Gene Zubovich

Before the Religious Right

Mark Tooley on June 6, 2022

Here I interview University of Buffalo history professor Gene Zubovich on his new book Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States. His cites the divisions and decline of historically liberal Mainline Protestantism as precursors to contemporary American polarization. As the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Zubovich says he never expected to become a historian of liberal American Protestants. But his encounter with an early 20th century Congregationalist minister’s critique of American racial attitudes grabbed his interest. I enjoyed this conversation and I hope you do too.


Hello this is Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy here in Washington, D.C. on a rainy afternoon, with the pleasure of speaking to the author of a new book very pertinent to IRD’s interests and themes across our over four decades. Let me make sure I say the title correctly; “The Religious Right, Liberal Protestants, Human Rights and the Polarization of the United States” by author Gene Zubovich, who is going to give us about 20 minutes of his time to review his book. So, Gene, thank you so much for joining us. Tell us why you wrote this book and what are its major themes?

Zubovich:  So, I never expected to become a historian of liberal Protestantism. I am not a member of this community, and I happened upon this project through a book I read by a congregationalist minister written in the 1940’s. It was one of the most critical takes on American Racism written by any white person prior to the 1960’s, and so through that book I came upon, you know, a vibrant intellectual and political world of liberal Protestantism. It was also a deeply flawed world, and so the more I looked into it, the more interested I became in trying to understand this community. It was a group of folks that constituted somewhere between a quarter to a third of the U.S. population, and so I decided to write about the history of liberal Protestantism from about World War I until the 1960s, at a time before the religious right. At a time before politics became the way it is today, right; sort of dominated by the religious right. It was really a sense of curiosity that drove me to the subject.

And as you know, most Americans are very familiar with the religious right of the last 40 years; probably very few are familiar with the political witness of more liberal Christianity, which as your book outlines in careful detail, dates back to the early 20th century to my mind. It dates back to the Social Creed adopted by the Methodists and the Federal Council of Churches in 1908 but obviously accelerated later. But tell us a little bit more about that history.

I think that’s exactly right. So, the book itself has three overarching arguments. One, is that in order to understand political liberalism in the United States, you have to understand religious liberalism and liberal Protestantism. So, you know in my mind, essentially the history of religious liberalism and political liberalism parallel one another. So, you know, both begin in the progressive era. They transformed quite a bit in the 1930s; the liberal politics and religious liberalism consolidates in the World War II era of the 1940s, enjoys a peak from World War II into the 1960’s, and then rapidly collapses into the 1970’s. I think you’re right to date the genesis moment in the progressive era, but also to recognize that this is a movement that transformed quite a bit over time. So that’s the first big argument of the book.

The second argument of the book is that liberal protestant international engagement, which was rooted in the ecumenical movement, was central to religious politics of this era. We tend to think of the mid-20th century as a time of, shall we say, American Exceptionalism, especially after World War II. But the ecumenical movement even long after World War II continued to be a sight for Americans to engage with the rest of the world, in ways that weren’t just about exporting American values. So that’s the second big argument of the book; in order to understand liberal political history of the United States, you also need to understand the global political engagement of liberal Protestantism; in particular, the ecumenical movement.

And the third big argument that my book makes, is that the political mobilization of American liberal Protestants in the mid-20th century on issues like racism, economic policy, and U.S. foreign relations, and the fights over these issues, you could see something like the emergence of recognizably liberal and conservative camps in the way that we would understand these terms today; as well as an opening for the rise of the religious right. And so, the last argument is that if you want to understand the political polarization that we’re experiencing today, you, of course, need to understand the history of the religious right. But you need to go back even further to think about the battles and debates taking place within the religious left in the United States in the mid-20th century.

Tooley: And when you speak of liberal Protestants, you primarily are referring to Mainline Protestantism.

