This post is an attempt to define what liberal religion in the history of America is and has been. In attempting to establish the parameters of liberal religion in America, we should from the start acknowledge that there are two differing approaches which inform any good definition. The first is the establishment of ideal types and the charting of “impulses” that play out in American history: thus we have ideal in both senses of the word, as a stereotyped representation of a general phenomenon, and as a way of thinking that has continued through time. For example, we might say that liberals are those who valorized change in religion: this creates an ideal of what a liberal is and denotes one of the central liberal ideals.
The second approach to describing what liberal religion is and has been is addressing the specific manifestations of liberal religion as expressed historically in the people and groups that can be located within the stream of liberal religion. Here we find that few people or groups exactly fit any idealized notion of liberal religion, and that ideals often came bundled in differing combinations that exhibit the influences of specific historical factors. For instance, for many interpreters liberal religion is intimately tied to ideas of reason and rationality; yet we can also find strong counter-currents that favor emotion or intuition but are nonetheless clearly liberal in intent–liberal religion in American history includes corpse-cold Unitarians, revivalistic Universalists, and mystical Transcendentalists who bump into trees while lost in thought.
The intention here is not to provide a comprehensive definition of what a liberal is. Not only are attempts to offer final definitions inherently suspect, but the exercise seems particularly difficult (perhaps futile) when discussing a stream of religion characterized by diversity, changeability, idiosyncrasy, and opposition to creeds and definitions. Rather, this attempt to indicate the general characteristics and boundaries of liberal religion does so through the approach of identifying common elements which are shared in part (but often not in total) by groups that can be placed within the liberal stream. More than anything, the idea of liberal religion indicates “family resemblances” among different groups that cluster around certain values and attitudes toward religion.
In doing so, the hope is that we might move beyond relatively simplistic or reductionistic definitions found in past scholarship. For instance, most scholars who discuss liberal religion seem to take it as simply the opposite of an imagined “orthodox” religion. In the American context this often tends to mean Calvinism. Whenever someone begins to question the Bible or the sinfulness of mankind or the divinity of Jesus, they are put into the category of “liberal.” Liberal religion is essentially rendered as a permanent opposition party, a departure from something which is seen as older and perhaps more authentic or traditional. It takes life therefore only in relation to an other and is basically constituted by its disagreement with this other, which is often implicitly presented as mainstream.
This approach is dissatisfying. For one, it tends to hide the fact that many of these supposed orthodoxies or traditional approaches to religion are themselves innovations in the modern period (often in reaction against liberalism, especially when it becomes most powerful and makes plausible claims to the mainstream itself). Second, it cannot account for why the values and attitudes of liberal religion do sometimes appear as the majority sentiments in certain times and places; if liberal religion is always a reaction against a mainstream, how can it become a mainstream itself? Third, it misses the creative nature of liberal religion, which has been a fertile source for America’s religious diversity. Liberal religion has specific aspects which are not simply reactive but actively productive. Fourth, it tends to obscure the ways in which not only conservatives but also liberals use power to further their ideals. When liberalism is imagined as opposition to orthodoxy, power tends to be presented as located in conservative church institutions; liberals are the anti-institutional heroes in these narratives. This hides significant usages of power by liberals themselves.
So, what are some of these common values and attitudes that potentially distinguish liberal religion in America? This essay proposes four central aspects and five related trends that often appear alongside these core ideals. The first aspect of liberal religion is that it acknowledges the fact of change in religion. For liberals in America religion is not static or timeless–it develops over time (often with a teleological evolutionist slant) and is subject to alteration by historical circumstances or individual thinkers. One of the five related trends of thought takes this further and actively approves of adaptation in religion to differing times, circumstances, places, or people. These liberals go beyond saying that religion does change to say that religion should change.
The second core aspect of American liberal religion is a rejection of literalism in the interpretation of authoritative texts or other sources. Most often, understandably, this has manifested as a refusal to take the Bible as literally true or infallible. This does not necessarily imply a rejection of the Bible or its authority, however. A good example might be William Ellery Channing, who deeply respected the Bible and mined it for support for his Unitarian interpretation of Christianity. Yet Channing saw it as an imperfect document colored by the views of the specific men who recorded it and more often poetical and metaphoric than literal or historical.
A third common aspect of liberal religion is acknowledgement of the legitimacy of multiple viewpoints on religion and multiple sources for religious inspiration. In some ways this points to liberalism’s essential nature as a rejection of ultimate orthodoxy (here is not meant a rejection of specific orthodoxies, as in the presentation of liberalism critiqued above, but rather a rejection of the idea of orthodoxy itself). The major controversies over theology within avowedly liberal groups, such as the firestorm over Theodore Parker’s ideas of the transient and permanent in Christianity, usually ended with a truce that acknowledged that conflicting views could be held within a single denomination. Exactly what the multiple sources of religious inspiration or truth might be differ according to specific groups. For the supernatural rationalists they were nature (Natural Religion) and the Bible (Revealed Religion). For the Transcendentalists, they were nature and the intuitions of the soul itself. Often, especially in recent decades, they are multiple religious traditions: a liberal Christian might read the Sufi poetry of Rumi, do some occasional Buddhist meditation, and see no conflict with her commitment to the Bible and the Christian tradition.
