By WARREN GOLDSTEIN
To listen in on debates about the current American political landscape is to be overwhelmed by a tide of print and talk about the importance of religion. But by the odd alchemy of American politics, "religion" has come to mean "politically conservative religion," often used interchangeably with theologically conservative evangelical or fundamentalist Protestantism.
In the wake of the Terri Schiavo battle, the touring Ten Commandments, and a national television broadcast featuring the Senate majority leader arguing that filibusters (particularly the Democratic kind) are anti-religious, one could conclude that the religious scene has been divvied up between godless secularists and Bible-thumping descendants of William Jennings Bryan.
Only Jim Wallis, longtime editor of Sojourners -- a magazine whose "mission is to proclaim and practice the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice" -- seems to be standing against this tsunami of red-state religion. A self-described "progressive evangelical," he is author of the hot new God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), and he is everywhere.
But the truth is that Wallis, who has been laboring in these vineyards without attracting much news-media attention for many years, represents neither the majority of his own evangelical tradition, which is for the most part much more politically conservative than he is, nor much of the tradition of politically liberal Protestantism, which has not identified itself as evangelical for the past half-century. The dramatic growth and increased political power of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism in the past quarter-century have obscured the history of that liberal religion from public view.
Not so very long ago, liberal Protestantism -- liberal both theologically and politically -- represented the mainstream. At the risk of simplification, Protestant theological liberalism has sought, over roughly the past century and a quarter, to reconcile biblical "truth" with the worldview of modern science. Theological liberals consider the Bible a divinely inspired, historically shaped group of texts open to vigorous interpretation, rather than the inerrant, literal word of God. In this view, God is less a Big Daddy in the sky than a presence immanent in natural and human history. Because Christian liberals have generally trained their gaze more on the world -- God's visible creation -- than on the heavens (or on the experience of personal conversion), they have tended to focus on the Bible's, and Jesus', moral and social teachings. As a result, theological liberalism has often found expression in political liberalism.
Nowadays commentators focus on the decline in membership in the largest mainline Protestant denominations -- Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, American Baptists, the United Church of Christ -- as proof of their modern irrelevance, while wringing their hands -- or exulting -- over the growth of conservative megachurches. No matter their political persuasion, most observers are missing the enduring importance and political influence of liberal Protestantism. In fact, that tradition has been all but "disappeared" by a combination of historical circumstances, academic condescension, and, perhaps most damningly, religious liberals themselves.
A few months ago, a UCC church near where I live was sponsoring a Lenten lecture on liberal Protestantism. My wife, a UCC minister who could not attend, thought it would be good for me to get out of the house and find out what someone else thought for a change. The lecturer, a bright young historian, also married to a minister, professorially explained the origins of the movement in German biblical criticism, continued with a description of the pre-World War I Social Gospel, followed up with the postwar disillusionment and decline, and then simply stopped, observing that liberal Protestantism had been on a downward slope ever since. No Reinhold Niebuhr, no Martin Luther King Jr., no civil-rights or antiwar movement, nothing on the fight for women's rights or gay rights. Far more telling, no members of the audience -- including many senior citizens who had lived through the turmoil of the latter 20th century -- objected to their entire religious lives' being considered unworthy of academic notice. I hope they were being polite, but I suspect that their apathy was a symptom.
Indeed, the liberalism of mainline Protestantism appears to be suffering a fate similar to that of liberalism in today's world of politics. Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the leaders of the Democratic Party, once the home of a proud and unapologetic liberalism, have successfully hidden their liberal light under a bushel of apologies and strategies for impersonating Republicans. Now, beaten twice in narrow national elections, apparently by religious conservatives, some Democrats are beginning to remember that moral values have power on the left side of the aisle, too. But instead of relying on their own traditions, they are trying to open a dialogue with evangelicals -- witness Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton urging abortion-rights activists to seek common ground with those who oppose abortion.
Since I'm no political strategist, I have no idea if that will work. I am, though, a historian who has written on William Sloane Coffin Jr. and the liberal tradition he brought to the chaplaincy at Yale University in the 1960s and 1970s, which fired the faith and activism of a generation still very much alive. And so I wonder whether the folks formerly known as liberal Protestants and their colleagues and counterparts among liberal politicians might gain some inspiration from the accomplishments of their own histories before giving up on what they might bring to the future.
