U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Emerging Historiography of the New Religious Left

Last week I asked about the historiography of the contemporary religious left. The response to my post was another illustration of the promise of blogging–I have a great list of books to read and a list of work from scholars to follow. I have listed suggestions from comments on this site and Religion in American History. Before that, though, I have a couple more questions. Is there a corollary problem in the historiography of the American left over the same period, from 1970 to the present? And if so, what’s the connection, if there is one?

One obvious answer is that this was the age of fracture of the left and political consolidation for the right. And so, in the age of Reagan, as Sean Wilentz explains, conservatism offered the most significant organizing principle and political target. Thus the historiography has followed the power, in a sense.
But that is far from the end of the story or stories that are being and will be written. Below is preliminary list of books on the New Religious Left since 1970.
Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (1988)–the latter chapters
Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s (1998)
Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmoderninty: 1950-2005 (2006)
Dorrien, Soul in Society (1996)
Dean Hodge, Benton Johnson, and Donald Luidens, Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers (1994)
Amanda Porterfield, The Transformation of American Religion: The Story of a Late Twentieth Century Awakening (2001)
David Swartz’s book on the evangelical left from the 1950s to the 1980s due out from the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2012
Brantley Gasaway’s book on progressive evangelicalism since the 1960s due out from UNC Press in 2013
For an interview with both Swartz and Gasaway see this site
Pamela Cochran, Evangelical Feminism: A History (2005)
Two projects from Catherine Osborne on Catholics and the moderate-left in the postwar era
Charles Struass is working on American Catholics and US foreign policy toward Central America in the 1970s and 1980s
Dan McKanan, Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition (2011)
McKanan, The Catholic Worker after Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation (2008)
Sarah McFarland Taylor, Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology (2007)
Amy Koehlinger, The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s (2007)
Lillian Calles Barger is at work on a history of Liberation Theology from its origins in early Enlightenment thought to the present.
Shawn David Young, is at work on a book on the Jesus People USA.
Adam Parsons is working on a dissertation on the Christian World Liberation Front
David King is working on the World Vision a Christian NGO
Marcia Pally, The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good (2011)
James Bielo, Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity (2011)

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I was always interested in the relation between religious and political expressions of left and right, complicated by the fact that “liberal” has long been a theological as well as a political label.

    The correlation historically isn’t perfect: for instance, in the late 19th century some religiously conservative people were politically radical, eg, some Christian socialists. On the other hand, religious liberalism was not invariably associated with political progressivism. Wasn’t the present fairly strong association between political conservatism and religious fundamentalism forged in the aftermath of the first world war?

    I wonder what the dynamic is here, the nexus or back-and-forth between political positions or dispositions, and religious orientations? Which I guess, more broadly, is a question about how people conceptualize and negotiate the boundaries between the religious and political in the first place.

    This might be a useful question to explore, in hopes of forestalling in this instance the sometime historiographic tendency to go too far in one direction, prompting a reaction toward some equally one-sided topical interest, or point of view. First the right, then the left; how about both, comparatively, interactively?

  2. Thanks Bill. I wonder if part of the reason we have had relatively few studies on the New Christian Left is that, as a few others have already said and as you suggest, there is not a clean connection between politics and theology on the left. In other words, the the age of fracture is a notion that better describes the recent history of conservatism and not of religion. Leaders of the Religious Left have provided critiques of both neo-conservatism and liberalism; and of issues from abortion to church-state relations that do not automatically fall into a discrete political categories for them.

  3. Lillian Calles Barger is a colleague of mine at UT Dallas. I know her profs, and I know her scholarship, so I expect that her history of Liberation Theology will be outstanding. Keep your eyes peeled, folks.

  4. Ray – I wasn’t primarily asking whether, as you say, there is a “clean connection between politics and theology on the left,” but rather how it happened that we use the same metaphors to describe political and religious positions in the first place. Did they originate in politics and get carried over into religion, or vice versa? Is it a matter of analogizing, a “contagion of metaphors,” and which primarily has been the site of “reception?” Or, as you seem to imply, is it more useful to think of political and religious manifestations of a more unitary or inclusive ‘thing,’ in this instance the left. If we’re talking about “ideology,” is it a political concept, or something more encompassing?

