The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. (Marion S. Trikosko/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Early in the twentieth century, a subset of American Protestants began to tour the globe. They also built international NGOs and created new connections with their fellow believers in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the process, these ecumenical Protestants—sometimes called “liberal” or “mainline” Protestants—transformed American domestic politics from the 1920s to the 1960s. Inspired by its global connections, this influential religious community helped create the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it mobilized politically in support of the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Society, and anti-Vietnam War protests. In the same way that the rise of the Christian Right cannot be understood apart from the mobilization of evangelicals, the rise of American liberalism at mid-century cannot be understood without a historical account of the global political mobilization of American liberal Protestants.

Ecumenical Protestants led the charge in bringing international human rights into the domestic politics of the United States. In doing so, they revitalized American conversations around race, the economy, and U.S. foreign relations. They also unwittingly helped create the politically polarized nation that exists today. The polarization of American religious groups into liberal and conservative camps occurred long before the rise of the Christian Right in the 1970s, since the political activism of ecumenical Protestants helped realign religious communities into political coalitions. In some important ways, we are living in the world ecumenical Protestants helped create.

In the middle of the twentieth century, ecumenical Protestants fighting segregation and economic inequality were wedded to a position-paper liberalism that emphasized issuing statements and creating consensus. But by the 1960s and 1970s, a new spirit of activism intensified divisions along the fault lines that emerged in earlier decades. While protests and sit-ins worsened generational divides and intensified the rift between liberals and the Left, still more criticism came from the Right. Political conservatives, evangelicals, the laity, and many Southerners grew increasingly alarmed as the ecumenical National Council of Churches encouraged protests against the Vietnam War, segregation, and poverty with unprecedented vigor. Meanwhile, the World Council of Churches turned sharply against colonialism. The gap in values between ecumenical leaders and ordinary churchgoers became extraordinarily wide. One mid-1960s poll, which was gleefully promoted by evangelicals, reported that “on civil rights, 67 percent of [National Council of Churches general] assembly delegates thought change was proceeding too slowly, whereas 70 percent of average Americans thought it was going too fast.” The gap was as wide for the Vietnam War. Fifty-two percent of National Council of Churches delegates wanted US troops withdrawn from Vietnam, but only 18 percent of Americans did. In fact, 55 percent of Americans advocated increased bombings in Vietnam, according to the poll. Most devastatingly, it appeared that Protestants who attended church regularly were more conservative on these issues than Americans who rarely went to religious services.

By the 1970s and 1980s, gender and sexuality became a more pressing issue and drove a wedge between ecumenical Protestants, the laity, and evangelicals. Ecumenical leaders had never championed women’s rights with the same intensity as they had the United Nations or desegregation. But they had lent support for birth control, sex education, and sometimes even spoke up in support of interracial marriage. After the rise of feminism in the 1960s, and especially the legalization of abortion following the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, gender became an intensely debated topic among ecumenical Protestants. The role of women in church and family life, abortion, the AIDS epidemic, and homosexuality became some of the most pressing and divisive issues for ecumenical Protestant leaders. Like the political controversies at mid-century, the fault lines were similar, with ecumenical leaders largely accommodating the demands of feminists and LGBTQ groups, while evangelicals made the patriarchal heterosexual family and opposition to abortion the hallmarks of their political identity. The big difference at the end of the twentieth century, compared to earlier decades, was that many Protestants in the Global South supported a conservative line on gender and stood against the liberal leadership of ecumenical Protestant denominations. The more recent debates about gay clergy led to the split of the United Methodist Church, a further blow to the ecumenical movement. New York Methodist bishop Thomas Bickerton woefully observed in 2020 that “the line in the sand” over homosexuality “had turned into a canyon.”

