Past Imperfect: History and the Prospect for Liberalism — II

by William R. Hutchison

Dr. Hutchinson is Charles Warren professor of American religious history at Harvard Divinity School.

This is the second half of a two-part article. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 15, 1986, p. 42. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


This is the second portion of a two-part article in which William R. Hutchison affirms the compatibility of a pluralistic society and strongly held convictions. There is "the need for a bolder, more explicit theistic rationale for pluralism as perhaps the greatest unattended need of the moment."

In 1611, a year now considered -- with the King I James Version and all -- a pretty good year for Christendom, John Donne complained that "new philosophy casts all in doubt . . . ‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.. . Prince, subject, Father, Son, are things forgot." Assumptions about moral and general declension usually play well in poetry and homiletics -- Donne’s two genres -- and as witticism. (An old codger is supposed to have lamented that "your modern thunderstorms don’t clear the air.") But such assumptions usually make for poor history. And bad history, I think we would agree, can lead to dubious prognostication.

The "decline" of liberal Protestantism to which many are pointing -- some with satisfaction, others with dismay -- is frequently linked, especially by the dismayed, to a purported loss of moral coherence in American society. I would suggest a change of wording here: for "loss of coherence" I should like to substitute "lack of coherence." Our society certainly falls tragically short of coherent response to its own stated ideals, to say nothing of more transcendent ones. And the notion that these ideals were once far better realized gives them, of course, a kind of imprimatur from our ancestors. But such imaginings also provide handy and well-known tools for reaction. One appropriate response for the religious liberal, as for the social scientist, is to inquire very closely just what sort of past we are being asked to return to.

None of us admits to nostalgia when important matters are at stake. Even the religious New Right would ball at Grant Wacker’s characterization of their thought as Norman Rockwell view of American history ("Searching for Norman Rockwell: Popular Evangelicalism in Contemporary America," The Evangelical Tradition hi America, Leonard Sweet, editor [Mercer University Press, 1984]) Yet a great many of our diagnosticians, to the left as much as on the right, do allow elements of nostalgia to creep in. It does not take much attentiveness, at any rate, to find behind many analyses and prescriptions an idée fixe that prepluralist America was morally more coherent, more "together," more effectual than recent and current America.

While these implied contrasts between a moral past and an amoral present can be documented in certain respects, as general propositions they are ill-founded and, to be frank, downright wild. Anthropologist Mary Douglas puts part of the case as follows:

Reflection shows that the evidence for old-time sanctity comes from suspect sources such as hagiography, panegyrics and sermons. If we were to read even that biased evidence more critically, we would notice the professionals upbraiding the mass of ordinary people for lack of faith, as if the gift of which, we are told, modernity has deprived us was always rather the exception.

Douglas adds, with respect to the equally common assumption that people of past ages were spiritually and (hence) generally fulfilled, that she can see "no evidence that there is more unhappiness and mental disturbance now than in those famous ages of faith. How can anyone possibly say? The evidence is weak, the arguments weaker" ("The Effects of Modernization on Religious Change," Religion and America: Spiritual Life in a Secular Age, Mary Douglas and Steven Tipton, editor. [Beacon, 1983], p. 29; see also Marilynne Robinson, "Writers and the Nostalgic Fallacy," New York Times Book Review [October 13, 1985])

Most cultural and religious historians would want to second Douglas. In the case before us, the idea that America under mainline Protestant hegemony was, on balance, more coherent morally than today’s society may have been assumed in a traditional history that focused on those who exercised hegemony. But few interpretations in political or cultural history, and almost none in social history, have implied such a favorable view of the American past. And for at least a generation, broadened purviews in religious and intellectual history have made such views distinctly obsolete in those fields. Robert Handy, writing in 1971 of "a Christian America," juxtaposed in his subtitle ‘Protestant hopes" and "historical realities." His interpretation was, if anything, a trifle more celebratory than most.

Most historians would have to reply sadly that, whatever may have been the case in other societies, Americans in the past have been quite prone to act out all those sentiments; they have, moreover, been more ready than most to articulate them -- and in something like the phraseology Berger imagines. Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence (Wesleyan University Press, 1973) is only the most noteworthy contribution to a small library of studies depicting a moral preference for violence in the American past. Our literature and thought forms have been replete with moral justifications or excuses for arson, rape (on and off the plantation) , and -- as the advertisers would put it -- much, much more. Slotkin, without carrying his analysis beyond 1860, records the use and justification of violence as a mode of initiation, self-creation and love; as a mode of progress, self-transcendence and regeneration; and, however incredibly, as a mode of reconciliation and of relation to God.

But surely, you may say, those anarchists of the past who expressed moral preference for the use of arson in labor disputes were denounced roundly by their contemporaries; and that is certainly true. It is also true today. But let me concede such points. If we were to do that, if we were to concede the relative benignity of the railroad strike of 1877 (in which arson was a preferred method) or of the Harlan County troubles in the 1930s, we would still have to talk about expressed moral preferences, in the American past, for burning convents, burning villages and cities, and burning Negroes.

