Religious Liberalism and the Modern Crisis of Faith|
Duke University Divinity School
©National Humanities Center
A discernible current of religious liberalism ripples through all
periods of American history, but between 1870 and 1970 that current
overflowed its banks and exerted a powerful influence upon American culture
as a whole. (Since 1970 it has come under sharp critique from both the
left and the right, but that remains another story!) Although religious
liberalism affected all three of the main confessional groups in the United
StatesProtestants, Catholics, and JewsProtestants undoubtedly
experienced the most telling effects. The following remarks apply most
closely to the Protestant experience.
Religious liberalism should be seen in three contexts.
- First, it
functioned as a way of legitimating or even sacralizing the ideals of
Victorian culture, including frugality, sobriety, punctuality, hard work,
delayed gratification, male supremacy in the public sphere, female
supremacy in the domestic sphere, honor in personal relations, and the
superiority of American culture generally.
- Second, it served as an
intellectual reaction against the evangelical Protestant heritage that
pervaded most denominations. Evangelicalism stressed the supernatural
character of Christianity, seeing the Bible as a transcription of God's
will and human salvation solely through faith in Christ.
- Finally and most
importantly, religious liberalism attempted to reconceive the essence of
Christianity in the face of powerful intellectual challenges that had been
stirring in educated circles since midcentury.
- One of those challenges was growing consciousness of religions in
other parts of the world. Christians had always known, of course, that many religions existed. But in the late nineteenth century the rapid
expansion of trade, of military contacts, of recreational travel and,
ironically, of Christian missions, fostered a new and disturbing awareness
that many non-Christian faiths carried highly developed ethical systems of
- Another challenge stemmed from the impact of science in
general and the Darwinian view of human origins in particular. Thoughtful
men and women on both sides of the Atlantic had long believed in the great
antiquity of the earth and the development of animal forms within species.
Many too had recognized that something like the survival of the fittest
reigned in the natural and social realms. But
reached American dinner tables in the early 1860s, introduced the
disturbing notion of natural selection. Still more troubling was the
possibility that all natural processes proceeded at random, without any
hint of divine direction. These theories seemed to undercut the authority
of the Bible and suggest that Christian morality was nothing but a survival
mechanism that could be discarded as convenient.
- The third and by far the most important
challenge to historic Christian theology was biblical higher criticism. Rigorous analysis of the content
of the Bible was hardly new. For many centuries preachers (and rabbis) had
scrutinized the text of Scripture in order to know exactly what it said and
meant as a guide for life. But the late nineteenth century witnessed an
unprecedented attention to questions of authorship: who wrote the various
parts of the Bible? How did those authors reflect the assumptions and
prejudices of their cultural times? More critically, the new approach to
the Bible presupposed that the Scripture could, indeed must be understood
as any other ancient text, without recourse to the supernatural
explanations. Arguably the elimination of the supernatural from the
working vocabulary of biblical scholars, emerged as the hallmark of
religious liberalism and, not incidentally, provoked fierce confrontations
with religious conservatives in the twentieth century.
Religious liberalism itself took a variety of forms.
Given these premises,
liberals reinterpreted God as an immanent presence within history, Jesus as
an ethical guide, and the Bible as a historical record of humankind's
encounter with God's love.
- On the far
left, so to speak, stood religious naturalism. Proponents of the latter,
such as the prominent educator John Dewey, discarded all of the supernatural
elements of the Christian tradition yet urged thoughtful citizens to
nurture the ideals that the biblical heritage had engendered such as
democracy, progress, and fair play.
- In the center of the spectrum stood
religious modernism. These figures unabashedly erected the canons of
contemporary science and culture (or at least the "best" of contemporary
culture) as normative for Christian theology. By their reckoning Christian
teachings could be retained when, but only when, they could be validated by
recent secular thought. The divinity schools at the University of Chicago
and Harvard, and many social science departments in prominent universities,
proved centers of modernist thinking.
- Finally, an outlook commonly known as evangelical liberalism
occupied the right side of the spectrum. Advocates of this position
dominated Protestant mainline seminaries and likely shaped the thinking of
a majority of Protestant clergy through the mid twentieth century.
Evangelical liberals assumed that Christianity began in direct religious
experience of God. Experience produced doctrine, not the reverse. The
Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, longtime pastor of New York's Riverside
Church, and probably the most famous of liberal preachers, was wont to say
that Christian experience bore the same relation to theology as the
enjoyment of a flower did to the science of botany.
Many but not all religious liberals (of all types) applied these
principles to the amelioration of social wrongs. Such efforts went by
various names, including Christian Socialism, Social Christianity and, most
often, Social Gospel. The best known proponents included Ohio pastor
Washington Gladden, Rochester Seminary professor Walter Rauschenbusch,
temperance advocate Francis Willard, and perhaps settlement house worker
Jane Addams. These individuals insisted that the historic focus upon
individual salvation reflected a highly selective, if not downright
immoral, reading of the Bible. In their view the larger meaning of the
Hebrew and Christian scriptures called for structural (which usually meant
legislative and judicial) intervention in society in order to rebalance
staggering disparities of wealth, inhumane working conditions, and the
exploitation of children in factories and mines. Though Social Gospelers
remained largely oblivious to unjust treatment of minorities and women,
they helped to establish many of the principles of justice that churches
(and synagogues) have come to take for granted in the 1990s.
Guiding Student Discussion
My experience with college undergraduates suggests that
students tend to disregard any religious form that they cannot see on the
local street corner. They can relate to the notion of a Baptist Church or
a Roman Catholic ritual, but they have a hard time appreciating something
as evanescent as an outlook that pervaded a great part of twentieth-century life, religious or not. I have discovered no magic solutions, but
I have found that students respond well to autobiographies of thoughtful
men and women who struggled to come to terms with the challenges of
modernity. For Protestants try Edmund Gosse's haunting autobiography,
Father and Son (1907); for Catholics, Dorothy Day's The Long Loneliness (1952); for Jews,
the autobiographical novel Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers (1925). All highlight
conflict between the old and the new without dwelling upon the
technicalities of religious thought.
Unlike many topics of American religious history, students of religious liberalism have not waged pitched battles of
interpretation. They have, however, presented markedly different
perspectives on what the animal "really was" according to their interests.
The most influential study of religious liberalism as an intellectual
movement remains William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American
Protestantism (1976). Susan Curtis, A Consuming Faith: the Social Gospel
and Modern American Culture (1991) offers a quite different approach,
focusing upon the way that religious liberals both reflected and exploited
broad cultural trends like the quest for efficiency, expertness, corporate
organization, team spirit, and therapeutic self-help.
Grant Wacker holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and is currently Professor of the History of Religion in America at the Duke University Divinity School. He is the author of Augustus H. Strong and the Dilemma of Historical Consciousness (1985) and is coeditor, with Edith Blumhofer and Russell P. Spittler, of Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism (1999). He is working on two books: a monograph to be titled Heaven Below: Pentecostals and American Culture, 1900-1925, and a survey textbook of American religious history with Harry S. Stout and Randall Balmer.
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Revised: October 2000