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Liberalism in American Religious History

Summary and Keywords

Liberalism describes an interrelated set of political and religious frameworks that grew out of the Enlightenment and the English, American, and French revolutions, though the term itself dates only from the early 19th century. Liberalism values individual rights and freedoms, secular rule of law, and reasoned public discourse, and has become the dominant political and economic philosophy of the Western democracies. Critics argue that there are oppressions entailed in this dominance, especially for women and racial, religious, and sexual minorities—members of groups that stand outside liberalism’s implicit, normative subjectivity—while proponents contend that liberal individualism has provided the conceptual framework for civil and human rights movements.

Liberalism has shaped religion in the West in two interrelated senses. As a political philosophy, liberalism considers religion to be a matter of personal conscience and free association, and advocates broad (if always imperfectly applied) religious freedoms. The religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution represent the quintessential legal forms of liberalism regarding religion. Liberalism has also greatly shaped religious thought and practice, especially among European and North American Protestants. Religious liberals have sought to apply reason, modern scientific and scholarly advances, and notions of minority rights and freedom of conscience to theology and ethics. Religious liberalism has shaped mainline Protestantism and related religious movements such as Unitarianism and Quakerism most especially, but also laid the groundwork for the growth of post-Protestant and post-Christian forms of spirituality. Given the historic dominance of Protestantism in the United States, Protestant liberalism has determined the nature of American secularism and thereby required theological and political adaptation from religious minorities, most notably Roman Catholics and Jews.

Keywords: Liberalism, rights, theology, political philosophy, Protestantism, Unitarianism, transcendentalism, First Amendment

No concept is at once more embattled and misunderstood, and yet more central to the history of religion in America, as liberalism. Describing related political and religious orientations, liberalism emerged from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the Enlightenment critiques of religion, and the English, American, and French revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries. The term itself dates only from the early 19th century, arising in Spain and spreading across the West to describe political parties and philosophies advocating individual rights and freedoms, secular rule of law, and reasoned public discourse, as opposed to inherited aristocratic and churchly privileges and authority derived from revelation or divine right.1 The basic tenets of liberalism, applied to religion, hold that religion ought to be the free choice of free people. At the individual level, therefore, liberalism considers religion to be a matter of personal conscience and experience tested by reason, and advocates broad (if always imperfectly applied) religious freedoms. At the social level, liberalism regards religion as a matter of free association, assuming its characteristic institutional forms in congregations and denominations rather than in legally established churches.2

The United States has been more profoundly shaped by liberalism, religiously and politically, than any other society. The twin religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—enshrined the basic tenets of liberal philosophy regarding religion into the fundamental law of the nation. Since then, the values of religious liberalism have become so central to American legal and cultural norms that virtually all forms of religion in the modern United States are, or have been forced to become over time, liberal in their public dimensions. Liberalism, in these ways, defines the rules of the game that all American religions must accept in order to avoid social and legal sanction. Put differently, liberalism in the United States became over time the environmental condition in which and against which nearly all forms of religion have evolved through adaptation as a means of survival.

Such an outcome was neither inevitable nor without considerable controversy and struggle, and much of the drama in American religious history since the founding of the United States has concerned the ever-expanding reach of liberal legal, intellectual, and social norms into religious belief and practice. Paradoxically, the hegemonic status of liberalism places limits on one of its core tenets, religious freedom, as illiberal forms of religion—those that reject separation of church and state, for example, or that seek to deny protected civil or human rights—face robust legal and social sanctions in the United States. “We seem to have to choose,” writes the legal scholar Paul W. Kahn, “between tolerating a faith that will not tolerate reason or tolerating a reason that will not tolerate faith.”3 Religion scholar Winnifred Sullivan has called this paradox the “impossibility of religious freedom,” arguing that full freedom is impossible precisely because American secularism—the purported religious neutrality of American law and public life—in fact reflects and reinforces liberal, often Protestant, norms.4

Other apparent paradoxes mark the long course of liberalism in Europe and the United States. Though liberal political philosophy espouses values of fairness, freedom, and equal civil and human rights, liberal democracies have been marked historically by patriarchy, slavery, racial apartheid (including its American variant, Jim Crow), imperialism, and other forms of social and political domination and inequality. Rather than deviations from a “true” liberalism, critics contend that patriarchal liberalism and racial liberalism, like Protestant liberalism, have in fact undergirded both the mainstream of liberal theory and its normative implementation until very recent times.5 The success of liberalism as a political philosophy, these critics argue, stems in significant measure from these very circumscriptions as much as from its purportedly liberatory universalism. Whether in spite of these contradictions or because of them, liberalism achieved such dominance by the mid-20th century that literary critic Lionel Trilling could plausibly (if hyperbolically) declare in 1950, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.”6

Yet the dominance of liberal political philosophy regarding religion in public has not translated into the social and cultural dominance of religious groups that espouse liberal theology. Far from it. Neither has this public dominance of liberalism meant the widespread acceptance of characteristically liberal religious beliefs regarding the Bible or revelation. And here resides the central dynamic in the history of religion and liberalism in the United States. In short, despite the all-pervasive influence of liberal political philosophy regarding religion—indeed, more than influence, coercive force—the theological implications of liberalism have been, and remain still, deeply contentious across denominations and traditions.

Intellectual historian David Hollinger has described the engagement of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment as “a world-historical event” and “one of the defining experiences of the North Atlantic West and its global cultural extensions from the eighteenth century to the present.”7 The characteristic affirmative result of this engagement has been the complex accommodation of Protestantism to modernity known as theological liberalism. Looking at this grand historical stage, historian and theologian Gary Dorrien argues, “liberal theology has been and remains the most creative and influential tradition of theological reflection since the Reformation.”8 Yet neither the institutional forms of liberal religion, nor the everyday influence of liberal theology on personal piety and devotional practices, has matched this larger intellectual and political significance. For many decades of American Christianity, in fact, liberalism has been equated with heresy, and the label “liberal” since at least the 1930s has been more likely to be wielded as insult than as commendation.9

To understand this paradox is to understand not only religious liberalism in America, but some of the most central questions of American religious, cultural, and political life. These tensions have been experienced with particular acuity among American Protestants, as Protestant individualism (and anti-Catholicism) historically contributed greatly to the advancement of liberalism across Europe and the United States, while evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants have been among the fiercest opponents of theological liberalism.10 Nevertheless, Roman Catholics, Jews, and other religious bodies have each had to reconcile, in more or less complete ways, the competing demands of political liberalism, intellectual modernity, and their own religious traditions. And increasingly from the 19th century through the 21st, the foundation in liberal religion of intellectual and political freedom, rooted in the primacy of experience over revelation or other forms of external authority, has created a safe harbor for all manner of metaphysical, esoteric, and new age religions and spiritualities.11 Like the grinding of tectonic plates, the frequent clashes between the dominant framework of political liberalism regarding religion—its espousal of toleration, freedom of conscience, and public reason—with persistent, widespread belief in divine revelation, religious authority, exclusive truth claims, and persistent racial and gender hierarchies, has created much heat, and occasionally violent disruptions, in American religious life.