Much 20th-century American political history was the history of liberalism. From Progressivism in the early years of the century to the almost 50 years stretching from the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt through that of Ronald Reagan, political and economic liberalism set the terms of public debate and public policy. It had blind spots and nasty habits, of course, most notably racism and an unfortunate faith in imperial ventures abroad. But when white people did finally begin taking race seriously, and mainstream Americans turned against the war in Vietnam, liberals and progressives led those charges.
What tends to be forgotten is that they did so not just through political parties or movements. The Social Gospel's commitment to improving conditions in society according to Christian principles supported much of early-20th-century Progressive reform; Harry Emerson Fosdick, America's most eminent preacher of the 1930s, began his career as a Social Gospeler who attacked fundamentalism and embraced pacifism. Over the space of five decades, Niebuhr, the most influential American theologian of the 20th century, first defended the working class on religious grounds, then criticized capitalism and what he saw as the timidity of the New Deal, and later inspired a generation of liberal cold warriors. The explosion of theological liberalism and the ecumenical movement after Vatican II (1962-65) provided religious fuel, language, and fervor for the civil-rights and antiwar movements.
Take the Social Gospel, later to be maligned by Niebuhr as naïvely progressive, too trusting in the perfectibility of human beings, too eager to locate the source of sin in social structures rather than the individual. In fact, most of those traits it shared with secular Progressivism, along with a casual belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority, imperial paternalism, Prohibition, and support for the crusade of World War I. But as preached and put into practice by the Congregational minister Washington Gladden, the Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch, and many others, the Social Gospel was no minor movement. A prolific author and champion of the "historical critical" approach to the Bible, Gladden served a parish in Columbus, Ohio, for 30 years, where he spoke out on behalf of workers' rights during a Cleveland streetcar strike in 1886 and actively supported a whole range of Progressive causes, including compulsory arbitration and women's suffrage.
Jane Addams, founder of the settlement-house movement to help slum dwellers, and perhaps the most searching of Progressive thinkers, identified "a certain renaissance of Christianity, a movement toward its early humanitarian aspects" as a key to what she called the "subjective pressure toward Social Settlements." Rauschenbusch, the theological star of the Social Gospel movement, learned city problems from the poverty of his congregation near New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. In Christianity and the Social Crisis(1907), he insisted, "The essential purpose of Christianity is to transform human society into the Kingdom of God by regenerating all human relations and reconstituting them in accordance with the will of God." For Rauschenbusch, such a task increasingly called for a version of democratic socialism to counter the overwhelming power of the "possessing classes."
Even though the Social Gospelers could be blandly optimistic and politically naïve at times, they gave a Christian, moral voice to many Progressive reforms. Unlike their Gilded Age predecessors, many of whom preached a religious version of Social Darwinism that blessed the riches of the elect, the Social Gospelers demonstrated a sincere, often sophisticated concern for the lives of immigrant slum residents and abysmally treated industrial workers.
And they had influence, contributing mightily to the culture and widespread success of political Progressivism, which passed an enormous body of legislation, elected three presidents, and doubled the size of the American electorate. No less a person than Woodrow Wilson, son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, echoed their beliefs: According to the president, "Christianity was just as much intended to save society as to save the individual, and there is a sense in which it is more important that it should save society."
Even during the 1920s, the decade that saw the growth of politically conservative Protestant fundamentalism and the Scopes trial, the Social Gospel held sway in the denominational seminaries and continued to produce ministers committed to liberal theology and liberal politics alike. When Fosdick preached his eloquent sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" in 1922, he threw down a theological gauntlet; three years later William Jennings Bryan and other fundamentalists used it to force his resignation from New York's First Presbyterian Church. But Bryan, who died in 1925, days after the end of the Scopes trial, did not live to see Fosdick's revenge: the establishment of Riverside Church, financed by the Baptist John D. Rockefeller Jr., which became the flagship cathedral of liberal Protestantism.
