Book Review

“Redeeming the Times: Consumerism and the Cultural Victory of Liberal Religion”

rise of liberal religiona review by Jon Wood

The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the TwentiethCentury
by Matthew S. Hedstrom
288 pages. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Did liberal religion “rise” in early- to mid-twentieth-century America? It is a surprising thesis. Histories dominated by the fundamentalist-modernist controversies have tended to portray liberalism entering a period of moribundity in precisely that time; World War I corroded earlier liberal religious optimism, the rising ethos of mass society eroded traditional religious bulwarks, a new cultural orientation toward personal experience over dogmatic content blunted religious profile, and, amidst it all, demographic trends of membership in liberal Christian denominations seemed to begin a long march of decline. Hedstrom acknowledges all this at the outset, and yet he assures us (with a nod to the sociologist Christian Smith) that liberal religion’s well documented decline in this period is actually a sign of its “cultural victory” in manifestations beyond the place of worship.

Any history that reckons with cultural transformations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries must reckon with the conspicuous advent of mass culture. For the first time ever, the population in industrialized nations became more urban than rural, and the very contour of those cities—with their department stores, public transportation, sporting associations, and ads and newsprint and therefore assumed literacy—established a demonstrable consumer ethic. Hedstrom notes how the phenomenon of World War I corroded the social, moral optimism of nineteenth-century liberalism, even as it contributed to a new, more consumer-oriented liberal religious activism that required the context of mass society as a given. Twentieth-century liberalism created a symbiosis with market forces of book culture. Psychology, mysticism, and so-called Mind Cure or New Thought (or, “positive thinking”) provided liberal religion with the idiom of a “middlebrow” discourse. This middlebrow book culture aimed to develop and harness the religious insights and sensibilities of a consumer community of urbanites. These reader/consumers were not confined within the typical distinctions of highbrows vs. lowbrows and they refused the provincialism of denominational or institutional (or, as it happened, fascist) homogeneity. Traditional metrics of denominational affiliation present a misleading picture of disintegration. By focusing instead on the middlebrow book culture—including some of its characteristic ideals and measurable data of consumption—Hedstrom demonstrates the surprising coherence and the broader, cultural triumph of liberal religion in the period of the 1920s to 1940s. In six concise chapters, Hedstrom presents the history of this development.

The first chapter explores the ways in which liberal religious leaders abandoned their erstwhile reluctance to harness market forces. The impetus to overcome this hesitancy appears to have involved new zeal to permeate culture with moral responsibility, lest the brute (or naïve) mechanisms of “progress” once again crush humanity as they clearly had during the First World War. Hedstrom here pays careful attention to the perfect match of such motivations with the fact that the U.S. population was more urban and literate than ever before. The campaigns of “Religious Book Week,” beginning in 1921, allowed book publishers and vendors to cash in while also acting in good faith to “redeem” the very culture of consumerism. (“Redemption” is, incidentally, a perfect term for this phenomenon, given the word’s etymological significance encompassing theological ideas of salvation as well as meanings of ransom and buying at a price.) Narrow, denominational concerns profited little—both in terms of sheer remuneration for the industry and in terms of the need to address spiritual needs of increasingly cosmopolitan readers. It is ironic—though perhaps in the “redemptive” mechanism, appropriately so—that the advertising techniques of posters promoting character-building books derived fairly directly from the poster-propaganda of World War I (itself a result of the new roles of advertising in manipulating popular appetites in industrialized mass society).

Chapter two explores the development of the concept of “middlebrow” in the 1920s as a positive reflection of democratic society. The older phrenological distinction between highbrow experts and lowbrow peons gave way to a vast, acquisitive middling sort. The middlebrow reader aspired to transcend mere consumerism; such persons acquired and engaged with books in order to better themselves. (Incidentally, these specific observations in chapter two may have strengthened chapter one, where Hedstrom has already frequently used the concept of “middlebrow.”) Hedstrom also notes the complicated relationship between “highbrow” experts who sought to provide direction that would empower the autonomy of the middlebrows. This discussion draws out the ways in which established authorities of institutional identity contributed to the weakening of traditional cultural hegemony. Hedstrom highlights the religious reading lists prepared by the non-confessional American Library Association or the ecumenical movement of the “Religious Book Club.” In such contexts, scientific psychology purported to reveal the true nature of the human condition, while a parallel interest in mysticism aimed to preserve spiritual depth from the dangers of scientific reductionism. New Thought/Mind Cure/Positive Thinking could involve both psychological and mystical elements in its own idiom of self-transcendent betterment. In the 1920s, the middlebrow readership acquired social profile.