Religious Liberalism in Colonial America

The founding of British, French, and Spanish colonies in North America predates the formation of religious liberalism in modern political and theological senses, though the seeds of later forms of liberalism made the journey with the colonial settlers. Most fundamentally, the British colonies, founded in stages along the eastern seaboard across the 17th century, were as thoroughly Protestant, legally and culturally, as any societies in history. With this Protestant inheritance came a focus on individual conscience, and individual experience of the divine, as counterweights to ecclesial and political authorities. Although with considerable variation among Puritan New England, the more religiously diverse middle colonies such as Pennsylvania, and the largely Anglican South, the colonies all reflected these fundamental Protestant orientations.

The predominance of dissenting traditions across New England and the middle colonies—Puritan and Congregational, Presbyterian, Quaker, Baptist and soon Methodist, as opposed to the official Anglicanism and Lutheranism of England and continental Europe—amplified Protestant tendencies toward fragmentation and individualism, though these tendencies were held in check by established churches and the binding organic ties of village and kinship. New England Puritanism most clearly exhibited these countervailing impulses. Collectivist sensibilities, rooted most especially in the notion of covenants binding churches, towns, and societies to each other and to God, stood alongside Protestant belief in a priesthood of all believers. Certainly, Protestant individualism did not lead to religious liberty in the modern sense, as evidenced by the repression of religious minorities and widespread blasphemy laws. Nevertheless, the centrality of religious experience as a foundation of religious authority made possible, and perhaps inevitable, not only the proliferation of sects and new religious movements that has long characterized both global Protestantism and the American religious experience, but also powerful instances of local defiance, most famously in the example of Anne Hutchinson and the antinomian controversy of 1630s Boston.

The establishment of Rhode Island by Roger Williams, himself a dissident Puritan from England by way of Massachusetts, as a haven for religious dissenters and minorities marked a watershed in the history of religious liberty in America, and significantly influenced later developments in both theology and political theory.12 Englishman John Locke, the most significant political theorist of the 17th century and the foremost theorist of rights-based liberalism, drew on the example of Williams in his Letters Concerning Toleration (1689–1692), written in the wake of the European wars of religion and the Glorious Revolution in England. Locke in turn was the most significant theorist for the American Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, in his own writings on religious liberty, similarly borrowed from Williams, most notably his famous line about a “wall of separation” between church and state.13

In these ways, the schismatic tendencies of Protestantism, rooted in its potentially radical theological individualism, pushed colonial, English, and later Revolutionary American political theorists toward increasingly broad understandings of religious toleration. Locke famously refused, in his writings, to extend full religious toleration to Roman Catholics or atheists, yet through Williams and Locke the idea of legally protected religious toleration as the necessary political safeguard for freedom of conscience began to take root. When Thomas Jefferson opened his Preamble to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (enacted 1786) with the proclamation, “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free” he echoed these earlier liberal and proto-liberal theorists. Similarly, the letter of President George Washington to the members of the Truro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island—concerned, as Jews, about their citizenship rights in the new nation—likewise drew on, and extended, Williams and Locke. “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of,” Washington wrote to the Truro congregation in 1790, “as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” In the new United States, he proclaimed, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”14

Theologically the seeds of liberalism in America germinated in the mid-18th century, in response to European thought but even more in reaction against the so-called Great Awakening and its combination of reenergized Calvinist theology and a new, more emotional style of pietistic revivalism. In contrast to New Light preachers such as Jonathan Edwards in New England and the itinerant Englishman George Whitefield—who were, to be sure, indebted to the Enlightenment in their own ways—Old Light clergymen defended the primacy of reason and the universal availability of grace, and thereby staked out what would become hallmarks of liberal theology.15 “The first generation of rationalistic New England Arminians,” writes Gary Dorrien of Old Light preachers such as Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew, drew on Locke and others to craft a “supernatural rationalism” that “assumed the universality of reason, the orderly world picture of Newtonian physics, and the capacity of reason to decipher what they called ‘the Divine Book of Nature.’”16 The full blossoming of liberal theology in 19th-century United States emerged from the fertile soil prepared by these antirevivalist theologians of the eighteenth.

Age of Enlightenment and Revolution

The American Revolution marked a turning point in American religious history as much as in American political history. In many regards, the Revolution and subsequent decades stand as the high-water mark in the history of American religious liberalism. The period, first and foremost, witnessed the adoption of a secular, liberal Constitution, one that makes no reference to God, but rather to the people as the ultimate sovereign. This Constitution forbade religious tests for public office, a highly contentious matter in the state ratification conventions, and in its First Amendment prohibited the establishment of religion by the federal Congress and extended federal protection to the free exercise of religion. The ideas of Williams and Locke, updated by the Revolutionary generation, in these ways entered the fundamental law of the new nation, though the meaning of these Constitutional rights and limitations would evolve considerably across the 19th and 20th centuries. Most particularly, many states maintained established religion in the early national period, a practice that did not end until Massachusetts formally disestablished in 1833. And for more than another century, until the post–World War II period, other forms of state-sponsored religion, including required Bible reading and prayer in public schools, persisted until the Supreme Court ruled these practices in violation of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection” clause. Nevertheless, the long and contentious history of disestablishment that unfolded across American history was premised on the revolutionary liberalism embodied in what historians have rightly called America’s “godless Constitution.”17

The political and religious thought of the Revolutionary period arose, most fundamentally, from the English and French Enlightenments, and the ascendancy of Enlightenment ideas among the new nation’s cultural and political elites. Key to both the political philosophy and the emerging liberal theology of the period was the Enlightenment belief in an orderly universe, governed by fixed laws discernible through human reason. God’s fullest revelation, surmised thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic, was to be found not in Scripture—certainly not in the Bible alone—but in nature, in history, and in human reason. The natural and human sciences, tools for deciphering the laws of nature and society, emerged therefore as new and powerful sources of authority and legitimation. Both the federal Constitution (1787) and the new economic theories of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), seen in this light, represented the application of science just as surely as did new advances in physics or chemistry or engineering. Smith’s work marked a particularly significant early effort to describe human social organization in scientific terms, an enterprise that has wedded liberalism with free-market capitalism ever since, even as the terminology has shifted from laissez-faire to classical liberalism to neoliberalism. What political parties and a free press came to embody in politics, and markets in economics, denominations and congregations signified in religion: the free actions of free people, operating in accord with reason and conscience to further their own interests, and thereby advance the freedom and well-being of all.

These Enlightenment principles manifested not only in politics and economics but also in the quintessential theology of the age, known as Deism, which similarly posited an orderly universe governed by law. Never before or since has explicitly liberal theology achieved such social and political influence. Deism, in short, retained from traditional Christian theology the logical necessity of God as “prime mover”—the source of all existence and order, often described using the metaphor of the clockmaker. Yet the God of Deism was removed from the ordinary affairs of humanity, knowable only through nature and never interceding in its lawful operation. Benjamin Franklin, among the Founders, most clearly connected Deism to experimental science, whereas Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine more directly brought Deist ideas to theology and political philosophy. Paine, the English-born Revolutionary hero famous for his pamphlet Common Sense (1776), produced in Age of Reason (1794) the most significant work of Deist thought of the Revolutionary age. That he died poor and disgraced reflected not only his chronic alcoholism but also the social stigma of his religious radicalism, even in this most radical of eras.

