U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Where is the historiography of the New Religious Left?

In light of the comments on my post on John Courtney Murray and John Ford, and Tim’s post on Rick Santorum’s Catholicism, I thought of all the various books I have read and read about and skimmed through having to do with the rise of the Christian Right. Having just completed a book that deals with debates over war among religious intellectuals, I realized how lopsided the scholarship seems to be on recent American religious history. And so, I have a query for our community: what books, essays, lectures capture this history of the religious LEFT since the 1970s?

Let me provide some context for my question. I have referred in the past to a comment that Martin Marty made on Krista Tippet’s APM show (now called ‘Being’) in which he suggested that rarely had a religious group given up so much power with so little resistance as the liberal Protestant establishment had in the post-WWII period. Marty illustrated his point by explaining that when he began to write for the Christian Century in the late 1950s he was told to avoid saying much that was positive about Catholics, yet by the early 1960s, that editorial policy had been reversed as the U.S. slid into an ecumenical awakening. As Robert Wuthnow documented in his useful history, The Restructuring of American Religion, by the early 1970s, the liberal religious establishment no longer had coherence and in its wake a conservative surge had taken its place.
We have had many fine examples of scholarship on the rise of the New Christian Right, among such works are those by Dan Williams (a participant at the S-USIH conference), Bethany Moreton, Darren Dochuk, Lisa McGirr, Kim Phillips-Fein, Patrick Allitt, Michael Lienesch, and even Gary Wills, to name just a few. There are books by leaders of the Christian left–Stanley Hauerwas, Jim Wallis (pictured above being arrested), William Cavanaugh, Cornel West–that serve as examples of their critique of the right, of the nation-state, of war, but were are the historical assessments of their work? James Davison Hunter has recently produced a book, To Change the World, which I have not yet read and it seems to survey and critique Hauerwas’s position on issues of church and state interaction, but I consider Hunter as much a participant of the era he surveys as anything else.
Again, where are books about the religious left that are comparable to those on the religious right?

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hollinger’s 2011 OAH address might be a good entry point here. He has the .pdf available — no paywall! — on his UC Berkeley faculty page:

    After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity

    Following along the same basic lines of his argument, perhaps one reason for the seeming bibliographic imbalance may be the way that the religious left has been dispersed/diffused/secularized — it is less visible, but no less effective. Like leaven, I suppose?

    Anyway, the footnotes/bibliography of that paper could be a promising place to begin digging.

    (But you are asking about the NEW religious left. So, what’s “new” about it?)

    [Reposted this comment, but with a WORKING LINK this time]

  2. This may not be exactly what you’re looking for, and it certainly stretches back much further than the ’70’s… but Gary Dorrien’s multi-volume The Making of American Liberal Theology seems like an obvious place to start.

  3. Ray — would you mind if I crossposted this over at Religion in American History? You’ll get a bunch of responses there. There are several things coming out about the religious left in the near future, I would put them here now but have a full day of univ. meetings I have to be at, so I’ll try to get back here maybe this weekend. Anyway, I’ll at least put a cross-link up at RiAH and see what people have to say.

  4. There isn’t too much out there, especially covering recent decades. You’ll have a little better luck finding books dealing with the religious left in the first half of the twentieth century. There are several good books on the Social Gospel of the 1870s-1920s. Most of these are decades old and present the Social Gospel as something that died out during either World War I or World War II, so they won’t necessarily help you understand the religious left of today (though I’m not exactly sure one could ever understand the religious left in the U.S. without looking at the Social Gospel movement).

    I’d say the best place to start for the Christian Left in the 20th century is Robert Moats Miller, _American Protestantism and Social Issues, 1919-1939_(Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1958). Miller’s also written several biographies of the sorts of people who would be included in the Christian Left: Harry Emerson Fosdick, G Bromley Oxnam, Ernest Fremont Tittle, etc.

    I’m at an office job at the moment, so I don’t have access to my bibliography, but these are a few more recent books that come to mind:

    Dorrien, Gary. _Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity_. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

    Hulsether, Mark. _Building a Protestant Left: Christianity and Crisis Magazine, 1941-1933_. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.

    Hall, Mitchell K. _Because of their faith : CALCAV and religious opposition to the Vietnam War_. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

    Kosek, Joseph Kip. _Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy_. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

    Friedland, Michael B. _Lift Your Voice Like a Trumpet: White Clergy and the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements, 1954-1973_. Chapel Hill: UNC Presss, 1998.

    Chappel, David L. _A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow_. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2004.

