Book Review

“Neither Left nor Right: Christian Realists and the Surprising History of American Conservatism”

The Right of the Protestant Left: God's Totalitarianism

a review by Gene Zubovich

The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism
By Mark Thomas Edwards
296 pages. Palgrave Macmillian, 2012.

Reinhold Niebuhr sponsored an interracial farmer’s cooperative in the South, John Mackay backed the Peruvian “American Popular Revolutionary Alliance,” and John Bennett was a member of the Fellowship of Socialist Christians. These are some of the 30-odd men (along with two women) who came together in the Theological Discussion Group in the 1930s to form the heart of the “Realist” coalition. Historians have written about this group before but Mark Thomas Edwards offers a new perspective in his The Right of the Protestant Left. Edwards argues that the Realists, a group conventionally understood to be part of the political left, are best viewed as one variety of American conservatism. Edwards acknowledges the Realists’ left-leaning politics but shows, more convincingly than other accounts, their conservative inclinations.

That the Realists developed a “conservative public theology” is not Edwards’ only argument. He makes a strong case that this group’s social concerns mirrored those of the turn-of-the-century Progressive reformers, who also prioritized the protection of local communities by decentralizing political and economic power. Edwards also describes the Realists as “countertotalitarian,” by which he means they opposed the growing popularity of fascism and communism by infusing Christianity into every aspect of life. For the Realists, secularization was “a satanic design” that had to be fought, not accommodated. Edwards’ conservative frame, however, is the most arresting of the arguments in this book and it is the one Edwards develops most meticulously.

From the beginning of The Right of the Protestant Left we get a strong sense of the conservative instincts of the Realists. We learn that many came from rural backgrounds and, unlike the cosmopolitans of the Chicago School of Sociology, the Realists did not wear their urbanism as a badge of honor. Rather, they were repelled by the “Megalopolis,” which they saw as the main force destroying “organic” social relationships. Like the Progressives before them, Realists desired “to develop participatory democratic governance” through decentralization (20).

The young Realists were sympathetic to fundamentalism, and Edwards’ careful account of the divergence of the two groups in the 1920s is one of his key contributions. Evangelist Billy Sunday, for example, enthralled the young Reinhold Niebuhr, and future Union Theological Seminary President Henry Pitney Van Dusen became born-again while attending one of Sunday’s services. Niebuhr and Van Dusen had theologically-liberal sympathies but they wanted to maintain a united Protestantism. Realists parted ways with fundamentalists during the Scopes Trial and other controversies of the 1920s, partly out of their commitment to tolerance and science. But Realists were put-off by the business-mindedness of churches and admired the deep, emotional piety of the fundamentalists.

The Realists found that piety in the “high church” movement, which peaked in the 1920s. The Catholic-inspired neo-Gothic design that characterized the Riverside Church across from Union seminary in New York served as a prime example of their commitment to an emotional religion. Conveniently neglecting that the church was itself a product of modern capitalism (John Rockefeller paid for it) the Realists saw the architecture as the perfect way to resacralize the Megalopolis. Edwards contends that the Realists were not simply anti-modern. In fact, they were heirs to William James’ project of reconciling religion with science. They subjected Christianity to historical empiricism and psychological inquiry in order to find some basic, universal truth that could be used to fortify America against the specter of secularism. What they found was that “high church” Christianity could simultaneously create local bonds between people and overcome nationalist impulses on the world stage, a combination Edwards calls “glocal.” As he puts it, the Realists saw the “need for an independent ‘world-wide lay movement’ of supersaints to discipline global unilateralist impulses” (36). Realists articulated “more audacious expressions of planetary Protestant hegemony than would ever be uttered by the nationalistic new Christian right” (51). The Realists called it “Christendom,” a concept derived from medieval Catholic theology that pointed to a restoration of organic social bonds.

