Liberalism and Ecumenism in 20th-Century Chicago

AHA Session 209
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Riverside Suite (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Maggie Elmore, University of Notre Dame

Session Abstract

This panel will examine the experiences of ecumenical religious organizations committed to various aspects of liberal social reform in 20th century Chicago (especially between the 1950s and the 1970s). Two of these papers will examine interfaith religious groups addressing problems of racism and racial inequity, while the third paper will consider groups committed to feminist issues in the 1970s. Collectively, these papers provide a rich and coherent perspective on a particular time and place.

Two elements in particular distinguish this panel and hold the promise of new, exciting, and accessible scholarship. The first element is the common emphasis on ecumenism. Much religious scholarship continues to focus on internally defined demarcations of denominational identity: Catholic, or Mainline Protestant, or Evangelical Protestant, or African American, or Jewish, or etc. These papers suggest that, at least by the mid-20th century, when religious organizations brought their ethical traditions to bear on public matters, they were most effective when joining with other religious groups. Given the still-vibrant impulses toward anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism in Protestant circles, and the lingering attachments of an inward-oriented “ghetto” mentality among Catholics and Jews, the significance of these ecumenical movements should not be underestimated. Further, it is revealing that these ecumenical alliances emerged around broader social and political issues—racial and gender equality—suggesting both the “moralization” of politics and the politicization of religious identity. Finally, these papers suggest that ecumenism changed the lived experience (and social meaning) of religion itself. It is one thing to exist in a pluralistic society without ever voluntarily interacting with religious “others”; it is quite another to pledge yourself to a contentious cause, in league with people of distinct (and previously suspect) religious traditions.

The second element that adds coherence to this panel is a common place: Chicago. True, Chicago has not suffered from a lack of study. Also true, Chicago cannot be seen as “representative” of much beyond its own history. However, the siting of Chicago is not random or unimportant. Rather, it suggests that the particular urban dynamics of a city like Chicago provided necessary social ingredients to produce ecumenical social-justice movements. Likewise, the suburbanization of Chicago influenced the nature of ecumenical alliances, as one of these papers demonstrates. In a city that was historically important to African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and Protestants alike, ecumenism emerged as a particularly urban way of bringing religion into public life as (ideally) a unifying force.

Finally, it must be noted that all three papers focus on ecumenism among liberal groups. Certainly, all of the authors are aware that ecumenism would also prove important for various conservative causes. This aspect of ecumenism is likely to be discussed in some of the presentations, but the prevailing emphasis on liberal causes is meant to provide a sense of consistency.

Ultimately, this panel looks to make contributions to the historiographies of religion, urban & suburban space, African Americans, women, and liberalism.

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