    If you’d consider an autobiography/memoir, I highly recommend that of Robert McAfee Brown, a student of Reinhold Niebuhr’s who was active in the civil rights movement and Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. He was also a champion of Latin American Liberation Theology and helped draw attention to the movement in the U.S. Plus, he’s a good writer who’ll make you laugh a bit along the way:

    Brown, Robert McAfee. _Reflections Over the Long Haul: A Memoir_. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

    I actually started my dissertation in the hopes of writing some grand narrative of the religious left from where Miller left off (1939) to the present. Instead, I ended up with a dissertation that covers 1930-1939–go figure.

  5. Great question regarding this imbalance in the historiography–and two forthcoming books are offering assessments of the evangelical left.

    David Swartz’s book (University of Pennsylvania Press, due out in the fall I believe) analyzes the roots of the evangelical left in the 1950s and 1960s and assesses its fragmentation through the 1970s and 1980s.

    My own work on progressive evangelicalism since the 1960s (University of North Carolina Press, due out in 2013) focuses on Sojourners and Jim Wallis, a journal entitled The Other Side, and Evangelicals for Social Action under the leadership of Ron Sider.

    In brief: my analysis focuses on the movement’s distinctive political philosophy—what I have labeled “a public theology of community” that prioritizes social justice. I argue that progressive evangelicals have advocated a communitarian ethic and its constraints on individuals’ sovereignty in order to promote interdependent welfare. Their convictions regarding the common good and the demands of social justice have led progressive evangelical leaders to advocate an array of public policies that has distinguished them, of course, from both the Religious Right and political and theological liberals—e.g. they championed affirmative action; supported the Equal Rights Amendment; identified as “completely pro-life;” defended the civil rights of gays and lesbians while (mostly) resisting affirmations of same-sex behavior; urged expansive welfare programs; and campaigned for nuclear disarmament.

    So David and I are hoping that our books provide a good start for a more robust historiography on the religious left. But there is more to be done.

  6. Thank to you all for the responses. Brantley, I very much look forward to the books from you and David Swartz. It appears that you two would have a good handle on the historiography that I am in search for. And Bo, I agree that Brown’s autobiography is an excellent bridge between the era of Niebuhr and era of, perhaps, Wallis and Neuhaus.


  7. May I put in a plea that the New Religious Left has included (sometimes prominently) people in non-Christian religions? This is on my mind at the moment ’cause I’m putting together a lecture on Jews and the Counterculture. Surely, e.g., the journal Tikkun has been an important organ of the New Religious Left.

  8. I agree Ben, but has anyone placed it in historical context? Clearly, Jews on the political right factor into books on the history of the New Religious Right, so I would assume someone would do the same for the New Religious Left. Again, I don’t know if my tag fits–is there a New Religious Left in the same way that its counterpart exists?

  9. I’m pretty sure that there’s been some academic work in Judaic Studies on the Jewish religious left in this country, but I don’t really know that historiography at all well.

    And work in Judaic Studies might not put the Jewish religious left in the context of some larger “New Religious Left” (should that be “New Religious Lefts“?).

    I would imagine that any comprehensive conception of an American post-1960s New Religious Left would also have to include developments in various non-Abrahamic faiths, e.g., Western Buddhism and various neo-pagan movements (e.g. Wicca).

  10. Great question—and very helpful discussion, especially about broadening the parameters of a conceptualized religious left. David’s and Brantley’s books on the evangelical left both will make a splash. For what it’s worth, my current book project treats the evangelical right and left in side-by-side fashion and suggests how, at least during the height of George W. Bush’s unpopularity (2005-2008), the evangelical left came to function as a kind of media proxy for the religious left as a whole. (Note: I posted a similar comment on the RiAH blog.)

  11. I’m currently in the early stages of a dissertation on the Christian World Liberation Front (which David Swartz discusses in his excellent dissertation), and the subsequent lives of its members and fellow-travelers. I’m especially interested in the way tendencies toward radical projects of community-building led to major cultural shifts – shifts which evangelicals from across the political and theological spectrum were caught up in. (Think, for example, about how Anglicanism and Anglophilia increasingly appealed, albeit in different ways, to both conservative homeschoolers and evangelical feminists).

    (I’ve cross-posted this at RiAH, as well, although I suspect any interested parties are following both comment threads).

  12. My (still very much in progress) dissertation is on the historical roots of the contemporary “emerging church” movement, arguing that it is, at least in part, a resurgence of the movement begun by the evangelical left in the 1970s. Seeds were planted then that have taken a generation to bear more noticeable fruit.

    So yeah, stay tuned for that. It’s still a few years off.

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