Protestant Globalism and Human Rights
by Gene Zubovich

Excerpt from Before the Religious Right (University of Pennsylvania Press 2022)

Before the rise of the Christian Right, American ecumenical Protestants dominated the political landscape of the United States. Ecumenical Protestants, sometimes called “liberal” or “mainline” Protestants, had regular access to the corridors of power. For example, on a single day in 1923, Methodist missionary leader John R. Mott had breakfast with Supreme Court Justice and former president William Howard Taft, followed by lunch with President Calvin Coolidge, and an afternoon visit with his good friend, the former president Woodrow Wilson. In other words, ecumenical Protestants had a lot of political and cultural capital for much of the twentieth century. The surprising ways they chose to spend that capital — mobilizing for what they called “human rights” — is described in the following excerpt of Gene Zubovich’s Before the Religious Right. As Professor Zubovich shows, new ways of thinking about the world and its interconnectedness was at the heart of this mobilization. We cannot understand religious liberalism, nor can we understand American political liberalism in the mid-20th century, without an account of the global mobilization of ecumenical Protestants.

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, American ecumenical Protestants mobilized their power and influence to implement what they called “world order.” It would be one of the most ambitious and significant political mobilizations undertaken by any American religious group. Ecumenical Protestants had long been politically active. Compared with their fundamentalist and evangelical antagonists, they were more likely to take progressive positions on the issues of the day. They proudly claimed as their own the movement for the abolition of slavery and the early twentieth-century fight against the exploitation of industrial workers, known as the social gospel. They also remembered, with some embarrassment, their role in banning alcohol in 1919. Even so, during the mid-twentieth century ecumenical Protestants mobilized again, on a scale not seen since Prohibition. 

This time they rallied under the new banner of globalism. Earlier in the century, it was ecumenism — the movement to unite Christians across national and denominational boundaries — that led Protestants to create new international networks. These networks presented opportunities for American Protestants to go abroad, and, beginning in the 1920s, a generation of leaders left home on study missions, toured missionary stations, and traveled to international religious conferences. Through their travel, ecumenical Protestant leaders began to see the borders between nation-states as antiquated boundaries. They reasoned that the spread of Christianity, industrial capitalism, transportation networks, education, and science was bringing the world closer together, diminishing what were once great cultural and physical distances. In the 1930s, the Protestant establishment, for the first time, saw the world of nations as a single, interconnected whole — a view this book calls “Protestant globalism.” 

Before the Religious Right (University of Pennsylvania Press 2022)

Protestant globalism was an outlook that sought to subordinate nation-states to a world government and a universal moral code.1On the advent of mid-century globalism, see Or Rosenblum, The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of a a World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939-1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017); Susan Schulten, The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Samuel Zipp, The Idealist: Wendell Wilkie’s Wartime Request to Build One World (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2020). Christian nationalism, the belief in the sacredness of national boundaries and a suspicion of what lies beyond the country’s borders, was a nonstarter for ecumenical Protestants.2On Christian nationalism, see Sam Haselby, Origins of American Religious Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Matthew McCullough, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014); John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2018). See also Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking Back America for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020). Internationalism — the cooperation between distinct, autonomous nations embodied by the League of Nations — also did not satisfy ecumenical Protestants because it did not recognize forms of solidarity and connectedness that existed beyond the nation-state. The problem, as John Foster Dulles saw it in 1937, was that the international order was a “rededication of the nations to the old principles of sovereignty,” of “unchanging and unchangeable compartments, the walls of which would continue as perpetual barriers to the interplay of dynamic forces.”3John Foster Dulles, “The Problem of Peace in a Dynamic World,” in Marquess of Lovthian et al., The Universal Church and the World of Nations (London: Wilett, Clark, 1938. In an international climate dominated by “totalitarian” states, Dulles, the Presbyterian layman and future secretary of state, was one of many Protestants who came to believe that nation-states were a problem that could only be solved through some kind of world government that would rein in their independence. Because they saw the world through the prism of globalism, ecumenical Protestants became enthusiastic supporters of the UN and the doctrine of human rights.