Thomas Jefferson likewise faced charges of infidelism for his unorthodox religious beliefs, though never with the same dire consequences Paine endured. Jefferson’s heterodoxy, which led him to cooperate with evangelical Baptists to promote religious liberty in Anglican Virginia, evolved over his lifetime, moving from a straightforward Deism to a somewhat more Christian, if still unconventional, Unitarianism later in life. Toward the end of his life Jefferson famously predicted in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.”18 This forecast reflected not only Jefferson’s emergent religious convictions, but also his aspirations for the new nation. Jefferson even crafted a redacted version of the Gospels that emphasized Jesus as a moral teacher rather than divine savior. Jefferson’s proudest political accomplishments, the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, represent the twin projects of political and religious liberation. He followed his political ontology from the Declaration—“all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”—with the 1779 preamble to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Political freedom and religious freedom were collaborative projects, each rooted in God’s universal plan for humanity. To be sure, Jefferson’s religious pronouncements, like Locke’s, bear scrutiny for the ways they undergirded forms of parochial privilege even as they speak of universal emancipation. In his letter to Dr. Waterhouse, after all, Jefferson set his version of Enlightenment Unitarianism over against the “religion of the Jews,” the tyranny of “priests,” “the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin,” and the teachings of “Mahomet.” Jefferson here articulated the quintessential paradox of liberal intolerance toward forms of religion deemed to be illiberal. Only as a nation freed from “priestcraft” and superstition, he thought, and guided by unfettered reason, could republican America fulfill its destiny, and its citizens live as truly free persons.

Religious Liberalism before the Civil War

If the era of the American Revolution represented the high-water mark of liberalism in many respects, the early national period, through at least the 1830s, witnessed the greatest successes of evangelical Christianity in American history. Revivals swept the country, from the frontier to the urban centers of the Northeast. Methodists and Baptists grew the fastest, while pan-Evangelical enterprises such as the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, and the American Sunday School Union also flourished. These revivals “did more to Christianize American society than anything before or since,” writes the historian Nathan Hatch, most especially among African Americans.19 New denominations, such as the Disciples of Christ, and new religious movements, such as Mormonism, emerged, as did distinctive forms of African American Christianity.

Yet in critical ways the advance of evangelicalism in the first third of the 19th century also represented an advance of liberalism. On the one hand, the success of the Methodists and Baptists was due in part to their rejection of orthodox Calvinist teaching on predestination and human depravity, and their embrace, instead, of Arminian theology—the notion that salvation is available to all who in their own free will seek after it. But even more, as Hatch has argued, the evangelical and upstart churches of the period absorbed and amplified the liberal democratic values of the Revolution, especially the celebration of individualism. “Religious movements eager to preserve the supernatural in everyday life,” Hatch argues, “had the ironic effect of accelerating the break up of traditional society.” The process he calls the “democratization of American Christianity” was central to the political and cultural transformation by which the United States, in the wake of the Revolution, “became a liberal, competitive, and market-driven society.”20

Nevertheless, despite the inroads made by liberal political and cultural norms, the astonishing growth of evangelical forms of Christianity swamped the already modest demographic presence of liberal theology. Rationalistic forms of religious liberalism, such as Deism and certain strands of Unitarianism and Universalism, persisted to be sure, especially in regional strongholds like Boston, yet never again exerted the kind of influence they had during the late 18th century. Of much greater significance for the subsequent history of American religion were those forms of religious liberalism that incorporated rather than resisted the emotional force—the longing for intimacy with the divine—that characterized the revivals. This emergent romantic liberalism soon divided into two main streams, which in critical ways flow down to the present. The newly energized romantic liberalism became an important and enduring presence within the established denominations, on the one hand, forming the basis of subsequent liberal Protestantism. But romantic liberalism also burst outside established institutions, and even outside the normative bounds of Christianity itself. A whole host of heterodox new religious and spiritual movements took up the mantle of religious liberalism in the 19th century, inspired by these creative and combinative mystical and romantic impulses.21 This dialectic of churchly and extra-churchly forms of religious liberalism, established in the middle decades of the 19th century, has persisted down to the present, surviving most especially in the sometimes collaborative and sometimes competitive relationship between liberal forms of Christianity and Judaism and the “spiritual but not religious.”

The most influential 19th-century version of religious liberalism from within mainstream denominationalism came from the Congregational theologian and minister Horace Bushnell.22 Bushnell’s teachings, especially in the many editions of his work Christian Nurture, first published in 1847, emphasized God’s benevolence and knowability, and the importance of family and church in cultivating the moral faculties of the young, in contrast to revivalists’ insistence on conversion as the essence of the righteous path. Influenced deeply by the romantic poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, especially his Aids to Reflection (1825; first US edition 1829), Bushnell developed a theory of theology as metaphorical and imaginative language about God, more akin to poetry than to scientific or historical forms of truth.23 Like the New England transcendentalists, he drew much of his theological inspiration from nature and the arts, eschewing scholastic systematizing for a sense of revelation as always unfolding, best accessed through imagination and intuition. Bushnell bequeathed these ideas to later generations of mainstream or mainline Protestants, earning from historian Gary Dorrien the appellation “theological father of mainstream American liberal Protestantism.”24

American liberals such as Bushnell were deeply indebted to intellectual currents from Europe. Across the 19th century and into the 20th the work of German theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Adolf von Harnack decisively influenced the intellectual development of American liberal theology, especially the modes of biblical study known as higher or historical criticism. Theological liberalism, both homegrown and imported, generated significant controversy in American congregations and seminaries, and in these controversies we begin to see the emerging division between liberal and evangelical forms of Protestantism, divisions pre-figured in the 18th-century debates around the Great Awakening, and amplified later in debates about Darwinism. Yet a separate division emerged in the mid-19th century—a division within American religious liberalism itself—that proved at least equally significant. This divide cleaved those liberals, like Bushnell, who remained within the folds of denominational Protestantism and those more radical religious romantics who left. The New England transcendentalists launched this romantic and mystical wing of American religious liberalism, creating a tradition capacious enough to host a wide range of adventures, innovators, metaphysicians, and seekers.

The transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker best articulated this extrainstitutional, post-Protestant branch of American religious liberalism. Emerson was famous as the 19th-century prophet of self-reliance, a message he preached to great effect, and great scandal, to the Harvard Divinity School graduating class of 1838. Truth, he told the young graduates, ready to embark on preaching careers, “cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”25 Therefore, he continued, “Let me admonish you . . . to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil . . . The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.”26 Though Emerson was scorned at Harvard for such blasphemous words, he soon found a large American audience in print and on the lecture circuit. In one of his most widely cited essays, “Self Reliance” from 1841, he articulated the same ideas in a more secular voice. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” he argued. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind . . . No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.”27 One could scarcely imagine a firmer break with Puritanism, or fiercer denunciation of Calvinist orthodoxy.