The dominant figure of 20th-century liberal Protestantism was Niebuhr -- who ridiculed liberals' sentimentality, faith in progress, embrace of pacifism, and rejection of political coercion -- all in the name of an allegedly hard-headed, tough-minded, "Christian realist" approach to obtaining justice in a sinful world. Laying theological waste to the reigning Social Gospel of his youth, Niebuhr and his neo-orthodox followers, who sought to recover Christianity's roots in prophetic Judaism, nevertheless expected ordinary Christians to take up the mantle of political battle. For no matter what his politics -- and they ranged all the way from quasi-Marxist socialism to cold-war liberalism in a career that began before World War I and ended in the 1960s -- Niebuhr insisted that Christians must be involved with political life.
The irony, of course, was that the man who founded the magazine Christianity and Crisis in 1941 to rally liberal Protestantism to do battle with European fascism, and helped found Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 to provide a political vehicle for anticommunist liberals, and served as an official of the New York State Liberal Party, spent as much, if not more, energy criticizing the "wrong" kind of liberalism as he did supporting the ever-changing "right" kind.
No brief summary can do justice to Niebuhr's immense theological and political oeuvre -- or to his genuine celebrity (his portrait graced the cover of Time magazine's 25th-anniversary issue, in 1948). It is worth remembering, however, that even if this theological giant's criticism could be withering, there was never any doubt -- certainly from the 1940s on -- that his thought lay within, rather than outside, both theological and political liberalism. Even though he insisted on the prophetic, Hebraic roots of Christianity, he never tried to brush away science or revive biblical literalism. His legacy to liberalism remained his critique of hubris -- his consistent warnings that prideful behavior can corrupt otherwise noble actions, that human beings can be counted on to remain sinful rather than perfectible, and that they have the unquestioned responsibility to act in the world.
The late 1950s and 1960s saw powerful examples of the mutually reinforcing experiences of liberal religion and liberal politics that simultaneously owed substantial debt to Niebuhr's theology and breathed new life into the Social Gospel. Martin Luther King Jr. had grappled hard with the thought of both Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr in seminary and graduate school. The former's Christianity and the Social Crisis, he later wrote, "left an indelible imprint on my thinking by giving me a theological basis for the social concern which had already grown up in me." From Niebuhr he learned "a persistent reminder of the reality of sin on every level of humanity's existence," as well as "the complexity of people's social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil."
When the Montgomery bus boycott began, in 1955, King later reflected, "my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its sublime teachings on love, and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance." As millions of Americans watched African-Americans and their white allies relying on an updated Social Gospel to transform their lives and their society, few would or could have argued that politics and religion had little to do with one another. As Jim Wallis writes in God's Politics, "No one in American history ever linked religion and politics better (or more prophetically, democratically, and inclusively) than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
Listen to King's speech at the Holt Street Baptist Church on the first night of the boycott, December 5, 1955: "If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth."
Just as important to mainline liberal Protestant religion in the early 1960s as the civil-rights movement, and partly fueled by it, was a new ecumenical spirit both within Protestantism itself and, in the wake of Vatican II, among faiths. Interfaith cooperation among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews provided local leaders and foot soldiers for civil-rights organizations, fund-raising efforts, conferences, programs, and demonstrations throughout the country.
The most prominent university chaplain of the era, the Presbyterian Coffin first entered the national limelight as a "freedom rider" in 1961, and soon became the best-known white civil-rights advocate in the United States. Preaching a witty, quotable, down-to-earth Christianity that newspaper and television reporters found irresistible, Coffin exemplified a social gospel close to King's, and a theology of sin and pride profoundly influenced by Niebuhr. But Coffin was only the most visible among dozens of seminary presidents and professors, denominational executives, heads of religious social-action agencies, college and private-school chaplains -- Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants -- who helped bring religious liberalism to its high-water mark in the mid-1960s, the heyday, not coincidentally, of Great Society political liberalism as well. In 1965 such religious leaders joined together in what many still remember as a profound, even transformative experience, the Selma march.
That ecumenical cooperation on behalf of civil rights soon translated directly into antiwar activity. When an interfaith group of clergy members announced in New York City, in October 1965, that it would hold an ecumenical forum on U.S. foreign policy in Asia, the world-famous theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel startled his colleagues by announcing that the group would continue as an organization -- and inadvertently founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam.
