On a Sunday morning this past October, some 1,500 preachers and ministers across the country joined in a nationwide protest they called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. They spoke defiantly from their pulpits about political campaigns and pending legislation. They even endorsed politicians, knowingly violating laws meant to prevent such mixing of church and state. Organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, this group of evangelicals targeted the Johnson Amendment, which forbids tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates and getting involved in campaigns. By violating these rules in an act of civil disobedience, they hoped to trigger a court case to get the amendment overturned. The issue, as they see it, is too much involvement by the government in religious life. The government should not tell Christians how to run their businesses, how to teach their children, or—as the Pulpit Freedom Sunday protesters asserted—how to write their sermons.
These sermons of protest were part of a broader political mobilization among religious institutions in the United States in recent years. The number of “Nones”—those professing no religious affiliation—is on the rise, and a small but vocal group of atheists are challenging Christian displays in public spaces. And the Christian Right appears to be losing the battle on gay rights. In response, many of the leading conservative religious organizations are mobilizing politically while also shifting their strategy. Their new aim is to mark off a part of life that can remain Christian, to protect Christians as a minority that can stand apart from the demands of a national culture they see as being dominated by secularism. The Hobby Lobby case was only the most prominent example of this trend.
On the other hand, a broad swath of American Christians sees things entirely differently. Although they receive far less attention, members of the religious left do not feel besieged by their country. Instead, they are pushing law and politics in the very directions the religious right is resisting. The United Church of Christ filed suit in April 2014 to overturn the prohibition on gay marriage in North Carolina. In the same state, many ministers are participating in the “Moral Monday” campaigns, a movement that is saturated in religious language. And Jim Wallis and Cornel West were arrested last month for protesting police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. Although the left differs with the right on cultural policy, both groups see political mobilization as being at the heart of religious thought and practice.
How did politics become so central for religious life? The most familiar story goes something like this: in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and neoliberal Jews agreed to overlook their differences and work together to combat these trends. In the late 1970s, groups like Moral Majority mobilized religious conservatives, who threw their collective weight behind Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement. Emboldened by the rise of the New Right, religious conservatives launched the Culture Wars, which thrust their cultural agenda into the political sphere, leading to the polarization that we live with today.
The political mobilization by evangelicals in the seventies is important. But the moment when politics became inseparable from Protestant life came earlier, in the 1940s, and it came not from the religious right but the religious left.
WRITING IN 1950 FOR a small religious journal, two Protestant activists noticed a strange development in the decade that had just passed: Twenty mainline denominations and ecumenical organizations had opened up permanent lobbying offices in Washington, D.C., without much fanfare or notice. These lobbying offices pushed for progressive policies, in line with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal agendas. One of the authors of the article was Thomas B. Keehn, himself a registered lobbyist for the Congregational-Christian denomination, which today is part of the United Church of Christ. Working from a small office near the Capitol, Keehn was at that very moment lobbying for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, which would ensure access to jobs without racial discrimination, and for the removal of racial quotas from immigration law. The Cold War was beginning and Keehn protested against universal military training. He also pushed for the expansion of Social Security and the creation of a European-style universal healthcare system. Mainline Protestants had pushed for progressive policies in the past but never in such a sophisticated and direct way.
The affinity between Protestantism and progressive politics was well-known in the mid-twentieth century. And the opinions of mainline leaders carried weight. Like today, American Protestantism was largely a two-party system in the 1940s, and it was clear then that the liberal Protestants affiliated with the mainline denominations were winning against their evangelical opponents. Their churches were not growing as fast as evangelical ones but they were being filled with the right kinds of people: America’s middle and upper classes. Virtually every president, senator, big business leader, Supreme Court justice, and university head of that era was a member of one of the mainline denominations. Strangely, the religious representatives of America’s elite, especially those who were responsible for lobbying, were promoting a progressive political agenda.
It was World War II that made this confluence of power and politics possible. Largely forgotten leaders like the Rev. Henry P. Van Dusen believed that “secular” forces caused the war and that only religion could ensure a prosperous and safe postwar world. Van Dusen enlisted John Foster Dulles to coordinate a massive political and publicity campaign to keep America from making the same mistakes it made after World War I, when the country rejected the League of Nations. In the early 1940s, Dulles was working as a lawyer but he also actively advised Republican leaders and the State Department on foreign affairs. Later, he would become secretary of state, after a Republican (Eisenhower) was elected to the presidency in 1952, after 20 years of Democrats in the Oval Office. But even before he assumed a cabinet position, Van Dusen believed that Dulles’ political and religious connections made him the perfect advocate for what became the United Nations.
Dulles was raised in a pious Protestant household. He first got involved with Protestant politics in the 1920s, during the modernist-fundamentalist debates, when he was asked to defend Van Dusen and others in heresy trials for denying parts of the Presbyterian creed, like the virgin birth of Christ. Dulles acted as a lawyer in some of these cases on behalf of the modernist faction. By the 1930s, as the world was heading toward war, he attended international conventions of Protestant and Orthodox churches. The unity of these churches impressed him at a moment when the League of Nations was falling apart. Before the start of World War II, Dulles was already convinced that Protestants would lead the way in creating a new world order.
Once World War II began, Dulles and Van Dusen got to work. In early 1942, they organized a conference in Delaware, Ohio, at which they laid out a 13-point program for world peace. The nearly 400 delegates in Delaware included 15 bishops, seven seminary heads, eight college and university presidents, along with important intellectuals and ecumenical leaders. Fearing that this program would suffer the fate of Woodrow Wilson’s 14-point program, Dulles whittled their plan down to “Six Pillars” the following year. “The peace must provide the political framework for a continuing collaboration of the United Nations,” the first pillar declared. Moral persuasion was not enough to avoid a Third World War: Protestant values needed to be expressed politically.
