How Did It End Up Like This?

Managing Editor Kyle Trowbridge interviewed historian Gene Zubovich about his book Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States.

Kyle: First, thank you for the time today. Let’s begin by looking at a few terms in your title, Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States. What timeframe does your book survey, and who were these liberal Protestants?

Gene: Before the Religious Right follows a generation of liberal, ecumenical Protestant leaders as they came of age and travelled abroad in the 1920s, rose to positions of power during the Great Depression, mobilized politically on behalf of the United Nations and human rights, fought segregation, economic inequality, and militarism during the early Cold War, and began retiring and making way for a younger generation in the tumult of the 1960s. Some were clergy, missionaries, professional theologians, social ethicists, and religious bureaucrats. Others were prominent laypersons. They came from “mainline” denominations, such as the American Baptists, Episcopalians, and United Methodists. Before the rise of the Christian Right in the 1970s, these liberal, ecumenical Protestants dominated the public sphere and shaped American politics in ways unimaginable today. These privileged figures used their stature in surprising ways: to push the United States to be less reliant on military force, to lessen economic inequality, and to do away with segregation. This political mobilization also generated resistance from their own congregations and from their religious rivals. The successes and failures of liberal, ecumenical Protestants shaped American life and politics from the 1920s through the 1960s, as well as the religious and political landscape with which we live today.

Before the Religious Right makes three overarching arguments. The first is that these liberal Protestants were central to political liberalism in that era. The second argument is that international engagement was central to U.S. liberalism. Many of the ideas and doctrines that drove liberal Protestant political activism were forged in the international ecumenical movement. Even after WWII, in the so-called era of American exceptionalism, the ecumenical movement connected Americans to the broader world in ways that were not just about exporting U.S. values. The final argument is that in the political activism of liberal Protestants we can see the origins of our own political polarization. In the debates over Jim Crow, the welfare state, and the Cold War recognizably “liberal” and “conservative” coalitions emerged. And since organizations like the National Council of Churches commanded the attention of a broad part of the American electorate and had their hands on the levers of power, religious divisions created a political shift on a national scale. It also created an opening for the rise of the religious right.

Kyle: As you mention in your introduction, though, there was an amalgam of competing theologies that were in vogue in the timeframe you discuss. Some of these were neo-orthodoxy, personalism, the social gospel, and anti-racism, but you ground the commonality of these competing theologies of liberal Protestants in ecumenism. What was it about ecumenism that allowed for it to tower above the others, and what were some of the downstream impacts of the emphasis on ecumenism?

Gene: The community I wrote about was broad and diverse, representing somewhere between one quarter to one third of the U.S. population. How did this group sustain a sense of cohesion, which allowed them overcome both theological and political divisions as they staged their massive political mobilizations on behalf of political causes that were sometimes unpopular with the rank and file? Part of the answer is that they built highly-centralized institutions. But the other part of the answer is their investment in the ecumenical movement. The ecumenical movement was launched in the early 20th century with the purpose of bringing Protestants and the Orthodox (and Catholics beginning in the 1960s) together across national boundaries. The ecumenical movement was so important that I refer to this group as “ecumenical Protestants.” Out of the ecumenical movement came new ideas about world order, international governance, and human rights. The international ecumenical movement inspired ecumenical Protestants in the United States to become some of the most enthusiastic supporters for world government and human rights in the 1940s. One example of the ways international ideas shaped life in the U.S. was the “World Order movement,” which was the largest religious mobilization since Prohibition. It was designed to convince Americans during WWII that a postwar peace required their country to give up some of its sovereignty and join a new world government. As importantly, Americans would need to give up segregation and build a welfare state to secure peace. Their idealistic vision was never fully realized—utopias rarely are—but it nonetheless inspired ecumenical Protestants to bring international ideas to bear on American domestic politics and to transform American liberalism in important ways. 

Kyle: Your book clearly emphasizes how an international approach by liberal Protestants led to domestic reforms in the United States. We will start internationally: how did Protestant globalism and the World Order Movement bolster and challenge American foreign policy thought and action?  What was the nature and what were the contestations of the realist-pacifist split among liberal Protestants? How did some liberal Protestants challenge prevailing Cold War American understandings of both the Soviet Union and Communist China?

Gene: The ecumenical movement was an alternative, non-state form of international relations. Religious leaders from across the world came together to discuss theology, as well as the application of theology to the social problems plaguing the world. The ecumenical movement became a meeting space for Americans to engage with the world that was separate from the imperatives of U.S. foreign relations. By the 1930s the ecumenical movement articulated what my book calls “Protestant globalism.” Protestant globalism conceived of the whole world as a singular political space, distinct from the individual nation-states one sees on a map. Ecumenical Protestants were therefore drawn to ideas about world government and universal human rights in the 1930s and 1940s. The same universalist, globalist instincts drew ecumenical Protestants to finding alternatives to the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s. They searched for middle ways between capitalism and communism in order to overcome Cold War divisions. Therefore, American ecumenical Protestants often resisted the Cold War framework, especially as it was applied to Asia. Historians tend to emphasize Protestant complicity in the Cold War (think Reinhold Niebuhr and Billy Graham) but I show that the main story of ecumenical Protestantism in the 1950s is their search for an alternative to the Cold War.

