Religious Liberalism in America

Critical to counteracting explicit religious intolerance in America was the religious liberal movement rooted in mainline American Protestantism but resonant with liberal movements among Jews and Catholics. At its core, religious liberalism aimed to maintain core timeless religious beliefs and practices while dispensing with those other beliefs and practices congingent on changing times. This had the effect of promoting interfaith cooperation. This underlying, permanent nature of spirituality played an important role in a positive assessment of non-Christian religion’s ability to contain valuable truths. Simultaneously, the rejection of arbitrary creedal distinctions as a means for reunifying a splintered Protestant Christianity allowed for the lowering of barriers between religions as well, leading to an expansion of interfaith cooperation such as the National Council of Churches and the National Conference on Catholics and Jews.

Expansion of Religious Liberalism

Religious liberalism spread to Catholic and Jewish communities . Adaptation, through a carefully drawn balance of assimilation and resistance, was seen as critical to their ability to stake their claim to the American religious landscape. Reform Judaism and subsets of Catholicism emerged that emphasized basic, shared ideas of religion and their close relationship to the United States. For Catholics, this transition was led, in part, by Minnesota's Archbishop John Ireland. Known locally for his role in promoting Catholic education and building the St. Paul Cathedral, Ireland was a global Catholic leader in the affirmation of religious freedom and other modern values associated with "Americanism." Pope Leo XIII began to embrace this mindset prior to his death, demonstrating the influence of the American church on global affairs. This ultimately led to a new level of inclusion of Catholics and Jews into the Protestant-dominated American religious landscape.


1893 World's Parliament of Religions, Chicago

World's Parliament of Religions

The relative success of religous liberalism in advancing interfaith relations -- and failure at full inclusion -- can be seen in the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Contrasting with the overwhelmingly Protestant nature of many of the original American colonies, the Parliament was a recognition of the diversity of religions, beyond Protestant and Christian traditions, prevalent in the United States and across the world. While in the past, the idea that a broader range of Western and non-Western religions “might be real ones with something to offer, would have been considered laughable” writes Hutchison, the Parliament offered a new platform for the growing population of marginalized, religiously diverse communities to thrust themselves into the public sphere and demand recognition.

Limitations to Religious Liberalism

Despite these developments, expansion of pluralism was still limited in many ways. In response to the rise of liberalism came a conservative backlash that reaffirmed individual faith distinctions across Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. They feared the removal of traditional doctrines would lead to secularization and atheism, ultimately undermining the whole religious establishment. Even among liberal Protestants, progress was halting. Though the Parliament was the most significant interfaith event of the time period, the predominant view at the Parliament still remained that Christianity “fulfills and completes” all other religions. Rather than an equal melting pot that is idealized in modern America, it was expected that “You must, eventually at least, become less different, less strange, more ‘like us’” -- white and Protestant1 .

  1. William R. Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 2004.