New Book Explores How Liberal Protestants of the Mid-20th Century Helped Shape American Politics and World Affairs


Political liberalism in the United States cannot be fully understood without considering the work of liberal ecumenical Protestants in the mid-20th century, according to Gene Zubovich, assistant professor of history at the College of Arts and Sciences and author of the recently published book “Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States.”

Zubovich explores the largely unsung story of how this intellectually and politically vibrant religious community, from 19 teens to the late 1960s, on the front lines of battles against segregation, became a pivotal player in the creation of the New Deal; and was instrumental in shaping the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

He implemented a far-reaching philosophy that stretched from national to international engagement in a way that globally affected issues of social justice. It was a deeply progressive movement, but also deeply flawed, and the political polarization that exists today emerged from the fights that developed within that community, Zubovich says.

“All of these issues and the efforts to confront them – eradicating racism, reforming the economy, improving global affairs and trying to find a way around the Cold War – have deeply divided this community, and it is from these fights that we see the first recognizable signs of the liberal and conservative religious camps,” Zubovich explains. “As the members of the community fought among themselves, they opened up space for the development of the religious right.

“If you want to understand polarization in the United States today, a good place to start would be to look at mid-century liberal Protestantism.”

Flaws have sometimes marred the group’s achievements. There were limits to what the community was willing and able to do, and its struggles to build consensus within its own ranks sometimes meant sacrificing the cause of justice.

“They had early opportunities to join the civil rights movement in the 1940s, but eventually rejected the notion of protest,” Zubovich explains. “They were also slow to understand religious pluralism and were not as attentive to the racial and religious diversity that developed later in the 1960s.”

Zubovich began working on “Before the Religious Right” (UPenn Press) after a chance encounter with a book by Buell Gallagher, a Congregational minister. The book was illuminating and brought about a change in the focus of Zubovich’s research, which until then had centered on the history of human rights and American foreign policy.

“I was surprised at how critical and honest he was about the issue of segregation at a time when few people outside of the African-American community were making these kinds of public statements,” Zubovich says. “I did not expect to be a historian of religions or a historian of liberal Protestantism, but I realized there was an opportunity to tell an important story about this religious community that could not be told without becoming a historian of religion.”

Ecumenical Protestants are often referred to as Mainline Protestants, a term which in this context can be synonymous with decline, according to Zubovich.

“The term originated in the 1960s when these churches were aging and facing declining membership,” he says. “One of the ways I argue against the decline narrative is to show that even though these churches have declined and are not as influential in American politics today, the ideas, values, and institutions that they created in the 20th century shaped the outside world of their religious community.

Ecumenical was a better description for Zubovich because in many cases members of this community worked to break down barriers, first within their own ranks, between denominations, but later with people around the world.

“A large part of why they did what they did in the United States, why they became politically active and socially influential, was the connections they made within the international ecumenical movement, which brought together Protestants and Orthodox peoples around the world. the world to talk to and work with each other.

The true measure of community influence is not framed by the size of its members. “Before the Religious Right” demonstrates that beyond the membership are broader political, cultural, social and intellectual worlds whose influence still reverberates today.

“The way we talk about human rights, human dignity, social justice and economic reform, for example, is very much indebted to the work of mid-century ecumenical Protestants,” he says. “I’ve always thought that history was about how our current world came into being. If that’s true, then I hope my book helps tell that story.


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