The Protestant values elaborated by the Six Pillars did not seem especially “Protestant.” They included the creation of international economic treaties, continuously renegotiated political treaties, autonomy for colonial peoples and diminution of racism, control of militaries, and religious liberty. Some of these values, like religious liberty, were longstanding Protestant concerns. Others, like anti-colonialism, had emerged only recently. But the major development was the widespread understanding that all of these values needed to be expressed politically, or else the world would go through war after war without end.
To promote the Six Pillars, Dulles orchestrated the World Order movement. He enlisted members of Congress, along with America’s cultural and economic elite, to go from city to city and implore Americans to support the United Nations on religious grounds. At the same time, denominations used radio programs, sermons, the press, and church curricula to mobilize churchgoers. In total, tens of millions of Protestants participated in one way or another in what became the biggest political mobilization by mainline Protestants since Prohibition. While the grassroots were becoming enthusiastic about the U.N., Dulles kept his eyes on the political sphere. He met with American and world leaders, and attended the 1945 U.N. conference in San Francisco to make sure this organization was being created in line with Protestant principles.
Through the World Order movement Protestant lobbying was born. At a time of widespread enthusiasm for the United Nations, there was little objection to using modern bureaucratic techniques to express religious principles in national and international politics. Mainline leaders wanted to keep watch over legislation affecting the postwar peace process because they believed that Washington politicians might repeat the mistakes of World War I, when the Senate rejected the League of Nations. Offices began popping up on and around Capitol Hill. The Congregationalists opened theirs in 1944, and the Federal Council of Churches office opened during following year. The first religious lobbying offices were often no more than a room in a larger building, with a single person in charge of most of the work. The Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Northern Baptists crowded together in a building on 11th Street. A secretary or two would help organize some of the day-to-day work for lobbyists like Keehn, the Congregationalist, and an advisory council made up of local leaders met regularly to discuss the latest legislation. When needed, lobbyists could also tap into the broader national network of influential political players, like Dulles. Although they started small, these lobbying offices could be quite effective in Congress.
The organizing was clumsy at first, but over time the Protestant mainline became a sophisticated political animal. Budgets and staffs grew, drawing praise from some and condemnation from others. As early as 1946, one Congregationalist minister protested at a national gathering by carrying a placard that read:
When the overwhelming majority of our Congregational Christians who hold to the free American way of life, find out how their tithes and offers for ‘missions’ are being misused by [the denomination] to maintain a left wing lobby in Washington and to promote state socialism, how are they going to react? Eighty thousand dollars for political action in 1945!
The consequences of Protestant political mobilization during the 1940s transformed both American religion and American politics. Keehn focused on creating an international organization at first but soon switched his attention to other concerns, like ending segregation and fighting poverty. Mainline Protestants were not the only ones who pursued these goals but they were unique because they represented disproportionately a white, wealthy, and Republican constituency. In the short term, they helped create a modicum of bipartisanship on some of the important social questions of the mid-century.
In the long term, however, the “left wing” lobbies split their community. The policies they pursued had alienated some conservative members of the Protestant mainline. At a 1942 meeting in Oxford, Dulles had promoted “something like a ‘new deal’ for the world” to his British colleagues. But by the 1950s, he was telling acquaintances that the National Council of Churches was full of people with “Left Wing and Socialist tendencies.” As mainline leaders moved to the left, they left people like Dulles behind, who found new allies among evangelicals, and later, likeminded Catholic and Jewish conservatives.
WHAT WAS THE PROPER relationship between church and state? Could church leaders make policy on their own or did they need the approval of the laity? The architects of these lobbying groups could only plead caution and non-partisanship.
When the Johnson Amendment passed in 1954—the amendment that was the target of the recent Pulpit Freedom Sunday—it was in the context of the political mobilization of mainline Protestants, not evangelicals. That same year, “Under God” had been inserted into the pledge of allegiance and two years later “In God We Trust” would become this country’s national motto. Yet Congress concluded that there ought to be limits to church-based political activity. Political mobilization, voter registration, lobbying, and preaching on controversial subjects was fine. Political partisanship, especially the promotion of specific candidates, was not. Mainline leaders were on board with such caution. Even though vigilant denominational lobbyists kept an eye on the legislation, there was little reaction to the amendment at the time, either from politicians or from religious organizations. At a time when denominations did not clearly align with party goals, the desire to keep these groups nonpartisan was widespread.
The prominence of mainline Protestants has dwindled since their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. Their most important institution—the National Council of Churches—has faced funding problems for decades and has recently relocated from its historic home in Manhattan to a cheaper location in Washington, D.C. Yet their move to D.C. was not just a matter of finances: it was also an affirmation of the importance of politics for the National Council. In fact, the current National Council president, James Winkler, was previously the director of the United Methodists’ lobbying group. With a staff of nearly two dozen, Winkler was in charge of “the implementation of the Church’s Social Principles through Capitol Hill advocacy work,” according to the Methodists’ website. Now Winkler works to translate the moral vision of his ecumenical organization into a political force.
Today, segments on both the left and the right insist that they must fulfill their religiously inspired missions in the realm of politics. No simple call for church-state separation is a plausible solution to the challenges that religious political mobilization creates. To ask Protestants to stop getting involved in politics is to ask them to stop fulfilling what they see as a religious injunction. What must be carefully considered, from the perspective of the religious groups who engage in politics and from the perspective of those who are more generally concerned with the relations between religion and government, is if and how this relationship should be regulated.
Gene Zubovich is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation, completed in 2014, is titled, “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism, 1940-1960.”