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date: 24 May 2024

U.S. Foreign Relations and American Religious Liberalismfree

U.S. Foreign Relations and American Religious Liberalismfree

  • Cara Lea BurnidgeCara Lea BurnidgeDepartment of Philosophy and World Religions, University of Northern Iowa


Scholars of American religious liberalism, like the historical subjects they study, wrestle with the place and power of modernity in American history and culture. Recognizing and articulating the influence of modernity requires constant attention to what is, broadly speaking, “foreign.” It includes religious people, groups, ideas, and practices that developed in relationship to liberalism as a historically transnational ideology and movement, as well as those people, groups, ideas, and practices classifiable as “liberal” in relation to the contemporary moment. The historical events, figures, and ideas central to liberal ideological movements in America felt connected, through both their perception and experiences, to ideas, places, and people outside of “America.” This heightened the sense of belonging to an exceptional, if not universal, culture while also placing that culture in global perspective. Identifying who and what is and has been “liberal,” as well as narrating their history, thus requires attention to what Thomas Tweed and others have referred to as “global flows.” As a result, “American religious liberalism,” as a subject of study, does not merely denote a religious liberalism located within the geopolitical borders of America, but a religious liberalism formed, expressed, and experienced through a context of “America.” Consequently, foreign relations have a long and tangled history with American religious liberalism and liberalizing cultural moments and movements in the United States.

Foreign figures, ideas, movements, and institutions are a constitutive element in the historical narrative of America’s religious liberalism. From German theologians who introduced American Christians to new biblical hermeneutics to transnational reform movements inspiring new forms of religious practice through social and political activism, global intellectual networks have encouraged Americans’ development of liberal modes of thought and practice. The politics of global empires and international society has also inspired liberal activism through international societies and nongovernmental organizations advocating for anticolonial, pacifist, abolitionist, suffragist, human rights, and many other humanitarian causes. This global context for American reform activism has been a significant factor in the development of liberal factions of numerous religious affiliations. The “global flow” of liberal reform pushed Americans toward spiritual experiences in developing areas of the world through both missionary efforts and individual spiritual exercises. Contact with the “outside” world often turned otherwise conservative or moderate missionaries toward liberal or liberationist theologies. Liberalism also brought “world religions” to American shores.

Engagement with “others,” however, is not the only key factor in the intersection of American religious liberals with foreign relations. Religious liberalism has animated each “tradition” defining the history of U.S. foreign policy. Not least of all, religious liberals were instrumental in crafting and promoting internationalism in the long 20th century. Theologically liberal Protestants were in many ways the ideological architects behind interventionism as U.S. foreign policy. Liberal Protestant metaphysics and political activism assumed that intervention was necessary because it improved the lives of those deemed less fortunate and, consequently, was a universal agent for good in the world. Liberal religious institutions and the theologies they produced encouraged intervention (in all its various forms: economic, cultural, militaristic, diplomatic, etc.) on local, national, and international scales for the sake of a nebulous “greater good,” the more sectarian notion of “social salvation,” or even ultimately, and unironically, world peace. To liberal Protestant eyes, such intervention followed the example set by Jesus, fulfilled God’s will for humanity, and provided an opportunity to meet God in the natural world, either through encountering the “least among these” or establishing peace on earth. By the mid-20th century, liberal Catholics and Jews helped to reconstruct public perception of this “American way” around the notion of a shared Judeo-Christian foundation to American identity and action in the world.


  • Religion and Politics
  • Religion in America


“Liberalism” is a subject that spans multiple disciplines and fields of study. It is a frequent subject among academics because its central concepts—human reason, individualism, freedom, and equality—invite a number of perennial philosophical, ethical, political, economic, and social questions across the humanities and social sciences. Liberalism’s popularity as an object of study reflects robust discourses regarding human nature, social hierarchies, political philosophies, economic principles, and the role of the state. The complexities and subtleties surrounding the study of liberalism, its contexts, and its historical expressions have left a confusing historiographical trail for students of all ranks and disciplines to follow. Scholars continue to debate liberalism’s place in history as an analytical category, a movement, and a philosophy. Even though scholarship across fields shares much of the same terminology, the precise meaning of that shared language varies because the purpose of inquiry, theoretical framework, methodology, and source base often differs.

As a political philosophy and movement, liberalism resulted from Enlightenment-era thought, which considered empiricism as the reasoned and effective method for fully understanding human nature, social and political systems, and the natural world; held individual autonomy, liberty, and equality as central social values; and believed that collective action of and by “the people” was the necessary means through which those values ought to be upheld and secured in society. This “classical” beginning in the 18th century outlines liberalism’s foundational thinkers (such as John Locke and Adam Smith), its significant intellectual and political achievements (such as the Declaration of Independence), and its relationship to the world (a relative, if questionable, situatedness in Western culture). Yet, liberalism as a concept, philosophical or political persuasion, and more general worldview is not limited to this historical moment or its principal actors. In general, liberalism refers to individuals, social groups, or institutions who value human reason, individual liberty, and equality and seek, at minimum, to uphold those values in their society, nation, and, presumably but not necessarily, advance them to the rest of the world. This general philosophy intersects with sectarian groups, local and national governments, and international institutions; with economic paradigms, corporate interests, and regulating bodies; and with theologies and religious practices belonging to individuals, communities, and formal denominational or faith-based institutions.

Since numerous historic movements and groups around the world have been classified as “liberal,” it is often understood as a party affiliation or, at least, as an affinity with a political position or party. In a broader sense, though, “liberal” refers to an intellectual or philosophical orientation toward social, political, economic, and religious questions. In this way, “liberal” is not a label exclusively associated with any sectarian group or agenda. It has become a discursive shorthand for a constellation of overlapping approaches to questions of individual rights and responsibilities in society. How individuals and the state uphold or encourage liberal values—as well as what may “count” as a liberal value or policy position—has changed over time. As a result, who “counted” as a liberal in the 18th century may not be considered liberal by 21st-century standards.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was an American intellectual, politician, and president influenced by liberalism. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson inscribed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (a modification of John Locke’s “life, liberty, and property”) in the foundational document of the U.S. government and in American culture. He not only valued religious liberty but also advanced a particular understanding of this liberal concept by emphasizing both individuals’ freedom of conscience and a separation of church and state. Additionally, he valued the equality of all men upon an inherent—and, accordingly, an ideally state protected—basis of individual rights. Each individual, according to Jefferson, was endowed by a Creator—and not human will, decrees, or institutions—with rights that others, especially governments, could not violate or infringe. As such, historians situate Jefferson within the liberal political tradition on a number of fronts; however, his ownership of slaves despite the above positions also reveals the historical context within which liberal figures and ideas must always be placed. Valuing the equality of all men along with inherent individual rights and liberties did not necessarily lead 18th-century liberal figures, like Jefferson, to consider slavery a violation of liberal principles, nor did it necessarily cause them to abolish slavery as a cultural, economic, and legal institution. As a result, the study of liberalism requires constant acknowledgment of the conceptual and contextual limits upon any historic manifestation of “liberal” and “liberalism.”