Emerson’s friend and fellow transcendentalist Theodore Parker brought the matter back to religion in his most famous sermon, “A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” preached as an ordination sermon in Boston in 1841.28 Parker began with the simple observation that many in his day fretted over the fate of the Church, even though Christ had assured his followers, as recounted in the Gospel of Luke, that “Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my word shall not pass away” (Luke 21: 33).29 Parker used this promise from Jesus to assure his congregation that the essence of religion, the Word, was eternal and unchanging, even if the outer forms, including rituals and doctrines, might change. “While true religion is always the same thing,” he preached, “in each century and every land, in each man that feels it, the Christianity of the Pulpit . . . has never been the same thing in any two centuries or lands, except only in name.”30 Parker then famously divided Christianity into two elements, the transient and the permanent. “The one is the thought, the folly, the uncertain wisdom, the theological notions, the impiety of man,” he proclaimed, while “the other, [is] the eternal truth of God.”31 Although preaching nearly two decades before the publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Parker presented an evolutionary model of religious change, observing that religious rites and doctrines changed to suit changing historical circumstances. “In our calculating nation . . . we have retained but two of the rites so numerous in the early Christian church,” he noted, referring to the Protestant sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, “and even these we have attenuated to the last degree, leaving them little more than a spectre of the ancient form.” Yet he saw that even this was but a phase in the continual change and adaptation of religious life. “Another age may continue or forsake both,” he went on, “may revive old forms, or invent new ones to suit the altered circumstances of the times, and yet be Christians quite as good as we, or our fathers of the dark ages.”32

Protestant and Post-Protestant Liberalism, 1875–1925

The romantic and mystical transcendentalism of Emerson and Parker represented the most significant break of religious liberalism from its Protestant denominational (if not broadly cultural) roots in the 19th century. The path they charted—especially in their emphases on intuition, experience, nature, and innovation—soon proved hospitable to a host of post-Christian and extra-Christian religious elements. The poet Walt Whitman, for example, drew on Emersonian transcendentalism as well as the poet’s own Quaker roots, but increasingly after the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) incorporated into his writings notions derived from Hindu and Buddhist teachings as well. A small but dedicated group of admirers even formed a Whitman Fellowship, turning the poet’s words into a new scripture for a new religion.33 Others drew on the writings of second-generation transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, especially his essay and lecture “The Sympathy of Religions,” that presented to American readers and audiences in the decades after the Civil War a vision of coming religious unity based on a shared commitment to religious essences rooted in shared feelings and experiences of the divine.34

The burgeoning cosmopolitanism of figures like Whitman and Higginson represented, to be clear, a form of liberal triumphalism as much as genuine engagement with religious others. For decades, dating back to the early years of the transcendentalist movement, pioneering Westerners had looked toward the religions of Asia with a mix of condescension and fascination, a trend that only accelerated after the Civil War.35 Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, for example, founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, a movement that drew on Western esoteric and occult traditions, as well as a scattershot mix of Hinduism or Buddhism, in their search for a common humanity rooted in comparative philosophical and religious study.36 While these more radical religious figures ventured off to India, closer to home liberal Protestant leaders, in the half century between 1875 and 1925, used their cultural and religious clout to slowly press their congregations toward greater acceptance of diversity and pluralism. As historian David Mislin has shown, to many Protestant leaders atheism, agnosticism, and secularism loomed as greater threats, to both true religion and the nation, than rival faiths such as Judaism or Roman Catholicism. The cooperative steps taken in this crucial period of modernization paved the way for the social and legal advances of minority faith traditions in the 20th century.37

This dynamic between liberal triumphalism and liberal cosmopolitanism was on full display at the much-celebrated World’s Parliament of Religions of 1893, a vast gathering of religious leaders held in Chicago in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition, and hosted by American liberal Protestants. Certainly, the Protestant conveners saw the gathering as a chance to showcase their form of religious liberalism as the most advanced and modern of the represented faiths, a faith perfectly adapted to a young progressive nation. But religious liberalism, they were soon to learn, had become contested interreligious terrain, and in this way the Parliament also heralded the even more capacious forms of religious liberalism to come. Swami Vivekananda of India, for example, used the platform of the Parliament to teach Americans forms of yoga and meditation, derived from Hindu Vedantism, that would become staples of 20th-century spirituality, while the Ceylonese Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala taught a version of Buddhist modernism that would likewise assume immense influence. The “Scientific Buddha” that religion scholar Donald S. Lopez has described, a Buddha crafted by both Asian practitioners and Western admirers, made its major American debut at the Parliament.38 Influenced by what he saw at the Parliament, the German-American Paul Carus soon crafted these forms of Protestantized or modernist Buddhism into what he called “the religion of science,” a form of simultaneously post-Protestant and post-Buddhist religious liberalism. His The Gospel of the Buddha (1894) was a landmark text in the liberal religious appropriation and incorporation of Buddhism, a trend that would reach wide audiences in the 21st century through Buddhist-derived mindfulness meditation.

The most significant marriage of science and religious liberalism at the end of the 19th century, however, led American seekers not outward toward Asia, but inward, into their own selves and psyches. The mind-cure movement, often called New Thought, emerged after the Civil War and laid the groundwork for the psychotherapies, or talking cures, of the 20th century. Mind cure shared techniques with many ancient metaphysical healing practices, but most immediately the roots of 19th-century American mind cure were in mesmerism, the hypnosis-based healing practices of the German Anton Mesmer. Mesmer posited a force of animal magnetism, or natural energy flows between all living things, that could be harnessed by a skilled practitioner for healing purposes. The first significant American adherent and popularizer was a New England clockmaker named Phineas Parkhust Quimby who established a traveling healing ministry in the 1840s and 1850s. Just as a clock harmonizes with the laws of the physical universe, so also, Quimby taught, there were spiritual laws that if understood and mastered could be similarly mapped and controlled. Quimby’s most significant legacy was in his students, especially Julius Dresser and Annetta Dresser, who along with their son Horatio Dresser were prominent mind cure practitioners and authors; and Mary Baker Eddy, who was healed by Quimby and went on to found the most important formal religious offshoot of mind cure, Christian Science, incorporated as the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879.

Mind cure as a religious ideology held particular appeal for women. The historian Donald Meyer describes mind cure as a post-Calvinist Protestant expression of “pure wish,” but historian Beryl Satter more precisely characterizes New Thought as a “gendered discourse of desire.”39 Indeed, the institutional history of New Thought reveals a preponderance of white, middle-class women among both the leadership and adherents—not only Mary Baker Eddy, but Emma Curtis Hopkins, Myrtle Fillmore, Harriet Emilie Cady, and others—especially in the urban centers of the North and Midwest where the movement was strongest. If the sudden transformation mind cure offered recalled the life-changing power of evangelical conversion, its focus on empirical investigation as well as feminine aspects of the divine marked a radical departure from mainstream Protestantism.

