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NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 20th Century Essay:

Religious Liberalism and the Modern Crisis of Faith
Grant Wacker
Duke University Divinity School
©National Humanities Center
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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 States—Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—Protestants 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 their own.

    • 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 Darwin's ideas, which 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.

  • 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.
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.

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.

Historians Debate

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.

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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.

Address comments or questions to Professor Wacker through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."

Religious Liberalism and the Modern Crisis of Faith | The Rise of Fundamentalism | The Scopes Trial | Marcus Garvey | Roman Catholics and the American Mainstream | American Jewish Experience in the 20th Century | Islam in America | Religion in Post-World-War II America | The Christian Right |
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