“Modern” American political liberalism is marked by its increasing reliance upon the state to define, regulate, and enforce liberal values. From Reconstruction forward, the federal government oversaw states’ adherence to laws pertaining to individual rights, liberties, and equality with greater authority. This development is somewhat at odds with “classical” liberalism, which maintained that individual rights existed inherently in citizens (that is, regardless of the acknowledgment or action of governments). While modern liberalism may be ideologically in tension with classical liberalism—and challenge some expectations for a consistent liberal ethos—it developed out of a recognition that individual rights in the United States had, in fact, been constructed through culture and law. Throughout much of U.S. history, African Americans, women, and unpropertied white men, as well as foreign nationals and indigenous peoples, did not experience the benefit of so-called inherent rights. Through concerted public efforts to change the will of “the people” by persuasion or even by force, activists “agitated” to ensure individual rights, liberties, and equality applied to all people in the eyes of the law, rather than propertied white men alone. They turned to the state to amend laws to create a more perfect, and more liberal, Union. The continued efforts to reform the law, public institutions, and mainstream culture distinguish liberals from more radical groups or movements. Liberals differ from “radicals” because they seek to bend, but not to break, American government and culture to the collective will of the people. Reform, rather than revolution, is the primary means of change. As a result, liberals have been and continue to be tethered to the state as the necessary agent to establish desired ends.

Some historians break down modern American liberalism even further, including at least three distinct shifts. First, liberalism experienced a major definitional shift following the Civil War. Most historians date this shift according to the rapid industrialization of the Gilded Age in which standardization and efficiency reoriented Americans’ daily lives, modes of thinking, and emotions. Historians Molly Oshatz and Nancy Cohen provide thought-provoking alternative narratives by placing this shift on the shoulders of abolitionists and Radical Republicans who, earlier in the 19th century, reformulated Protestantism and the state, respectively.1 Wherever one locates the precise turn, liberalism moved from being a powerful dissenting voice resisting increased state control to the established voice of the state and its expansive regulatory powers. The opening decades of the 20th century are often seen as the ascendency of this form of modern liberalism in politics, economics, and international affairs.

Second, after internationalism became America’s established mode of global engagement in the 20th century, a “Cold War liberalism” emerged, in which every corner of American culture recognized liberalism’s dominance and sought to alter, if not correct, it.2 Both the right and the left criticize American liberalism, yet it remained so central to American culture that it seemed to define the “American century” itself. Historical interpretation remains mixed about the forces behind such a shift in relative discursive power: some prioritize World War II and the economy of war, while others emphasize anticommunist rhetoric and other “spiritual” or ideological weapons.3 The ideological foundation of this dominant—and dominating—liberal culture coalesced around a new “Judeo-Christian” basis, reorienting religious liberalism away from individual, internal, experiential authority toward a shared, yet nonsectarian, “faith in faith.”4 According to historian Kevin Schultz, this ideological foundation “filled a moral void at the center of midcentury American liberalism,” supplying “a perfect weapon in the Cold War.”5 This shared trust and dependence on faith-in-general among liberal religionists reflected the larger liberal trust in and dependence on the state.

Third, counterculture movements of the 1960s led by feminist, gay, anticolonial, and black liberationists animated a motivational shift in liberalism. Growing awareness of the place of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in the complex economic, social, and political scaffolding sustaining systematic discrimination and oppression brought to light the continued need to fight for equality and justice among all people. While most scholars would argue that the 1960s were a pivotal decade in U.S. history, some may qualify this turn as being a break away from, rather than shift among, liberals. American Studies scholar Mark Hulsether, for example, is careful to distinguish between “liberationists,” who (often inspired by liberation theologies) sought to expose systems of injustice, tear them down, and rebuild political and economic systems anew, and “liberals,” who sought to gain power within the existing yet flawed system in order to improve it from within.6 This modus operandi—establishing a state responsive to the will of the people rather than maintaining a fixed state or creating a new state—remains the main source of liberalism’s critiques from both the right and the left. It is also the reason for liberalism’s resilience as a political, economic, and metaphysical philosophy and as a cultural reality. In the United States, liberalism, through its various manifestations, remains a wellspring for defining and advancing American democracy in the world.

American Religious Liberalism: Entanglement with the World

American religious liberalism is not a coherent theological tradition with a shared creed or canon of texts, but rather a constellation of ideas, figures, groups, institutions, movements, and events that share a set of metaphysical assumptions and ideological proclivities. The amorphous nature of this object of study is why the subfield is so robust. Through both consensus and debate, scholars of religious liberalism have identified a set of characteristics that warrant the classification of religious ideas, practices, figures, groups, and institutions as liberal. The cluster of concepts includes:

prioritizing rational, empirical, and critical modes of thinking over revelation, prophecy, or supernatural explanations of the world;

assuming an imminent presence (or return) of the divine in or through the natural world and human experience rather than assuming a transcendent nature for the divine or God, existing over and above human knowledge or experience;

relocating moral and spiritual authority from external institutions, texts, or creeds to internal, individual conscience, emotions, or sensibilities;

presuming what is “right,” “good,” or “true” is relative and assessed by disparate individuals or cultures instead of a fixed set of principles shared by and applicable to humanity;

believing ultimate goals (such as justice, “social salvation,” or the kingdom of God) can and should be established through human effort rather than the work or will of God or divine forces alone;

preferring to work ecumenically with partners or in coalitions, especially those of different cultures or traditions, rather than working through parochial or sectarian institutions to establish objectives deemed “good”;

adapting shared beliefs and truths to the contemporary era rather than refashioning current beliefs and practices to align with fixed, timeless ideologies or refusing to change at all;

holding “progress” and “reform” within present sociocultural systems as an important, if not primary, method of change rather than seeking a revolution on the one hand or, on the other, restoring tradition.

American religious liberalism is, at heart, a cultural convention recognizing in both word and deed that religions are flexible, malleable, and even manipulable because they are culturally constructed. The ability to construct and the conscious process of reconstructing a tradition, community, or individual identity over time is a valid and invigorating religious exercise to religious liberals. Molding and remolding one’s identity and culture according to one’s own will, need, or betterment is a fulfilling experience, if not the highest expression of one’s religious life.

Conventional wisdom suggests that America’s liberal orthodoxy developed in the mid-to-late 19th century. The roots of an American liberalism began, variously, with elite, white Protestants inspired by transatlantic theologians and “exotic” Asian cultures, as well as with popular yet “marginal” groups and movements. Liberals’ intellectual foment challenged New England’s Calvinist-inspired Protestant culture established in American law and governance.7 One of the most influential early voices of religious liberalism was William Ellery Channing who outlined Unitarian Christianity in 1818. Channing argued for a Christian tradition that based its truth claims on empiricism and “natural” (that is, observable) evidence instead of supernatural explanations. In so doing, Channing presented God as a loving, paternal figure who nurtured his Creation toward progress in this life instead of a wrathful figure who disciplined humans through an eternal afterlife. This conception of God, and the epistemology and hermeneutics required to support it, supplied an alternative form of Christian living just as evangelical revivals began rising in popularity. Channing’s intentional theological retuning inversely mirrored revival Christianity and its ostensibly fixed, ahistorical truths revealed by a transcendent God wholly distinct from human experience and knowledge.