The first psychology departments were established in research universities in Europe and the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, and even this academic science bore strong ties to liberal religion. The new psychology, after all, while a laboratory science, was seen by many early practitioners as an ally or even extension of moral philosophy, now harnessing the tools of science to probe fundamental human concerns about suffering, disease, and well-being, and their relationship to mental states and psychical phenomena. Like mind cure, academic psychology offered a metaphysical science of healing. Indeed, throughout the 20th century the two discourses continued a regular intercourse in the arena of popular religion. The 20th-century preacher and author Norman Vincent Peale, most famously, drew heavily on both psychoanalytic theory and the Unity School of Christianity, a New Thought denomination, in his hugely popular speeches and writings of the 1940s, 1950s and later, most notably in The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). Perhaps more tellingly, most of the discipline’s American founders—men such as G. Stanley Hall, George Coe, James Leuba, Edwin Starbuck, and James Mark Baldwin—had evangelical childhoods and yet were unable, as adults, to experience conversion or sustain conventional religious faith, as scholar of religion and psychology Peter Homans has observed.40 William James’s unorthodox youth stands as a notable exception, yet he too wrote wistfully of religious experiences, noting, “my own constitution shuts me out from their enjoyment almost entirely, and I can speak of them only at second hand.”41

The trait that made William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) the most influential of all the early 20th-century psychologies of religion—and a landmark in the history of American religious liberalism—is the deftness with which he bridged liberal Protestant intellectual culture and the wider liberal religious currents including mind cure and paranormal phenomena. The key was his legitimation, rather than reductive dismissal, of religious experience. His famed definition of religion—“the feeling, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine”—indicates most clearly his commitment to the core liberal emphases on individual conscience and experience as the heart of the authentic religious life.42 James devoted considerable attention to the mind cure philosophies he took as emblematic of what he called the “religion of healthy-mindedness.” In Varieties he quoted extensively from Ralph Waldo Trine’s In Tune with the Infinite—the great New Thought bestseller, influenced in part by the teachings of Dharmapala and Vivekananda in the year after the Parliament—describing, without condescension or criticism, what he found there as “traces of Christian mysticism, of transcendental idealism, of vedantism, and of the modern psychology of the subliminal self.”43 Varieties took the central categories of religious liberalism—reason, individualism, experience—and popularized them for the masses, where they formed the basis of later self-help and twelve-step programs, while simultaneously legitimating them for theologians and academics.44

Many religious critics, from evangelical and Roman Catholic circles especially, but also from within liberal Protestantism, decried the incorporation of psychology into religion as a “sterile union,” in the words of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr from a 1927 essay in The Christian Century, the leading journal of liberal Protestantism.45 The conservative Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen was characteristically more blunt, as he decried “the dangerous pseudo-scientific fads of experimental psychology” in Christianity and Liberalism (1923), his celebrated assault on Protestant liberalism.46 Later in the century, secular critics such as Philip Rieff and Jackson Lears, among many others, likewise lamented the psychologization of religion, fearing it made Americans more consumerist, more narcissistic, and less able to offer prophetic critiques of the liberal, capitalist political order.47 Liberal Protestants, nevertheless, kept producing scholarly works that updated or reaffirmed Christianity in psychological terms, such as G. Stanley Hall’s Jesus, the Christ, in the Light of Psychology (1917), and famed theologian, physician, and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer’s The Psychiatric Study of Jesus, which was first published in German in 1913 but appeared in multiple American editions in the 1940s and 1950s.48 As James summarized this optimistic application of psychology to religion in 1902, “The advance of liberalism . . . during the past fifty years, may fairly be called a victory of healthy-mindedness within the church over the morbidness with which the old hell-fire theology was more harmoniously related.”49

Other Americans embraced the union of religion and psychology, however, not to affirm historic Christianity, but precisely because of the space and legitimacy it afforded religious minorities, dissenters, and heterodox believers. Historian Andrew Heinze, for example, has written of the significant role played by American and European Jews in both academic and popular psychology in the 20th century, noting that psychology afforded a vocabulary and, often, an institutional location that allowed non-Christians to address moral, spiritual, and mental life authoritatively.50 The Viennese founder of psychoanalysis stands as the most prominent example, certainly, but Harvard’s Hugo Münsterberg, an early-20th-century pioneer, and later popular writers such as Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman and Dr. Joyce Brothers, also brought distinctively Jewish perspectives to psychology, and through psychology to religious and moral concerns.

Liberalism, Politics, and Reform

The psychological turn in liberal religion in the 19th century—toward mind cure, academic psychology, and the therapeutic—drew sharp criticism on many fronts, most especially for its seemingly apolitical or even anti-political nature. How could liberals offer prophetic critiques of an unjust social order if suffering was merely a matter of wrong thinking?51 To be sure, religious liberalism since the days of Jefferson had a deeply conservative streak, on economics and empire as well as matters of race and gender. Jefferson perhaps represents this tension more powerfully than any other American, but Horace Bushnell likewise affirmed rigid gender and racial hierarchies as integral to his understanding of Christian nurture. Josiah Strong, a clergyman and founder of the Social Gospel movement, promoted in his massively influential Our Country (1885) the mission of Anglo-Saxons to both Christianize and civilize the so-called “inferior races,” notions that mixed with Social Darwinism to produce the eugenics movement. President Woodrow Wilson’s intellectual, crusading Presbyterianism, rooted as much in his deep commitment to white supremacy as in his ambition to “make the world safe for democracy,” stands at the apex of this trajectory of liberal religious racial and political thought.52

Yet other Americans across the 19th and 20th centuries were able to turn liberal religious commitments to individualism, reason, and freedom of conscience toward more progressive or even radical political ends. The work of leading transcendentalists, most notably Henry David Thoreau, in the antislavery crusade stands as the most notable early example. The African American abolitionist, activist, author, and orator Frederick Douglass drew on the liberal religious contrast between the kernel of Christian faith and its outer husk—ideas found in Theodore Parker and later in later European and American academic theology—in his powerful denunciations of the hypocrisy of slaveholding Christians. Over the course of his life his own religious orientation shifted from conventional evangelicalism to Unitarian humanism.53 Nineteenth-century feminists, too, drew on liberal religious resources, from the earliest days of the movement in the 1830s and 1840s onward. As historian Ann Braude has demonstrated, Spiritualism—the beliefs and practices of communing with the dead, which took off in popularity in the 1850s—provided many women, as mediums and in their own voices, a powerful platform for often radically feminist messages.54 The quasi-scientific nature of Spiritualism, rooted in reason and experience, its belief in the benevolence of the spirit world, and its lack of defined creeds or dogma all fit squarely with mid-19th century liberalism, yet in Spiritualism as in no other religious movement women, through their direct contact with the spirit world as mediums, were able to claim extraordinary religious authority. Leaders such as Lois Waisbrooker and Anne Cridge, among others, used this direct access to the supernatural to build successful careers as orators and healers, and also to speak publicly about marriage reform and other feminist issues. Later in the century, the pioneering women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton applied the tools of historical critical biblical scholarship to craft her Woman’s Bible, a critical exposé of the roots of patriarchy in Christianity, and indeed in the Bible itself.55

The Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries embodied perhaps most clearly the tensions and contradictions of liberal reform ambitions. Led by figures such as Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, the Social Gospel sought nothing less than the great postmillennial vision to build the Kingdom of God on Earth. To accomplish this vision, sin, of course, must be overcome, but the great innovation of the Social Gospel was to see sin in social or structural terms rather than only in personal terms. This transformation of narrowly individualistic liberalism to a more social vision of human progress had great ramifications, mostly in mobilizing mainstream Protestants toward reform efforts, especially in the nation’s teeming, rapidly industrializing urban centers. Social Gospel theology, alongside the emerging social sciences, laid the conceptual foundations for the Progressive Age. African American theologians, ministers, and activists such as Reverdy Ransom likewise crafted a visionary, often radical, social Christianity in this period, a remarkable achievement given the widespread racism and nativism among many leading white Social Gospel clergy.56 These strands of social Christianity, black and white, would greatly influence developments across the 20th century, from the New Deal and Great Society antipoverty measures, to labor organizing, the women’s movement, campaigns for gay and lesbian rights, peace and antiwar crusades, and the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.57

Liberal Prospects across the 20th Century

The 20th century witnessed significant gains for liberalism, religiously and politically—the legal advancement of liberal understandings of religious liberty, the enhanced social and political dominance of liberal Protestantism, the advancement of liberalizing movements within Judaism and Catholicism—but also its dissipation. Perhaps the best measure of the structurally liberal and Protestant character of American society came from liberal movements within non-Protestant traditions, in which religious liberalization was often tied to immigrant Americanization. Reform Judaism, for example, came to the United States in the 1840s with immigrants from Germany, where emancipated Jews had begun a series of liturgical and social reforms. The use of organs and choirs, family rather than gender-segregated seating, and increased reliance on the vernacular languages in worship marked the influence of Protestant norms and liberalizing social attitudes. Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, an immigrant from Bohemia, led these efforts at the practical level in the mid-19th century, while others, such as rabbi and scholar David Einhorn, used Enlightenment and Romantic thought to transform Jewish teaching about law, the Talmud and Bible, and the nature of the Jewish people. In 1885 the “Pittsburgh Declaration of Independence” codified the Reform view of Judaism as “a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason.”58 Though the great influx of Eastern European Jews at the turn of the 20th century reinvigorated Orthodox Judaism in the United States for some decades, the Reform movement has long held sway as the largest and most influential of American Jewish religious traditions.

Roman Catholics too were forced to confront the religious, intellectual, and legal force of liberalism across the 19th and 20th centuries. In many ways this is a story that dates back to the Reformation itself, and in the United States certainly dates to the small but significant Roman Catholic presence at the time of the Revolution. The earthquake of the Revolution shook American Catholicism in more profound ways than it did any other religious group. “The Revolution transformed the church’s legal and psychological situation to such an extent,” the historian Sydney Ahlstrom has noted, “that Roman Catholics could participate with few legal restrictions in a free democratic society such as the world had never seen, and for which neither Roman Catholic theology, canon law, nor ancient precedent provided much guidance.”59 The new American situation, with liberalism ascendant, forced Catholics to adapt. The American-born Bishop John Carroll, though theologically conventional in many respects, was especially important in helping Roman Catholic parishes and dioceses in these early turbulent years to acclimate ecclesiastically. Carroll’s pragmatism represented one path forward for Catholics in America. Orestes Brownson, a leading New England transcendentalist who converted to Catholicism in 1844, represented another, a model of Catholic engagement with American liberalism that combined progressive, even radical politics with a deep distrust of liberal individualism. Brownson’s conversion, in fact, stemmed in significant measure from his political work on behalf of the working class, and his emerging conviction that Protestant liberalism hindered broader social and political solidarities that might counter the ravages of capitalism. With allies like Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist order, and liberal Catholic intellectuals in Europe, Brownson became a leading if idiosyncratic voice among 19th-century American Catholics, and set an example for 20th-century American Catholic social activists such as Dorothy Day and Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

The response of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to the ascendance of liberalism was similarly complex. In majority Catholic countries, and from the Church hierarchy itself, the response was often simply explicit disavowal, including most especially Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), which denounced any efforts to reconcile the Church with “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.” But such steps were always more difficult in Protestant societies, and nowhere more so than in the United States.60 For these reasons the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, from the late 19th century onward, has stood at the vanguard of global Catholic engagement with liberal modernity. Another encyclical, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899), from Leo XIII, came as a direct rebuke to the American Cardinal James Gibson amid the so-called Americanism crisis, warning that the American model of individualism and religious liberty should not lead Catholics there to stray from the universal teachings or practices of the Church. After World War II, however, and influenced greatly by the efforts of the American priest and theologian John Courtney Murray to reconcile the Church with religious pluralism and liberal democracy, reform did come to the global Church through the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). As recently as 1949 a book called American Freedom and Catholic Power had become a best-seller through its repetition of centuries-old assertions that Roman Catholicism was a threat to Western and American liberal democratic values, yet in 1960 John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was elected President; soon thereafter Vatican II instituted its ecumenical reforms, including significant rapprochement with Protestantism and religious pluralism more generally. Though Protestant-Catholic tensions did not disappear entirely, the compatibility of Roman Catholics with liberal democracy seemed a largely settled matter by the late 1960s. In subsequent decades, liberal Catholics and liberal Protestants found much common ground in civil rights and antipoverty and antiwar activism, while conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants forged alliances to fight legalized abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, and other examples of changing mores around gender and sexuality. In other words, Roman Catholics and Protestants functioned as partners in the ordinary struggles of a liberal democratic society.

For American liberal Protestants, the 20th century witnessed more than anything the paradoxes of their own success. American Protestantism irrevocably fractured early in the century between competing modernist and fundamentalist camps—a cleavage with roots traceable to the 18th century and reverberating still—with the publication of The Fundamentals (1910–1915) and denominational schisms over Darwinism, historical biblical criticism, eschatology, and other doctrinal and cultural matters.61 Yet by and large liberal Protestantism maintained its social and political hegemony through at least the 1960s. In major urban pulpits, in academia, in mainstream publishing and other media, and perhaps most especially in business and politics, liberal or mainline Protestants held sway, while conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists remained a major yet secondary religious and cultural presence. Increasingly American Protestantism shifted from its historic denominational system to what historian Marty Martin has called a “two-party” system of liberals and conservatives, a phrase echoed in David Hollinger’s notion of a “Protestant dialectic.”62 Politically the dominance of ecumenical or mainline Protestants contributed to the New Deal coalition and to the landmark religious liberty cases issued by the Supreme Court from the 1940s through the 1960s.63 Internationally, liberal Protestants played key roles in establishing the moral frameworks for modern conceptions of human rights and in founding the United Nations.64 The domestic political influence of liberal Protestantism perhaps reached its apex in the civil rights activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., who drew on liberal theology—from figures as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr and Howard Thurman—as well as Gandhian nonviolence, in formulating the theological basis of his freedom crusade.65

