8). They also, inadvertently, polarized a nation they intended to unite: “The mobilization of American ecumenical Protestants at mid-century left their religious community – and their country – divided into recognizably liberal and conservative camps” (16). (Editor’s Note: Gene Zubovich is a Reading Religion editorial board member.)
The book begins by tracing the intellectual and geographical movements of figures such as Methodist minister G. Broxley Oxnam (whose Church of All Nations was once briefly occupied by members of Aimee Semple McPherson’s Los Angeles Pentecostal church, in hopes that “its members would forsake their socialism and convert to true Christianity” (28). Charles Clayton Morrison (editor of the Christian Century), Reinhold Niebuhr, Congregationalist leader James Horton, and others moved gradually to a stance endorsing the New Deal and, later, the United Nations and statements on behalf of a “non-segregated church in a non-segregated society.”
Meanwhile, however, groups of churchgoers increasingly defined themselves as the “laity,” specifically to oppose the liberal nostrums of these clergy. They tilted their windmills against precisely the same set of programs and reforms that Zubovich’s ecumenical Protestants passionately advocated. Ecumenical Protestants came to celebrate FDR (with an excess of idealism, to be sure) “as a prophet of a new economy rooted in Christian values” (54); conservatives and fundamentalists came to see him as the harbinger of the end times.
Through the 1940 and 1950s, American ecumenical Protestants (including figures as diverse as the Methodist activist Thelma Stevens; the leader of anti-racist programming for the Federal Council of Churches, George Haynes; and the future Secretary of State for Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles) imagined a “more democratic country that promoted justice for racial minorities and economic rights for workers”; and some (not Dulles, who effectively split with his former allies in the 1950s) pushed for a world government that “would also reinvigorate democracy at home” (57). Zubovich concludes that “Protestant globalism emerged through heated debates about what it meant to be a Christian in the face of fascism” (57).
Zubovich places Methodists at the center of this story, as they most clearly proclaimed that “economic democracy is a necessary basis for political democracy” (81). Over time, and especially through their advocacy of the UN and peace-promoting international organizations, ecumenical Protestants defined a program of human rights that united their visions for remaking the world both abroad and at home. Anti-racist activism at home, typified here by the still-neglected but hugely important figures of Dorothy Tilly and most especially Stevens, produced visions of a new anti-colonial global order.
There were costs and defections. Dulles (now most famous as a pillar of the Cold War in the 1950s) was one; Reinhold Niebuhr, now the advocate for a steely-eyed “realism,” was another. What is more remarkable to me is the longevity and continued staying power of this vision, even at the height of the Cold War. Through this entire period, Zubovich argues, “human rights provided the framework within which they understood and justified their political work on racism, economic reform, and foreign affairs” (116). A later and especially fascinating chapter, “The Anti-Racist Origins of Human Rights,” traces how “human rights became the means through which ecumenical Protestants publicly announced their attack on segregation” (168).
And yet—yes, you know where this is headed. While ecumenical Protestants developed ideas of how racism was structural, not just personal, many other American Christians resisted. Among them, of course, were the evangelicals who formed the National Association of Evangelicals; J. Howard Pew, formerly a funder of ecumenical Protestant projects, jumped ship and funded their opponents instead. While ecumenical Protestants endorsed anti-racist crusades and inveighed against the polarization created by the Cold War, conservative Protestants (often activated by laity even within mainstream Protestant congregations) pushed back. They took heart in attracting allies such as J. B. Matthews, formerly an ecumenical Protestant who became an ally of the House Un-American Activities Committee as well as an aide to white southern politicians seeking to “discredit civil rights leaders with accusations of communism” (199). This new Red Scare petered out in the mid-1950s, thanks mostly to Joseph McCarthy’s drunken ineptitude, but it set the stage for battles to come. Meanwhile, while ecumenical Protestant leaders escaped from Cold War orthodoxy (212), their opponents embedded themselves more squarely in it.
Later sections of the book follow figures such as the Presbyterian leader Eugene Carson Blake, whose public support for student civil rights protestors signaled a new style of activism among ecumenical Protestants, and other Protestant leaders who advocated for a “Responsible Society,” essentially linking center-left economic ideas derived from the New Deal to Protestant ideas of a just society (273). Their opponents fought back furiously; they had never accepted the New Deal Order. Ironically, their hero Friedrich von Hayek, a mainstay author on conservative reading lists, had advocated some form of national health insurance; it just seemed self-evident to him.
Zubovich’s powerful epilogue notes that just as it was “no coincidence that American conservatism and American evangelicalism rose together” (a staple finding of scholarship on the religious right), so it was “not coincidental that American liberalism and American ecumenism had risen together at mid-century,” and that religio-political liberalism empowered drives for anti-racist activism, human rights, peace, and economic justice. As he puts it, “Ecumenical Protestantism was at the heart of mid-century liberalism’s rise and fall,” because these religious figures were vital to liberal political movements and because “they had tied their political initiatives closely with their theology” (309). Their activism, Zubovich concludes, “reshaped American liberalism and polarized US politics in ways that reverberate into the present day” (311).
Zubovich is pretty hopeful about how much the “story of ‘mainline’ decline is misleading,” as it misses how much their work “shapes our world today” (310). Mainstream Protestants (contrary to the usual argument) demanded the hard work of battling against injustice at home and abroad, while their evangelical opponents often took the easy road of endorsing and defending a status quo of segregation and inequality.
Ultimately, I’m less optimistic than Zubovich about the contemporary influence of cosmopolitan Protestantism. I want to be wrong, and hope I am, because in spite of their shortcomings and flaws (also amply discussed in this book), they made America a better place; more egalitarian and cosmopolitan, less unjust and racist. I can’t say the same for their opponents.
Paul Harvey is a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.Paul HarveyDate Of Review:July 29, 2022