If either Protestantism or the moral directorship of society at large has recently displayed counsels regarding war, injustice, poverty and industrial organization, I see in our past more seriously and acutely divided counsels. The moral directorship of the past was perhaps more effective than any consensus of today in the realm of personal morality; but even that is far from clear, given the bitter divisions in the 19th century over temperance, chastity, sabbatarianism and a dozen other moral issues. If we, in addition, consider the degree to which moral directorship was or was not effective -- if we estimate conservatively the actual crime rates, actual poverty, actual incidence of corruption and allowance of corruption -- it is not clear that what we are seeing today can be called the loss of a former moral coherence.

We are talking about a past American society that, for example, either approved lynchings or did nothing about them -- or was morally confused about them. While the movement from such a society to that of the civil rights revolution may not prove any theories of inexorable moral progress, it also does not prove, or even permit, a theory of moral declension. Henry Adams believed that the development of American politics from Washington to Grant disproved the law of evolution. He had a point; and if we then ask about the "progress" from Grant to Nixon, we would have to acknowledge something like stasis in our political morality. Yet the moral development from a society that largely approved of Grant -- or of Boss Tweed or of Warren Harding’s friends -- to the one that condemned Nixon and Watergate may reflect something better than stasis.

I am not urging a triumphalist or even progressivist view -- triumphalism being not at all preferable to nostalgia. I am suggesting that the search for solutions to our moral disarray is needlessly confused, even if it is helpfully dramatized, by fantasies concerning moral decline. More particularly, our consideration of the fate or future of religious liberalism is skewed from the start by unproved and, in most cases, unprovable assumptions about the past effectuality of institutional Protestantism.

Another of Will Herberg’s observations that might help us now was that Protestants in America, as of the 1950s, were suffering from the rather sudden onset of "psychological minority" feelings -- a sense of relative deprivation in relation to the power and dominance they had enjoyed in the past (Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology [Doubleday, 1955], pp. 250-51) The oldline denominations today, jolted by the minus signs of the ‘70s, are in a similar way struggling to adjust to long-term developments, this time within institutional Protestantism, that have come belatedly to their notice. Once we have attained a calmer and historically deeper sense of what has been happening -- once we move beyond both panic and panegyrics -- it should be possible to discern more clearly the future roles of these churches and of the religious forms of liberalism.

Peter Berger, in an aperçu that I admire very much, has predicted that secular humanism in America, having failed to achieve the sort of success many had expected or feared, will be forced to accept a kind of denominational status ("From the Crisis of Religion to the Crisis of Secularity," p. 22). The oldline Protestant denominations, oddly enough, may also have to accept denominational status. That, severally or together, they will ever regain the cultural dominance of yesteryear is, as the British say, simply not on. Those who hope that a few of the more egregious prime-time preachers will be replaced by liberals (or even by evangelicals) are in for a long wait; I’m afraid it is accurate, even if elitist, to expect that even to occur several days after "Dallas" is bumped by "Masterpiece Theatre." But the liberal churches do -- both severally and together -- stand for reasonably distinctive traditions or emphases. To own, refurbish and spiritually invigorate these distinctive features seems somewhat more important to the future of liberal Protestantism than the efforts, understandable though they are, to reach broader constituencies or to do something about the inadequate liberal birthrate.

I mean, obviously, to support those who think of the future usefulness of these bodies, and of their federative structures, in "gathered-church" more than in "churchly" terms -- at that juncture I agree with Dean Kelley (Why Conservative Churches Are Growing [Harper & Row, 1972]) To put this concretely, let me offer just one example. A common explanation for unimpressive mainline growth rates has been that monies for church building have so often gone instead for work in the ghettos, or to Angola or perhaps Nicaragua. Now until Congregationalists tithe like Adventists (another long wait) , the funds for doing what one would like in both these fields of endeavor are going to be limited. I believe that the liberal churches and ecumenical bodies, faced with such choices, should maintain much the same kind of balance -- or imbalance, if you like -- that in recent years has brought them under criticism. That is a personal preference, but at this point I am offering it also as a guess about the sources and shape of liberal Protestantism’s "American future."

In thus embracing a status that will be closer to "sectarian" than these churches are accustomed to, I would hope that liberal Protestantism might become less timid and less grudging in its commitment to religious pluralism -- or better, in its religious commitment to pluralism.

Despite the historic American and Protestant credentials of church-state separation and other elements in the pluralist tradition, some may find it a peculiar idea that mainline Protestants should go out of their way to defend that tradition theologically -- especially if they are in search of a future. Isn’t this, when all is said, something the churches should leave to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) ? Doesn’t "pluralism" connote a fragmentation that liberal Protestants, whether or not they must accept it, don’t have to like or defend?