Yet the apparent social and political success of liberal Protestantism in the 20th century came with a high cost, and was never as complete as figures like Lionel Trilling contended. Certainly, the mobilization of the religious right in the 1970s, and its massive political power ever since, stands as the most significant example of the limits of liberal power. Yet perhaps more significantly, and paradoxically, as liberal religious values—respect for pluralism, psychological and therapeutic notions of the self, reliance on individual experience as the basis for religious authority—permeated mass and popular culture, especially through mass-market reading, the institutional and congregational vitality of liberal Protestantism waned.66 The sociologist N. J. Demerath has called this process a dynamic of “cultural victory” and “institutional decline.”67 Indeed, since the 1960s the membership of liberal Protestant denominations has declined significantly—a trend that in the 21st century has become nearly universal across all major American religious groups—while those claiming no religious affiliation, or self-describing as “spiritual but not religious,” have exploded. The new spirituality draws heavily on liberal religious ideas and forms in its eclecticism and individualism, offering both a cosmopolitan openness and a marked susceptibility to neoliberal capitalist co-optation.

Recent political events prompt caution about the future of the liberal political regime regarding religious liberty, as the deployment of “religious freedom” as a cudgel against gay rights, and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) that a large corporation can impose its owners’ religious views on employees, make clear. To be sure, as religion scholar Tisa Wenger has argued, such battles over religious freedom have marked the long history of the idea, as this quintessential American right has often served the narrow interests of white Protestants, while non-Christians, racial minorities, and the colonized have had to struggle to make religious freedom work for them.68 Whether we have entered a new chapter in this story remains to be seen, but what seems clear is the unabated advance of individual religious liberalism under the umbrella of spirituality.69 As ever, the relationship between these two dimensions of religious liberalism—its interrelated but distinct legal and cultural identities—holds the key to understanding American religious liberalism in the decades to come.

Review of the Literature

The literature on liberalism and religion covers a vast range across political philosophy, theology, and history. In some ways, nearly all scholarship on religion and law or religion and politics concerns this topic, directly or indirectly, as does much of the literature on modern theology.

Of the scholarship that explores the deep history of liberalism in the West, Larry Sidentrop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism stands out for its scope, reaching back to antiquity, and its argument that modern liberalism and secularism stem from Christian moral sensibilities.70 Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, though foregrounding secularism rather than liberalism, nevertheless has proven immensely influential in scholarly conversations about the political and social conditions that shape the conditions for belief in Western modernity, including liberal political frameworks.71 Political theorist Cécile Laborde’s Liberalism’s Religion offers a detailed examination of the protected status—and special containment—typically afforded religion in liberal democracies, and suggests the need to reconsider this special status by examining more carefully the social and political functions of religion in liberal polities.72

Among the scholarship that attends more specifically to liberal religion in the United States, Gary Dorrien’s three-volume The Making of American Liberal Theology provides the most extensive coverage of Protestant theology; to these works, which attend mostly to white denominational Protestantism, he has added more sustained attention to African-American theology in The New Abolition.73 The largest body of historical literature on American religious liberals has charted the Social Gospel, works that go back to Aaron I. Abell’s seminal The Urban Impact on American Protestantism from 1943 and Henry F. May’s Protestant Churches and Industrial America from 1949.74 This literature was significantly updated and expanded in the 1990s by Susan Curtis in A Consuming Faith and Ralph E. Luker in The Social Gospel in Black and White.75 More recent work on social Christianity has sought to look beyond elite preachers and seminary professors to grassroots and plain-folk activism, most notably Heath W. Carter’s Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago.76 Mark A. Lempke’s new religious biography of George McGovern, My Brother’s Keeper, describes in detail how liberal, social gospel Christianity influenced a particular strand of midcentury American politics.77

The history of mainline Protestantism has expanded beyond the social gospel in recent years in a number of highly productive directions after years of dormancy. David Hollinger’s After Cloven Tongues of Fire, a collection of essays, and his more recent Protestants Abroad, attend to the intellectual roots and political significant of mainline Protestantism in arenas such as international affairs and civil rights.78 Jill Gill in Embattled Ecumenism looks more specifically at the National Council of Churches during the era of the Vietnam War, while my own The Rise of Liberal Religion and Elesha Coffman’s The Christian Century each use print culture to chart the broad cultural influences of liberal and mainline Protestantism across the middle decades of the 20th century.79

Lastly, the most active arena of scholarship in liberal religion now explores the interactions among liberal Protestantism and new religious movements, spirituality, and secularism, sometimes deploying the language of “the post-Protestant secular.” This work goes back historically to transcendentalism. Philip F. Gura’s American Transcendentalism: A History focuses tightly on Ralph Waldo Emerson and his contemporaries, while Leigh E. Schmidt’s Restless Souls covers the longer history of American spirituality “from Emerson to Oprah.”80 Leigh E. Schmidt and Sally M. Promey presented the diverse range of this new scholarship in their edited collection, American Religious Liberalism, which is perhaps the best single introduction to this body of work.81 Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit stands out as a magisterial history of what she calls “metaphysical religion” across nearly five centuries, while Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals is the most important ethnography of emerging forms of spirituality in recent times.82

Further Reading

Bejan, Teresa. Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

    Bender, Courtney. The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.Find this resource:

      Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

        Brundige, Cara. A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.Find this resource:

          Carter, Heath W. Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

            Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.Find this resource:

              Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                  Dorrien, Gary. The New Abolition: W.E,B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                    Hedstrom, Matthew S. The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                      Hollinger, David A. After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                        Hollinger, David A. Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

                          Kern, Kathi. Mrs. Stanton’s Bible. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                            Laborde, Cécile. Liberalism’s Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

                              Lopez, Donald S., Jr. The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                                McGreevy, John T. Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.Find this resource:

                                  Mills, Charles W. Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

                                    Pateman, Carole. The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism, and Political Theory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

                                      Rossinow, Doug. The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                                        Schmidt, Leigh E. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                                          Schmidt, Leigh E., and Sally M. Promey, eds. American Religious Liberalism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                                            Siedentop, Larry. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                                              Wenger, Tisa. Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.Find this resource:

                                                White, Heather R. Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.Find this resource:


                                                  (1.) J. Salwyn Schapiro, Liberalism: Its Meaning and History (Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand, 1958).

                                                  (2.) For a deep history of Western liberalism, and its relationship to Christianity in particular, see Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014).

                                                  (3.) Paul W. Kahn, Putting Liberalism in Its Place (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 71.

                                                  (4.) Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005). See also David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

                                                  (5.) See, for example, Charles W. Mills, Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) and Carole Pateman, The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism, and Political Theory (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990).

                                                  (6.) Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Viking, 1950), ix.

