America’s Religious Left

By Jonathan Neumann
Monday, November 19, 2012

Ever since the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s, many people have associated American religion with political and cultural conservatism—grounded in tradition, more comfortable with the past than the future.  Historically, however, American religion has been at least as liberal as conservative.  American Religious Liberalism, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Leigh Schmidt and Sally Promey, aims to correct the more recent perception.

When it comes to definitions, the term “religious liberalism” is a moving target, not only because it has evolved over time but because liberalism itself welcomes change.  Perhaps chief among them is an emphasis on ecumenicism—not just tolerance but an “openness to otherness,” as contributor Matthew S. Hedstrom puts it—that was always “much of what it meant to be a religious liberal.”  This once intra-Christian impulse has been extended to Judaism, Eastern religions and, increasingly, Islam.

Such ecumenicism reflects a notion of religion as spirituality. “Feeling,” William James wrote in his 1902 work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is the “deeper source of religion,” while “philosophic and theological formulas” are merely “secondary products.”  James’ intellectual heir John Dewey, in his book, A Common Faith, articulated a similar sentiment, offering his sympathy to those who “feel inarticulately that they have the essence of the religious with them and yet are repelled by the religions and are confused.”  The same impulse underlies some religious liberals’ more radical emphasis on omni-divinity, a kind of mystical pantheism found in a strain of religious liberal writing from Walt Whitman to Arthur Green.

One natural end of this impulse is the aspiration to a universal religion.  A century ago, the idea was promoted by, among others, the scholar of Semitic languages Morris Jastrow, son of the talmudic scholar Marcus Jastrow.  The universal religion, the younger Jastrow wrote, would combine the best of the various religions, impelled by the common human feeling of sympathy that produces good will among individuals and nations.  

Another identifying hallmark of religious liberalism is what Hedstrom calls the “liberal mission to decenter doctrine and focus the faith more fully on ethics and social justice.”  But there is a complicating factor: in embracing social justice, religious liberals find themselves in the company of social justice advocates who are not religious at all—who are, indeed, secularists.  Some religious liberals sharply differentiate themselves from their secularist allies.  Morris Jastrow, for instance, dismissed theories that reduced religion to an illusion or an opiate administered by a manipulative ruling or priestly class.  Today, religious liberals like the Renewal rabbi Michael Lerner are similarly emphatic.  But the line between secularism, which often shapes the public climate to which religious liberalism seeks to adapt, and religious liberalism itself, which has in some cases entirely abandoned talk of a personal God, can be quite fine—sometimes, as political theorist William E. Connolly puts it, just a matter of “inflection.”

By and large, American Religious Liberalism does not grapple with these matters of definition.  Instead, it explores its terrain by means of case studies.  The book’s first part considers the relationship between religious liberalism and the arts—for example, the Romantic movement’s elevation of poets into a kind of priesthood and a similar phenomenon after the death of Walt Whitman, who became something of a messianic figure to a movement of disciples.

The second part of the book deals with ecumenicism.   One chapter tells the story of Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman’s Peace of Mind, which appeared in 1946.  After World War II, the perennial American self-help impulse was joined by a flowering of ecumenicism; it was now possible for a rabbi to speak to the Protestant masses in a way that earlier religious liberals—Emerson, Channing, James, Dewey—never could. Liebman’s volume became what was to that point the best-selling book of the 20th century, and Liebman himself became the “most successful ambassador in print for religious liberalism.”

A particularly interesting chapter, by Yaakov Ariel, deals with Reform Judaism and its Christian counterparts. At first the relationship between liberal Protestantism and Reform Judaism was mixed: there was mutual admiration, but Reform Jews took exception to Protestant insistence that Christianity was a more evolved version of Judaism.  Yet the influence of liberal Protestantism on Reform Judaism became pronounced; indeed, it seemed “to Jewish antagonists from the Orthodox camp . . . that the essence of Reform Judaism was the Protestantization of Judaism.”  Liberal Protestants and Reform Jews also co-operated on a largely shared social and political agenda.

The chapter also discusses post-Holocaust Catholic and Protestant initiatives aimed at reconciliation with the Jews.  The Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal movements entered into dialogue with liberal Christians, leaving conservative Jews to do so with their Christian counterparts.  One point of Jewish-Christian division among religious liberals remained: support for Israel. In fact, this disagreement widened in the 1970s and 1980s.  By the 1990s, however, criticism of Israeli policies increasingly emanated from Reform Jewish pulpits as from Christian ones.  Reform Jewish leaders had to choose between a “protective attitude toward Israel” and a “more critical attitude, based on universal principles;” and they did so. Although the Reform movement still shows vestiges of the former, many Reform Jews today find more in common with their liberal Protestant neighbors, including a critical attitude toward Israel, than with conservative Jews in Brooklyn or Hebron.

The future of the Jewish variant of American liberal religion is unclear.  Several decades ago, Reform overtook the Conservative movement as America’s largest Jewish denomination; and Reform has negotiated the challenges of gender and sexuality far more successfully than its Christian counterparts.  But Reform Judaism’s numbers are falling–and are bolstered by interfaith families with spouses and often children who would not be accepted by more conservative Jewish denominations.

Can liberal religion in general reclaim its lost energy in American life?  To judge by the Episcopal Church, which has fractured into a thriving conservative bloc and a dissolving liberal remnant, the prognosis is poor. But if religious liberalism returns to its own tradition of innovation, it may yet reawaken.

Jonathan Neumann writes for periodicals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel.  He has recently completed a Tikvah Fellowship.

You can find this online at:

© Copyright 2024 Jewish Ideas Daily. All Rights Reserved.