Zubovich: That’s right; so, I call them in my book ecumenical Protestants, just to highlight the importance of the ecumenical movement to not only the identity of many of the folks that I talk about, as well as institutions that they built. So, this would be the Federal Council of Churches, which was the kind of main national body for American ecumenical Protestants, which became renamed the National Council of Churches, 1950, and still called that today, as well as the World Council of Churches internationally.

So, the ecumenical movement is, I think, at the heart of these institutions; in the heart of the political identity of many of the figures that I talk about are Reinhold Niebuhr, G. Bromley Oxnam, Thelma Stevens. But other historians talk about these same communities as Mainline Protestants, or liberal Protestants, highlighting in the case of liberal Protestants the importance of liberal theology, or in the case of mainline Protestants, that term you know came about in the 1960’s and very quickly became synonymous with the decline of this community. But for me, ecumenism is at the heart of both theological and political trajectory of this community from about World War I until the 1960’s.

Tooley: Do you think that 20th century progressivism emerged from Christianity, or did progressive Christianity emerge from political progressivism, or were they so intertwined it’s hard to distinguish one from the other?

Zubovich: It’s, you know; the thing about ecumenical Protestants, what makes them important, I would say, is that they had their hands on the levers of power for much of the 20th century really until the 1970’s, and so their importance is rooted partly in the fact that they represented a good chunk of the U.S. population, but really politically it’s the fact that they had the ears of presidents, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices. If you were in charge of anything big in the United States prior to the 1960s, if you were the U.S. president, a Supreme Court justice, a head of a major corporation, a university president, odds are you came from one of the, you know, 30 or so denominations associated with the Federal Council of Churches. And more likely one of the, you know, “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism” you were, you know, Episcopalian United Methodist, Northern Presbyterian, a Congregationalist; and so I think that, you know, as a community that was interested in politics, which is what I primarily write about, you know, the history of the religious elites from this community is so intertwined with the political elite that it’s hard to kind of make a causal claim about. You know, it’s kind of like a chicken and egg question. You know, did the social gospel give rise to progressivism, or did progressivism give rise to the social gospel? I mean, I think the two things intertwined. They were never entirely identical, so there are ways in which the history of liberal Protestantism mirrors the history of political liberalism, but they never quite merge. They do, I think, are distinct entities, but being specific about which one is the cause, and which one is the effect; I mean, I would say it’s a little of both; I would say they’re intertwined.

Tooley: And Gene, before I go further, I didn’t really provide any biography for yourself, but tell us where you teach.

Zubovich: I am an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo. I teach “U.S. and the World” as well as the “History of Human Rights” and the “History of Religion.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t necessarily come from a religious background yourself, but you were impressed by the influence of religion on the 20th century in American politics.

That’s right. So, I came to the United States as a young kid. I was a Jewish refugee from the Soviet Union; it was present-day Belarus. and so, I think for that reason, you know, because of my personal biography, I was always interested in issues of religious liberty. I was interested in the history of human rights, but the history of American Protestantism was something that was new to me, but which I recognized at a young age was very important. And the reason is is, because you know culturally, America is, in many ways, still a Protestant country, right, let alone one that’s filled with millions of believers. People who go to church and think very deeply about, you know, the issues that Christianity brings to bear in American life and politics. And so, I think in some way I became interested in writing this book and thinking about American religious politics because I was trying to understand the country that I had moved to, and still am today.

Tooley: And is it accurate to say; do you think that the political witness of Mainline Protestantism or progressive Protestantism in the 20th century was much more the fruit and the labors of the leadership of those denominations and their ecumenical councils, than at the local church or the populist level?

