The Rise of Liberal Religion

Article by   June 2014
hedstromliberalreligion93.jpgMatthew S. Hedstrom. The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century. Oxford, 2013.288  pp. $39.99/£29.99

Reformed Christians pride themselves in being well informed of major eras in the development of Christian theology. They can articulate the culmination of early theology in the Ecumenical Councils and Augustine; they are able to frame the careers, writings and confessions of Protestant reformers; and they are generally aware of how evangelicals attempted to maintain the momentum of theological orthodoxy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Similarly, Reformed Christians know when and how various forms of unbelief or divergences from traditional orthodoxy emerged. Arianism and Pelagianism in the early church, Socinianism, Arminianism and Unitarianism in the modern period resulted from self-conscious theological positions that differed radically from their orthodox counterparts. 

Arguably the go-to book for understanding the sharp divide between orthodoxy and liberal Christianity in the early twentieth century is Machen's Christianity and Liberalism. Machen deftly demonstrated how modernism and historic orthodoxy were not two forms of genuine Christianity but radically different religions. He did so by contrasting their respective theological doctrines - their truth claims. Since many acknowledge the effectiveness of Machen's tour de force, one might wonder how liberalism survived when its doctrines were shown to differ radically from traditional orthodoxy.

While not the only answer to that question, Matthew Hedstrom's The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2013) [hereafter referred to as ROLR] offers a unique perspective on why liberal religion not only continued but thrived from the 1920s to mid-century. What may startle conservatives as they read Hedstrom's work is the absence of theological argument. Hedstrom aggressively dismisses theological issues as irrelevant for liberalism's survival. He demonstrates beyond any cavil that liberal religion flourished in the twentieth century because it avoided theology. It offered American culture what it needed to survive.

Hedstrom's title is remarkably apt. His focus is not liberal Christianity but liberal religion. Throughout this meticulously researched and carefully argued book one finds a compelling explanation for why liberalism, despite recent setbacks in the decline of mainline denominations, survived. Religious liberals did so not by working primarily through churches and synagogues - though they continued to participate in institutional religion - but by infusing liberal religion into the culture - (cf., H. Richard Niebuhr's "Christ of Culture" model Christ and Culture). Liberals effectively articulated goals, fostered cultural norms and cheered Americans to pursue the liberal vision so that its spiritual agenda became pervasive in American life. Hedstrom provides a thorough acquaintance with a full orbed worldview which entailed a successful business strategy joined with a practical vision for cultural change that became commonplace in America. What is remarkable is that the reader does not encounter a solitary discussion of truth claims. Whenever the question of truth arises, Hedstrom dodges the issue by disdaining doctrine, sectarianism and theological purity in favor of "mystical experience," "character formation" and "truth beyond doctrinal particularities."

From introduction to epilogue in ROLR the guiding lights of liberal religion are pragmatist William James' Varieties of Religious Experience and Quaker Rufus Jones' Social Law in a Spiritual World. The fundamental principles articulated in these groundbreaking works on liberal religion gained momentum until they became the cultural religious norms in America. The liberal approaches to religion found in James and Jones were "intellectually engaged, psychologically oriented, and focused on personal experience..." Whereas conservatives in the modernist - fundamentalist controversy got their bearings from past orthodoxies, liberals embraced the present and the future. While conservatives focused their attention on theological defenses of doctrine, liberals took the lead of James who never defended a single doctrine in his pragmatic approach to religion. When liberals on occasion articulated their primary assumptions, they looked like principles long associated with modernist thought: "The characteristic principles of Protestant liberalism - optimism regarding human nature, emphasis on moral education and ethics, and an overarching faith in human progress - led modern liberals to pursue human unity beyond creed or sect and to believe in its possibility."

How did liberal religion accomplish such sweeping success? Hedstrom's answer - through books. Advocates of liberal religion combined "modernizing book business" [read profitable, consumer-driven publishing] with a "modernizing religious liberalism" [read intellectually acceptable, mystically oriented and psychologically useful spirituality]. Liberalism's success in gaining widespread acceptance in American culture owed to the creation of book lists, book clubs and book programs. The primary institution was the Religious Book Club founded in 1927, a year after the origin of the Book-of-the-Month Club. 

