Reading Like a Religious Liberal – By Christopher White

Christopher White on Matthew S. Hedstrom’s The Rise of Liberal Religion

Matthew Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion, Oxford University Press, 2013, 288pp., $55.00
Matthew S. Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion, Oxford University Press, 2013, 288pp., $55.00

One of my professors in graduate school, William Hutchison, a man sometimes called the “dean of liberal Protestant studies,” was known for insisting that religious liberalism was alive and well, despite much evidence to the contrary. A Quaker by faith and an optimist by disposition, Hutchison was accustomed to seeing a divine spark even in apparently dead things. On occasion, I spoke with him about the fate of liberal religion in the twentieth century and, on this matter at least, he felt like a voice crying in the wilderness. The sociological data all pointed the opposite way — sociologists of religion in America, including some of his former students, saw clearly that liberal denominations were rapidly losing members and had been since the 1960s. Religious liberalism had had its day, from Thomas Jefferson to the mainline Protestant establishment of the late nineteenth century, but two twentieth-century wars severely eroded liberal faith in human nature and civilizational progress. Moreover, the dominant narrative of twentieth-century American religion involved the ascendancy of the Religious Right and its cultural and political power. Though he understood well these trends, Hutchison stood by his way of seeing things, which he articulated in greatest detail in a two-part article in the Christian Century in 1986. He acknowledged that liberal Protestant institutions were losing members at a rapid clip but insisted that characteristically liberal impulses were expanding and flourishing. He saw liberal theological emphases on interfaith work, ecumenism, and social reform expanding and informing American cultural life in a variety of ways even if mainline Protestant denominations were in decline. The liberal religious spirit, he wrote, like other heavenly things, “bloweth where it listeth.”

Hutchison was a man whom everyone loved, but I admit that some of us younger historians stared back in disbelief when he talked about the cultural victories of the Protestant mainline. As it happens, however, in many ways Hutchison was right about religious liberalism. Matthew Hedstrom’s new book shows us why.

The Rise of Liberal Religion joins a growing body of scholarship written in the last twenty years that seeks to map more precisely the free-flowing currents of liberal religiosity in American society. David Hollinger has shown that liberalism influenced modern discussions of ecumenism and pluralism quite dramatically; Leigh Schmidt and Catherine Albanese have documented ways that liberal religious sensibilities informed modern social, political, and religious movements; and Courtney Bender, among others, has shown that liberal religious impulses shaped New Age and “spiritual but not religious” Americans. Hedstrom’s book is more monographic than these well-known works, but the specific history he tells reveals a lot about how religious liberalism might decline institutionally while triumphing culturally.

Hedstrom begins in the 1920s with an understudied aspect of American popular culture, namely religious reading programs and religious book clubs. These clubs appealed especially to upwardly-aspiring middle-class Americans who wanted to navigate interwar dilemmas about science and faith, character, and self-improvement. In the first two chapters, Hedstrom discusses how American Protestant leaders created book lists and reading programs that generated a new sense of religious choice even as they helped readers navigate those choices faithfully. He argues that religious reading clubs allowed liberal Protestants to create a spiritual center in American life, one that made ecumenism, religious individualism, and spiritual questing normative. Books chosen as early as the late 1920s and the 1930s, in fact, were surprisingly wide-ranging, including popular texts on Buddhism, Hinduism, and secular sciences such as psychology.

One of the most important aspects of Hedstrom’s book is how he links book clubs and religious reading to what is surely one of America’s most dynamic religious groups today, America’s burgeoning cohort of spiritual seekers. Currently, this group constitutes between a quarter and a third of the total U.S. population. Though many seekers are nominally Christian, they sample and combine elements from different religions, choosing to journey and experiment rather than adhere to one tradition.

Hedstrom points to different ways modern religious seeking emerged out of the cosmopolitan spirit of earlier book clubs, and he writes about the whole process in a way that Hutchison would have appreciated. Popular religious book programs, Hedstrom argues, represented both the triumph of the liberal religious spirit and its institutional undoing. Even as book clubs spread the liberal ethos of pluralism, broad learning, inter-religious exploration, and individualized spirituality, this same ethos pushed people beyond the boundaries of Protestant institutions. Hedstrom captures well the resulting ironies: while pastors and Protestant leaders designed, marketed, and administered reading programs, these programs made Americans less and less dependent on them for spiritual direction or authoritative advice. “Liberal elites,” Hedstrom says, “were the victims of their own success, as their drive for a universal spiritual language and true pluralism … made their grasp on power, centralized and hierarchical as it was, increasingly untenable.” Liberals promoting new scientific ideas and religious pluralism sometimes had to face the unintended consequences of their work. Sometimes even faithful books interpreting science led to agnosticism, and sometimes Christian books on eastern religions set cradle Christians loose on spiritual journeys, never to return.

Hedstrom’s book also helps us understand why the liberal embrace of pluralism became so important, specifically by the 1950s. He identifies two reasons in particular. Beginning initially in the 1920s and 30s, marketing pressures began forcing book club organizers to promote nonsectarian and nondogmatic books. In the process, religion was increasingly uncoupled from denominational markers, including distinctive ideas and doctrines, and “good” religion became more closely connected to therapeutic strategies for finding peace and life satisfaction. Distinctive beliefs and practices did not sell well; religion as a way to find happiness did.

Riverside Church, New York – Image via Wikimedia Commons

A second set of reasons explaining the ascendency of liberal emphases on pluralism involved the political and ideological struggles of World War II and the Cold War. The existential threat posed by wartime fascists and then godless cold warriors made American discourses on freedom, religious freedom, interfaith citizenship, and national unity even more urgent. Another recent work, Jason Stevens’s God-Fearing and Free, also makes this point, though Hedstrom’s astute analysis of such discourses in book club advertisements and marketing materials offers a more complex genealogy of liberal passions for pluralism that incorporates unexplored social and political tensions.

Despite Hedstrom’s careful attention to detail, lingering questions remain. First of all, while Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and other believers had good reasons to embrace the ethos of acceptance and inter-religious understanding, how were inter-religious marketing strategies, club discussions, and specific book selections contested by detractors? What were the limits of ecumenism and spiritual seeking and how did book club leaders attempt to enforce those limits or promote more particular agendas? What happened when Protestants or Catholics saw religious liberality as licentiousness? Moreover, at what point did Catholics and Jews in particular worry about assimilation and loss of distinctiveness? Finally, Hedstrom pays very little attention to race. Why did liberal ecumenism never really reach beyond the color line in America? How did racist views shape books on non-Christian religions such as Hinduism?

Questions like this inevitably arise from a thoughtful book that leaves you wanting more. In the end, Hedstrom provides a fascinating study that accounts for the cultural vitality of religious liberalism during those decades of the twentieth century when earlier commentators saw only pitiable decline. By carefully examining archival sources and analyzing both elite and everyday readers, Hedstrom helps us better understand the puzzling directions modern religious liberalism has taken. Liberal denominations have certainly declined but, as William Hutchison always insisted, their liberal spirit and ethos still thrives.

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