Eventually renamed Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, it became the largest and most influential religious group to oppose the Vietnam War. Treatments of the 1960s and the antiwar movement occasionally make mention of clergymen and women, particularly the radical Catholic Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip. But in fact, liberal and moderate religious professionals and laypeople played a far greater role in nurturing antiwar sentiment throughout the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Even in the 1970s, as the wind went out of political liberalism's sails, and in the 1980s, when the "Reagan revolution" made political liberalism into the "L-word" and brought the religious right to public prominence, mainline liberal Protestantism, with important Catholic and Jewish allies, continued to speak out on behalf of the poor at home and the oppressed abroad. As Ronald Reagan rewrote the tax code, slashed social programs, and began the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history, it was religious institutions that housed and nurtured liberal dissent. Coffin, who had gone to Riverside Church as senior minister in 1977, turned Fosdick's flagship into a key international institution of the left. Coffin himself provided articulate leadership and organizational resources for the movement opposing U.S. intervention in Central America, for the rights of gay and lesbian people, for anti-apartheid organizing, and, most of all, for the nuclear-disarmament movement. Without the Riverside Church Disarmament Program, founded by Coffin, it is unlikely that the largest demonstration in American history, on June 12, 1982, would ever have taken place.
And while demographics have not favored them in the past 30 years, liberal Protestants continue to exercise cultural influence far beyond their numbers, especially as the mainline churches battle over issues of homosexuality. The 1.3 million-member United Church of Christ has been quietly ordaining gay clergy members for more than two decades. Now it is also entering the public fray, recently starting an advertising campaign indicating its openness to, among others, gay couples. Banners proclaiming "God Is Still Speaking" hang in front of UCC churches around the country. The denomination is rediscovering what King articulated, what Coffin brought to Riverside Church, what the Social Gospelers knew before either of them: that the gospel of love and justice, preached openly and inclusively (and with media savvy) rather than doctrinally and punitively, will draw people in and help them sustain and nourish ideas that are temporarily out of political favor.
The news media gave enormous attention to the controversy surrounding the Episcopal Church U.S.A.'s consecration of a gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, a year and a half ago, and to the recent trial, defrocking, and provisional reinstatement of the Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud, a lesbian Methodist minister. But CBS and NBC rejected an ad from the United Church of Christ on the grounds that it raised "controversial issues." While that decision garnered the church a good deal of free publicity, it was typical of the news media's general tendency to play down liberal Protestantism.
Conservative commentators, in particular, are strikingly eager to write off liberal Protestantism. In The New York Times Book Review recently, Mark Lilla, a professor at the University of Chicago and former editor of the neoconservative journal The Public Interest, had fun trotting out the shopworn mockery of liberal theology by H. Richard Niebuhr (Reinhold's brother): "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." Niebuhr, who taught at the Yale Divinity School, once confided to his colleague, the historian Sydney Ahlstrom, that he regretted that sentence more than any he had ever written.
And for good reason. I have read hundreds of Coffin's sermons, listened to hundreds of my wife's, and attended nearly every UCC General Synod (where there's a good bit of preaching to be heard) for the past 20 years. Niebuhr's line simply does not describe liberal-Protestant reality.
Lilla went on to trash liberal Protestantism in his own words: "The more the Bible is treated as a historical document, the more its message is interpreted in universalist terms, the more the churches sanctify the political and cultural order, the less hold liberal religion will eventually have on the hearts and minds of the believers." I read that sentence to a group of retired Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and UCC clergy members the next day. They had been reflecting on their long careers, many of them proudest of their dissenting roles in society; they were rightly offended by Lilla's rhetoric.
Religious liberalism has certainly had its weaknesses. And its occasional self-satisfaction and sometimes bland worship have ceded some territory to the more charismatic and passionate religion of evangelicals and fundamentalists. But critics like Lilla clearly don't spend enough time in the pews of liberal, American Protestant churches. There they might have heard ministers grappling with some of the most pressing social issues of our day, in self-reflective religious language far removed from the spiritually untroubled rhetoric preferred by the White House and members of the Congressional leadership.
As representatives of a mainstream religious force that leads and sustains activism on behalf of racial and gender equality and combating injustice, religious liberals ought not to forget their past or give in to the dominant narrative of their own demise. Just as it's entirely too soon to write the epitaph of political liberalism, reports of the death of liberal religion, especially liberal Protestantism, have been wildly exaggerated.
Warren Goldstein is a professor and chairman of history at the University of Hartford. He is the author of William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience (Yale University Press, 2004).