Political upheaval has produced a split within a large Christian community. The once-unified people have hardened into separate and oppositional cultures. On one side is a mix of institutional leaders, pastors, and intellectuals who claim a centrist, even progressive, mandate by God. Most of the seminaries, NGOs, and charities are run by these people, and those institutions tend to promote the same worldview. On the other side are pastors and allied political leaders who represent a numerically much larger group of Christians, many of them from the laity: business leaders, media personalities, and grassroots organizations headquartered in Washington, DC. This second group has staked out politically conservative territory and has made one of its chief aims the toppling of the other side.
Does any of this sound familiar?
You might think this scenario describes the growing fault lines in American evangelicalism since 2016. It does, of course. But it also describes, with even greater accuracy, the state of affairs in liberal Protestantism 50 years ago, as documented in an excellent new work of scholarship, Gene Zubovich’s Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States.
A professor of history at the University at Buffalo, Zubovich shines light on a dim corner of recent American history: the integral role that liberal, ecumenical Protestant leaders played in American liberalism in the mid-20th century, along with the underappreciated ways they helped drive the polarization that broke apart the mainline, opened the way for the Religious Right, and shaped our present moment.
Cracks in the edifice
The book’s subtitle mentions polarization, which implies a period of greater unity sometime in the past. Claiming, as Zubovich does, that such a period occurred in the 1920s might appear counterintuitive. The decade of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and the onset of the Great Depression was not, on the surface, conducive to the ascendancy of a new generation of Protestant elite. And yet this is precisely what Zubovich establishes in the first half of Before the Religious Right, which charts the rise of “Protestant globalism” among a “power elite” in ecumenical Protestantism and the Federal Council of Churches (later called the National Council of Churches or NCC) that shaped US policy during the New Deal, World War II, and the early Cold War.
Protestant globalism, with its heyday in the 1930s–1960s, entailed a certain view of the world and the church’s role in it that is at once familiar and foreign. It had a distinct sociological profile (wealthy, educated, white, male) and a particular style (procedural, consensus-driven, institutional). It assumed Protestant superiority in matters of ethics and morality, and it was uncritically committed to the project of ecumenism, or ecclesial unity, through which it would exercise its power.
Encouraged by social gospel teachings and a renewed sense of American-led global influence after World War I, a young generation of Protestant leaders applied the liberal theological tradition to three areas of social engagement: social welfare policy, racial desegregation, and international relations. In each case, the budding Protestant globalists displayed an almost unquestioned certainty that Christianity, and the ecumenically fueled church, possessed the resources—theological, moral, financial—to meet the challenges of global economic injustice, racism, nationalism, war, and decolonization.
The generation included ecumenical leaders G. Bromley Oxnam (a Methodist bishop) and Henry Pitney van Dusen (professor at and later president of Union Theological Seminary), along with names once familiar and now largely forgotten, including William Ernest Hocking, John C. Bennett, and Edmund Soper. As a cohort, they toured the world and leaned on advances in academic disciplines to develop a more sophisticated understanding of American society and its shortcomings. Their political prescriptions resembled those of Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party: enhancing social programs, implementing progressive taxation, and maintaining a close alignment between religious and political leadership. The alignment was so close, writes Zubovich, that “the ecumenical Protestant establishment” and “the liberal political establishment in the United States” display near “parallel” histories.
Over the 1940s, both establishments grew increasingly adamant in their calls for racial desegregation. Zubovich pinpoints a change in the language employed by the Federal Council of Churches (FCC). Gradually, the organization shifted from denouncing “race prejudice” (which implied a need to overcome racist attitudes) to advocating “desegregation” (which implied a need for systemic and political reforms). In 1946, the FCC became the first major white Protestant organization to call for racial desegregation. In 1948, it published a statement on human rights that took particular aim at segregation.
Today, appeals to antiracism aren’t commonly framed in the language of human rights—a difference that points to how Protestant globalism is the product of an earlier era. While Americans tend to see racial justice as a domestic issue and human rights as an international issue, the division made no sense to ecumenical Protestants. Instead, argues Zubovich, “human rights became the vehicle through which the new structural and global understanding of racism was delivered to the American public.” Consciousness of racism as a global problem emerged through numerous developments in the 1940s: the “World Order Movement” for global government, decolonization, and increasing knowledge of how race relations in such places as the Soviet Union and Brazil compared with race relations in America.
Protestant globalism enjoyed immense prestige and influence in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of its champions—Reinhold Niebuhr and John Foster Dulles—were household names. Arguably, FDR and Harry Truman were fellow travelers while in the Oval Office. Yet even at the movement’s apotheosis, there were cracks in the edifice. The FCC’s 1948 statement on desegregation drew concerted critiques from moderate white Protestants. As secretary of state, Dulles pursued not a world government but US Cold War interests. And Niebuhr, for his part, articulated a “Christian realism” in both domestic and foreign policy that dismissed the social gospel as naive.