The basis of Channing’s thought can, of course, be traced even further back in time. His commitments to rational thought and empiricism cannot be fully understood without examining the importance of Enlightenment-era figures and works in American intellectual history. In this sense, then, their theologies were “liberal” not because they were left of center, but because their theologies were rooted in a way of thinking born out of liberalism’s animating intellectual impulses. In this vein, religious liberalism began through colonial political, economic, and social networks well before “America” would become culturally, and problematically, associated with “the United States.” America’s earliest forms of religious liberalism, then, developed amid a confluence of empires, ethnicities, and cultures. The intersection of religions and foreign relations was significant to the development of competing notions of liberalism in America as a geopolitical entity and as an American cultural and intellectual product.

The Quebec Act of 1774 distills the emergence of an “American” approach to liberalism set apart from generally European or specifically British models. Following the Seven Years’ War, the Quebec Act helped Great Britain govern the largely French Catholic population newly under its purview by establishing three provisions: a religious exception to the Oath of Allegiance, an allowance for the Roman Catholic Church to legally collect tithes, and an expansion of the Quebec territory to the Ohio River. British liberalism, and its concomitant religious tolerance, influenced each accommodation, reinforcing liberal norms, yet it also undermined the established anti-Catholic liberal culture in New England. Frustration, if not full contempt, for the Quebec Act caused the Continental Congress to publish “Letter of the People of Great Britain” in 1774 reminding Parliament of Catholicism’s bloody history on “your island” [emphasis added]. British colonists in America, particularly those in New England, shared a sense that Catholicism infringed upon individual liberties (one of the foundations of liberalism) and, as a result, had to be limited by the state in order for individual consciences to flourish. This legal event shaped America’s liberalism in three important ways: first, it began a cultural, and later legal, precedent for championing liberal values through exclusionary practices (limiting certain religious practices to achieve religious pluralism and liberty rather than tolerating or accepting all religious practices to achieve religious freedom); second, it helped to solidify a consensus around the state as the mechanism protecting individual conscience and establishing liberal culture; third, it helped foster the sense that Great Britain was a foreign government and culture through both its location, its approach to governing its citizens, and its management of outsiders. British liberalism, from this point of view, fell short because it did not limit ideas, practices, and groups understood to discourage independent thought and judgment. British and broadly European approaches to liberalism, however, had loosened this association of Catholicism with tyrannical governance (both of the mind and of citizen-subjects). As a result, British and American liberalisms diverged in their approaches to regulating religious belief and practice as well as their methods of ensuring “liberal” values in public life.

Early American debates about religious tolerance certainly open the door to further considerations of the kind of legal arguments and laws creating a peculiarly U.S.-American approach to liberalism and religion. For instance, one of the first treaties the United States ratified—the Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed with the Barbary States of Tripoli—outlined a model, and at the time the model, of liberal religious tolerance in the United States. Article 11 states:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.8

Well before the principle of a “separation of church and state” became a legal standard in American jurisprudence, the United States determined its liberal approach to religion when it agreed to keep “religious opinions” separate from its foreign relations with Muslim nations. This treaty is but one instance in a sea of other primary sources in which the United States defined its approach to religious liberty and to religion in global affairs as a result of engagement with global Islam. Popular literature and consumer culture fueled this engagement, obscuring Muslims’ self-descriptions and, in most cases, accurate portrayals of Muslims’ lived experiences.9 Even as a cultural production, however, Islam and Muslims served as a powerful tool for shaping American liberalism, just as American liberals shaped American knowledge of Islam.

The president who signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, John Adams, was a religious liberal in his own right. His cosmopolitan approach to Christianity shaped his civil service. The powerful influence of Unitarianism on his personal religious beliefs and his intense republicanism place Adams in the coterie of early American figures who modeled civic virtue beyond individual sectarian belief or denominational creed. His public civil service earned recognition from historian Anne Kittelstrom as one case study in America’s “religion of democracy.”10 Figures like Adams and Jefferson illustrate two important aspects of American religious liberalism: first, interaction with the broader world (in terms of both ideas and geography) inspired liberal thought and activism; second, engagement with “foreign” ideas, figures, and groups clarified liberals’ vision for U.S. foreign and domestic policies, providing a public articulation of American culture to the wider world.

Liberal Praxis in the World and through Global Affairs

From the Enlightenment-inspired revolutions to the transatlantic reform movements to elite travel and trade, engagement with the world and its complexities shaped liberal metaphysics among Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the unaffiliated. Consciousness of human agency as well as an appreciation for and commitment to human effort separates liberal religions from more conservative, orthodox, or “traditional” counterparts. Liberal religions acknowledge human agency and effort in the formulation, articulation, and experience of religion. This acknowledgment occurs on a number of levels (for individuals, communities, humanity as a whole, and, often, a disembodied sense of the “good” as a state or force in the world) and toward a variety of different ends (individual autonomy, fulfillment, satisfaction or salvation; social salvation; and world peace). As a result, liberal religions tend to resist formal institutional structures and embrace individual action as the primary means through which religion is created, expressed, and managed. Religious historians narrate the trajectory of liberal theologies in a variety of ways, yet each tends to lead away from formal religious institutions (especially singular manifestations of those institutions, such as “the Church”).

The “passive” act of reading, from travel narratives of distant lands to expositions of “exotic” religions and cultures, intimately brought foreign people and ideas into American homes. The seemingly mundane, and radically understudied, account of library acquisitions offers a fascinating window into how and when minds begin to change about the world. Cultures of sympathy and senses of equality developed through new reading practices and genres of literature.11 These imagined experiences inspired many to fight for changes in American culture, most notably legal and cultural battles against slavery. Abolitionists had to convince American Christians that the Bible did not support slavery—an arduous task considering that there is no biblical condemnation of slavery and numerous verses, including the words of Jesus, describe how to engage in the practice. Reading, and then teaching, that the Bible condemned slavery demanded an entirely new hermeneutic and an ontology to sustain it. Achieving this goal required human effort to construct a more liberal American Christianity opposing slavery. In this way, Molly Oshatz argued, the abolitionist movement created the shared experience necessary to develop a liberal theology in America.12 The process of these theological changes divided American religious institutions. Those employing historical-critical biblical interpretations and welcoming innovative reading methods formed liberal sects of traditional Protestant denominations, forever changing the American religious landscape.

The wider world not only inspires thought and practice, but also provides the larger context for the aspirations and expectations of religious liberals. If scholars were to plot the “ultimate goals” and praxis of world religions, religious liberals would not fit neatly in a comparative religions chart. Indeed, they often disrupt otherwise commonplace assumptions about religion. For example, the locus of praxis for religious liberals can be found in a number of experiential paths, few of which conform to traditional notions of “religious” institutions. For example, many religious liberals see ecumenical nongovernmental organizations, such as interfaith councils, as the proper place for spiritual fulfillment. Local or global work in ecumenical societies embodies the support of moral relativism while also upholding notions of an underlying universalism. In contrast, other religious liberals may find individual fulfillment as the locus of their religious life, ranging from syncretic or eclectic individualized beliefs and practices to, perhaps, nonaffiliation. Perhaps most interestingly of all, some religious liberals find the secular state, or the pursuit of legal and sociocultural change, to be the central aim of their religious lives.