Chapter three then presents some of the relevant biographical details of editorial leaders in the emergent religious niche of the publishing industry. With special attention to Eugene Exman of Harpers, Hedstrom shows that the differentiation between confessional “theology” and broader “religion” was advantageous to the industry, but that it was by no means merely crass profiteering. Exman and other pioneers of the field of religious publishing were themselves conscientious proponents of more open-ended “seeker spirituality.” Again, Hedstrom demonstrates the dominant categories of psychology, mysticism, and mind cure in constituting this phase of liberal religion. Editor-providers as well as middlebrow consumers together challenged the institutional authority of old-guard Protestantism that increasingly appeared commercially and spiritually provincial.

In chapters four and five, Hedstrom discusses the ways in which the era of World War II provided an essential context for the maturation of liberal religion. Whereas the Depression had hit most industries very hard, the war machine inspired a veritable revival from shipyard to publishing house. Proving how and why “we” of the liberal democracy were not “those” of the fascist right motivated religious literature as part of “the war effort.” This fit quite nicely with the liberal quest for non-sectarian religious unity amidst diversity. Effective coordination quickly developed between publishers and government agencies for the purpose of sharpening the middlebrow appetite for religious consumption. Books were “weapons in the war of ideas.” Thus the “Council on Books in Wartime” coordinated with the Office of War Information; the “National Conference of Christians and Jews” partnered with the “Council on Books in Wartime” and revived the 1920s precedent of a “Religious Book Week” and echoed selections from the 1930s Religious Book Club. The rhetorical coup de grâce in Hedstrom’s discussion here consists of the advent of the very term “Judeo-Christian.” An obscure technical usage of scholars since the 1890s, the liberal interfaith term “Judeo-Christian” suddenly became a regular and self-evident feature of national self-awareness and political discourse because of vigorous religious literature campaigns of World War II.

Chapter six sets out to describe the genuine complexity and coherence of postwar middlebrow religious culture. Here Hedstrom offers important counter-arguments to the straw-man view of twentieth-century liberalism. Postwar religious liberalism simply was not the decaying, shallow, sentimentalism portrayed by Will Herberg and other critics. Hedstrom presents extended examples from the life and work of Harry Emerson Fosdick, Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, and Thomas Merton. All in their different ways provide clear examples of complex critique of elements of the broader culture while also exhibiting certain features of, especially, psychological and mystical components of liberal religion. (Here, as often throughout the book, the “mind cure” or “positive thinking” element gets somewhat less empathetic treatment. One suspects that Hedstrom finds this approach to be more susceptible to some of the typical accusations of liberal religion as shallow.) Hedstrom also provides an important warning against the assumption that the significant (likely majority) female readership of the literature of religious liberalism amounted to sentimental escapism. Rather, in sharing the quest for “authentic” character, women found such literature liberating and engaging in ways that many at the time explicitly contrasted with the alternative of merely titillating fiction. Female consumption in the liberal religious marketplace likely incited a patriarchal backlash prone to characterize female involvement in liberalism as prima facie evidence of its shallowness. Hedstrom debunks such rhetoric as historically false, even as he also disproves the ideas that “interfaith” somehow equated with “secular” or that diminishing numbers of institutional affiliation necessarily meant cultural decline of religion. In fact, Hedstrom concludes by turning the tables; the cosmopolitan, interfaith community of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews (and increasingly also of Hindus, Buddhists, and others) could be said to be culturally ascendant precisely as rolls of institutional affiliation declined. By contrast, the growing numbers in postwar fundamentalist churches could actually indicate isolation and broader cultural retreat.

