The traditional narrative has always been that as we grow more secular, more permissive as a society, theologically (though not necessarily politically) liberal religions fade with irrelevance, while theologically conservative faiths that stand athwart history would endure as they always have. But what if that’s not true? What if we were quantifying success in a manner that favored one side over another? That seems to be the topic of an upcoming book by religious studies professor Matt Hedstrom entitled: “The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century.”
“The story of liberal religion in the twentieth century is a story of cultural ascendancy This may come as a surprise. Most scholarship in American religious history, after all, equates the numerical decline of the Protestant mainline with the failure of religious liberalism. Yet a look beyond the pews, into the wider culture, reveals a more complex and fascinating story. Here, we see that the defining features of religious liberalism—its cosmopolitanism; its engagement with the latest historical and scientific thought; its ethics; its focus on psychology, mysticism, and individual religious experience—arose among a spiritual vanguard in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but by the middle decades of the twentieth century had become commonplace among the American middle class. This book tells the story of how that happened.”
Even more interesting is the idea that modern Paganism could be included in the modern classification of “liberal religion,” especially if you compare and contrast liberal religion’s “book culture” with modern Paganism’s.
“The Rise of Liberal Religion attends especially to the critically important yet little-studied arena of religious book culture—particularly the religious middlebrow of mid-century—as the site where religious liberalism was most effectively popularized. [...] by the post-WWII period the religious middlebrow had expanded beyond its Protestant roots, using mystical and psychological spirituality as a platform for interreligious exchange. This history of religion and book culture not only shows how reading and book buying were critical twentieth-century religious practices…”
There seems to be an argument that post-WWII American religious book culture helped create space for modern Paganism, very much spread by its own culture of books (“people of the library” as the old adage about our faiths go). Indeed, Unitarian-Universalism, which seems to be on a recent upswing in numbers, and the de facto poster child for liberal religion, explicitly lists nature religion as a source that it draws from.
“Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”
As a result, Pagans have a strong presence within the UUA, and liberal religion often gets tarred as “pagan” by its critics. In addition, I think that talking about the success of liberal forms of religion can’t be complete without mentioning those with no religion, the “nones,” and their recent (and ongoing) growth. Many, including myself, have pointed out that “nones” aren’t without beliefs or spirituality, they simply have abandoned formal religion in the sitting-in-pews sense. Author Brian D. McLaren, writing for the Huffington Post, sees that many “nones” are simply tired with the choices theologically conservative, specifically monotheistic, forms of religion present them with.
Later in the evening, two young women, current college students, told me the same thing. “We grew up in the church,” they explained. “We’re still followers of Christ, but we’re not attending church any more. We can’t find a church that doesn’t load a bunch of extra baggage on us. We tried, but they all had this long list of people we had to be against. It’s just not worth it.”
So long as success of a theological stance, or religion, is measured by how many people sit in chairs on Sunday, evangelical Protestantism, Catholicism, and other related traditions, will be seen as “winners.” However, a broader look at our culture, and the varieties of religious experience within it, may tell a different story. I’ll be very much looking forward to Hedstrom’s book, and I think that like another recent book about religion in American history: “Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise,” it will reveal a lot about our communities, even if never mentions us.
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