The answer should be No to each of those queries. "Pluralism" will endorse moral fragmentation only so far as we allow it to do so. The term pluralism, I take it, means not simply "diversity" (although it is sometimes used that way) , but more especially the acceptance, or even celebration, of diversity. It is a value term, not just a descriptive one. As such, it becomes an ally of fragmentation and moral anarchy only to the extent that we leave its defense to the fragmenters and moral anarchists. And my impression (as a nontheologian venturing beyond his competence and willing to be corrected) is that, despite ample encouragements from theologians in the liberal and neo-orthodox traditions, what we are calling liberal Protestantism has not exploited those resources within its own tradition that justify or even demand a positive theology on this point. Pluralism, if not religious freedom, has too often been allowed to appear as something the religious interests concede to political necessity.

Bodies like the ADL and the ACLU, far from endorsing moral anarchy, have mounted positive rationales for pluralism from the perspective of libertarian and other traditions. To these, liberal Protestantism ought to be adding its own potentially powerful voice. In other contexts, such as that of social action, we may want liberals to be more assertive about convictions that divide them from others; to be willing, for example, to call a social policy unchristian that they think is unchristian. But liberal Protestants have also been too timid about owning and expressing the biblical and theological warrants for their -- or anyone else’s -- speaking out in just that initially divisive way.

To the partially enfranchised, Borowitz said, the danger in the current conservatism is "that under the guise of ending ethical anarchy, America will grow more repressive." The problem, he said, develops when those who properly seek to reclaim ethical absolutes begin to insist that the truth they have found is all the truth anyone needs. Is that step inevitable? Is there no way, he asks, to hold an "ultimate" strong enough to ground and guide us, without then forcing our versions of truth on those who vigorously disagree with us? Borowitz answers that there has to be another way, since

we cannot be asked to accept the principle that, affirming the one God, we deny the virtues of pluralism. For myself, I would rather run the risks of the occasional abuse of freedom than face the profanation of God and the degradation of people that religious persecution and intolerance create. Our generation now needs to learn how to proclaim the truth of faith and liberty simultaneously.

Borowitz in that speech based the argument for pluralism on what he called "a profound theological modesty."

Though I know enough about transcendent truth to base my life on it, I also realize that it expresses and manifests itself in ways far more complex than I can fully understand. . . . For all my personal conviction, I must bow to your right to make up your own mind. My spirit and my intellect tell me that my understanding of the ultimate is the best that anyone has -- but that does not imply that those who disagree with me are necessarily in error and have no spiritual right to what I perceive as their religious folly.

As had often been done before (although rarely so well) , Borowitz linked humility before God to democratic ideology.

Against the old logic and the old theologies, we now assert the religious virtue of approaching the truth pluralistically. Transcendence without fanaticism, pluralism without permissiveness, the moral courage of the old faiths with modern democracy’s respect for differences -- America should have taught us that. We, who seek to bind up her spiritual wounds, need to be true to what this blessed nation has given her successive generations ["Harvard Divinity School Convocation Address," Harvard Theological Review 75 (July 1982) , pp. 272-73].

Although this, as it stands, constitutes an important base for revitalized moral consensus, one further step is required. It is a move that I’m sure Borowitz would agree to, since it is at least prefigured in his own argument. Why should one be "modest" theologically? Not out of timidity, but because humans are less than God. Why must pluralism be maintained? Not just because of political or social necessity, but because the denial of pluralism means a "profanation of God and degradation of people."

If we pursue the defense of pluralism only to the point of professing theological modesty and democratic necessity, there is the distinct chance that we shall still be talking about toleration. And that would not be enough. Toleration says, "I know I am right, but you are welcome to use the club. On weeknights. Please use the back entrance." Pluralism says, "I believe firmly that I am right; but only God is God, and only God knows who is right."

In thus explaining and championing religious pluralism on affirmative theological grounds rather than on negative or concessionary ones, liberal Protestants could make one of the more important of their distinctive contributions to the moral coherence ‘and consensus that our sprawling society needs but has found it difficult to maintain. Much else -- in the realms, for example, of piety, of doctrine and of social zeal -- can be seen as vital to the revivification of a distinctive liberal witness. But surely the theistic rationale for pluralism, in distinctive Protestant forms, deserves central attention. A liberal Protestant pluralism unconscious of its own grounding in the radical otherness of God and in an uncompromising respect for persons will continue to be vulnerable to charges of timidity -- of not knowing what we are about, or at least of being too skittish about asserting the spiritual and theological grounds of what we are about.

A historian, to be sure, must feel some diffidence in offering such confident, perhaps judgmental assertions about a project that must be carried out by others -- by theologians. Yet having been asked what liberal Protestantism must do to be saved, I can only say, as one historian of the liberal Protestant phenomenon, that I see the need for a bolder, more explicit theistic rationale for pluralism as perhaps the greatest unattended need of the moment. At the point where this, along with other assertions of a positive liberal theology, meets the secular demands and human needs of a diverse society and world -- at that point of convergence -- we would also discover a liberal Protestantism conscious of its own strength and conscious of its capacity to promote the healing of our social order.