American Religious Liberalism
Publication Year: 2012
Religious liberalism in America has often been equated with an ecumenical Protestant establishment. By contrast, American Religious Liberalism draws attention to the broad diversity of liberal cultures that shapes America's religious movements. The essays gathered here push beyond familiar tropes and boundaries to interrogate religious liberalism's dense cultural leanings by looking at spirituality in the arts, the politics and piety of religious cosmopolitanism, and the interaction between liberal religion and liberal secularism. Readers will find a kaleidoscopic view of many of the progressive strands of America's religious past and present in this richly provocative volume.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Religion in North America
Title Page, Copyright Page
In this new book on American religious liberalism, Leigh Schmidt, Sally Promey, and their coauthors have set themselves a daunting task. To define, dictionaries tell us, is to delimit—to draw a line around what is being defined so that we know clearly what it is and what it is not. Definitions are boundary guards to keep out objects that are not under scrutiny and to mark unmistakably the...
Introduction: The Parameters and Problematics of American Religious Liberalism
Historian William R. Hutchison explained at the beginning of The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (1976), still a scholarly benchmark in the field of American religious history, that he had not attempted to trace “the entire history of Protestant liberalism but rather the development and demise of...
Part One: The Spiritual in Art
One: Reading Poetry Religiously: The Walt Whitman Fellowship and Seeker Spirituality
In his introduction to this volume, Leigh Schmidt notes that when the freethinking feminist Voltairine de Cleyre wrote about progressive currents in American religion of the 1890s, she highlighted three exemplary movements: Unitarianism, Theosophy, and Whitmanism. There is no shortage of scholarly examinations...
Two: The Christology of Niceness: Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Jesus Novel, and Sacred Trivialities
It is taken for granted today that niceness is one of Jesus’ defining traits; but not everyone is happy about this fact. Paul Coughlin recounts in his self-help book, No More Christian Nice Guy (2005), how he grew up with the iconic image of “Jesus [as] the Supreme Nice Guy,” an image that he blames for creating...
Three: Visible Liberalism: Liberal Protestant Taste Evangelism, 1850 and 1950
It is tempting to posit a special relationship between liberal religion and visual culture—and especially between liberal religion and fine art. Liberalism comports well with certain prospects for art; the overlap between liberal theology and art theory, and between liberal theology and aesthetics, in the nineteenth...
Four: Discovering Imageless Truths: The Bahá’í Pilgrimage of Juliet Thompson, Artist
Though Juliet Thompson (1873–1957) lived in what one reporter of her time called one of the most “materialistic and sordid corners of the world,” New York City, she had spiritual dreams, intuitions, and awakenings. She had one of them when she was a young woman, probably in her late twenties, while recovering from diphtheria, an illness that almost killed her. “One evening, while...
Five: Where “Deep Streams Flow, Endlessly Renewing”: Metaphysical Religion and “Cultural Evolution” in the Art of Agnes Pelton
In 1932, Agnes Pelton (1881–1961), a moderately recognized artist who made a living painting landscapes and portraits, surprised her family and friends by moving across the country, at the age of fifty, to a small town in the inland California desert. There she hoped to find new inspiration for her abstract paintings, images that she referred to as her “especial light message to...
Part Two: The Piety and Politics of Liberal Ecumenism
Six: “Citizens of All the World’s Temples”: Cosmopolitan Religion at Bell Street Chapel
On December 1, 1889, Bell Street Chapel held its dedication ceremony, fourteen years after James Eddy built it in 1875. Anna Garlin Spencer gave the dedicatory address, describing both Eddy’s ideals and the principles according to which the chapel would now be put to use. She alluded clearly to a cosmopolitan...
Seven: Spiritual Border-Crossings in the U.S. Women’s Rights Movement
For Clara Colby, the long-time editor of the suffrage paper The Woman’s Tribune, an intervention was necessary. Men of the United States, who denied women their full equality, were mired in a Christian tradition that had muted its most radical message: the Divine Feminine. Colby, a spiritual seeker and a...
Eight: “We Build Our Temples for Tomorrow”: Racial Ecumenism and Religious Liberalism in the Harlem Renaissance
In 1926 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sponsored a yearlong conversation regarding the relationship between race, the arts, and popular culture. Hosted on the pages of Crisis, this discussion included such topics as representations of “the Negro” in American literature, the...
Nine: Reading across the Divide of Faith: Liberal Protestant Book Culture and Interfaith Encounters in Print, 1921–1948
When Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman published his number- one bestseller Peace of Mind in 1946, he fulfilled, in many ways, a long-standing dream of liberal Protestantism. Generations of Protestant and post-Protestant intellectuals, after all, had sought a means of disentangling the spiritual heart of Christianity...
Ten: The Dominant, the Damned, and the Discs: On the Metaphysical Liberalism of Charles Fort and Its Afterlives
Once upon a time, a man named Charles Fort (1874–1932) sat at a table in the New York Public Library or the British Museum in London, spending more or less every working day for a quarter century reading the entire runs of every scientific journal and newspaper he could find, in English or French. “A search...
Eleven: Liberal Sympathies: Morris Jastrow and the Science of Religion
Any review of twenty-first-century scholarship in the study of religion will find that it is an object around which there seems an inordinate amount of disagreement. From journals to monographs, conferences to classrooms, the question of the “what” in what we study continues to elicit frustration. This...
Twelve: Jewish Liberalism through Comparative Lenses: Reform Judaism and Its Liberal Christian Counterparts
In the opening years of the twenty-first century, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America faced one of its worst crises. A number of leaders and parishes threatened to secede unless the ordination of a gay bishop by the diocese of New Hampshire was censured and revoked.1 The Episcopal Church eventually underwent a minor schism, when a few dozen conservative...
Part Three: Pragmatism, Secularism, and Internationalism
Thirteen: Each Attitude a Syllable: The Linguistic Turn in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience
When William James began the Gifford Lectures in Natural Religion before a larger than expected and by all accounts sympathetic audience at Edinburgh, in May 1901, he did so with a bit of anxiety (or at least, performed anxiety) around the very act of speaking: “To us Americans,” he intoned, “the experience...
Fourteen: Protestant Pragmatism in China, 1919–1927
In May 1919 John Dewey arrived in China for what he imagined would be a brief visit. Chinese scholars eagerly anticipating the arrival of the great pragmatist philosopher met him at the docks. Dewey intended to stay for two months and wound up staying over two years, during which time attendance at his lectures...
Fifteen: Demarcating Democracy: Liberal Catholics, Protestants, and the Discourse of Secularism
Fears that Catholicism would undermine the cultural foundations of American democracy abounded in the World War II era. As the historian John T. McGreevy explains in Catholicism and American Freedom (2003), many liberal Protestants, Jews, humanists, and naturalists believed that democracy required a thoroughly anti-authoritarian culture, and they suspected...
Sixteen: Religious Liberalism and the Liberal Geopolitics of Religion
This essay was originally titled “Liberalism and Ambivalence.” The ambivalence was my own, and in the company of the vibrant scholars and champions of religious liberalism collected here it made itself felt as a kind of embarrassment, a desire to trot out my own religious-liberal bona fides before proceeding further. I believe in gay marriage...
Afterword and Commentary: Religious Liberalism and Ecumenical Self-Interrogation
The inability of the provincial American Christian to deal with the cosmopolitan confrontations of modern, urban life was a theme of The Secular City, a runaway bestseller of 1965 written by the liberal theologian Harvey Cox. This manifesto for a politically engaged religion was organized around human responsibility for the destiny of a world wrongly assumed...