Liberal Protestants and American Politics


Review of Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United Statesby Gene Zubovich 

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022


Before the Religious Right is sweeping in its breadth as historian Gene Zubovich examines the alliance between midcentury ecumenical Protestants and liberal politics in the United States. While dozens of books have examined conservative religion and politics in the United States, Zubovich's book argues for the importance of ecumenical religious institutions and activists in the rise of the consensus liberalism. Following historian David Hollinger, Zubovich has chosen to call his subjects “ecumenical Protestants” not only because they collaborated across denominations but because they held a theological commitment to creating a universal church, a Christianity that broke down boundaries of race and nation. Beginning with ecumenical Protestants’ endorsement of FDR's New Deal, Zubovich argues that they were also responsible for generating widespread support for an anti-racist interpretation of human rights. Ecumenical Protestants infused “political liberalism with the cultural capital of Christianity” (10), he writes, and through institutions like the Federal Council of Churches in Christ (reorganized in 1950 as the National Council of Churches), they convinced a broader public of affluent and middle-class white churchgoers to support liberal policies as a matter of faith. 

Not all Protestants agreed with their leaders’ liberal religious politics when it came to foreign policy, civil rights, and critiques of unregulated capitalism. Throughout the book, Zubovich tracks the increasingly vocal dissenters to religious liberalism from both the right and the left. Conservatives attacked the ecumenical leaders as socialists in clerical garb, a dynamic that provoked clergy and lay leaders alike to distance themselves from their more left-leaning colleagues (some of whom were actually socialists and sympathetic to aspects of communism). Meanwhile, a younger cohort that included college students who anticipated the New Left embraced a radical theology of revolution that drove them to participate in direct action protests as they became increasingly frustrated with the liberal passivity of larger church institutions. Zubovich contends that the schisms over politics among white Protestants had several consequences, including anticipating the political polarization of the 1970s and 1980s and laying the groundwork for a new iteration of religious politics from the Religious Right.

Before the Religious Right joins a vibrant field of scholarship addressing how religious (mostly Christian) institutions, activists, and ideologies have shaped foreign policy, race, capitalism, gender, and sexuality and how these and other issues have in turn shaped American religion. As his title suggests and as Zubovich explains in the introduction, most of this work has examined white evangelicals' worldview and political activism. Zubovich engages with those studies and makes the case that this more familiar brand of religious politics cannot be fully understood without also understanding the earlier religious politics of ecumenical Protestants. For Zubovich, the Religious Right that came into political being in the 1970s was not merely a revolt against what evangelicals called "secular humanism" but against other Protestants' liberal moral politics. 


*    *    *

Zubovich divides Before the Religious Right into two parts. In Part One, “One World,” he examines the growing liberal consensus among ecumenical Protestants during the 1930s and 1940s as they confronted the Great Depression and WWII. In Part Two, titled "Two Worlds," he documents the fracturing of the centrist liberalism of Protestant leaders. A few of the book's main figures, like Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr will be familiar to readers, but Zubovich’s capacious archival research into Protestant institutions and individuals’ papers allows him to profile many lesser-known theologians, clergymen, academics, and church workers whose writings and wide-ranging grassroots organizing are deserving of more attention. 

The book’s main character, however, is arguably an institution: the Federal Council of Churches. Founded in 1908, the Federal Council was the flagship bureaucracy of the liberal Protestant moral establishment. The Federal Council's denominational members included white and Black Protestant denominations, including some southern Protestants, but its employees (the “secretaries” who ran its many departments) were almost all white and northern, with the exception of George Haynes, the Black southern sociologist and head of the Department of Race Relations through the 1940s. 

The Federal Council's departments produced publications, issued public statements, and conducted surveys and studies while also providing programming suggestions for local councils of churches. The Federal Council also worked closely with new politically focused divisions within some Protestant denominations. Zubovich focuses particularly on the (northern) Methodist Federation for Social Action and the Congregationalists’ Council for Social Action. 

While Zubovich does not stress this point, the Federal Council’s liberalism cannot be disentangled from its founders’ concerns with their waning moral authority as Jewish and Catholic immigrants (and their children) gained new political and social power. While the Federal Council embraced liberal models of “tolerance” and “cooperation” when it came to religious and racial diversity and labor relations, white Protestant men and women sought to control the terms of inclusion and equity. As Zubovich acknowledges in a passage at the end of the book, most of his subjects had a “common view” that “they spoke on behalf of universal principles while others—Catholics, Jews, African Americans, Japanese Americans, women—merely pleaded on behalf of the special interest of their group” (253). White Protestants’ presumptive universalism was based on their privileged position, and it shaped their political imagination, including their form of liberal anti-racism and human rights. 