This focus on “politics” and society is often misunderstood as a rejection of religion when, as many sociological studies demonstrate, self-reported religiosity and theism remain high.13 In contrast to their conservative, orthodox, or “traditional” counterparts, religious liberals acknowledge human agency and effort in the formulation, articulation, and experience of religion. This acknowledgment occurs on a number of levels: for individuals, communities, humanity as a whole, and, often, a disembodied sense of the “good” as a state or force in the world. Taken together, these naturalized assumptions lead religious liberals to embrace individual social and political activism as the way to create, express, and manage religion. State-based reform, then, is a measure of progress and the actualization of individual ideals. To many,this secularism may seem antithetical to religion; yet, religious liberals welcome increased state action as the proper means of ultimate goals, as an arbiter of religious tolerance, and as a(if not the) manager of religious pluralism in America. These methods, rather than specific policy aims or confessional creeds, unify religious liberals.

The confluence of transnational travel and identities, historical-critical biblical hermeneutics, and sympathy cultivated through both real and imagined experiences shifted liberal Protestants’ relationships to the state. The Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (FCC) formalized this secular evangelical approach through its Social Service Catechism. Published in 1912, the Social Service Catechism recognizes “the church, the family, the school, [and] the state” as “all the means and agencies” through which the kingdom of God might be established on earth.14 The FCC’s all-encompassing Christianity, in which reform bridges church and state in common cause, popularized sentiments that Congregationalist minister Washington Gladden had articulated three years earlier to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and urban working-class Christians, many of whom came from immigrant communities, had experienced even decades earlier.15 Much like the study of liberalism, this can be interpreted both as a contradiction among liberals or, paradoxically, as a continuation of liberal ideals.

This ideological shift is, in some ways, at odds with classical forms of liberalism that value individual autonomy in political, economic, and religious areas of life. Concerted effort to expand the purview of government and to impose restrictions and regulations on individual choices (alcohol consumption, length of the work day, and so forth) contradicts the primacy of individualism, freedom, and equality within liberalism. At the same time, classical liberal figures like Jefferson did not envision the state as a static entity, but rather as a fluid agreement determined by the will of the people. Indeed, Jefferson even assumed that the state would, and certainly should, abolish itself periodically in order to stay as responsive as possible to the consent of the governed. This notion of a responsive rather than a fixed state followed John Locke’s notion of government based on a social contract. Unlike authoritarian and autocratic governments, the logic went, a liberal state allowed for human agency to thrive because it responded to the will of the people. Assuming that the state can and will change over time, modern liberals’ attachment to the state appears less in contrast with classical liberals’ distrust of the state.

Even though elite, white Protestants played a pivotal role in the formation and reformation of American liberalism, they did not hold a monopoly on it. In addition to the influence of Catholicism and Islam in the development and articulation of American liberalism, Judaism and international antisemitism also played a pivotal role in shaping the ideological tenets of political and religious liberalism and its import for American culture. For example, historian Lila Corwin Berman explained how many American rabbis in the 1930s and 1940s understood liberalism as an opportunity “to speak openly about Jews and Judaism and what they could offer to Americans.”16 Building off of the work of the Jewish Chautauqua Society, American rabbis used radio broadcasts as an effective medium to translate Judaism and Jewish identity to Americans who otherwise knew little about the subject and would be inclined to view Jews as outsiders to American culture. Through these concerted efforts, Jewish public intellectuals shifted American culture toward a liberalism that valued Judaism alongside Christianity as a religious tradition strengthening American pluralism. Liberal Jews found a path toward greater acceptance in mainstream American culture through their efforts to associate Judaism with universalism and interfaith work.17 Radio programming along with other forms of public outreach, such as university courses and research publications in the social sciences, altered the public perception of Jewish identity specifically and American identity more generally. Throughout the 20th century, Jews contributed to the evolution of American liberalism by articulating an American liberalism to which they could not merely subscribe but also belong.

These Jewish efforts dovetailed with shifts among liberal Protestants and Catholics who grew increasingly uncomfortable with ecumenical councils populated by their conservative and, in many cases, nativist and racist co-religionists. Liberal Jews, Catholics, and Protestants increasingly realized that they had more in common with each other than with the conservative factions of their own confessional traditions. This realization, which played out over the latter half of the 20th century, constituted what sociologist Robert Wuthnow referred to as the “restructuring of American religion.”18 Social and political stances on the free market, corporate regulation, abortion, public education, and immigration incited intrareligious conflicts among Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, and Jews, to name a few. Shared approaches to public policy and American culture united theological liberals and conservatives across their historic theological divisions. This context at midcentury contributed to a turn toward a “Judeo-Christian” foundation to American liberalism, supporting what historian Kevin Schultz has called a “tri-faith” American identity.19 This Judeo-Christian understanding of American liberalism embraced, rather than rejected, the central values of liberalism—freedom, equality, and individualism—even as Americans recast those values. This re-articulation of American liberalism as the result of shared religious values rather than secular reason animated American identity in the world for the remainder of the 20th century. American commitments to religious freedom and the importance of religious pluralism to democracy influenced foreign relations in the Asian-Pacific, Middle East, and Latin America.

The Crucible of Liberal Religious Freedom

The central issue concerning U.S. foreign relations and American religious liberalism is—and will likely continue to be—religious freedom. A cottage industry surrounds the history of the First Amendment and the formation of an American concept of “religious freedom.” James Madison’s focus on the importance of individual conscience combined with Deist, non-theist, and evangelical suspicion of established religious institutions established a distinctly American liberal notion of religious freedom in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment considers “religion” to be a private and individualized decision and holds a government suspicious of religious establishments to be the primary means of protecting individual religious belief and practice. Once codified in law, this American approach to religious freedom instigated a momentous cultural shift away from institutionalized religious authorities. While commonplace in the United States, this assumption of religion’s “true” locus of authority is foreign to many people, ethnicities, nations, and religious groups around the world who value religion as a communal, corporate affair. Rather than reject religion outright, however, religious freedom in the United States allows for religious expression in public spaces and institutions under certain conditions.

Centuries of jurisprudence sustained a peculiarly American interpretation of religious liberty promoting “freedom” while enforcing limitations. This tension between what religious freedom proponents say and do creates not only a form of respectability politics among religious groups, but it also reiterates longstanding critiques of liberalism: the discourse of individual rights, freedom, and equality belies exclusionary, discriminatory, and unequal actions by the state. These tensions are exacerbated when liberals attempt to advance American religious freedom around the world. The rhetoric of liberalism promises freedom and equality, but in practice it maintains—perhaps even intentionally sustains—power structures (like the state or an international coalition) and social hierarchies (like class, gender, race, and religion). Recent scholarship on American religions and U.S. religious history brings this point to light. Historian David Sehat, for example, explained the exclusionary undercurrent in the history of U.S. laws pertaining to religious freedom in his book The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Highlighting the perspectives of influential dissenters, Sehat demonstrated how laws and principles of religious freedom in the United States protected certain religious groups, beliefs, and practices rather than all religious groups, beliefs, and practices. Despite legal and cultural reliance on the word “freedom” to describe the state of affairs, “nonsectarianism” may be a better descriptor for the organizing principle of American religious freedom. The primacy of nonsectarianism in the state, especially within public institutions, rests upon a liberal consensus of supposed universal values that all legitimate religions embody. This permeation of liberal values and metaphysics in American law and culture produces and reproduces bureaucrats, scholars, and other tax-supported organizations with the authority to decide which groups and practices maintain the proper boundaries of religious practice.

