Saving Faith

Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age

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David Mislin
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , October
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age. By David Mislin. Cornell University Press, 2015. 224 Pages. $45.00.

David Mislin argues in Saving Faith that liberal Protestant leaders began affirming the diversity of beliefs and practices around them by the 1870s. Mislin attributes this new-found openness to several developments: challenges to religious faith (incipient secularism), increased cosmopolitanism, and the emergence of a distinctly modern culture in the United States. These liberal Protestants led the way in a broader acceptance of religious pluralism. Mislin examines a number of different ways that these Protestant leaders of two generations responded to the challenges of novel scientific and philosophical theories, the increased visibility of other religions (alongside Christianity), and competition from popular cultural institutions. The two primary ways that scholars have documented the strategies employed by Protestants to address these changes in the broader culture have been through discussions of the New Theology, which more highly regarded the use of reason and the acceptance of modern thought, and the Social Gospel movement, which was an attempt to respond to massive urbanization and the inequities and insecurities of a modern industrial environment.

Mislin documents and interprets a third strategy used by liberal Protestants: the expansion of their conception of belief. Leaders among liberal Protestants argued that “one could maintain religious faith while harboring significant doubt” (7). For Mislin, this positive assessment of doubt led to affirmation of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam as valid religions that offered valuable teachings. Liberal Protestants also highlighted points of commonalty between themselves and Catholics and Jews. The “cumulative effect” of this shift in Protestant thinking was an abandonment of the long-standing claim that Protestantism, or any particular Protestant denomination, had a monopoly on religious truth. As Mislin notes, “For the first time, it became possible for respectable, middle-class mainline Protestants not merely to tolerate America’s religious pluralism but to fully and wholeheartedly embrace it” (8).

Mislin’s work is a reassessment of classical white liberal Protestantism: what it accomplished and how significant its influence was in the course of the twentieth century. His book makes a robust and mostly compelling case for the long-term impact of liberal Protestants’ early and tentative steps toward valorizing religious diversity, which Mislin contends led to a fuller advocacy of pluralism as good for American society. His book extends the trajectory of older and more recent scholarship on liberal Protestants, deepening the explicit claims and implicit arguments most notably in William R. Hutchison’s Religious Pluralism in America (Yale 2003). But Saving Grace also builds on recent works by Gary Dorrien, Leigh Schmidt, and David Hollinger, among others. Hollinger’s After Cloven Tongues (Princeton 2013) convincingly pointed out that ecumenical Protestants (a term that he prefers to “liberal” to distinguish these Protestants from fundamentalist and conservative or evangelical Protestants) played a significant role in diminishing Anglo-Protestant prejudice and embracing ethnic and religious diversity, though his focus is on the later period from the 1940s to the 1960s. Mislin’s book, however, represents a culmination of this resurgence of scholarship on liberal Protestants. Its central tenet is that “the embrace of religious pluralism [was] a core tenet of liberal theology, not an ancillary element of it” (12). However, much of his analysis suggests that fear—fear of secularism, fear of the potential waning influence of Protestantism, and fear of losing their privileged place in the culture—was just as influential as theology in their attempts to come to terms with religious diversity. Even so, that Mislin is able to demonstrate theological reformulation prior to and often concurrent with the rise of these various developments is a key strength of his argument about the salience of theology.

The book is divided into six chapters: liberal Protestants’ embrace of doubt as an expected part of the struggle for a richer faith; the valuing and teaching of comparative religions; attempts to find common ground between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews; practical efforts to form cooperative work among these three groups; endeavors to champion unity among all Christians and, for some, to unite in a single Christian church; and the emergence of the Goodwill Movement in the 1920s, rooted in liberal Protestants’ desire to establish national organizations with Catholics and Jews to promote appreciation of religious diversity in the U.S. For Mislin, “these new organizations provided the bridge connecting evolving attitudes about pluralism among liberal Protestants of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries with the values of a Judeo-Christian America that would emerge in the years after World War II” (142).

Mislin’s book has several limitations, which he acknowledges. It is a study of mostly elite white male Protestant leaders (clergy, theologians, and highly educated laity) from the 1870s to the 1920s. We learn very little about gender or the role of women. Mislin does not claim that the inclusive views of these leaders filtered down to local churches, though he provides some evidence for the dissemination of these new ideas in a few prominent churches in urban areas such as New York and Boston. He argues that liberal Protestants did not extend their “newfound appreciation of religious difference into the realms of racial and ethnic diversity” (8). My own research from this period, however, indicates that liberal Protestant leaders did begin actively engaging in precisely this kind of effort to extend their previous work in labor and interreligious cooperation to interracial developments, most notably in the Federal Council of Churches’ formation of a Commission on Race Relations in 1921 (later known as the Department of Race Relations). Their anti-lynching campaign, which began in 1923, became one of the most visible and organized religious efforts against this terrifying form of violence against African Americans. Mislin’s book, while rightly pointing out that many liberal Protestants “largely ignored African Americans and their religious commitments in their pronouncements on the beneficial nature of pluralism,” provides much-needed historical background to some of the theological and organizational developments that help explain why liberal Protestants began more actively addressing issues of race and ethnicity by the 1920s (8). It is a work that should be widely read as we come to a fuller appreciation of the role that liberal Protestants played in making America modern.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Curtis Evans is Associate Professor of American Religions and the History of Christianity at University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Mislin is Assistant Professor in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University.



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