In “The Rise of Liberal Religion” historian and University of Texas at Austin alumnus Matthew Hedstrom attends to the critically important yet little-studied area of religious book culture, paying special attention to the popularization of religious liberalism in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
By looking at book weeks, book clubs, public libraries, new publishing enterprises, key authors and bestsellers, wartime reading programs and fan mail, among other sources, Hedstrom provides a rich, on-the-ground account of the men, women and organizations that drove religious liberalism’s midcentury cultural rise. In doing so, Hedstrom demonstrates how the religious middlebrow expanded beyond its Protestant roots in the post-WWII period and began using mystical and psychological spirituality as a platform for interreligious exchange.
This history of religion and book culture not only shows how reading and book buying were critical 20th century religious practices, but also provides a model for thinking about the relationship of religion to consumer culture more broadly.
Hedstrom recently answered some questions for ShelfLife@Texas about the progression of religious thought in midcentury America and how “The Rise of Liberal Religion” offers both innovative cultural history as well as ways of seeing the imprint of liberal religion in our own times.
How did your interest in this project develop?
I was a graduate student in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, looking for new ways to think about religion in the modern United States. Basically, I wanted to think about religion as a phenomenon not just of churches or other formal institutions, but as a part of culture more broadly. Also, in a related way, I wanted to think not just about official theology and ritual, but about religious sensibilities—about spirituality.
As I was thinking about all these things, I came across a set of sources about religion and reading in the 20th century and thought, “Ah ha! This is how I can access the stories I want to tell.” So I began studying the history of religious books and reading in the 20th century, because I quickly came to see this as one of the most important ways that religion happens outside of church, especially in a consumer-oriented society like ours.
Can you clarify what you mean by “religious liberalism?”
That’s an important question, because I think for many people, the word “liberal” immediately brings to mind our polarized political environment of liberals vs. conservatives. But in religious terms it means something else. Religious liberals, from the 18th and 19th centuries to the present, have been those who have worked to reconcile their faith traditions—first Protestantism, but also Judaism and Catholicism—with the social and intellectual changes of the modern world. So religious liberals are those who have embraced science, including evolutionary biology, cosmology and psychology; have embraced historical critical study of the Bible; have engaged in interfaith dialogues; and in other ways have sought to modernize the intellectual life of their traditions.
Liberalism also contains a strong, related element of individualism. Liberalism in political philosophy emphasizes individual rights, and liberal economics, in the traditional usage of the term, embraces the free market. Likewise, liberal religion sees the individual conscience and experience as the ultimate arbiter of truth, above the teachings of any church or creed.
Why do you think such a large portion of American religious history assumes that the decline of mainline Protestantism indicates a failure of religious liberalism, and how did you go about demonstrating the cultural ascendancy of the latter?
First of all, the decline of the mainline has been dramatic, and deeply traumatizing for many. There really was something worth calling a Protestant establishment in this country, and it really has gone away. Many scholars of American religion, especially in previous generations, were born and raised in that establishment, and were committed to it. They experienced the decline in number and influence of their denominations very personally.
But with a bit of distance from that moment of loss—a period stemming at least from the 1960s, and by some measures back to the 1930s—we can see that religious liberal sensibilities have not suffered the same decline as the mainline did demographically. My study of book culture provides one window into this phenomenon. I show that as more and more Americans used the tools of the consumer marketplace—in this case, books—to inform and practice their faith, religious liberalism spread even as liberal churches declined. Churches still matter greatly, but the energies that religious liberals once channeled into church life are now directed into a much broader array of outlets, from social work to politics to the arts.
What do you most hope readers will take away from “The Rise of Liberal Religion?”
I hope my book raises questions for my readers about the power of consumerism in our society. I hope my readers will come to see that the categories “religious” and “secular” are not very easy to disentangle—that psychology and spirituality, for example, often blur. And I hope my readers will look at religious liberalism as a significant religious tradition in the United States, one with strong ties to Protestantism but not limited to Protestantism. Much of the vitality in modern American religious life is in what might be called post-Protestant spirituality, and I want my readers to learn to see the contours of this phenomenon and to understand where it came from.
What are some primary sources you researched that you would recommend to readers interested in the evolution of liberal religion?
At the top of the list is the great classic of William James, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” In this work, from 1902, James gives the clearest and most influential statement of religion as fundamentally individual in nature, as rooted in the solitary experience of the divine. So much of 20th century liberal religion stems from James’s categories.
A few other works I highly recommend are Rufus Jones, “Social Law in the Spiritual World;” Harry Emerson Fosdick, “As I See Religion;” and Joshua Liebman, “Peace of Mind.” They are all highly readable works that address the mystical, aesthetic and psychological dimensions of religious life.
Though my book covers the 20th century, I’d also recommend going back to some great works from the 19th century, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address,” or the poetry of Walt Whitman.
You have said that your overarching interests include the social history of religious sensibilities and the cultural mechanisms of their production and propagation. Can you give us some other specific examples of what these interests address?
The best examples I can give are the questions I sought to address in my book. I had read extensively about 19th and early 20th century religious liberals—about the transcendentalists, for example, or the organizers of the famous World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893—and I knew that these folks were the elites of their day, a religious avant-garde. And I also knew the research, mostly from sociologists, about the religion of the baby boomers and later generations from the 1970s to the present showed how deeply religious liberal ideas had penetrated by that point.
But I wanted to know: How did this happen? How did our religious culture change so much? How did ideas about the utility of psychology to spirituality, or about the religious value of learning from other faith traditions, go from a radical fringe to the American mainstream over the course of the mid-20th century. This is what sent me looking for “cultural mechanisms,” and I think I found those in American consumer capitalism, especially that most important of religious commodities, the book.
Can you tell us a little bit about your new project on race and the search for religious authenticity from the Civil War through the 1960s?
This book project explores the crossing of racial boundaries for the purposes of religious exploration and inspiration in the century after the Civil War. In the final decades of the 19th century, increasing numbers of Americans began to cross racial boundaries in search of spiritual authenticity. Religious liberals, such as Unitarians, transcendentalists and members of the emerging modernist wing of American Protestantism, led the way, as they found themselves increasingly alienated from traditional sources of meaning in a rapidly modernizing society.
As evangelical piety lost its hold for many young educated Americans, in other words, new sources of spiritual vitality needed to be found—and a surprising number of Americans in the era of Jim Crow found that spiritual vitality in the religious lives of African Americans and Asians. I plan to place the growing white fascination with African American culture—a phenomenon in popular culture, but also in religion—alongside the lesser-known stories of Asian religious influences. I have just begun to study the Japanese Christian Toyohiko Kagawa, for example, who became a celebrity among American Protestants between the world wars, and I am also researching the uses American church leaders made of Gandhi. We’ll see where it all goes!