For the last thirty years, historians, sociologists, and scholars of religion have drawn on church membership and attendance numbers to document the decline of liberal Protestantism in the United States. Matthew Hedstrom will have none of it. His smart, innovative, and fascinating book, The Rise of Liberal Religion, demonstrates that, in fact, liberal religion thrived across the twentieth century. However, he argues, liberal religion has had its greatest success not between pulpit and pews, but engaging with the public through reading.
The Rise of Liberal Religion tells the story of books. Hedstrom focuses on the “religious and commercial interests” that shaped the “religious and reading revolution in the twentieth century” in tandem with the “increasing integration of American religion and the print [End Page 265] marketplace” (pp. 4–5). In the interwar years, liberal Protestant leaders, executives of the American publishing industry, and other influential leaders collaborated on a series of ventures to promote the buying and reading of religious books. “They believed that a common set of widely accepted religious ideas, practices, and presuppositions would hold together a fragmenting culture, expand existing markets for books, and maintain their privileged status in American religious discourse” (p. 7). Their actions formed the basis of a thriving religious reading culture that remained central to American cultural and religious life through much of the century. But the culture they created through their books was not necessarily what they anticipated. “This story,” Hedstrom argues, “is an ironic tale of initial resistance yet ultimate complicity in the transformation of American religious culture from Protestant dominance . . . to a much more open, democratic, even chaotic spiritual environment.” “The psychologically and mystically rooted cosmopolitanism,” he continued, “that came to characterize much of American religion and spirituality after World War II first emerged as a popular reality from the liberal Protestantism and book-buying consumerism of the interwar years—but ultimately took on a life all its own” (p. 11).
To tell this story, Hedstrom traces the rise of a “middlebrow” book-reading culture, which publishers and religious leaders tapped into after World War I. No one was better at reaching Americans’ growing appetite for religious books than Eugene Exman of Harpers & Brothers. He published materials that upheld religion but were not sectarian, and he promoted books on cosmopolitan spirituality informed as much by metaphysical traditions as by Protestant Christianity. Booksellers promoted Exman’s books as well as those from other major publishers through a variety of venues. Their first substantial effort was “religious book week” launched in 1921, a joint effort between publishers and bookstores to encourage Americans to read religious books. They followed this annual effort by promoting book clubs, which grew and evolved thoughout the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II, publishers sensed yet another opportunity, and [End Page 266] they began publishing and marketing books to soldiers. To reach as broad a market as possible, they invented “interfaith” reading that drew from multiple traditions, which led Americans further down the road from sectarian isolationism to the spiritual-not-religious world of modern religious liberalism. Furthermore, in turning millions of enlisted men into readers, they discovered new consumers whose loyalty would last long after the war was over. “The liberal ambition to find common religious ground,” Hedstrom writes, “flourished as never before, as mystical and psychological spirituality, consumer reading practices, and the political demands of the war enabled a burgeoning religious cosmopolitism” that was inflected with Jewish and Catholic voices as well as Protestant ideals (p. 171).
Hedstrom tells a compelling story. He masterfully blends important theoretical insights with an engaging narrative. What we do not learn from The Rise of Liberal Religion, however, is how the reading revolution that shaped liberal religion may have simultaneously served to bolster conservative Christianity. In the interwar period, fundamentalists were building thriving publishing houses and training their audiences to read in new ways as well. Fundamentalist book culture was beyond the scope of Hedstrom’s book, but in order to really know if...