A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered [Excerpts]
For decades the dominant story of postwar American religious history has been the triumph of evangelical Christians. Beginning in the 1940s, the story goes, a rising tide of evangelicals began asserting their power and identity, ultimately routing their more liberal mainline Protestant counterparts in the pews, on the offering plate and at the ballot box.
But now a growing cadre of historians of religion are reconsidering the legacy of those faded establishment Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, tracing their enduring influence on the movements for human rights and racial justice, the growing “spiritual but not religious” demographic and even the shaded moral realism of Barack Obama — a liberal Protestant par excellence, some of these academics say.
After decades of work bringing evangelicals, Mormons and other long-neglected religious groups into the broader picture, these scholars contend, the historical profession is overdue for a “mainline moment.”
The surge of interest in liberal religion, many say, reflects the renewed vitality of religious history more generally, which has spread beyond its traditional redoubts in divinity schools to become one of the most popular specializations among academic historians, according to the American Historical Association.
Some scholars say that frustration with the perceived cultural and political dominance of evangelicals in the Bush era gave the subject extra urgency.
“At the end of the second Bush term, there was widespread interest in thinking about a religious left,” said Leigh E. Schmidt, a historian at Washington University in St. Louis, and the editor, with Sally M. Promey, of the recent book “American Religious Liberalism.” “The idea was, surely there is something besides simply a secular left.”
That something often does not look very churchlike. The Schmidt and Promey volume, which collects papers delivered at the Princeton and Yale conferences, includes essays on Bahaism among early-20th-century artists and “the metaphysical liberalism” of the U.F.O. obsessive and cult writer Charles Fort, among other far-flung subjects.
Conservative believers “may think this isn’t religion,” said Jon Butler, a Yale University scholar who is working on a history of religion in modern Manhattan. “But religion comes in an incredible number of forms.”
The dizzying varieties of American religious experience, scholars say, has roots nearly as deep as old-time religion. At the University of Virginia Mr. Hedstrom teaches a popular class called “Spiritual but Not Religious,” which traces the evolution of American spirituality from the 19th-century Transcendentalists to Alcoholics Anonymous, yoga and “the gospel of Oprah.”
Today’s “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon, Mr. Hedstrom argues, owes a strong debt to midcentury liberal Protestantism. In his book “The Rise of Liberal Religion” he traces the role of religious book clubs — which helped turn titles like the liberal pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “On Being a Real Person” (1943) into best sellers — in creating a broad-based “middlebrow religious culture” that emphasized personal ethics and inner experience over theology.
(Schuessler, "A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered," New York Times Online, 7/23/13).
[TBC: While “liberal ecumenical ideas” are coming back, it must also be noted that these mainline denominations continue to wither away. They may emphasize “personal ethics and inner experience over theology,” but the one thing they do not offer is hope. The only true hope for humanity remains anchored in the unchanging Word of God.]