The Theological Discussion Group, which the Realists formed in 1933, was an organization first given prominence in Heather Warren’s Theologians for a New World Order.[1] Edwards furthers our understanding of the group by focusing our attention on Francis Pickens Miller, who was John R. Mott’s replacement as head of the World Student Christian Federation. Reinhold Niebuhr is present and much discussed, but Edwards shows that along with his brother H. Richard and German theologian Paul Tillich, Niebuhr was on the margins of the group’s articulation of Christendom. It was Miller who articulated most clearly the role of the Christian churches in the new world order they were preparing.

Miller imagined a transatlantic West that would be bound together by American industrial methods and the increasing use of the English language. He was critical of the homogenization caused by consumerism but nonetheless believed modern methods could be used to spread a premodern Christendom that would unify Europe and America. Miller’s ambivalence about the modern economy was also present in the Realists’ views on the New Deal. The Realists would praise Roosevelt’s individual initiatives but worried about the sum of its parts, which they believed added up to a creeping fascism. At home and abroad, they looked for a restored medieval Christianity as the countervailing power that would reconcile technological modernity with local human needs.

A question remained about Christendom: how coercive would the Realists’ new world be? They became preoccupied with democracy during WWII but Edwards argues that this only complicated things. Christendom was coercive whereas democracy was inclusive. And reconciliation between the two was not easy. How do you restore the organic bonds of medieval society when Muslims, Jews, and nominal Christians were not interested in taking part in Christendom? Edwards points to T.S. Eliot, who participated on the margins of the Realist discussions and had no qualms about saying that restrictions ought to be placed on Jews and other non-Christians. Most Realists did not go that far but they did miss an opportunity to create a more inclusive world. Edwards sees the model of the National Council of Christians and Jews, founded in 1928, as a potential pluralistic alternative to Christendom in the fight against secularism. But it was passed over. In fact, it would not be until well after WWII, when the Realists gave up on Christendom, that Protestantism could become truly pluralistic and attentive to the needs of the Global South.

Edwards’ account of the WWII era would be strengthened by an engagement with John Nurser’s For All Peoples and All Nations, which offers a much more optimistic take on the concept of “Christendom.”[2] According to Nurser, transatlantic ecumenism was both pluralistic and accommodating of secular institutions during the 1940s. He also situates Protestant engagement with the United Nations and human rights within John Dewey’s educational framework, which the Realists at least partially rejected. Edwards’ account of mid-century Protestantism is more substantial than Nurser’s on a number of points and would only be bolstered by fleshing out the differences with Nurser more clearly.

As The Right of the Protestant Left proceeds into its third section called “Becoming Conservative Socialists, 1948-1980,” the subject matter shifts dramatically. The actors are no longer “Realists” but “Realists and ecumenists,” and sometimes just “ecumenists.” Much of the discussion revolves around the World Council of Churches, a Protestant answer to the global reach of the Catholic Church and the primary Protestant organization combating secularism. During the 1940s many of the Realists gained positions of power in the World Council. At the same time, their Theological Discussion Group was flooded with new members. Even though some of the founders continued to show up to meetings, by the 1950s the group no longer maintained the kind of coherence it had earlier. It makes sense for Edwards to shift his focus to the World Council, in whose policies he sees articulation of Realist ideas. But the Realists were one of a number of theological forces in the World Council, which represented hundreds of millions of Protestants, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians world-wide. This section would benefit from a discussion of some of the Realists’ theological competitors.

Edwards shows us that the World Council of Churches articulated a vision of the “Responsible Society,” a third way between Capitalism and Communism. Other accounts of Realism, which put Niebuhr at the center, have portrayed the Realists as Cold Warriors. But Edwards shows that there was significant opposition to Cold War militarism. The biggest development for the Realists via the World Council of Churches is the latter’s embrace of the Global South. In the wake of WWII non-Western Christians pushed the World Council to take a more committed position in support of decolonization. The World Council supported land redistribution, eventually called for divestment in South Africa, and even sent non-military aid during the 1970s to nationalist rebel groups seeking to eject European powers from Africa. In the postwar era the Realists abandoned Christendom without abandoning their concern for local organic relationships. Only after casting Christian hegemony aside could they embrace the Global South.