                                                  (7.) David A. Hollinger, “The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment: An Old Drama Still Being Enacted,” in After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History, ed. David A. Hollinger (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 3.

                                                  (8.) Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), xv.

                                                  (9.) See most especially J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923).

                                                  (10.) For a deep history see Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012). For the connections between religious freedom in the United States and anti-Catholicism, see Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

                                                  (11.) See Leigh E. Schmidt and Sally M. Promey, eds., American Religious Liberalism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012) and Catherine L. Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of Metaphysical Religion in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).

                                                  (12.) For an important analysis and application of the thought of Williams, and his relation to Hobbes, Locke, and others, see Teresa Bejan, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

                                                  (13.) Thomas Jefferson, “Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists,” January 1, 1802, Library of Congress.

                                                  (14.) George Washington, “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island,” August 18, 1790, National Archives: Founders Online.

                                                  (15.) On debates over universal salvation, see Kathryn Gin Lum, Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

                                                  (16.) Dorrien, Imagining Progressive Religion, 1–2.

                                                  (17.) Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).

                                                  (18.) Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, June 22, 1826. The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651–1827. Library of Congress.

                                                  (19.) Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 3.

                                                  (20.) Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 14.

                                                  (21.) Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit.

                                                  (22.) See Robert Bruce Mullin, The Puritan as Yankee: A Life of Horace Bushnell (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002); and Dorrien, Imagining Progressive Religion.

                                                  (23.) See James D. Boulger, Coleridge as Religious Thinker (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961).

                                                  (24.) Dorrien, Imagining Progressive Religion, 111.

                                                  (25.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, “An Address” (Harvard Divinity School Address), delivered July 15, 1838. Quoted in The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York: Modern Library, 1992), 66.

                                                  (26.) Emerson, “An Address,” 75.

                                                  (27.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman (New York: Signet Classics, 2003), 269–270.

                                                  (28.) See Dean Grodzins, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

                                                  (29.) Theodore Parker, “A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” delivered May 19, 1841. Quoted from Electronic Texts in American Studies, Paper 14 (Digital Commons, University of Nebraska-Lincoln), 136.

                                                  (30.) Parker, “Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” 139.

                                                  (31.) Parker, “Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” 140.

                                                  (32.) Parker, “Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” 141.

                                                  (33.) See Michael Robertson, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

                                                  (34.) Leigh E. Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 101–141.

                                                  (35.) On evolving American understandings of the religion of India across the nineteenth century see Michael J. Altman, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721–1893 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

                                                  (36.) See Stephen Prothero, The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996); and Thomas A. Tweed, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844–1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).

                                                  (37.) David Mislin, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).

                                                  (38.) Donald S. Lopez, Jr., The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).

                                                  (39.) Donald Meyer, The Positive Thinkers: Religion as Pop Psychology, From Mary Baker Eddy to Oral Roberts (New York: Pantheon, 1980); and Beryl Satter, Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, 1875–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 15.

                                                  (40.) Peter Homans, “A Personal Struggle with Religion: Significant Fact in the Lives and Work of the First Psychologists,” Journal of Religion 62, no. 2 (1982): 128–144.

                                                  (41.) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Random House, 1999 [1902]), 413.

                                                  (42.) James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 36.

                                                  (43.) James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 114.

                                                  (44.) On liberal Protestantism and psychology broadly in this period see Christopher White, Unsettled Minds: Psychology and the American Search for Spiritual Assurance, 1830–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009). On James and parapsychology, see Krister Dylan Knapp, William James: Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

                                                  (45.) H. Richard Niebuhr, “Theology and Psychology: A Sterile Union,” Christian Century, January 13, 1927.

                                                  (46.) Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 18.

                                                  (47.) Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966); and T.J. Jackson Lears, “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880–1930,” in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880–1980, eds. Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 1–38.

                                                  (48.) G. Stanley Hall, Jesus, the Christ, in the Light of Psychology. 2 Vols. (New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1917); and Albert Schweitzer, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus: Exposition and Criticism, trans. Charles R. Joy (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1948).

                                                  (49.) James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 104.

                                                  (50.) Andrew Heinze, Jews and the American Soul (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

                                                  (51.) In addition to Rieff, see also Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979); and Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

                                                  (52.) Cara Burnidge, A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

                                                  (53.) William L. Van Deburg, “Frederick Douglass: Maryland Slave to Religious Liberal,” in By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, ed. Anthony Pinn (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 83–102.

                                                  (54.) Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001).

                                                  (55.) Kathi Kern, Mrs. Stanton’s Bible (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

                                                  (56.) See Ralph E. Luker, The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885–1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); and Gary Dorrien, The New Abolition: W.E,B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015).

                                                  (57.) On liberal religion, especially liberal Protestantism, and these social and political movements see especially David P. Cline, From Reconciliation to Revolution: The Student Interracial Ministry, Liberal Christianity, and the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Heath W. Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Leilah Danielson, American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Jill K. Gill, Embattled Ecumenism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War, and the Trials of the Protestant Left (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011); Joseph Kip Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Heather R. White, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); and Doug Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

                                                  (58.) Quoted from Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).

                                                  (59.) Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971), 527.

                                                  (60.) John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003).

                                                  (61.) William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976).

                                                  (62.) Martin E. Marty, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America (New York: Harper, 1977), 177–187; and David Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire, 23. See also Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

                                                  (63.) For a look at the end of this period of liberal ascendancy see Mark A. Lempke, My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2017).

                                                  (64.) See Mark Thomas Edwards, The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); Michael G. Thompson, For God and Globe: Christian Internationalism in the United States Between the Great War and the Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015); and Heather R. Warren, Theologians of a New World Order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists, 1920–1948 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

                                                  (65.) For somewhat contrary view of King’s relation to the liberal tradition see David. L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

                                                  (66.) Matthew S. Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

                                                  (67.) Nicholas J. Demerath, “Cultural Victory and Organizational Defeat in the Paradoxical Decline of Liberal Protestantism,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34, no. 4 (Dec. 1995): 458–469.

                                                  (68.) Tisa Wenger, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

                                                  (69.) Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

                                                  (70.) Larry Sidentrop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014).

                                                  (71.) Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).

                                                  (72.) Cécile Laborde, Liberalism’s Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

                                                  (73.) Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001); Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003); Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); and Dorrien, The New Abolition: W.E.B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015).

                                                  (74.) Aaron I. Abell, The Urban Impact on American Protestantism, 1865–1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1943); and Henry F. May’s Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York: Harper, 1949).

                                                  (75.) Susan Curtis, A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); and Ralph E. Luker, The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885–1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

                                                  (76.) Heath W. Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity In Chicago (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

                                                  (77.) Mark A. Lempke, My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2017).

                                                  (78.) David A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire, and Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World But Changed America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

                                                  (79.) Jill K. Gill, Embattled Ecumenism; Matthew S. Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Elesha J. Coffman, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

                                                  (80.) Philip F. Gura, American Transcendentalism: A History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007); and Leigh E. Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

                                                  (81.) Leigh E. Schmidt and Sally M. Promey, American Religious Liberalism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012).

                                                  (82.) Catherine L. Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit; and Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).