The second related trend is not really core to liberal religion, yet is very often found alongside it and appears in conjunction with the aspect of multiple sources for inspiration: attention given to the natural world, often manifesting itself in political environmentalism and even valorization of nature as a source of religious insight. Depending on the time and group under investigation, this ranges from seeing nature as an expression of God’s goodness all the way to outright worship of nature itself as good and holy.
The fourth and final aspect that is core to liberal religion in America is an affirmation of the ability and the legitimacy of individuals to make up their own minds about religion. Especially in the post-WWII era this can even go so far as to assert that there can be individual religions. The final three trends related to liberal religion seem to issue from this aspect. Trend three is that liberal religion very frequently espouses a high opinion of human nature and the perfectibility of the individual, which reflects a more general tone of optimism. Trend four points out how liberal religion tends to value individuals as unique persons and can lead to support for religious engagement with social and political issues especially those that advance the rights of oppressed classes: women, homosexuals, racial minorities, the poor, etc (here we see the frequent, but not universal, overlap of religious and political ideas of liberalism). And trend five is that liberal religion often places a high premium on reason, emphasizes the harmony of science and religion, and represses emotional expressions of piety.
By stating that love of reason and distaste for “enthusiasm” are only trends associated sometimes with liberal religion, rather than core elements constituent of the category itself, this formulation is breaking with many previous depictions of liberal religion. Over-emphasis on reason and quietistic modes of religion causes us to overlook many groups who clearly belong in the liberal camp, as well as the many enthusiastic phenomena that appear in classically liberal groups. For instance, many if not most Neo-Pagan groups in America fit well within the rubric of liberal religion. The majority of these groups acknowledge change and adaptation (many, in fact, are explicit about their nature as recently created religious paths that partially revive lost traditions), draw on many sources (it seems like any and all non-Abrahamic religions are destined to be appropriated by some pagan somewhere), repudiate attempts to read received texts in a bare literal way, and believe that religion is a personal journey which the individual practitioner undertakes in whatever way best meets their needs. Yet dancing naked by moonlight or drumming to induce states of disassociation and ecstasy strike horror in the hearts of many classically liberal observers. Likewise, the romantic affirmations of Transcendentalism and the Burned Over District fervor of Universalists at camp meetings reveal 19th century liberals acting in less than buttoned-up ways. For that matter, Channing himself was one of many Unitarians of his day to experience an overwhelming and emotional religious “new birth.”
This approach to liberal religion tries to provide a method whereby we can determine whether and to what extent an American or American religious group can be usefully classified as liberal. As an example, we might apply this rubric to convert American Buddhist groups. These groups are not usually described as explicitly part of the liberal stream of American religion, perhaps because their non-Judeo-Christian nature seems to simply put them outside the classical idea of liberals as Protestants, Catholics, and Jews pushing back against traditionalistic institutions. But upon examination, it seems that these Buddhists must be included in the contemporary field of liberal religionists. These Buddhists enthusiastically seek an explicitly and newly American Buddhism, draw on many sectarian traditions (and, not infrequently, non-Buddhist sources such as TM or Dances of Universal Peace), avoid literal readings of the magical aspects of the Sutras, and place great confidence in the individual’s right to seek the truth for himself based on personal experience (thus the near-canonical value of the find-out-for-yourself Kalama Sutta in this brand of Buddhism). Incidentally, the ethnic Buddhist Churches of America also clearly meet these standards, complicating the “two Buddhisms” narrative that always stresses the differences rather than the continuities between white and non-white American Buddhisms. This approach allows us to see the connections between persons and groups as disparate as non-evangelical Quakers, Reform Jews, Theosophists, Timothy Leary, Unitarian-Universalists, and perhaps the majority of Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and United Methodists. At the same time, even when it causes groups to be excluded, because this definition identifies both core aspects and related trends we can see how groups may share many of these characteristics and contribute to the development of liberal religion in America even as they themselves stand at some remove from liberalism as an ideal type.
The four core aspects that define an American religion as liberal:
1) It acknowledges the fact of change in religion.
2) It rejects literalism in the interpretation of authoritative texts or other sources
3) It acknowledges the legitimacy of multiple viewpoints on religion and multiple sources for religious inspiration
4) It affirms the ability and the legitimacy of individuals to make up their own minds about religion.
Five trends frequently associated with American liberal religion:
1) It actively approves of adaptation in religion to differing times, circumstances, places, or people.
2) It gives attention given to the natural world, often manifesting itself in political environmentalism and even valorization of nature as a source of religious insight.
3) It very frequently espouses a high opinion of human nature and the perfectibility of the individual, which reflects a more general tone of optimism.
4) It tends to value individuals as unique persons and can lead to support for religious engagement with social and political issues especially those that advance the rights of oppressed classes
5) It often places a high premium on reason, emphasizes the harmony of science and religion, and represses emotional expressions of piety.