One of the first, and most pivotal, test cases of religious liberty in the United States occurred in 1890 through Reynolds v. the United States. George Reynolds, Secretary to the Church of Latter Day Saints, challenged the conviction he received in a Utah territory court for violating federal antibigamy laws. Reynolds built his case on the First Amendment, arguing that polygamy was a part of his religious beliefs and practice, so his actions were protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court of the United States unanimously decided that the First Amendment did not apply because religious belief does not protect criminal activity, effectively limiting the extent to which individuals hold the freedom to practice their religion. This decision, which remains in effect today, rendered the Free Exercise Clause an exclusionary principle based on a liberal consensus rather than an absolute notion of freedom. Like many other “standard” events in the history of American religious liberalism, this case stands at the intersection of domestic and foreign affairs. Reynolds occurred at both the geographical and ideological border of the United States. As settlers of the Utah Territory sought statehood, which primarily included members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, the United States adjudicated proper religious thought and practice in the country. Interaction with what Americans considered foreign entities, including especially Mormons and the LDS Church, clarified the liberal values the federal government upheld and protected.20 Once articulated, this understanding of religious liberty in America was applied to other outsiders seeking to enter American culture.

While many Americans agree that upholding religious freedom is important, how the United States as a nation and global leader does so calls into question both the essence and function of “religious freedom” as a liberal value. Political scientist Elizabeth Shakman Hurd unearths the problems wrought by international efforts to secure religious freedom in her book Beyond Religious Freedom. Artfully using case studies, Hurd demonstrates how legislating and enforcing religious freedom around the world has unintended consequences. Most notably, the act of defining “religion” or classifying religious groups in law creates social boundaries and exclusionary protocols through the management of humanitarian aid. Choosing which groups count as properly faith-based, or deserving of protections based on religion, establishes a consensus around which faiths are tolerable and legitimate more than it establishes a freedom (or the freedom) of individual conscience. The distribution of resources based on qualifying “religious” measurements (even without official tests) creates more conflict than it necessarily ameliorates. Hurd, along with Winnifred Sullivan, Saba Mahmood, and Peter Danchin, brought this conundrum to light through their book Politics of Religious Freedom and their collaborative research project of the same name. When resources are marshaled to establish a “good” global civil society, states and global coalitions hold the power to decide who is worthy of international support and protection and who is not. Theology, devotional practice, and religious identity become matters of the state and international politics, wholly dependent on government regulation and bureaucratic management. Establishing liberal values in global affairs relies on, perhaps even requires, illiberal means.

Historian Sylvester Johnson sees the space between the rhetoric of freedom and the documented history of discrimination and exclusion differently. Whereas others may argue that the United States has not entirely lived up to its principles of freedom, Johnson argues that calls to freedom in the midst of injustices are not contradictions in words and deeds, but intended consequences. “Freedom” is not an imprecise word choice for a nation supporting slavery because, as Johnson explores in his impressive 500-year narration, the concept was not intended to be universal.21 By focusing on black religion, Johnson reframes long-held assumptions about the colonial and imperial contexts of liberalism by reorienting the historic cultural contexts of black religion around global colonial power, rather than spatial, differentials. In so doing, Johnson makes the case for the foundational values of liberalism—freedom, equality, and individualism—not as the historic means of ending asymmetrical colonial power imbalances but as the historic cultural products of maintaining colonial power networks. In addition to providing a persuasive alternative narration of liberalism’s intellectual and political development, Johnson’s work demonstrates the centrality of racialized epistemologies to understanding liberalism on its own terms. Racial categories, developed through scientific method, articulated in religious and secular philosophies, embodied in persons classified as property, and regulated through the state, determined who benefited from the liberal state, even as society embraced “freedom” and “equality” as public goods.

A Cold War of Religious Liberalism

To date, the most referenced figure related to U.S. foreign policy and American religious liberalism is theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr singlehandedly embodied the central tensions of religious liberalism and U.S. foreign policy because his life and career encapsulated the promise and peril of American liberal values in the long 20th century. Niebuhr grew up in the Midwest as the son of German immigrants. Culturally influenced by his father’s German Protestantism, the Niebuhrs’ evangelicalism reflected the markers of a liberal Protestant theology, the theological roots of which trace to German theologians. Ordained in 1915—after the First World War began but before U.S. entry into the conflict—Niebuhr belonged to and encouraged others to join his German-speaking, liberal evangelical Protestant church. He, like many American Protestants of German descent, supported American entry into the Great War despite deep concerns about the place of Christianity in world conflict. Following the war, Niebuhr—again, like many other liberal Protestant theologians—reconsidered nearly every major theological position he had held. By the 1930s, Niebuhr admitted that he had changed his theological positions on most issues. He ceased to consider himself a liberal Protestant and instead became a vocal public critic of liberal culture generally and liberal Protestant theology more specifically. One of his most influential books, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), questioned the core tenets of liberal Protestant theology by arguing that individual human agency and collective human effort corrupt society rather than improve it. Niebuhr's argument shattered the assumed “march of progress” animating liberal Protestant reform efforts for nearly a century. If corruption was truly at the heart of human nature, then collective efforts to change society—through humanitarian groups, nation-states, or international organizations—were more likely to exacerbate social problems than to solve them. This book, and the arguments informing it, intellectually and theologically rocked American liberal Protestants on their heels. And yet, Niebuhr remained an internationalist, an interventionist, and a supporter of American military and missionary action in the world. The state remained the primary mechanism for change in the world because, for Niebuhr, it held different responsibilities duties than individuals. In this respect, sin applied to individuals but not to states; as such, states could—and, at times, should—use violence for the greater good.

Niebuhr’s story has been told and analyzed many times over. But like American religious liberalism more generally, its connection to and importance in U.S. foreign relations is not fully realized. American foreign relations inspired Niebuhr’s contribution to liberal theology, albeit as a critic of it. The place of America in the world inspired his most influential writings and poignant public questions. The theological questions he wrestled with in public view shaped—and continue to shape—U.S. foreign policy. In his examination of liberal Protestant theology (and later also liberal culture more generally), Niebuhr recast liberalism (including but not exclusive to religious groups and institutions) as overestimating humanity’s inherent capacity for “good” and progress; as misplacing faith in the state to save, or even redeem the world; as misunderstanding the diagnosis and prognosis of power, corruption, and evil as located in social institutions and manageable through collective action.