*    *    *

In Chapter One, Zubovich begins with ecumenical Protestants’ generalized opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt as the New York Democrat campaigned in part on ending Prohibition. Yet by the time FDR won the 1932 election, the leading Protestant magazine, the Christian Century, and the Federal Council alike had become enthusiastic supporters for FDR’s transformative New Deal policies. Many similar ideas appeared in “The Revised Social Ideals of the Churches,” which the Federal Council endorsed in 1932. This document provoked some grumbling from economic conservatives, but it also reflected a generative Christian socialist theology that responded to the dire needs caused by the Great Depression. In addition to calling for “a wider and fairer distribution of wealth” and worker’s rights, including collective bargaining, the new “ideals” included a Christian international, that is, the outlawry of war, “a drastic reduction of armaments,” and “the building of a co-operative world order” (32). 

Those foreign policy ideals grew out of the international travels of Federal Council leaders and the multifaceted Anglo-American missionary networks that informed ecumenical Protestants’ world-mindedness and pacifism as well as their growing critiques of the conduct of European imperialism. In Chapter Two, Zubovich addresses ecumenical Protestants’ approaches to foreign policy in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He examines the intense realist-pacifist debates between Niebhur and Union Theological Seminary’s Henry Pitney Van Dusen as Protestants grappled with the morality of American neutrality in World War II. More than just an academic matter, these men met with both Roosevelt and his Republican opponent Wendell Wilkie, and clergymen served as unofficial propagandists for Great Britain. Once the United States entered the war, the pacifist-realist disagreements were largely resolved through a unifying focus on “human rights” in relation to postwar planning and what became known as the World Order Movement. 

As the topic for Protestant sermons and study groups throughout the early 1940s, the World Order Movement endorsed the United Nations, disarmament, global economic collaboration, an end to imperialism, and “the rights of peoples everywhere to intellectual and religious liberty” (93). In Chapter Three Zubovich pairs the grassroots mobilization work of Methodist Thelma Stevens with the “high-level diplomatic wrangling” of John Foster Dulles. While Dulles’s Commission on a Just and Durable Peace engaged with and advised world leaders, Stevens wrote study books and disseminated programming materials that disseminated the idea of a Christian World Order and the promise of the proposed United Nations to millions of Protestant churchgoers. Zubovich argues that women like Stevens forged a “Protestant globalism,” that forged a popular discourse of human rights and made human rights rhetoric into a mobilizing call for antiracism and economic equality at home and abroad. 

The next two chapters both address ecumenical Protestants’ anti-racism and their engagement with human rights. In Chapter Four, he discusses white Protestants’ responses to discrimination against Japanese Americans as well as the work of Black ecumenical leaders Benjamin E. Mays, Channing Tobias, and George Haynes within the Federal Council. George Haynes urged church leaders to take up a structural critique of racism that included mobilizing local protests against racist housing covenants and segregated hospitals and encouraging the formation of racially integrated churches. In 1942, the Federal Council launched the Commission on the Church and Minority Peoples out of its preexisting Department of Race Relations to similarly examine the problem of racism both in the United States and abroad as a matter of human rights. 

Zubovich follows this institutional history with an intellectual history focusing more narrowly on two books: Racism: A World Issue by white missiologist Edmund D. Soper and Color and Conscience by white Congregationalist minister and academic Buell G. Gallagher. Like earlier Protestant writers on this topic, both blended secular social science methods and theology while attending to "race relations" as a global issue. They turned to Brazil and the USSR as models for American “ethnic and racial pluralism,” while also laying the groundwork for what would become the integrationist theology of the Federal Council (151). By situating Soper and Gallagher's work alongside Gunnar Myrdal's more famous An American Dilemma (1944), Zubovich shows the critical role ecumenical Protestants played in creating the moral basis for racial liberalism. He concludes this chapter and Part One with the bold claim that ecumenical Protestants “elevated anti-racist human rights above other priorities, like religious liberty and economic rights” and “promoted an anti-racist understanding of human rights that became popular across the world” (151). 

In showing Protestants’ role in interpreting human rights in the 1940s, Zubovich contributes to scholarship examining the Christian origins of modern human rights by Samuel Moyn and others. He does not, however, delve deeply into how (white) liberal Protestant norms structure secularism, that is, how liberal Protestants’ enthusiastic embrace and definition of universal human rights reflected their own positionality. His analysis does succeed in making an insightful contrast between liberal Protestants' ideas of human rights and the religious-freedom orientation of later “evangelical human rights.” Recent books by Melani McAlister and Lauren Turek illustrate American evangelicals’ concern for “persecuted Christians” in communist and Muslim-majority countries in the 1970s and later prompted evangelicals to privilege religious freedom as the essential human right. While evangelicals described the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as secular, and therefore unworthy of their support, Zubovich’s book shows that other Protestants understand these same rights in explicitly religious terms.  