It would be further interesting to go beyond the scope of this small volume to explore the extent to which the rise of liberal religion in the United States related to (or spearheaded?) the rise of broader Western liberal religion. In this vein, I found myself occasionally perplexed by the extent to which Hedstrom refers to the pervasive backdrop of “mass society” in near isolation. Plainly, “mass society” was not unique or even original to the United States. On a related note, I also occasionally longed for more discussion as to how European theologians might have interacted with the rise of American liberal religion. (Hedstrom only ever names Karl Barth, for example, in lists of exemplary liberal authors without substantive discussion of how Barth actually fit, or not, within such a rubric.) I was also thrown off a bit by the sudden shift within Hedstrom’s treatment of the psychological component of American religious liberalism—specifically, the shift from the experiential spirituality of William James to the psychoanalytical techniques of (the European) Sigmund Freud. I recognize that this corresponds in many ways with Hedstrom’s narrative of the eroding of established authority of old-guard Protestantism typified by James. Still, considering Freud’s well known assessment of religion per se as something on the order of an oedipal pathology, I think Hedstrom would strengthen his narrative by giving some brief clarification as to how and why Liebman and so many other American liberal religious leaders of the time so quickly came to adopt elements of Freudian psychology in defense of their religious agenda. My last qualm arose over Hedstrom’s injudicious claim on page 223 that “Protestant identity had been forged as a movement of protest against Catholicism, and as Catholicism modernized, Protestants lost the point of origin of their axis of identity.” Of course, Hedstrom is correct to note that shared modernizing among Protestants and American Catholics did, indeed, tend to reinforce the liberal enterprise of interfaith cooperation. On the other hand, Hedstrom is quite incorrect to assert that modernizing per se was intrinsic to the Protestant “point of origin.” (The implicit reverse—that sixteenth-century Catholics were changeless mossbacks—is also false.) Most sixteenth-century reformers, Protestant or otherwise, appear to have been motivated by a desire to change the present order by retrieving what they believed to be the best ancient and/or Biblical precedents. Here Hedstrom would do better to assert that liberal Protestants of the twentieth century themselves tended to envision sixteenth-century Protestants as early modernizers, and so to that extent Hedstrom may legitimately point to a perceived point of original social disconnect being transcended by the shared modernist tendencies of liberal religion.

Some few criticisms notwithstanding, I share the widespread opinion that Hedstrom presents a clear, engaging, informative, and useful history. It is a fascinating study of religious cultural development, and of concomitant decline of certain forms of institutional authority, and, ironically, also of consolidation of new institutions that more intimately responded to while also directing consumerist mass society. Hedstrom’s discussion has the further benefit of demonstrating that the liberal transformation significantly predates the locus classicus of 1960s radicalism. Perhaps the greatest strength throughout lies in the fact that he avoids the ecclesiological, theological, or secularist animus that so often turns up in histories of this era, even though this narrative will surely prompt many fruitful follow-up discussions, theological and otherwise.

Jon Wood, Ph.D. is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the departments of History and Religious Studies at IUPUI.  In August 2013 he will be joining the Religion Department of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at The George Washington University in Washington, DC as Assistant Professor of Religion. His area of expertise is the history of Christianity, with special attention to the diverse movements in sixteenth-century Europe. His research at present focuses on eschatology in the rhetoric of institutional transformation in Reformation Zurich.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Overall, I found this review a good introduction to Hedstrom’s book but a bit nitpicky. Why, for instance, criticize Hedstrom for ignoring European theologians when he doesn’t even address American theologians (at least not in their theologian roles)? One of the main motivations for writing this book, it seems to me, was to move beyond the “history of theology” approach to liberal religion. The fallout over the p. 223 quotation is a bit confusing to me as well. Here, the reviewer missed one of the real strengths of this book: namely, Hedstrom’s efforts to understand the nature and influence of liberal, interfaith Protestantism while resisting previous criticisms of cultural historians of religion–who, reiterating Walter Lippmann and the Fundies, have presented liberals as passive victims (rather than active shapers) of consumer capitalism.

    Hopefully, future discussions will take place regarding how Hedstrom’s work intersects with the ongoing projects of several USIH bloggers. For instance, canon formation and “great books” debates, or how the “cultural victory” of liberalism could possibly coincide with the culture wars.

  2. Hedstrom acknowledges all this at the outset, and yet he assures us (with a nod to the sociologist Christian Smith) that liberal religion’s well documented decline in this period is actually a sign of its “cultural victory” in manifestations beyond the place of worship.

    The thesis holds: As the late Mick Shrimpton noted,

    “As long as there’s, you know, sex and drugs, I can do without the rock and roll.”

    As long as there’s “liberal,” I can do without the “religion.”

Comments are closed.