For ecumenical Protestant leaders, political and theological divisions were exacerbated by demographic changes in their churches. Among the most significant of these changes was the exodus of youths from ecumenical churches and the aging of their congregations. Some Protestant youths, who turned further to the left than their elders, remained faithful members of their denominations. But, beginning in the 1960s, and accelerating in the following decades, many ecumenical Protestant youths left their denominations altogether. They were shaped by the values promoted by national Protestant leaders but did not find those values expressed in their home churches. Many young activists sought out secular groups, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or Amnesty International, which better expressed their religiously motivated ethical commitments to human rights than did Methodist, Congregationalist, or Presbyterian churches. Others, encouraged by the religious pluralism promoted by ecumenical institutions, explored other outlets for their faith or simply stopped believing. Although they were shaped by the values and politics of ecumenical Protestantism, some of these young people left the churches in which they grew up and never returned.

Evangelicals held on to their young members, at least for a time, and Catholic churches were replenished by immigrants, while ecumenical Protestant denominations began shrinking in the late 1960s. The term “mainline Protestant” came into use in the 1960s and quickly became synonymous with “decline.” To the present day, these congregations are growing smaller and older with each passing year. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014 ecumenical Protestants (which Pew calls “mainline” Protestants) constituted only 14.7 percent of the population, down from 18.1 percent in 2007 and nearly 30 percent of the population in the early 1970s. As churches shrank, the average churchgoer aged. The number of Methodists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians over the age of fifty rose by 10 percent between 1957 and 1983. As younger and more progressive members of ecumenical Protestant churches left, congregations sometimes became more conservative. Today, slightly more ecumenical Protestant churchgoers identify as Republicans than as Democrats. As churches became more conservative, they began withholding funds from activist organizations like the National Council of Churches, which now struggles with financial shortfalls.

As telling as these statistics are, what ecumenical Protestants have lost cannot be measured by numbers alone. Most crucially, ecumenical Protestants lost control of the cultural capital of Christianity to the Christian Right. From the 1920s to the 1960s, ecumenical Protestants had commanded the attention of the press, the sympathy of America’s political elites, and a popular understanding that their specific religious tradition was at the heart of American democracy and represented the best hope for a more just and peaceful world. While historians have rightly celebrated the decline of Protestant hegemony and the burgeoning religious pluralism that followed, they have not fully accounted for the ways in which ecumenical Protestants used their privilege at mid-century and the effects that had on the United States and beyond. Ecumenical Protestants wielded their power in surprising ways, by choosing to fight racial injustice, poverty, and imperialism. These very initiatives were partly responsible for their sudden loss of status in American public life, which would be ceded to evangelicals and conservative Catholics.

Evangelical Protestants, in particular, positioned themselves as Christianity’s defenders against the hostile forces of political and theological liberalism, which they viewed as a slippery slope to secularism. The modern evangelical movement was born in 1942, with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in the same year that ecumenical Protestants launched the World Order movement. Since that moment, it has been a Janus-faced movement, with Billy Graham representing the polite, purportedly apolitical wing, and Carl McIntire leading the dissenting, anti-ecumenical wing. At first, the evangelical movement was modeled on the ecumenical movement: the National Association of Evangelicals was inspired by the Federal Council of Churches, and the evangelical Christianity Today was modeled on the ecumenical Christian Century. But evangelicals were also innovators who sought out new ways to gain the public’s attention. Soon, new models of worship, like megachurches and TV ministries, helped propel evangelicals to new heights and gave platforms to their more radical activists. The fundamentalist wing—led by Jerry Falwell in the 1970s—became the public face of evangelicalism as this religious group became a major player in Republican politics. Internationally, evangelicals expanded their missionary outreach in the 1970s, while ecumenical Protestants had pulled back because of concerns about cultural imperialism.

The evangelical movement in the 1970s was the mirror image of ecumenical Protestantism: It policed racial boundaries, attacked welfare programs, and voiced support for the Vietnam War and for South Africa’s apartheid government on anti-communist grounds. None of this was new. The political orientation and alliances of evangelicalism had been shaped, in part, in the 1940s in reaction to what ecumenical Protestants were doing, placing evangelicals on a path that led from opposition to the United Nations and human rights to support for Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Despite the best efforts of their leaders, however, evangelicals could not replicate the cultural and political authority that the Protestant establishment had wielded at mid-century. Evangelicalism is politically effective but its power is derived partly from its partisanship. So long as religious pluralism remains an accepted norm in the United States, it is hard to imagine evangelicalism becoming more than it is now: one group among many competing for public influence.