*    *    *

As Zubovich illustrates in the four chapters of Part Two, the Federal Council’s enthusiastic support for the United Nations and human rights along with its support for racial equality, anti-imperialism, and labor unions fomented dissent from some white Protestants. In Chapter Six, Zubovich turns to debates about the Cold War. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, some ecumenical Protestants like Dulles and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr took a more belligerent stance against the Soviet Union while Methodist G. Bromley Oxnam and others viewed Cold War rhetoric as contradictory to Protestant globalism. The Federal Council's official statements took a more skeptical view of the Cold War and instead encouraged the U.S. to avoid alienating the countries behind the Iron Curtain. Following the formation of the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Federal Council followed Yale historian and former missionary Kenneth Scott Latourette and issued a statement urging the United States to recognize China and to send technical support and aid to the country as a way to win the hearts and minds of the Chinese people.

Some ecumenical Protestants took an even more radical position when they embraced what Zubovich describes as “an alternative to the Cold War,” a theology of revolution. Similar to Catholicism’s liberation theology and similarly informed by Christians in the Global South, Zubovich traces the theology of revolution to a Presbyterian missionary in Brazil, M. Richard Shaull. In his writings, Shaull rejected a bipolar Cold War perspective and instead argued that all nations were dealing with internal revolutions, and that God worked through these revolutions to bring about a more just world. Enthusiasts for this revolutionary theology included Protestants who found some things to admire in socialism and who began to criticize the United States’ imperialist ventures in Latin America and elsewhere.  

The theology of revolution had an immediate impact on the civil rights movement in the United States. In 1948, the Federal Council issued a landmark declaration that condemned segregation as a sin, and it would subsequently support the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown. In 1954, Morehouse College president Benjamin Mays led the charge for the World Council of Churches to declare segregation to be incompatible with Christianity. Meanwhile, Protestant college students applied the theology of revolution and a human-rights emphasis on “dignity” to the civil rights movement. A National Student Christian Federation statement declared, God’s “actions are on the world scene” both in the “liberation of Asian and African peoples from imperialist and colonial status to independence with dignity, and in the United States in the student non-violent movement which is working for economic opportunity, racial freedom and dignity, and democratic equality and justice for all men” (242). While Zubovich discusses the thorny issue of interracial marriage, a more consistent analysis of ecumenical Protestants’ gender ideology in relation to human rights throughout the book would have better connected this issue to both the earlier material and the later sexual politics of the Religious Right.

If a more radical civil rights activism caused some white Protestants to recoil from ecumenical institutions’ liberalism, so too did ecumenical Protestants’ support for the welfare state. As the final two chapters on “Christian economics” show, Protestant leaders developed the idea of the “Responsible Society” that sought a middle-path between socialism and free market capitalism. To many conservative white Protestants, the Responsible Society was socialism by another name. In his analysis of red-baiting books like John T. Flynn's The Road Ahead (1949) and the political attacks on the Congregationalist and Methodist social action groups, Zubovich offers a fresh account of how conservative white Protestants' anti-communism and white supremacy worked in tandem to condemn liberal Protestants as unholy communists. 

One anecdote towards the book’s end offers perhaps the strongest piece of evidence showing how politically and religiously conservative institutions benefitted from the laity’s defection from the Federal Council’s new incarnation after 1950, the National Council of Churches. In the early 1950s, the National Council appointed Sun Oil magnate and Presbyterian J. Howard Pew to be the chairman of a new National Lay Committee with the hopes of smoothing over clergy-laity tensions and bringing wealthy businessmen—and their donations—to the table. Pew boldly insisted that he had the authority to preview and edit any statement made by the National Council, and when his demands were ignored, he resigned. Pew would find a much friendlier reception for his Christian libertarian and anti-union views in the emerging institutions of evangelicalism, and he invested in Fuller Theological Seminary and Christianity Today

This relatively minor bureaucratic dispute within a Protestant organization would have major consequences for the future of American politics. It also illustrates Before the Religious Right’s contribution to the study of U.S. political and religious history and the inseparability of the two. As Zubovich’s analysis shows, religious institutions and individuals drove political policy and political movements just as much as political questions and ideals like “human rights” provoked theological responses and rituals of activism, and also prompted religious schisms. 




Posted on 21 July 2022

GALE KENNY is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion, Barnard College.