These reconsiderations, perhaps even indictments of Christian thought, developed over the course of Niebuhr’s career as a theologian and public intellectual. He laid bare the heart of the issue in his slim but influential monograph The Irony of American History.22 Wrestling with the awesome responsibility and existential terror of a world with atomic weapons, Niebuhr contemplated the moral quandaries required of American exceptionalism. His liberal method of inquiry and contemplation supplied him with the reflexivity necessary to critically examine his own theological positions in light of the historical record of human action. His pursuit of a theological position that matched the present age belied his public condemnation of liberal theology for adapting to culture and history. Its method and form endured even when the content pointed in a more conservative theological direction. In this way, foreign relations has provided an unflattering mirror and spotlight on the shortcomings and failures of liberalism in the United States. The striking inconsistency between the promise of liberalism and the practice of liberalism dealt its heaviest blows against its ideological proponents, liberal theologians, missionaries, public intellectuals, and other “evangelists” for the cause.

U.S. foreign relations led Niebuhr to see the limits of American religious liberalism, and it inspired him to write profusely about its weaknesses. In so doing, Niebuhr posed enduring questions for American foreign policy and global civil society. Much like liberalism, these considerations were not an agenda for one particular party or sectarian position, but philosophical questions intended for all to consider. Not surprisingly, then, in 2008 both presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, named Niebuhr as one of their favorite philosophers and foreign policy thinkers. That they both named a theologian galvanized by liberal theology went largely unnoticed.23 After decades of progressive politicians and policies, religious liberals became a staple of the U.S. State Department and other federal agencies and institutions dedicated to American foreign relations. Consequently, recent bipartisan intersections of religious liberalism and foreign relations—like the 2013 announcement of the newly created Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of State—are products of a much longer history and not a new turn in U.S. diplomatic history. U.S. foreign policy continues to be a product and purveyor of American religious liberalism.

Review of the Literature

American religious liberalism as an area of study places two descriptors on “liberalism,” focusing scholarly inquiry on an American context (either as a geopolitical entity or as a historical culture) and on the place and power of religion. Methodologically speaking, scholars approach and apply these qualifiers differently. “Religious liberalism,” as an area of expertise, is sometimes taken to mean locating, narrating, or analyzing political or economic liberalism in religious institutions or among religious people and groups. Other times, the study of “religious liberalism” means describing the influence of religious traditions, institutions, or people in liberal intellectual or political circles. This discrepancy in emphasis reveals important theoretical issues underlying much of the scholarship: Is “religious liberalism” primarily a political ideology or a religious one? Is there a difference that makes a difference? These questions are, of course, not new to American Religious Studies or historians of American religions. Each question evokes a classic theoretical and methodological concern found in both introductory methodology courses and doctoral exams. As such, traces of these debates linger in the literature, especially among scholars unfamiliar with the weight of these questions in hiring practices or with the depth at which previous scholars have explored possible answers. While many scholars continue to find this question engaging, recent scholarship tends to reject the premise of a binary between politics/religion or secularism/religion. This emergent body of literature explores instead the co-constitution of liberal and illiberal epistemologies, identities, and policies; the contours of an expanded sense of American religious liberalism; and the ways in which naming and defining such a subject illuminate latent assumptions scholars hold about these categories.

Currently, the study of American religious liberalism is a field concerned with boundaries and classifications. The subfield ranges from theorizing the category of religion, secularity, nonbelief/unbelief as a result of liberal religious expressions (are liberal religions really religion?) to ethnographic and sociological explorations of religious liberal persons, groups, and communities to examinations of the factors shaping liberalizing processes (capitalism, globalization, modernity) and the resulting ideologies (progressivism, liberalism, metaphysics). Religious liberalism—the study of “it” and the existence of “it” in American culture—creeps alongside and even nestles into other conceptual categories, reflecting and challenging collective scholarly taxonomies. Embracing religious liberalism specifically or liberalism more generally as one’s object of inquiry requires intellectual comfort with exploring uncertain categories and narratives. Historic and ethnographic subjects of American religious liberalism frequently permeate the boundaries of atheism, nonbelief, false belief, fraudulent belief, and secularism, or drift on a sliding scale toward those ends with varying speeds.

Despite the renewed interest in liberal religions in the past decade, historian William Hutchinson’s The Modernist Impulse (1976; 1992) remains a defining text for the field. In his effort to examine liberal Protestantism, Hutchinson argued for the centrality of “modernism” to understanding liberal theological and intellectual traditions. Hutchinson identified three key components of a “modernist impulse” in American Protestantism: adaptation, “the conscious, intended adaptation of religious ideas to modern culture”; cultural immanentism, “the idea that God is immanent in human cultural development and revealed through it”; and what he termed “religiously based progressivism,” or “a belief that human society is moving toward realization (even though it may never attain the reality) of the Kingdom of God.”24 Since The Modernist Impulse, scholars have debated the various points above and their relative priority to each other. For example, Kathryn Lofton emphasized the importance of the first point, adaptation, as a common liberal Protestant method of approaching the world rather than a fixed theological or intellectual position.25 Others like Lofton have modified Hutchinson’s classification of “liberal,” expanding upon his specific points or noting its problems, but none have significantly challenged the centrality of “modernism” or the context of modernity as the foundation to understanding religious liberalism. If anything, recent scholarship has taken Hutchinson’s model further by insisting liberal Protestants expanded their power and cultural influence beyond their own devotional or sectarian commitments to Protestantism. For instance, American Studies scholar Matthew Hedstrom argued for liberal Protestants’ cultural dominance, despite church membership records, through literature and publishing industries.26 The power of print cultures in 19th-century America, then, solidified liberal theologies and ontologies as the defining features of American mainstream culture.

Whereas Hutchinson provided the standing conceptual model for identifying religious liberals, theologian Gary Dorrien provided the most comprehensive narration of liberal Christian theology in his three-volume series, The Making of American Liberal Theology.27 In this work, Dorrien outlines a succinct trajectory for liberal Christian theology: a coherent orthodoxy emerged in the 19th century, established itself as a pillar of American culture in the early 20th century, received critiques from the right and left in the 1930s and 1960s, respectively, and was “often taken for dead” by the 1970s. Dorrien makes four contributions that continue to animate the literature: first, on the question of religious liberalism’s cultural status, he insisted that liberal theology is alive and thriving; second, with regard to the issue of classification, he roots “liberal Christianity” on a linear theological spectrum between conservative Christianity and “secular disbelief”; third, he upholds “reason and experience” as central components of liberal theology; fourth, he situates social gospel figures and ideas as central to the history of liberal thought. Since Dorrien’s focus was on formal theology, his subject remains theologians, that is, primarily, white men of letters. This, like Hutchinson’s pivotal work, established a dichotomy between thought and practice, men and women, elite and popular figures, intellectual and anti-intellectual social circles, exacerbating divisions among historiographical subfields as much as fortifying them.