Zubovich: I think that’s exactly right. So, historians, sociologists, and political scientists often talk about the clergy-laity gap in values. It’s a little bit misleading for a couple of reasons. One, is that, you know, the gap in values was much more a gap in values between the national and international leadership of ecumenical Protestantism and everyday churchgoers, who, you know, came to church for any number of reasons. Usually not to hear your politics, right, but to hear, learn more about the Bible, right: think more deeply about Christian theology, to sing songs, and to make community with one another. And so many of the political mobilizations I document in the book show the movement against racism that began against segregation that began in full force in the 1940s. The movement to create more equitable economics, like more equitable distribution of wealth in the United States. An effort to create an alternative to the Cold War; these were deeply unpopular mobilizations with a broad swath of American Protestants/American Protestants/American churchgoers/the laity/whatever you want to call them. And so, you’re right to point out the differences in values between the national leadership of organizations like the Federal Council of Churches, the World Council Churches, and everyday Protestant churchgoers in the United States. And it’s this gap in value that led to several important demographic and financial consequences financially by the 1960’s, when what began as a gap in values between clergy and laity created quite a chasm between the two. In the 1960s when many of the clergy and national leadership of Protestantism moved pretty far to the left, conservatives who remained behind in the churches ended up cutting back their donations and stopped funding many of the initiatives of these organizations. The denominational national level which caused the severe funding crisis for groups like National Council of Churches in the 1970’s, the gap in values between the national leadership and everyday church goers also alienated quite a number of young people, who took seriously what the ecumenical movement was saying about say, race, or the economy, or U.S. foreign relations; and got on board with these values, but didn’t see those values expressed in their home churches. And so, what that meant is that many of these young people ended up seeking out spaces, institutions that better express their political commitments. So many of them ended up joining, you know, civil rights organizations, the burgeoning human rights movement, and became post-Protestant/right folks who were raised in a liberal Protestant church community, but then sought out other institutions organizations and communities that they felt better express the values with which they were raised.

Tooley: And so, for much of the 20th century, the leadership of Mainline Protestantism was left of center mainstream, but their membership was still for the most part, right of center. But in the 1960’s-late 1960’s, the leadership becomes, moves farther to the left side of the spectrum, and that creates this disconnect between the constituency and the leadership.

Zubovich: I think that is more or less correct. It’s hard to say, because the people who identified as the laity, the folks who were the loudest voices; the biggest critics of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches; the biggest critics of these politics, were also elites themselves. These were, you know accountants, lawyers, bankers, corporate executives; and so, the folks who are actually mobilizing to try to stop the clergy were themselves elites. They were doing this in the name of the laity. They were doing it in the name of all churchgoers. What was actually happening in churches, and what the political values were, was actually much murkier, more complicated. But the conservative activists and relatively wealthy white laymen did a really good job at capturing, you know, the cultural capital right of the laity to mobilize politically in the name of all churchgoers, in opposition to the national leadership of liberal Protestantism.

And so, the story, you know, of ecumenical Protestants is more or less one where the values diverge between the more liberal clergy, and the more conservative churchgoers, that overtime expands. Especially by the 1960s, quite a bit of a divergence between the two camps um but in practice, many of the clergy were also right of center. Many of the laity were pretty far to the left, or left of center; so, the relationship was actually complicated and murky and nuanced. But, you know, on the whole, what you end up with by the 1960’s is the impression that most of the clergy are pretty far to the left, and most churchgoers are pretty far to the right. That fiction I think was really important in creating the kind of crisis that liberal Protestantism went into in the 1970’s.

Tooley: And is it fair to say that liberal Protestantism was an enthusiast for the American project for much of the 20th century, big supporters of U.S. role in World War I, World War II, early stage of the cold war, Korean war; and then with the Vietnam war that effectively ends? They no longer support U.S. military actions, but much much more broadly, they adopt a much more critical attitude towards the United States; previously perhaps they saw themselves as the stewards of America and now they’re styling themselves to be the critical prophets often opposed to America. Is that accurate from your perspective?

You know, that’s what I used to think, and that’s the argument of several historians of this era. My book makes a slightly different case. With World War I there were, as you point out, they were quite enthusiastic about the American Project, the Wilsonian internationalism. By the 1920’s and 1930’s, there’s quite a large movement for American pacifism, as well as the ecumenical movement. So, I think if we focus on figures like Reinhold Niebuhr as kind of like the mainstays of mid-century liberal Protestantism, I think that the story, yes, is one you know of support for the American Project. Until the 1960’s when they kind of move sharply to the left, but I think there are two things that happen long before then. If you look beyond Reinhold Niebuhr, you can see more clearly one, is what I mentioned, which is the growth of Protestant pacifism, which doesn’t disappear with World War II, and the rise of reinforced neighborhood Protestant to fame.

The second thing is the ecumenical movement which is a movement that begins in 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland, that eventually leads to the creation of the World Council of Churches. It’s a movement to bring Protestants from across the world together into some kind of communion. They invite orthodox denominations to come along with them after the 1960’s; Catholics are invited as well, but until then that’s kind of taboo. And so, what happens as a result of the ecumenical movement is they’re constantly interacting with folks from the global south, fellow believers and Protestants and orthodox ministers from Africa, Latin America, Asia. So, they have a much wider view of the globe than, you know, Americans who aren’t involved in the ecumenical movement.

Secondly, after World War II, many of the churches they’re interacting with through the World Council of Churches are from Czechoslovakia. By the 1960s the ROC, one of the co-presidents of the world council of churches in 1948, is a Mao supporter in China. And so, there is an effort in the late 1940’s contrary to what Reinhold Niebuhr and his allies are doing to overcome the Iron Curtain. And they have theological justifications for this; so, I think that the ecumenical project sometimes overlaps with what the United States is doing in terms of the United Nations; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…these are points of contact at certain historical moments. Of course, they are opposed to communism theologically, but not militarily for the 1950’s and 1960’s.

 And so, the ecumenical movement is different from the American Project in that it is much more globally connected. And it’s not thinking about Christian interests solely in terms of what American Christians want. It forces Americans involved in ecumenical movement to think more broadly about how to relate to Christians and other parts of the world in non-state ways; in ways that are not necessarily taking into account what the American State is trying to do.

Tooley: In today’s America, our Protestantism is virtually post-denominational. American churchgoers just less and less identify with these Protestant traditions; if they go to a denominational church, they may not even realize the affiliation. That obviously has a political and social impact. So, readers of your book, how do they connect the themes of your book to what’s relevant today?

Zubovich: In terms of post-denominationalism?

Tooley: Well, yes, in terms of understanding how we got to where we are today. In terms of how Christians operate in public life; the conservative religious voices are dominant, progressives much less so. but the demographics just don’t have the institutional structures that they would have had 50 to 60 years ago.

Zubovich: Yeah, so one of the products of the ecumenical movement is to, you know, bring together denominations across theological lines, to create what their enemies feared was some kind of a super church. And there was quite a bit of enthusiasm in the mid-20th century about, you know, um finding common ground among people both domestically, right; in terms of Congregationalists and Reformed churches maybe merging to create the united Church of Christ, the Methodists unifying. So, I think a lot of this was driven by theological considerations, but a lot of it was also driven by, you know, political cooperation. Finding shared values, shared politics, and bringing folks together across denominational lines in an alliance to reshape the world, into what they considered to be a kind of more Christian world. To try to create the kingdom of God on earth in the United States.

So, I think much of the driving force for the kind of post-denominational feature in which we are in today, was spearheaded right by liberal ecumenical Protestants. And so, I think that one of the things that, you know, evangelical denominations did at first, was to resist this. Books by Molly Worthen and others have done a really good job showing how more evangelical-inclined communities, denominational identity, was and in some ways still is today, you know a real important marker of identity. This is something that folks were committed to all the way through the 1970s. And so if you’re trying to understand our world today, you know, one way you can think about it is that ecumenism, the kind of ecumenism that was pioneered by liberal Protestants, even though they themselves have kind of receded from the public sphere in certain ways, the post-denominationalism they had pioneered and advocated, can be seen all throughout Christianity. Except for the Catholic Church and some orthodox communities that among American Protestants today, the kind of post-denominational future that ecumenical Protestants envisioned in the early 20th century, is in some small ways, coming to pass across the theological spectrum.

Tooley: Can we deduce from the title of your book that what happened to the mainland Protestant world foreshadowed, or helped to implement the polarization of today?

Zubovich: That’s right, yeah. So one of the arguments in the book is that the fights within ecumenical Protestantism we could see the emergence of recognizably liberal and conservative camps um the kinds of you know religious alliances the politics the attitudes towards the constitution um that we could see these forming and bubbling up you know all through the mid-20th century um and to emerge sort of in full force in the 1960s and 1970s um so that you know even before the rise of the Christian right we could see recognizably [Music] recognizably um you know liberal like recognizable liberals and conservatives um within the Mainline ecumenical Protestant community. So that’s one of the arguments. The second argument is that it is partly through the kind of divisive polarizing debates about race, the economy, and American foreign relations, that liberal ecumenical Protestantism loses much of its clout in American politics and American public life. The embrace of anti-racism, the drive to diminish income inequality, the desire to create an alternative framework to the cold war; because all these things are deeply unpopular, these are divisive issues that lead to the loss of cultural capital among ecumenical Protestantism. And it creates a kind of vacuum in the public sphere that evangelicals are really good at seizing in the 1970’s.

Tooley: Gene Zubovich, author of “Before the religious right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States.” Thank you very much for an insightful conversation. Do you have a copy of your book within reach?

Zubovich: I’m afraid I don’t.

Tooley: I should’ve forewarned you, but I encourage our listeners to check it out and Gene, thank you so much.

Zubovich: Mark, it was a pleasure.

  1. Comment by Loren J Golden on June 7, 2022 at 1:06 am

    I think Prof. Zubovich’s study, beginning as it does late in the first decade of the 20th Century, really fails to grapple with the origins of the rise of Liberal Christian thought.
    First, there is the rise of a social conscience and consciousness in American Christianity in the 19th Century, with the increasing debate over the injustice of African chattel slavery and the social and domestic abuse problems resulting from alcoholism, especially as it accompanied the rise of the industrial revolution.
    Second, there is the increasing challenge of Enlightenment philosophy and the Darwinian Theory of Evolution against the supernatural claims of Scripture.  American Christianity was largely insulated against the former by the geographic separation from Europe, via the Atlantic Ocean, and by the Great Awakenings of the 18th & 19th Centuries, but the Church in Europe was devastated by it.  In its aftermath, many of Europe’s brightest theologians sought to “save” Christianity by stripping it of its supernatural and historical character, and thus exempt it from the Enlightenment’s withering attacks.  Following the Civil War, many bright American students went overseas to study theology with these theologians, bringing back their unbelief into American seminaries and began teaching it to the next generation of American Protestant pastors.
    Having lost confidence in the supernatural claims of Scripture, American Theological Liberals grabbed hold of American Protestantism’s burgeoning social consciousness and made this the great end of the Church of Jesus Christ: Social Reform.  This was how the Social Gospel was birthed, and all of Christian thought was made to lie in its Procrustean bed.  Sin is not an offense against the omnipotent God, but solely an offense against one’s neighbor.  It was believed to be the result of ignorance, and so more education about these conditions becomes the solution.  Supernatural doctrines like the Inerrancy of Scripture, the Virgin Birth, the Substitutionary Atonement, the Bodily Resurrection, the Miracles of the Lord Jesus, and the Second Coming are seen as superfluous at best; to be tolerated, to be sure, but to be actively suppressed, if any attempt is made to make them the foundation of Christianity and of the Church of Jesus Christ, as such attempts fundamentally undermine Theological Liberalism’s insistence that the Social Gospel is the great end of the Church.  When you read Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous sermon, Shall the Fundamentalists Win?, preached in the 1920s, at the tipping point when Theological Liberalism gained control of the bureaucratic offices in the American Mainline Protestant denominations, you see all these themes merged together in perhaps one of the most eloquent apologetics for Theological Liberalism.
    Christianity certainly needs a social conscience, and the Church of Jesus Christ needs to take the Second Great Commandment (Lev. 19.18, Mt. 22.39, Mk. 12.31) seriously.  But not at the expense of the First (Dt. 6.4-5, Mt. 22.37-38, Mk. 12.29-30).  Neither should the Second Great Commandment be seen as somehow superior to or encompassing the First, as if to usurp its place.  Yet this is what Theological Liberalism has done.  It does not take the supernatural claims of Scripture seriously.  It does not take God seriously.  It does not take Christ seriously.  As Catholic theologian George Tyrell famously quipped about early 20th Century Liberal Theologian Adolf Harnack, “The Christ that Harnack sees…is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.”  In Theological Liberalism, as H. Richard Niebuhr put it, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  Liberalism’s sin does not offend; Liberalism’s God does not judge; Liberalism’s Christ does not redeem.  In man’s heart, he knows that he has deeply offended God by his sin, and that he stands justly condemned before His throne.  Yet Liberalism does not acknowledge this, and Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is meaningless in Liberalism’s context.  And when Liberalism says, “Go do good works in the name of Christ,” one asks, “Why?  What has Christ done for me?”  Liberalism cannot give a satisfactory answer, for one cannot give what one patently does not possess.  And Christianity’s answer—that Christ died as a propitiatory sacrifice, sent by the love of God the Father (Jn. 3.16, Rom. 5.8, Eph. 2.4, II Thess. 2.16, I Jn. 3.1, 4.7-11) for men and women spiritually dead in their sins and trespasses (Lk. 15.24,32, Eph. 2.1-5, Col. 2.13), to pay the justly deserved penalty of suffering and death for all the sins for everyone for whom He died (Is. 53, Rom. 3.25, Heb. 2.17, I Jn. 2.2, 4.10), so that God “made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2.5-6, Col. 2.13)—is deeply offensive to Liberalism, which derides the Substitutionary Atonement as “a special theory of the atonement,” in Fosdick’s words, in which “the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated Deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner.”  In this age where Christianity is becoming increasingly unpopular, Liberalism finds itself unable to give a compelling reason why anyone outside the Church should become a Christian.  And so, the Liberal Church withers and dies.
    The Liberal Church is a cautionary tale of what happens when one puts too much trust in political power to make things right and too little trust in God.  It is a trap that will ensnare those on the political right as easily as those on the political left.  The fearmongering message of “Vote as if the fate of the world depended on it” (a political sign I saw in someone’s yard two years ago) could be spoken as easily by a Republican as by a Democrat.  Who sits in the halls of power in Washington is of vanishingly small importance, compared to two things: Who sits on the throne of your heart (the First Great Commandment), and how do you treat and talk with your neighbor who disagrees with you politically (the Second Great Commandment).
    The Liberal Church is not beyond hope, but it has gone far down a road leading decisively away from God.  Yet the way back is not easy.  They must humble themselves (they must slow their free-falling trajectory), they must repent of their unbelief that has led them to the dismal state in which they find themselves today (they have to stop going the way they are going), and they must trust the God of the Bible and His Word revealed therein (they have to go back the way they came; after all, great progress made down the road to perdition is not a good thing).  In response (actually, before it comes to having to make a response), the Religious Right needs to come down from its own political high horse (which is all to eager to make progress down its own road leading away from God), humble itself, and come alongside the Liberal Church in a spirit of meekness and humbleness (in an age when polemic rhetoric is all the rage), to lead it back to the Biblical Christ, the only Savior.
    There really is no other way (Jn. 14.6, Acts 4.12).

  2. Comment by Steve on June 7, 2022 at 8:56 am

    Read “Blinded by Might” by Cal Thomas. It gives a clear argument against the marriage of politics and religion. He helped establish the Moral Majority and admits it’s failures in great detail.

    Amazing how the religious left today is following the same mistakes of the religious right of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

  3. Comment by Paul on June 8, 2022 at 2:22 pm

    Am I to understand that this is a study of Protestant Culture in America from World War I to the 1960s that ignores Prohibition?

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