Toward the end of the book Edwards’ attention to the conservative aspects of Realism reaches fruition. He first shows that Realists were not alone in linking traditionalist social concerns with progressive politics. Realists’ Burkian sensibilities had strong parallels to the views of Russell Kirk and Peter Viereck, who also took on a number of liberal political positions grounded in socially conservative views. Moreover, Edwards argues that Realism, particularly its emphasis on small-scale organic community, was the missing link between turn-of-the-century Progressivism and the 1960s New Left. There were individuals who linked the Realists to the New Left, like Niebuhr’s student, who wrote the “values” section of the Port Huron Statement. But more importantly, the concern of both the Realists and the New Left for the small scale organic community, what Tom Hayden called “The Beloved Community,” is the central continuity. This is, for Edwards, the main conservative tenant of America’s twentieth century. It is as critically important for understanding the history of liberalism as it is for understanding the history of American conservatism. Reveling in this contrarian assertion, Edwards forces us to rethink our categories and ask, are liberals the true conservatives?

As a collective biography of a generation of thinkers, the book has both strengths and weaknesses. Coherence of narrative is one of the principle strengths. We see the world through the eyes of a generation that remained, to the end, antisecularists. At the same time, we miss much of the therapeutic Christianity that became hugely popular during the 1950s along with existentialism, with which the Realists only flirted. We also do not have a sense of the place of Harvey Cox, whose work, The Secular City, “welcomed godless Megalopolis into Evangelical Catholic fortresses” (171). Surely there are strong links between the kind of “Christian agnosticism” that William James pioneered, and which the Realists developed, to Cox and the secularization of American Christianity, even if Realists were horrified at the prospect of a godless America. These themes, which were not pursued, may better explain the relationship between postwar Protestantism and the New Left.

Historians will appreciate the narrative of Christian Realism that is (rightly) not centered on Reinhold Niebuhr. Edwards also makes key contributions to our understanding of the conservative impulses of American Protestantism, as it undergirded a politics that supported economic rights and Third World liberation. But the real contribution of The Right of the Protestant Left is the questions it raises about our narratives of the liberal/conservative divide and about the continuing significance of religion to our understanding of the twentieth century. This book is a welcome addition to our historiography on these subjects and will aid in clarifying key questions, with which intellectual historians have been grappling.



[1] Heather A. Warren, Theologians of a New World Order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists, 1920-1948 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[2] John Nurser, For All Peoples and All Nations: The Ecumenical Church and Human Rights (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005).

Gene Zubovich is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California,
Berkeley. He is completing his dissertation, “The Global Gospel: American
Protestants and the Challenge of World Leadership, 1942-1950,” which
explores changes in Protestant engagement with social problems during the
1940s.

One Thought on this Post

  1. I’ve been thinking about this excellent review of my book today and wanted to offer a few admissions:

    1) Gene suggests that I am generally inattentive to varities of liberal Protestantism. That’s largely true. I should have spent more time outlining those differences while explaining more fully why what I call in the book “liberal evangelicalism” was overwhelmingly the theological persuasion of ecumenicals and ecumenical-affiliated (not necessarily all “mainline”) churches. Van Dusen himself would say in 1947 that liberal evangelicalism was THE theology of the Protestant world mission. An overstatement, no doubt; but it certainly gets at the orientation of Van Dusen and other World Council of Churches founders. Of course, that begs the question of what was/is liberal evangelicalism. To sum up what I say in the book, liberal evangelicalism is evangelicalism justified by pragmatic method rather than exclusive appeal to special revelation.

    2. Gene suggests I should have discussed the rise of existentialist-philosophy-rooted “therapeutic theology” and pastoral counciling during these years as another component of/response to what I call “Christian agnosticism.” Again, guilty as charged. In my dissertation, if you can call 400+ pages without a thesis by that name, I do spend some significant time in chapter 5 discussing Paul Tillich and therapeutic theology. In revising for publication, I couldn’t see how that material fit well with everything else and so decided to jettison it. Gene’s reaction suggests I could have tried harder to “redeem” it. I’m very appreciative of the time Gene gave to my work and also want to thank LD, Mary Ellen, and USIH for comissioning it.

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