    Finally, I didn’t understand your statement that “the age of fracture is a notion that better describes the recent history of conservatism and not of religion.” Do you think that if the worlds of religion and politics become organized around the same set of distinctions – left and right – that would suggest a sort of counter- fracturing, in that two smaller ‘parts’ are mapped using the same metaphors?

  5. Bill: It seems to me that the historiography of recent religious history reflects political cleavages and conflicts ( demonstrating some ideological stances) rather than longer-term patterns in religious history. So we get the age of fracture that does well to describe what conservative politics and, to a more limited extent, conservative religious groups have identified as significant patterns in recent American history. Does fracture accurately depict what those of the religious moderate left and left see as patterns of the same period? Sean Wilentz summarizes what I think many people understand about recent history breaking into two periods, the New Deal era that ends with the rise of Nixon and the Conservative era running through to today. In one sense that describes something about religious history over the same period: the decline of liberal theology’s dominance and the rise of conservative religion’s political power. My question is why it seems that this division makes more sense to the New Religious Right than to the New Religious Left. My sense is that the New Religious Left actually resists the ideological baggage of liberalism over this period and is not as easily linked to the politics of the left as the New Religious Right is linked to the politics of the right. Thus we don’t get as much on the New Religious Left because that history doesn’t fit so neatly into the political history that Wilentz and others promote.

  6. Ray – Thanks for the response, which clarifies your take on these issues, and offers many interesting points to investigate. Others who know a lot about recent religious history might be able to evaluate your politicized view of it.

    When you refer to “division” I assume you mean the left-right, not the historiographic, division, and here too I have to plead ignorance regarding the suggestion that the right understands things more in these terms than the left. On the other hand, is the religious left more alienated from the “ideological baggage of liberalism” than the non-religious left? How are we demarcating “left” and “liberal” here?

    Maybe the early ‘70s shouldn’t be taken as a rigid historiographic dividing line, as if there were no conservatism on one side of it, and no left or liberalism on the other. Rodgers certainly resists that understanding. On the other hand, it will provide opportunities for future historians’ “discoveries.”

    You say that “the age of fracture…does well to describe what conservative politics and, to a more limited extent, conservative religious groups have identified as significant patterns in recent American history.” Doesn’t this depend on whether you’re talking about Hal Lindsay, the Left Behind pre-millennialism, Constitutional originalism, libertarianism, Reagan’s new morning in America, or neo-conservative hyper-nationalism? Presumably these manifested and/or oriented themselves to the “age of fracture” notion in somewhat different ways.

  7. Chiming in late in this discussion: having just spent a week thinking about the Jewish Counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seems to me that rigidly dividing post-60s religion into a “left” and a “right” (let alone assuming that these are the same as political left and right) is a recipe for missing important divisions and connections in American religious and cultural life. For example, how can one really understand a figure like Francis Schaeffer (presumably on the political and religious right, if we want to talk in those terms) without also seeing him as part of the counterculture?

    Then again, IANAHOAR (I Am Not An Historian Of American Religion), so I’m very much playing out of my sub-field here!

  8. There is always a tension between religion and politics. Religion is typically hard and fast steeped in dogma and centuries of tradition and reluctant to change. Politics is more mutable, it changes with the times because the times demand it change and adapt. Religion changes on edges but the fundamental precepts, belief in God, devotion to God’s laws, and typically a hierarchical structure that interprets and explicates God’s laws makes religion resistant to change.
    To a certain degree this tension is mirrored in the right/left schism that defines American politics. I see the religious right embracing religion where the left is not so nearly comfortable and in fact is frequently critical of religion.