It was no coincidence that American conservatism and American evangelicalism rose together, just as it was not coincidental that American liberalism and American ecumenism had risen together at mid-century. Ecumenical Protestants supported economic reform from Roosevelt’s New Deal to Johnson’s Great Society. They took part in anti-racist activism beginning during World War II and proved to be reliable allies for the NAACP and for the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Less successfully but still significantly, ecumenical Protestants worked to diminish anti-communism, transcend the Cold War, and reduce the arms buildup in the United States.

Ecumenical Protestantism was at the heart of mid-century liberalism’s rise and fall. This was the case because ecumenical Protestants were important players in liberal politics. It was also the case because they had tied their political initiatives so closely with their theology, thereby entangling religious and political battles in new ways. Ecumenical Protestants avoided partisanship, and it was partly their ties to the liberal wings of the Democratic and Republican parties that made mid-century liberalism as durable as it was. They worked alongside a group that historians call the “New Deal coalition”—an unstable alliance between Jews, African Americans, working-class European ethnics, and southern whites backing the Democratic Party. They also worked with liberal Republicans to press their agenda. The New Deal coalition came apart in the 1970s along many of the racial, regional, and economic fault lines that ecumenical Protestant human rights activism had widened. Moreover, many of the organizations that had supported mid-century liberalism began to collapse. Just as ecumenical Protestants faced declining numbers and rebellion among their ranks, so too did some labor unions and civil rights organizations. To take one example, in the same way as the laity rebelled against the political initiatives of ecumenical leaders, so too did workers in the 1970s rebel against the actions of union leaders.

The ecumenical Protestant leadership’s move away from consensus politics, and the unpopularity of their views with churchgoers, helped make it possible for evangelicals to capture the Republican Party and move it rightward. Divisions in the United States greatly sharpened in the 1960s and 1970s over segregation, affirmative action, and the Vietnam War—but also, as this book has shown, over religion. These divisions realigned American politics and created an opening for the rise of modern conservatism. Ecumenical Protestantism contributed to the rise of liberalism at mid-century, and the religion’s decline accelerated the decline of political liberalism in the 1970s.

But the story of “mainline” decline is misleading partly because it misses the political work ecumenical Protestants have done—and continue to do—that shapes our world today. The most obvious example is that the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, along with dozens of denominations and thousands of religious groups, continue to pursue a progressive political agenda. Leading voices calling for racial justice continue to come from ecumenical denominations—figures like Disciples of Christ minister William Barber and United Church of Christ minister Traci Blackmon. Liberal politicians, like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, continue to be shaped by an ecumenical Protestant heritage. They are joined by the many people whose values were shaped by their Protestant upbringing but who are no longer churchgoers. Although they get less attention than evangelicals, ecumenical Protestants and post-Protestants continue their political work in towns and cities across the nation, in the nation’s capital, and at the United Nations.

Inspired by ecumenism and the political doctrine of globalism, ecumenical Protestants sought to reshape the world at mid-century. By bringing international ideas to bear on domestic politics, ecumenical Protestants assured that their global gospel would have its most dramatic impact on the United States. Their human rights activism would politicize and transform religious life in America. But their mobilization also had repercussions well beyond their churches. It reshaped American liberalism and polarized U.S. politics in ways that reverberate into the present day.

Gene Zubovich is assistant professor of history at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and a 2021-22 Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He is the author of Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States. Follow him on Twitter: @genezubovich

Excerpted from Before the Religious Right: Liberal Protestants, Human Rights, and the Polarization of the United States, by Gene Zubovich ©2022 University of Pennsylvania Press. Reprinted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.