As a result, scholarship on liberal Protestantism, which has expanded significantly since 2007, consistently faces defining questions shared in the study of American religion: are Protestants the center of American religious liberalism (or American religions more broadly)? Are liberal religions or liberalization the narrative of America’s religious history? (and, some might also ask, should it be?) The study of American religious liberalism, then, reflects the tension found in the primary sources: What are the boundaries between religion and secularity or religion and irreligion? Where does “liberal” fit on a spectrum of orthodox and unorthodox (in both religious and scholarly traditions)? And why does it matter, if at all? Scholars of liberal religions answer these questions in a variety of ways. Historian David Hollinger, for instance, considers religious liberals to be “accommodating” to mainstream culture, whereas conservatives might register as resistant or reluctant mainstream cultural participants. Likewise, liberals are more ecumenical in their approach to working with other faiths as well as with the faithless. As such, their goals lie less with evangelization of their sectarian belief and more with “doing good” or contributing to the improvement of society at large. This causes Hollinger to locate liberal churches as a “halfway house” toward secularization.28 Whether or not this move toward secular activity is a loss of religion or a gain for religion depends on the scholar’s point of view. Sociologist Christian Smith, for instance, noted that the focus on the decline in the number of liberal Protestant churches and their church members misses the more important historical and cultural fact: “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.”29 Drawing upon an earlier article by N. Jay Demerath, Smith explained that the defining values of liberal Protestantism have been so widely accepted that Americans expect all churches, not just certain denominations, to embody them.

This question of dominance or disintegration has inspired a heightened awareness of how liberal Protestantism looms over the research and teaching of religion in America. Indeed, one important reason for this sense of a larger cultural victory is the role of public education and even the field of Religious Studies itself. Similar to concerted Jewish intellectual efforts decades earlier, secular academic research on religion and countless Religious Studies courses offered at public universities changed the public perception of religion and its place in American culture. Historian Amanda Porterfield argued such a point in The Transformation of American Religion when she asserted that “religion came to function less as an agent of ethnic identity and tribal solidarity and more as a catalyst for individual concern about social issues” as a result of Religious Studies Departments.30 For some Religious Studies classrooms, social construction has become the primary subject, which unearths the liberal Protestant intellectual heritage of many universities as much as it furthers such thinking toward other cultural subjects. Interestingly, these arguments for the existence of a liberal Protestant establishment, animated by theological liberalism and privileged social circles, have been affirmed and even fortified in scholarship otherwise uninterested in upholding liberal ends and means.

This entanglement of liberal Protestant epistemologies and metaphysics in public education and graduate training causes liberal Protestants to hold a position in the historiography disproportionate to the demographics of Americans’ religious affiliations. Consequently, many scholars have offered forays into a conscious uncoupling of religious liberalism from liberal Protestantism. Leigh Eric Schmidt and Sally Promey, for instance, provided a new foundational text in American Religious Liberalism.31 Making space for new avenues for scholarship, Schmidt and Promey invited scholars to create maps of American religious liberals that are “way, way weirder.”32 To encourage new directions, Schmidt and Promey divided their volume into three parts: The Spiritual in Art, The Piety and Politics of Liberal Ecumenism, and Pragmatism, Secularism, and Internationalism. Each essay in the collection serves as a model for an expansion of the subfield. Tellingly, the volume as a whole roots each new direction firmly in “traditional” notions of religious liberals while branching beyond conventional wisdom through new perspectives and approaches.

It is in this final avenue that studies of foreign relations and American religious liberalism have the greatest potential for interdisciplinary contributions integrating otherwise disparate subfields. The literature is rife with productive reconsiderations of the field, particularly for those interested in foreign relations. Take, for example, William Hutchinson’s simple, yet evocative, sentence “liberalism under the modernist impetus had declared openly that the church is and must be in the world” (emphasis added).33 Foreign relations has been part of the literature thus far without an intentional, explicit examination of it. Purposeful examinations of religious liberalism through a foreign relations or American in the world “lens” would place “American” characteristics of liberalism in global perspective. The possibility of a foreign relations “turn” is eased by the availability of historical evidence hidden in plain sight. Junior scholars need not devote themselves to finding a silver bullet or excavating archival material that has never been uncovered or considered before. Instead, scholars may concentrate on understanding historical evidence in light of their expertise in foreign policy or international politics. Thinking about global contexts can allow scholars to build on previous models, such as transatlantic, “translocative,” or “global flows” approaches, while also placing American domestic changes in context.34

While scholars of American religions have recently begun to integrate the global turn of American Studies, the America in the World approach of diplomatic history, and critical Religious Studies approaches to “world religions,” exemplary models existed prior to this turn. Peter D’Agostino’s Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Ideology from Risorgimento to Fascism remains one of the most comprehensive and complex examinations of religion, liberalism, and American identity in the world. Rome in America reveals the contours of American liberalism by examining the ways in which American Catholics with strong transnational identities challenged American liberalism. The strength of D’Agostino’s work lies in his ability to keep readers at several intersections at once. He wove national and transnational histories, comparative religions, and competing intellectual trajectories together in a single narrative. This is a strength of the subfield as a whole. Liberalism is best studied as an interstitial and intersectional concept. The future of the literature likely lays in the ability of junior scholars to hold subfields and overlapping interests in productive tension, highlighting perspectives and narratives that cut across shared narratives and categories artificially separated by disciplinary boundaries.

Still, more than a decade after its publication, D’Agostino’s work cuts to the core of several key questions in the field: How “American” is American religious liberalism? Who and what was considered “American” and why? (“How religious or secular?” “How liberal or illiberal?” And so forth.) Scholars are nowhere near a consensus on these questions. As mentioned earlier, the robust debate on these issues is generative for this field study. Disagreements remain, in part, because the three central concepts of liberalism—individualism, freedom, and equality—point to different historic trajectories. One tendency is to trace a linear transformation of religion. For example, with attention drawn to individualism, scholars may narrate a trajectory from institutional church membership to “Sheilaism”—a set of beliefs and practices determined by each individual according to his or her own conscience, or the “Nones,” people who identify with no religious affiliation at all.35 Alternatively, with attention drawn to equality, scholars might trace a historic arc through religious institutions supporting social justice or human rights movements.

More recently, scholars of religious liberalism have resisted comprehensive narratives, opting instead to write more focused histories of groups, movements, or political issues. Since Protestantism dominates the current literature, scholarly attention to Catholics, Jews, Muslims, non-theists, atheists, or the unaffiliated is a prime source for further contribution in this vein. The literature of American religious liberalism would benefit greatly from scholarship illustrating the diversity of influences shaping liberal thinkers and practitioners. Islam, for example, proved to be an important test case in liberal values. Less understood, however, are the connections between liberal engagement with Islam and Islamophobic public discourses presenting Muslim states as antithetical to democracy and liberal values. Filling this historiographic void may help to explain how 21st-century Americans can value religious liberty yet also support restricting refugees and immigrants on account of their religious affiliation or country of origin.