Kyle: According to your book, human rights was a burning concern for liberal Protestants. But in reading your book, it seems that liberal Protestants didn’t just view this as a solitary issue of rights, or something that was “Not Enough,” to use Samuel Moyn’s phrase, but integrated relationally to other issues: racism, economic reform, and American foreign policy. Can you explain how mid-century liberal Protestants understood human rights?

Gene: When we think of human rights today, we think of a new realm of criminal activity (such as torture of political prisoners) that usually takes place far from U.S. shores. But ecumenical Protestants understood human rights as a universal articulation of God’s law that applied as much to the U.S. as to people abroad. Human rights were seen as one part of creating international order and world government. Therefore, it was not something that displaced other political concerns, as Samuel Moyn argues happened in the 1970s. Instead, human rights reinvigorated longstanding Protestant concerns—racism, poverty, militarism—by placing them in a global frame of reference. For example, the ecumenical Federal Council of Churches was one of the first predominantly-white organizations in the United States to condemn segregation and demand its abolition. It announced this to the American public in a human rights statement. In this context, human rights were a way of highlighting just how damaging segregation was to a peaceful world order and how offensive racism was to a universal God. 

Kyle: What were some of the dividing lines between “Right” liberal Protestants and “Left” liberal Protestants?

Gene: For much of U.S. history “religion” and “politics” were inseparable categories. One thing mid-century folks frequently debated was ecclesiology, which is the branch of theology that deals with the nature and structure of the church. When denominations that subscribed to the congregationalist model of ecclesiology (most famously, the Congregationalist Christians—today, part of the United Church of Christ) debated politics, the arguments really came down to who gets to speak for the church. In a tradition where each congregation gets the final word on theological questions, is it permissible for the denomination’s national leaders to advocate for the Social Security Act or the Civil Rights Act? Or should each congregation decide for itself? Usually, folks who backed congregational autonomy in theology also opposed their denomination taking progressive stances on national legislation. And the opposite was true too: those who advocated greater centralization of religious life tended to support their denomination lobbying in D.C. In this way, debates about the nature of the church drove religious political mobilization as well as religious polarization. Theology was deeply intertwined with politics.

Kyle: Your book has some familiar names, Reinhold Niebuhr and John Foster Dulles being only a couple mentioned. Who’s a figure you cover in your book that you think needs to be more well-known?

Gene: The attention Niebuhr and Dulles have gotten is well-deserved. But the singular focus on these two individuals had led historians to misunderstand ecumenical Protestantism. In fact, one of the things I emphasize in Before the Religious Right is the ways Niebuhr and Dulles were in conflict with their religious community over many political and theological issues, including the Cold War, segregation, and realism. We can see a different kind of religious liberalism in now-forgotten figures like Thelma Stevens. Unlike these two men, Stevens grew up in modest circumstances in rural Mississippi. As an upwardly mobile white woman, ecumenical Protestant institutions appealed to Stevens because they provided one of the few available life paths to women who wanted to avoid domesticity and heterosexual marriage. Like Lillian Smith and Jane Addams, Stevens was never married. She spent the 1930s advocating on behalf of African American defendants in the Jim Crow South. With other women, she would pack the courtrooms to remind prosecutors, judges, and juries that the world was watching what they were doing in the courtroom. By the 1940s she was in charge of an organization of two million Methodist women. During the World Order movement, Methodist women were having vibrant conversations about what human rights meant to them. They channeled the enthusiasm around Protestant globalism and applied it to the problems they were facing in their communities. And these ideas were specifically designed to encourage Methodist women to become more politically active on a wide array of causes. In other words, ecumenical Protestantism created a gateway to liberal politics for millions of Protestant women. Ecumenical Protestantism created the institutional context and theological warrant for women like Thelma Stevens to discuss and debate theological and political ideas, to gain leadership experience, and to bring their values to bear on town halls and the halls of the United Nations. If we focus only on what Niebuhr and Dulles were doing, we miss so many important things about liberal Protestantism at mid-century.

Kyle: How did African American liberal Protestants, including Benjamin Mays, Oscar Lee, George Haynes, challenge their white counterparts on racism and segregation?