Moreover, Protestant globalism failed to move beyond its small circle of leaders. It was a largely elite, white, and male endeavor, though it also included key figures like Thelma Stevens, a Methodist organizer for world government during World War II, and George E. Haynes, an African American educator who was executive secretary of the FCC’s Department of Race Relations. Yet liberal Protestants were reluctant to overhaul their own institutional hierarchies. They added few nonwhite or women leaders, and they largely neglected the class or cultural divides between themselves and the millions they claimed to represent. The pursuit of “one world” brought about its own undoing beginning in the 1960s, as Protestants divided along the fault lines that had been drawn in earlier decades.
The clergy-laity gap
The success of Protestant globalism produced a backlash that created the lines of polarization we see today. Yet while most historians have traced that backlash to actors outside the ecumenical camp—to the longer history of fundamentalist political activism and the mobilization of evangelicals later in the 20th century—Zubovich points to the liberal churches themselves.
Though it’s only one episode in the much larger story Zubovich tells, the origins of Christianity Today are a case in point. While the magazine was conceived by Billy Graham and featured evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry as its first editor in chief, its launch was funded by oil magnate J. Howard Pew. A Presbyterian active in the National Council of Churches, Pew attempted to gain control of the NCC through its National Lay Committee to blunt the organization’s leftward drift, especially on economic issues. When he failed, and the committee died in 1955, Pew turned to evangelicals, who he believed would speak the same conservative values on theology and economics without the institutional baggage of the NCC.
Pew’s hopes were largely realized. CT quickly outgrew its liberal competitor The Christian Century, helping Pew continue by other means his struggle against liberal Protestants. His money also informed CT’s editorial line, which may have otherwise been less beholden to his arch-conservative views. Henry, who became famous for his critiques of fundamentalism as too politically reactionary, had called for Christians to address social justice as part of the gospel. Christianity Today reflected little of this attitude in its early years, and Henry’s departure in 1968 was due to these differences. The destinies of both ecumenical and evangelical Protestantism, and the polarization between them, were just one byproduct of the “clergy-laity gap” sparked by Protestant globalism.
As the book’s title implies, the Religious Right hovers over this entire history of ecumenical Protestantism. Zubovich urges readers to understand that the narrative of “mainline decline” misses “the political work ecumenical Protestants have done—and continue to do—that shapes our world today.” The progressive politics of figures like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he suggests, are rooted in the Protestant globalist vision forged in the 1920s. Yet it is hard not to see, beginning in Zubovich’s earliest pages, institutional decline as the likely outcome for an elite so ambitious and so self-confident.
No easy solutions
A striking aspect of Protestant globalism, as Zubovich describes it, is how little theology mattered to its leaders. There was implied theology at every turn, but the language of creedal confession itself was subsumed under sociology, politics, and other more modernist vocabularies. As the “clergy-laity gap” widened in the 1960s and 1970s—over social welfare and economics, the Vietnam War, and desegregation—the once-shared theological language of the elites and laypeople grew even more dissimilar, and neither side seemed interested in ceding rhetorical ground to the other.
This aspect of polarization should sound familiar to us today. A survey from 2018 (conducted, fittingly, by Pew Research) found that nearly four out of five respondents agreed that “voters cannot agree on basic facts” of issues. While misinformation and disinformation play a role in such a gap, another problem is that sociologically distinct groups—including evangelical clergy, professors and public intellectuals on the one hand, and regular churchgoers on the other—barely share a vocabulary to describe the world or the gospel. On any given Sunday morning, a centrist pastor might preach on biblical “justice,” and a conservative congregant chooses to hear an apology for secular “social justice.” Or a conservative pastor might invoke a “culture of life,” and a progressive congregant is convinced that life is just a code word for control.
There are no easy solutions to this problem—it flows from deeper trends in media consumption and spiritual formation, as well as a host of challenges that have existed since the first Christians moved beyond the confines of Jerusalem. A small—possibly too small—solution might be found in work by biblical scholars themselves, who spend their days bridging gaps between the language and ideas of the first and 21st centuries, which are far wider than anything related to today’s polarization.
All other things being equal, what would an institutional and intellectual project like Protestant globalism look like if undertaken by evangelicals? In some ways (and this remains far outside Zubovich’s purview) it was already attempted. We’re living in its aftermath. It looked like World Vision and Lausanne, like International Justice Mission and the National Association of Evangelicals, like Fuller Seminary and, yes, Christianity Today. And yet this movement, too—launching during World War II and helping to create, in historian Steven P. Miller’s phrase, “America’s born-again years”—now suffers from a lack of grassroots appeal in the US and, in recent years, a widening language gap between its leaders and the people in the pews. Many of its flagbearers no longer want to be associated with evangelicalism at all.
Before the Religious Right provides us with a version of how this history has unfolded for others and how the future may very well unfold for evangelicals. In an irony that Niebuhr would have appreciated, it falls to entities like CT to shape how, on the far side of white evangelicalism’s heyday in the halls of power, its clergy and laity will stand together or fall apart.
Daniel G. Hummel is a religious historian and the director for university engagement at Upper House, a Christian study center located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His forthcoming book is The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation.