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How mid-20th century liberal Protestants helped shape American politics, world affairs

By BERT GAMBINI

Published April 4, 2022

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Portrait of Gene Zubovich, PhD, assistant professor of history, University at Buffalo.
“If you want to understand polarization in the United States today, a good place to start would be to look at mid-century liberal Protestantism. ”
Gene Zubovich, assistant professor
Department of History

Political liberalism in the United States cannot be fully understood without taking into account the work of liberal ecumenical Protestants in the mid-20th century, according to Gene Zubovich, assistant professor of history, College of Arts and Sciences, and author of the recently published book “Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States.”

Zubovich explores the largely unfamiliar story of how this intellectually and politically vibrant faith community, from roughly the 19-teens to the late 1960s, situated itself on the frontline battles against segregation, became a critical player in the creation of the New Deal; and was influential in shaping the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It implemented a far-reaching philosophy that stretched from domestic to international engagement in ways that globally affected matters of social justice. It was a profoundly progressive movement, but also one that was deeply flawed, and the political polarization that exists today emerged from the fights that developed within this community, Zubovich says.

“All of these issues and the efforts for how to confront them — eradicating racism, reforming the economy, improving world affairs and trying to find a way around the Cold War — were deeply divisive in this community, and it’s from these fights we see the first recognizable signs of liberal and conservative religious camps,” says Zubovich. “As members of the community fought among themselves, they opened up space for the development of the religious right.”

“If you want to understand polarization in the United States today, a good place to start would be to look at mid-century liberal Protestantism.”

Zoom image: Cover of the new book by UB historian Gene Zubovich titled "Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States." Cover of the 2022 book by UB's historian Gene Zubovich, titled "Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States"

Cover of the new book by UB historian Gene Zubovich titled "Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States."

Flaws sometimes tainted the group’s accomplishments. There were limits on what the community was willing and able to do, and its struggles to create consensus within its own ranks sometimes meant sacrificing the cause of justice.

“They had opportunities early on to join the civil rights movement in the 1940s, but ended up rejecting the notion of protest,” says Zubovich. “They were also slow to pick up on religious pluralism and weren’t as attentive to the racial and religious diversity that developed later in the 1960s.”

Zubovich started work on “Before the Religious Right” (UPenn Press) after a random encounter with a book by Buell Gallagher, a Congregationalist minister. The book was illuminating and brought a shift to Zubovich’s research focus, which up to that time had been centered on the history of human rights and American foreign policy.

“I was surprised by how critical and honest he was on the problem of segregation at a time when few people outside of the African American community were making these kinds of public statements,” says Zubovich. “I never expected to be a historian of religion, or a historian of liberal Protestantism, but I realized there was an opportunity to tell an important story about this faith community that couldn’t be told without becoming a historian of religion.”

Ecumenical Protestants are often called mainline Protestants, a term that, in this context, can be synonymous with decline, according to Zubovich.

“The term came about in the 1960s when these churches were growing older and dealing with shrinking memberships,” he says. “One of the ways I argue against the decline narrative is by showing that even though these churches have been shrinking and they’re not as influential in American politics today, the ideas, values and institutions they created in the 20th century shaped the world outside of their religious community.”

Ecumenical was a better description for Zubovich because in so many cases members of this community worked to break down barriers, at first within their own ranks, between denominations, but later with people across the world.

“A big part of why they did the things they did in the United States, why they became politically active and socially influential, had to do with the links they were establishing within the international ecumenical movement, which brought together Protestants and Orthodox peoples from around the world to speak with one another and work with one another.”

The true measure of the community’s influence isn’t framed by the size of its membership. “Before the Religious Right” demonstrates that beyond the headcount are broader political, cultural, social and intellectual worlds with an echoing influence that’s still heard today.

“The way we talk about human rights, human dignity, social justice and economic reform, for example, is very much indebted to the work of mid-century ecumenical Protestants,” he says. “I’ve always thought of history as telling the story of how our present world came into being. If that’s right, then I hope my book makes a contribution toward telling that story.”