Ecumenical Protestants embraced globalism at a time when many of the world’s peoples had liberated themselves from European empires and founded their own nation-states. This development — there were approximately fifty countries at the beginning of the twentieth century while today there are nearly two hundred — was one of the seismic shifts in world affairs in the twentieth century and something that American ecumenical Protestants could hardly ignore. Nor could they ignore the rise of American power following World War II, as the country took on the role previously played by the now-declining European empires. 

Protestant globalism was a waystation between the world of empires and the world of nation-states. It helped ecumenical Protestants avoid divisive debates about decolonization even as they became more critical of imperialism. From the 1920s through the 1950s, American ecumenical Protestant thought and action were neither consistently pro-colonial nor anti-colonial. The Protestants who subscribed to globalism wanted a world government, which would simultaneously end imperialism and place restrictions on the autonomy of nation-states. Beyond that point of consensus, though, their views varied. Protestants on the left emphasized that a new world government would free oppressed peoples from empires, while those on the right insisted that a world government would force newly emergent countries to behave in accordance with Christian and Western values. For those in the middle, Protestant globalism provided a justification for many of the proximate goals that anti-colonial activists advocated, such as diminishing racism, distributing wealth more fairly, and placing limits on the behavior of empires — all without necessarily endorsing self-determination

Similarly, globalism was compatible with conflicting views about American power. Historians have typically depicted ecumenical Protestants as either zealous cold warriors or ardent dissidents opposed to American military policies. This book shows that some ecumenical Protestants, like Dulles, believed that the United States would usher in a more just world order by exporting its values, while others maintained that the United States needed to demilitarize and that it must work together with other countries — including communist ones — as a nation among nations. By focusing attention on world government instead of self-government, globalism hid deep divisions among American ecumenical Protestants about self-determination and American power. These divisions would become public by the 1960s. 

Although Protestant globalism faded away in the 1960s, it had birthed institutions, ideas, and practices that would prove more enduring. The most important product of Protestant globalism was the new doctrine of human rights. Ecumenical Protestants were central players in the invention and spread of human rights discourse and were decisive in bringing human rights to bear on American politics. If the world was an interdependent whole, as ecumenical Protestants believed, then what happens in the United States matters deeply to the whole globe. Americans are as bound to respect human rights as are others, they reasoned. Human rights discourse was therefore taken up by ecumenical Protestants to deal anew with segregation, the economy, and US foreign relations. Thinking this way about human rights may seem counterintuitive. Today, we are accustomed to seeing human rights violations as a new and distinct realm of criminal activity, like torturing political dissidents, which takes place outside the United States. But, at mid-century, ecumenical Protestants understood human rights as a way of critically appraising social, political, and economic practices, abroad and at home, in light of what they called the God-given dignity and worth of the human person. For this reason, Christian conceptions of human rights did not displace other social justice arenas with new concerns. Instead, the rights of the “human person” reframed and reinvigorated ongoing fights over wealth inequality, poverty, militarization, war, and racism.

Scholars have debated the historical origins of human rights but they have only recently begun paying attention to the important role religious groups played in their formation and dissemination. Moreover, historians are only now starting to explore the role of human rights in the domestic politics of the United States. Typically, historians of the United States have presented human rights as an invention of World War II, which was followed by their dramatic disappearance during the early Cold War, and their equally dramatic revival in the 1970s. Unlike other accounts, this book locates the religious roots of human rights in the ecumenical milieu, and it highlights both the institutional and theological innovations among ecumenical Protestants to help explain how human rights developed and why they became popular in the 1940s. It shows that ecumenical Protestant initiatives sometimes resonated with the US government’s promotion of human rights, for example, in the 1940s. But this religious community’s continued evocation of human rights into the 1950s and 1960s cuts against the standard timeline. And ecumenical Protestants’ evoked human rights in arenas other than law and foreign policy, which demonstrates that the role of human rights in US history is more widespread and nuanced than is often suggested in scholarship.

