Rooting Democracy in Religion: The Mid-20th-Century Protestant Revival in American Philosophy

AHA Session 325
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1B (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
K. Healan Gaston, Harvard University
K. Healan Gaston, Harvard University

Session Abstract

This panel ties together three generations of American philosophers—each directly connected to the next—into a single narrative about the relationship between Protestant Christianity and philosophy in the twentieth-century United States. While histories of American thought typically make ample room for Protestant influences in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, twentieth-century American philosophy has often been treated as the product of a secular age. In recent years, historians like David Hollinger have complicated this assumption by highlighting the persistent cultural and political hegemony of ecumenical Protestant institutions, especially among the intellectual elite, into the mid-twentieth century. Yet these findings can sometimes be absorbed into “social” or “cultural” history while leaving “intellectual” history untouched: perhaps elites were Protestant in affiliation or cultural outlook, but not in the sophisticated realm of philosophy. This panel demonstrates that Protestantism deeply informed American philosophical thinking over the course of the twentieth-century, particularly on political themes: human rights, democracy, law, ethics, and liberalism in wartime. Philosophers brought their ecumenical Protestant commitments into their academic interventions.

Gene Zubovich’s paper shows how, in the 1910s and 1920s, the Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking constructed a form of liberal Protestant “negative pragmatism” that could underpin a theory of human rights. Hocking trained Charles Malik, one of the drafters of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights several decades later. He also taught Samuel Stumpf and George F. Thomas, two philosophers of the following generation. Ethan Schrum’s paper chronicles Stumpf’s early career from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, culminating in his establishment of a Ph.D. program in philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Schrum shows how Stumpf appealed to a Protestant ethics of love as a bulwark against legal positivism, describing law and morality as intertwined and democracy and religion as complementary. Fellow Hocking student George F. Thomas also believed that American democracy was best secured on a Protestant foundation, and P. MacKenzie Bok’s paper illustrates how Thomas, T.M. Greene, and others at Princeton University established a wartime course of study that intermingled philosophy and Protestant theology. This curricular development deeply influenced a third generation of American philosophy in the person of the young John Rawls, who studied as an undergraduate at Princeton in those years. Rawls came away with both a personalist ethics and a Protestant basis for his commitment to liberalism.  This perspective was fundamental to the political philosophy Rawls would later articulate, which now grounds much (ostensibly secular) contemporary American political theory.

In examining the mid-century religious revival in American philosophy, these papers link three generational “levels of experience” in that field of thought. By focusing on particular thinkers and their specific institutional milieus at Harvard, Vanderbilt, and Princeton, the papers also bring down to a human scale the big question of how twentieth-century American Protestantism informed American views of rights, democracy, and liberalism. Through telling these three interconnected stories side-by-side, this panel illuminates the trajectory of American philosophy toward a post-Protestant orientation.

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