In a recent PHS LIVE session, Presbyterian Historical Society Executive Director Nancy J. Taylor interviewed Dr. Gene Zubovich about his book, “Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States”.
Zubovich’s story follows the influence and growth of American liberal Protestantism from the 1920s until just before the outbreak of World War II, the post-war climate in the 1940s and the era of cold War. It highlights various distinguishing characteristics of liberal Protestant leaders of each generation, the primary focus of each era, and the schisms and divisions that have occurred in the movement over the years.
To start the session, Taylor prompted Zubovich to talk about what inspired him to write the book.
“I found this really interesting, intellectually dynamic and politically active world of liberal Protestantism…a generation of leaders from the 1920s through the 1960s who I think had a truly transformative impact on the United States and on the world at large,” Zubovich said. From the founding of the United Nations and the implementation of the Social Security and Wagner Acts to the American civil rights movement and anti-war protests, this group has been very active in a variety of social and political events.
Taylor then asked Zubovich to talk about the “World Order Movement”, a concept of Zubovich’s that offers a broad categorization of initiatives by various denominations in the 1940s that all went in the same direction to promote world government. These initiatives began in times of war, when denominations “found that even if they could not agree on the war itself, if they looked beyond the war, they could come to a common understanding. .. of what the international order should look like after the war is over,” Zubovich said.
As religious groups participating in the World Order Movement staged rallies, demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns, it became apparent that the general population was much more receptive to Protestant activists intent on reforming in the states. -United. In this way, American liberal Protestants began to gain even more influence; simultaneously, several grassroots movements, led by people such as Methodist leader Thelma Stevens, reinforced the ideals preached by those involved in the world order movement.
The PHS Live conversation then moved to the Cold War, Communism, Marxism and the notion of a ‘bipolar world’ which opposed the ecumenical movement, including the 1948 meeting of the World Council of Churches.
Zubovich spoke of the development of the fundamentalist evangelical movement, which grew out of active opposition to the ecumenical Protestant movement of previous decades. After explaining that the modern evangelical movement began in 1942, the same year as the world order movement, he said: “From the beginning, evangelicals take a kind of mirror opposite attitude towards many causes that ecumenical Protestants [support]… They are squarely against human rights, they are squarely against the United Nations – they are skeptical of these initiatives, they see them as too secular, as stepping stones towards atheism and communism.
Zubovich’s book takes a fresh approach to the history of the fundamentalist evangelical movement. Rather than focusing attention solely on the ecumenical-evangelical rivalry, “Before the Religious Right” examines divisions within the liberal ecumenical community itself.
“I think that to understand the polarization [of American politics] …you need to examine how shifts within liberal ecumenical Protestant politics structure and shape growing polarization and division, first in American religions and later in American politics,” Zubovich said.
His research at PHS in preparation for his new book was not his first experience in the National Archives of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 2012, he received a research grant from the society which allowed him to travel to Philadelphia.
“I’ve done a few of these lectures,” Zubovich said, “but it’s special to go back to where my doctoral thesis — which later became the book — started.”
Asked about the collections he used for his book, Zubovich replied, “I consulted over 42 archives, but the Presbyterian Historical Society was by far the largest of them.” While there, he consulted the archives of the Federal and National Council of Churches, which proved to be the centerpiece of his research.
The session ended with questions from the audience. Zubovich begins work on his second book project, which will explore how Americans have exported their polarizing politics around the world, from the 1960s to the present day.
“Before the Religious Right” is available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Register for the November PHS LIVE webinar: “Archival Research with Former PHS Fellows” on November 14 at 5 p.m. ED.