    This is a difficult topic because religion and leftist politics never make a lot of sense to me. I know it exists but…speaking strictly from a Judeo Christian perspective isn’t a religious mind inherently conservative, or should I say inherently conformative? The belief in God is a done deal, and the fundamental precepts are accepted else why belong to a religion. As a rule it seems the religious left would coalesce over a perceived great moral wrong (e.g. Vietnam War) and then recede into a more quiescent period. My point is that religion by its nature looks to the next world for salvation and therefore tends to look for personal rectitude more than social change. Religious conservative, to me, is tautological; to be religious is to be conservative but a religious liberal is a mind in turmoil torn between theism and politics or maybe more temporal concerns. The historian John Lukacs maintains that an historian of religion is most effective if he/she is a member of the faith they are examining, that their knowledge and appreciation of that faith makes them more able to present a committed narrative. I don’t know if I believe that but if it true then it may also be true that a religious conservative might be more committed to his/her theology than a liberal. I’m not sure that’s a valid comparison and I’ve drawn some broad strokes here but maybe more perceptive minds will straighten me out.

  9. I just ran across this book, as its author has an essay in the forthcoming Andrew Bacevich collection, The Short American Century. It may be useful, although it also has the worst cover I’ve ever seen on an academic book:

    Eugene McCarraher, Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern Social Thought (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000)

  10. Ben – I know very little about Francis Schaeffer, so I’m not sure in what sense he might be considered part of the counter-culture, but I share your perception that the political labels don’t readily apply in these other spheres, or carry over straightforwardly into politics. To me the counter-culture was very mixed, ambiguous and conflicted in its political “meaning,” implications and, perhaps even more, in its consequences over an extended period. At the time, its vaguely leftist, communalist character was widely taken more/less for granted, but many now see it having been more libertarian. At the same time, Occupy seems to have taken some of it as an exemplum. Maybe it’s finally a bit reductive to treat such movements in political terms, especially given our binary left/right framework, which also tends to organize our historiography.

    Paul – You raise good points, but perhaps you’re being overly typological. What of the many instances of religious change and conflict, movements and revolutions? Aren’t there aspects of politics that tend to persist over time, eg, the reactionary conservative mind, ala Corey Robin? Are the differences between religious liberals and conservatives really as reliable as you suggest?

  11. My book is not directly political — it’s a cultural history of religious liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century — but I do allude to political implications. It’s Matthew S. Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press), to be published in October 2012.

  12. Do any of these titles cover “engaged Buddhism” (e.g., Christopher S. Queen, Gary Snyder, Sallie B. King, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, ‘queer Buddhists’ and so forth) in this country? While not all self-described American Buddhists who identify with “engaged Buddhism” (which exists outside the states as well) would consider themselves Leftist, I think it is largely a Left orientation or at least has Left provenance. (And, for what it’s worth, I’m a member of the ‘Religious Left,’ as are my co-bloggers at ReligiousLeftLaw.com)

  13. Thanks Patrick. You demonstrate why I asked the question in the first place. Thanks for adding to our list.

    Matt, I am glad you added your name as well to the conversation of the emerging historiography of post-1970 religious left.

    Andrew: I like McCarraher book a great deal, and think he is a representative of someone others will write about when they think about the New Religious Left, but his book ends in the early 1970s.

    Ben: Francis Schaeffer is an interesting example and someone that is typically placed on the right–as an inspiration to the Moral Majority. It is also useful to compare him to someone such as J. Bryan Hehir in terms of what it meant to be counter-cultural in the 1970s.

    Paul: great points and questions and as Bill suggests, these are avenues for great and further research.

  14. Let me add a few other titles:

    Angela Lahr, Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares, has a chapter on the evangelical left.

    Also, following up on Dorrien, check out his Social Ethics in the Making and The Remaking of Evangelical Theology.

    Finally, Mark Hulsether, Building a Protestant Left, is a tremendous study of Christianity and Crisis’s interaction with liberation theology, etc.

    I want to reinforce that McCarraher’s book is ESSENTIAL to a study of the religious left.

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