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The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century


In The Rise of Liberal Religion Matthew Hedstrom tells the story of how, beginning in the 1920s, American religious leaders joined forces with the publishing industry in an attempt to form a ''spiritual center''--a set of widely accepted religious ideas, practices, and presuppositions that would hold together a fragmenting society, create new markets for books, and maintain the privileged status of these arbiters in American religious discourse. The consensus they sought to form was essentially a liberal ...
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In The Rise of Liberal Religion Matthew Hedstrom tells the story of how, beginning in the 1920s, American religious leaders joined forces with the publishing industry in an attempt to form a ''spiritual center''--a set of widely accepted religious ideas, practices, and presuppositions that would hold together a fragmenting society, create new markets for books, and maintain the privileged status of these arbiters in American religious discourse. The consensus they sought to form was essentially a liberal Protestant one, but with elements of mysticism and psychology drawn in from the margins. With the coming of World War II, however, political leaders declared "books as weapons in the war of ideas," and the National Conference of Christians and Jews became the central broker of religious reading, coordinating a massive, nationwide Religious Book Week campaign that ran from 1943 to 1948. Spiritual unity was seen not simply as morally desirable for individuals but as essential to national survival. The idea of a religious center expanded to include, however tenuously, Jews and Roman Catholics and the term "Judeo-Christian" entered the national vocabulary. These developments laid the foundation for a culture of spiritual seeking that had lasting implications for middle-class American religious beliefs and practices for the remainder of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This is a useful contribution to the study of American religion in the twentieth century." --Theology

"Hedstrom makes historians view liberal religion beyond institutional criteria of church or denominational growth and decline . a thoroughly researched and engaging monograph." --Church History

I came away from Hedstrom s book with a rich understanding of the culture of midcentury liberal religion.... Hedstrom has set an exciting agenda for future scholars." --The Journal of Religion

"Outstanding... extraordinarily interesting." --Journal of the American Academy of Religion

"Thoughtful and erudite." --Christian Century

"This description of the marriage of liberal religion and publishing in the US in the 20th century fuses a deep familiarity with historical archives, sensitivity to the movement of American religious practices, and insightful interpretations of texts and images...Recommended." --CHOICE

"Belongs on the to-read list." --Richmond Times-Dispatch

"Hedstrom's terrific study suggests that there is much more to the story of religious liberalism in twentieth and twenty-first-century America than the numerical decline of mainline Protestant churches." --American Historical Review

"Perceptive and compelling. Hedstrom offers a creative spin on a familiar story." --The Journal of American History

"An original and eye-opening study, planting liberal religion in the wider history of liberalism, including its middlebrow culture of print. Hedstrom shows how liberal religion keeps renewing itself by sidling up to secular culture, and by welcoming wave after wave of refugees from orthodoxy on the one hand and agnosticism on the other, all of them drawn to the premise of liberal spirituality that science and religion make excellent bedfellows."--Richard Fox, Professor of History, University of Southern California

"Smart, innovative, and fascinating... Hedstrom tells a compelling story. He masterfully blends important theoretical insights with an engaging narrative... This is an excellent, well-written, and transformative study that scholars will be wrestling with for years to come." --Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"Hedstrom's work is highly recommended to students of American religions, those interested in the history of the book, twentieth-century historians, and scholars of spirituality." --Textual Cultures

"Hedstrom shows that the prevailing values of liberal Protestantism were widely disseminated through mass-market, 'middlebrow' books during the middle decades of the twentieth century, influencing ostensibly secular domains of popular culture in ways that no previous scholar has established. This is a strikingly original, crisply argued contribution to cultural and religious history."--David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley

"Hedstrom dexterously knots together several cultural threads: liberal Protestantism, middlebrow reading habits, corporate publishing, popular psychology, and seeker spirituality. The expectation that the right religious books-mystical, adventuresome, psychologically attuned, and affordable-would arrest modernity's dissolutions was perhaps another instance of liberal Protestantism's unrequited optimism, but Hedstrom makes a compelling case for just how potent this publishing mission was from the 1920s through the 1940s and beyond."--Leigh Eric Schmidt, Edward Mallinckrodt University Professor, Washington University in St. Louis

"In this engrossing study, Matthew Hedstrom provides nothing less than a series of revelations -- about the construction of liberal religion, the circulation of books, and indeed the making of modern spiritual selves. Hedstrom's work will reshape historians' understanding of religion in 20th-century America. For those who wish to push the historical analysis, this book will also invite new questions about liberal religion in 2013 and beyond."--Lauren F. Winner, Assistant Professor of Christian Spirituality, Duke Divinity School

"Hedstrom brilliantly describes some of the unforseen results of this new complicity between religion and consumer culture." --The Journal of Unitarian Universalist History

"In the modern age of mass-culture and commoditization, liberal religious intellectuals reasoned that the consumption of good books could make a far-reaching contribution to the spiritual formation of American readers. Matthew Hedstrom delivers a deeply thoughtful and thoroughly researched study that urges us to recognize how liberal religion used mass-culture rather than just sneered at it, and to think hard about reading and spirituality today. The legacy of liberal religion is larger than we might have thought."--David Morgan, Professor of Religion, Duke University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195374490
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 11/23/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Assistant Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Chapter 1: Enlarging the Faith: Books and the Marketing of Liberal Religion in a Consumer Culture Chapter 2: The Religious Book Club: Middlebrow Culture and Liberal Protestant Seeker Spirituality Chapter 3: Publishing for Seekers: Eugene Exman and the Religious Bestsellers of Harper & Brothers Chapter 4: Religious Reading Mobilized: The Book Programs of World War II Chapter 5: Inventing Interfaith: The Wartime Reading Campaign of the National Conference of Christians and Jews Chapter 6: Religious Reading in the Wake of War: American Spirituality in the 1940s Conclusion Archival Collections Notes Index

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