Book clubs played an essential role in the formation of "middlebrow culture." Whereas "highbrow" and "lowbrow" stood at opposite ends of the cultural continuum, "middlebrow" signified neither an elitist nor a debased culture but simply a middle way. Middlebrow books brought "high thinking and eternal truths down to earth, to be sold alongside other commodities." At stake was nothing less than to ensure that ordinary, enthusiastic readers would catch the liberal vision and adapt to the modern world.

The Religious Book Club proved to be the perfect vehicle for shaping middlebrow reading norms. A selection committee made up of experts were responsible for drawing up a list each month consisting of a main title as well as several alternatives. Members then could choose from the various options available. The committee had to walk a fine line between maintaining the "priesthood of the reader" - i.e., supporting the "autonomy of the reader" by not prescribing what people must read but by giving them options from which to choose - while simultaneously fulfilling the mandate of the club to shape the reading public that needed to conform to middlebrow cultural norms. In short, the committee "would steer readers toward the best books" while readers exercised their autonomous choice by selecting "those texts that best suited their intellectual and personal needs."

At the outset of the twentieth century liberal ideas were dealt a mortal blow by the horrors of World War I. As the decades unfolded, Americans needed help in reconciling the claims of religion and a host of other topics: positivistic science, government bureaucracies, Darwinism, biblical criticism, consumerism, urbanization, etc. [1920s]. Subsequently they struggled with poverty and hunger in the throes of the Great Depression [1930s]. Still later Americans had to deal with the threat, horror and aftermath of World War II [1940s]. The religious solution in dealing with all three circumstances was not what doctrines to believe, creeds to confess or traditional pieties to perform. 

The overwhelming religious need for the liberal was practical, pragmatic and experiential. If, as a result of the above traumas, previous religious certainties no longer sufficed, new frameworks had to be constructed. Hedstrom cites cultural theorist Stuart Hall who states that somehow "The world has to be made to mean." Only as readers have a framework or worldview, are they capable of understanding it. Liberal religion in the guise of middlebrow culture, according to Hedstrom, "provided a structure that helped make the confusing modern world mean." Earthshaking experiences of the early twentieth century necessitated an accessible religious worldview to enable Americans to function in everyday life. If the needs were experiential, the means of meeting them must be likewise. Hedstrom barely suppresses his enthusiasm for the liberal enterprise: "Here, quite simply, was what the Religious Book Club offered: the best. It delivered the best books written by the best minds selected by the best religious leaders offering the best solutions for the vexing problems of modern living, a discount, to your home, once a month."

Hedstrom marshals overwhelming evidence of liberals' success spread over ensuing decades. Chapter 3, "Publishing for Seekers," rehearses the success of Harper and Brothers' religious offerings. Chapter 4, "Religious Reading Mobilized" explores the popularity of book programs of World War II. When discussing efforts to popularize reading, Hedstrom reproduces eye-catching posters that illustrate how liberals advertised their agenda. Some posters simply celebrated book weeks. Others extolled books that build character. Posters produced by the National Conference of Christians and Jews fostered brotherhood through reading. The latter illustrates liberalism's advocacy of ecumenism and interfaith relations.

The final chapter "Religious Reading in the Wake of War" heralds "American Spirituality in the Wake of War." Hedstrom selects three prominent writers whose books represent the culmination of liberal religion in the postwar period. Representing Protestantism is Harry Emerson Fosdick, who achieved widespread notoriety for his 1922 sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win? and later became pastor of New York's prestigious Riverside Church. His On Being a Real Person (1943) exemplified liberalism's psychological self-help optimism to "help his readers lead happier, more productive and more fulfilling lives." Representing Judaism, Hedstrom selects Joshua Liebman, whose Peace of Mind (1946) sold over one million copies. Liebman integrated Freudian psychology, his own personal faith and the Jewish prophetic tradition. Finally Thomas Merton, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) explores a twofold conversion - the first to traditional Roman Catholic teaching and the second to the mystical contemplation of Trappist monks. While quite disparate in their background, Fosdick, Liebman and Merton portray major themes illustrative of the liberal religious enterprise.