Incorporating understudied and minority groups into the standard narrative, further investigating international foundations of liberal thinking, and connecting American accounts to “foreign” sources hold promise for future directions of study. Identifying the shifts within liberalism’s history is a perennial, yet productive, area of inquiry as it continues to sharpen the scholarly conversation about precisely what American liberalism was and is. New frames of reference for narrating such a history may do well to expand the field in thought-provoking ways. Revealing the social or political economy of religious liberals as experienced through fellowship or corporate bodies and corporations may shed light on the role of communities and privilege for those revering individual autonomy. The financing of American religious liberalism also remains an area of inquiry filled with promise. Philanthropists and robber barons and their influence on tax law helped to craft an American liberalism that held particular notions of individual autonomy and authority unlike liberalism elsewhere in the world. International trade and commerce likewise has reshaped liberal values as liberal religious and political leaders imagined a world with fewer borders and barriers. Considerations of the broader environment of liberalism from the role of nature and climate to other temporal considerations like time itself could also provide avenues of useful reimaginations of the field. Sexing or queering the longstanding categories and narrations about the formative relationships between the state and the people in American society would expand existing literature about the role of communal societies in challenging normative assumptions about a civilized liberal society and the state regulations necessary to maintain family values and social order. Reengagements of persistent questions of liberalism as viewed through each new lens may be the most effective way to reflect upon and challenge the history of American religious liberals.

Primary Sources

Scholars of American religious liberalism and foreign policy have won a primary source lottery. In this field of study, scholars need not worry about finding enough primary source material because most prominent American liberal figures were prolific writers. The more troubling issue for scholars in this area is deciding how to narrow their historical inquiry owing to the abundance of primary source material. Reflexive scholars should consider carefully how and why they limit their scope of study. They should also read their sources with a critical lens. Liberal figures have written inspiring texts that serve as the basis of American democracy; yet, as Sylvester Johnson and many other scholars have made clear, inspirational words were not necessarily followed by equally inspiring actions. Reading sources with a critical lens or with historical empathy for opposing points of views can be a valuable method for analyzing liberal figures, texts, and events. Cross-referencing financial records, membership rolls, property sales, and other statistical or demographic data with sermons, speeches, policy platforms, and the like can help scholars create a fuller picture of liberal reform efforts. Similarly, consulting historic maps or using digital mapping tools to create maps of historic cities and neighborhoods can aid scholars in their study of liberal organizations and sites of protest.

Further Reading

  • Allison, Robert. The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  • Berman, Lila Corwin. Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
  • D’Agostino, Peter. Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Ideology from Risorgimento to Fascism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Foody, Kathleen. “Pedagogical Projects: Teaching Liberal Religion after 9/11.” The Muslim World 106.4 (2016): 719–739.
  • Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman. Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (rep. edition). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.
  • Johnson, Sylvester. African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History (rev. ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • Kittelstrom, Anne. The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition. New York: Penguin, 2016.
  • Mahmood, Saba. “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation.” Public Culture 18.2 (March 20, 2006): 323–347.
  • Massad, Joseph. Islam in Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • McGreevy, John T. “Catholicism and American freedom: A Forum.” Historically Speaking 6.1 (2004), 25–36.
  • Mislin, David. Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.
  • Rieser, Andrew Chamberlin. The Chautauqua Moment: Protestants, Progressives, and the Culture of Modern Liberalism, 1874–1920. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
  • Rossinow, Doug. The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, and Peter, Danchin eds. Politics of Religious Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.


  • 1. Molly Oshatz, Slavery and Sin: The Fight against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Nancy Cohen, The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865–1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

  • 2. For a more detailed explanation of “Cold War liberalism,” see Jonathan Bell, “Liberalism from the Fair Deal to the Great Society,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, March 2015.

  • 3. Bell, “Liberalism from the Fair Deal to the Great Society.”

  • 4. President Eisenhower, “Address at the Freedoms Foundation, Waldorf-Astoria, New York City,” New York, December 22, 1952, Eisenhower Foundation; and Patrick Henry, “‘And I Don't Care What It Is’: The Tradition-History of a Civil Religion Proof-Text,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49.1 (1981): 35–49.

  • 5. Trifaith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Protestant Promises (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 77.

  • 6. “Protestant Liberalism,” in Blackwell Companion to Religion in America, ed. Philip Goff (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010), 649–668.

  • 7. Arthur Versluis, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

  • 8. Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Signed at Tripoli November 4, 1796,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale University.

  • 9. Robert Allison, The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Susan Nance, How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790–1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); and Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, A History of Islam in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

  • 10. Anne Kittelstrom, The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition (New York: Penguin, 2016).

  • 11. Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (London: Norton, 2008); Candy Gunther Brown, Word in the World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Julia Stern, Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); and Gregory Jackson, The Word and the Witness: Spiritualization of American Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

  • 12. Molly Oshatz, Slavery and Sin: The Fight against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 14.

  • 13. Religious Landscape Study: The Unaffiliated,” Pew Research Center; David Masci and Michael Lipka, “Americans May Be Getting Less Religious, but Feelings of Spirituality Are on the Rise,” January 21, 2016, Pew Research Center; and Steven Ramey and Monica R. Miller, “Meaningless Surveys: The Faulty ‘Mathematics’ of the ‘Nones’,” January 23, 2014, Huffington Post Blog.

  • 14. Samuel Z. Batten, Walter Rauchenbusch, Jacob Riis, Graham Taylor, Harry F. Ward, and Charles S. Macfarland, A Social Service Catechism (New York: Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, 1912), 3.

  • 15. Washington Gladden and American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, The Nation and the Kingdom: Annual Sermon before the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (New York: The Board, 1909); and Heath Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

  • 16. Lila Corwin Berman, Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 12.

  • 17. Berman, Speaking of Jews.

  • 18. Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

  • 19. Schultz, Trifaith America, 79.

  • 20. Few scholars have considered this—and other—pivotal SCOTUS decisions in light of its relationship to foreign relations. Associate professor of law Nathan Oman attempted to pave the way through his article “Natural Law and the Rhetoric of Empire: Reynolds v. United States, Polygamy, and Imperialism,” Faculty Publications, paper 1134 (2011).

  • 21. Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  • 22. The Irony of American History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), with an Introduction by Andrew Bacevich.

  • 23. R. Ward Holder and Peter B. Josephson, The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Christian Statecraft (New York: Routledge, 2016); and Paul Elie, “A Man for All Reasons,” The Atlantic (November 2007).

  • 24. Hutchinson, The Modernist Impulse (Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 1992), 2.

  • 25. Kathryn Lofton, “The Methodology of the Modernists: Process in American Protestantism,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 75.2 (2006): 374–402.

  • 26. Matthew Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  • 27. Gary J. Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, 3 vols. (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2001–2006).

  • 28. David A. Hollinger, “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” Journal of American History 98.1 (2011), 48; and David A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

  • 29. Christian Smith, Souls in Transition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 287.

  • 30. Amanda Porterfield, The Transformation of American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 203. See also Robert Orsi, “Snakes Alive: Religious Studies between Heaven and Earth,” in Between Heaven and Earth (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 177–204.

  • 31. Leigh Eric Schmidt and Salley Promey, American Religious Liberalism (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012).

  • 32. Leigh Eric Schmidt, “Introduction,” in American Religious Liberalism, 9; and Jeffrey J. Kripal, “The Dominant, the Damned, and the Discs: On the Metaphysical Liberalism of Charles Fort and Its Afterlives,” in American Religious Liberalism, 232.

  • 33. Hutchinson, The Modernist Impulse, 310.

  • 34. Thomas Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

  • 35. Robert Bellah, “Religion,” in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 219–249.