Gene: Although many of the Federal Council’s leaders had participated in the Niagara Movement (which led to the creation of the NAACP), the religious body focused on combatting “race prejudice” through the 1920s and 1930s. They understood race prejudice to be rooted in ignorance about other groups of people, and so they advocated exchanges of ministers and choirs between Black and white congregations. The Federal Council did other things too: they lobbied against Asian exclusion in immigration law and fought for anti-lynching legislation. But it was not until the 1940s, during the “one world” enthusiasm, that they finally called out “segregation” by name and called for its abolition. This came about partly because activists like Mays, Lee, and Haynes—all members of “mainline” denominations—used the globalist rhetoric promoted by Dulles to their own ends. In a refrain you would hear a lot during the Cold War, these leaders of the generation before the Civil Rights movement convinced their white Protestant colleagues that you could not build a peaceful and just postwar world order on the foundation of racial segregation. In later years, Black women like Anna Hedgeman, Pauli Murray, and Dorothy Height would play a critical role in getting ecumenical Protestants to work with the NAACP to challenge segregation in the courts and to mobilize white congregations in the Midwest to support passage of the Civil Rights Act. The connections forged between Black and white Protestants early in the twentieth century, in the context of Protestant globalism, proved transformative for the history of race in the United States.

Kyle: What was the nature of the Clergy-Laity split you cover in Chapter 9 and how did it lead to the polarization of the United States?

Gene: One of the major themes of Before the Religious Right is the way that divisions within the liberal Protestant community paved the way for our contemporary political polarization. The most important was the clergy-laity gap in values.

As many of the ministers, bishops, and denominational heads had turned to the left politically, most churchgoers remained skeptical of the need to fight racism, economic inequality, or gender inequality. This created a gap in values between the clergy and laity. Conservative activists used this clergy-laity gap to stage rebellions in the name of the “laity” and tried to wrest control of the cultural capital of Christianity from left-leaning clergy. The clergy-laity gap in values pointed to something very real: as clergy (and especially national and international Protestant leaders) moved to the left, they were often not successful at bringing their congregations with them. But it is also important to note that “the laity” was a politicized term, which became a stand-in for conservative views on ecclesiology and politics.

Alongside the clergy-laity gap was the disaffection of conservatives like Dulles and Congressman Walter Judd, who soured on the liberal Protestant leadership and began to build bridges to the conservative movement and to likeminded evangelicals and Catholics. There was also the counter-mobilization of evangelicals, who attacked the liberal politics of ecumenical leaders. Ecumenical denominations were also faced with an exodus of young people who were inspired by the theological and political proclamations of their denominations’ leaders but who did not see those values expressed in their home churches. Many of those young people were drawn to other institutions that better expressed their Christian commitments, such as the burgeoning human rights movement. And so, in mid-century religious liberalism we can see the polarization of U.S. politics into liberal and conservative camps, as well as divisions between religious conservatism and a broad swath of the population that did not think of itself as religious at all.

Kyle: How did the evangelical movement in the 1970s challenge the legacies of mid-century liberal Protestantism? What are some of the enduring legacies of mid-century liberal Protestantism we still see today?

Gene: The modern evangelical movement emerged in 1942, the same year as ecumenical Protestants launched the World Order movement. Because the National Association of Evangelicals was created at the high-tide of Protestant globalism, evangelicals initially opposed the politics of their religious rivals. Although the NAE was modelled on the Federal Council of Churches, and the flagship evangelical journal Christianity Today was modelled on the ecumenical Christian Century, the politics of the two camps was mirror-opposite. While ecumenical Protestants supported Protestant globalism, evangelicals hewed to Christian nationalism. Although evangelicals would go on to engage internationally, Christian nationalism remained a core part of their identity, and the values evangelicals exhibited at mid-century shaped the many problems the movement is experiencing today.

Ecumenical Protestants experienced many problems of their own. Most notably, young people began leaving their churches in the 1970s, while conservatives who stayed behind started withholding donations. The double-whammy of shrinking church membership and funding loss led to a crisis of “mainline” Protestantism in the 1970s. The crisis of the mainline also exacerbated the crisis of political liberalism in that era. But despite these difficulties we can see the enduring influence of ecumenical Protestantism today. Millions of Americans continue to worship in ecumenical Protestant churches and they bring their religious values to bear on civic and political life. Many politicians, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, continue to be shaped by these traditions. Moreover, many people who are no longer members of this community were shaped by it. These “post-Protestants” are often found among the ranks of the “Nones” (those who choose “None of the Above” as their religion) but they were nonetheless shaped by their upbringing in the ecumenical Protestant tradition. Finally, many of the institutions, laws, and values—including the language of human rights and human dignity—that shape our world today were initially fostered by ecumenical Protestants. Although ecumenical Protestants no longer have the hegemony they enjoyed at mid-century—and thank goodness for that—they still continue to influence us today. 

Gene Zubovich
Gene Zubovich

Gene Zubovich is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Buffalo. (Photo credit: Sarah Wintle Photography)

Kyle Trowbridge
Kyle Trowbridge

Kyle Trowbridge is a Managing Editor of Theology and Society.