Liberal religion was not without its critics, and to his credit Hedstrom addresses the naysayers. The singular most biting rebuke came from H. Richard Niebuhr in a 1927 Christian Century article, "Theology and Psychology", bemoaning liberals' embracing the "sterile union" of the marriage of psychology and theology introduced by James' Varieties of Religious Experience. Niebuhr claimed that the "psychological turn" derived from Europeans Kant, Hume and Schleiermacher and James in the United States, "has substituted religious experience for revelation, auto-suggestion for communion with God in prayer and mysticism, sublimation of the instincts for devotion, reflexes for the soul and group consciousness or the ideal wish-fulfillment for God." Hedstrom dismisses Niebuhr's trenchant criticism as little more than a neo-orthodox rant. But Niebuhr goes so far as to say that James' followers "show that religion is an epi-phenomenon - a fiction, indeed explicable but quite unnecessary." Niebuhr's sharpness in tone is reminiscent of perhaps his most famous summary of religious liberalism: "A God without wrath, brought men without sin, into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of Christ without a cross."

Ironically enough, the critical voice Hedstrom cited most frequently was that of Will Herberg, a conservative Jew, who in Protestant, Catholic, Jew attacked the Americanization of religion by liberalism. Herberg's book, published in 1955 at the termination point of Hedstrom's historical survey, castigated the three "religious denominations" of Protestant, Catholic, Jew for sacrificing their theological distinctives in favor of the religion of the "American Way of Life." Herberg contended that Americanized religion was in fact the operative faith of Americans rather than the theological principles and liturgical practices of their respective denominations. Herberg's analysis of a quote by President Eisenhower apropos to liberal religion is worth quoting in full:
Our government makes no sense,' President Eisenhower recently declared, 'unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith--and I don't care what it is' (emphasis added). In saying this, the President was saying something that almost any American could understand and approve, but which must seem like a deplorable heresy to the European churchman. Every American could understand, first, that Mr. Eisenhower's apparent indifferentism ('and I don't care what it is') was not indifferentism at all, but the expression of the conviction that at bottom the 'three great faiths' were really 'saying the same thing' in affirming the 'spiritual ideals' and 'moral values' of the American Way of Life. Every American, moreover, could understand that what Mr. Eisenhower was emphasizing so vehemently was the indispensability of religion as the foundation of society. This is one aspect of what Americans mean when they say that they 'believe in religion.' The object of devotion of this kind of religion, however, is 'not God but "religion." . . . The faith is not in God but in faith; we worship not God but our own worshiping.

ROLR adds not only to our understanding of liberal religion - its vision, strategy and successes in getting its agenda operative in American culture - it also adds to the growing literature of book culture in America. It also reminds evangelicals of the continuing headway that liberalism makes in American life. Conservatives know in their bones the theological shortcomings of liberal religion. Despite relinquishing the truths that make biblical religion the sole sound foundation for life, liberal religion survived the travesties of two world wars. Its optimism has been chastened. And the critique offered by neo-orthodoxy following the period covered by Hedstrom's study should give liberals pause. 

Reading Hedstrom's account also gives conservatives a sense of déjà vu. Haven't we seen this before? Yes, we saw it first in the very birth of Christian liberalism. Friedrich Schleiermacher faced a similar cultural context a century earlier in the Prussian capital of Berlin. Just as American liberals refused to retain the heritage of Protestant orthodoxy, Schleiermacher believed that neither reformation orthodoxy nor Enlightenment rationalism/empiricism provided a worldview capable of sustaining European culture. Having lost faith in the historical Gospel, Schleiermacher sought to define the essence of religion anew. Only a thorough reconstrual of religion - one rooted in experience - would enable it to survive. In Speeches on Religion to its Cultural Despisers (1799) Schleiermacher brilliantly redefined religion to safeguard it from dogmatists and rationalists alike. Religion is not essentially rational, mediated through ideas [orthodox theology or deistic beliefs], nor is religion essentially ethical, mediated by autonomous moral choice [Kantian moralism]. Instead religion is sui generis [unique, its own kind]. Religion is unmediated; it is found in mystical God-consciousness. By rooting religion in "feeling" or immediate experience [German Gefuhl] Schleiermacher reconfigured religion to appeal to the "despisers of religion", the romantics for whom truth lay not in ideas nor in ethics but in immediate awareness. Liberals of the twentieth century simply updated the constant need to reconfigure religion - they used the middlebrow book culture to promote a pragmatic, psychological and mystical religion that appealed to a readership willing to accept its updated faith.

Dr. W. Andrew Hoffecker is Emeritus Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.
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