This book focuses on three arenas of human rights politics that ecumenical Protestants themselves prioritized: the movements to eradicate racism, to reform the economy, and to transform America’s role in world affairs. Amid the enthusiasm for world government, some ecumenical Protestants made a compelling case that a commitment to human rights necessitated desegregation. Figures like Thelma Stevens, Channing Tobias, and Benjamin Mays convinced the Federal Council of Churches in 1946 to become the first large, predominantly white religious body—in fact, the only large, predominantly white organization aside from the Communist Party—to call out Jim Crow by name and demand its immediate abolition. “We cannot hope to influence other peoples to accept the Christian way of life, or other nations to accept the democratic principles we proclaim unless we can demonstrate in our own community living that we take them seriously and are striving to translate them into effective practices,” they explained.4“Resolution on the Report of the President’s Commission of Civil Rights,” November 18, 1947, Folder 16, Box 57, RG 18, Federal Council of Churches Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA.

As this book shows, despite resistance within their own congregations, ecumenical Protestants mobilized politically from the 1940s to the 1960s to end segregation. They knocked on doors and asked their neighbors to stop signing restrictive covenants, they filed lawsuits against police brutality, lobbied Congress to end race-based immigration restrictions, and joined the NAACP’s legal battle against Jim Crow. From the streets of Los Angeles to the Supreme Court, ecumenical Protestants mobilized to end segregation in the name of human rights.

Human rights were also intertwined with debates about economic inequality. As early as 1908, the Federal Council of Churches celebrated “the dignity of labor” and the “human brotherhood” between Christians and “the toilers of America.” A concern for what would later be called human rights first led the organization to advocate for an industrial democracy that would give workers a greater say over their working lives. Their ideas anticipated many of the innovations of the New Deal. Ecumenical Protestant leaders worked to ensure passage of crucial legislation, including the Wagner Act, which legalized unions, and the Social Security Act, which created a safety net for some of the most vulnerable Americans. By the 1940s, they offered a globally inspired vision of, in their words, a “Responsible Society” as a middle way between capitalism and socialism. “A responsible society is one where freedom is the freedom of men who acknowledge responsibility to justice and public order,” they announced, “and where those who hold political authority or economic power are responsible for its exercise to God and the people whose welfare is affected by it.” They also orchestrated an ambitious mobilization to bring corporate executives and labor leaders together to agree on the ethical principles of a fair economy. Over time, they joined a growing chorus of critics worried about the poor being left behind by a thriving economy.

Ecumenical Protestants understood that segregation and the domestic economy were tied to colonial empires and the global economy. And so, they spearheaded the effort to reform international relations, especially the US role in the post–World War II world. “Many of the major preconditions of a just and durable peace require changes of national policy on the part of the United States,” the Federal Council of Churches announced in 1942. “Among such may be mentioned: equal access to natural resources, economic collaboration, equitable treatment of racial minorities, international control of tariffs, limitation of armaments, participation in world government. We must be ready to subordinate immediate and particular national interests to the welfare of all.” On behalf of these principles they staged massive rallies, preached in tens of thousands of churches and over the airwaves, and orchestrated one of the largest letter-writing campaigns to Congress in American history. In the process, they became some of the most forceful advocates for the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and they worked closely with the State Department to shape and promote these international institutions. But during the Cold War, relations with the government soured and ecumenical Protestants became more critical of US policy, especially in East Asia. When ecumenical leaders called for the diplomatic recognition of “Red” China in 1958, they signaled their opposition to American Cold War policy. 

Ecumenical Protestants saw it as their responsibility to advocate for racial equality, more responsible economic policies, and a demilitarized US foreign policy in order to build a more just and Christian world. To be sure, there were many disagreements about these issues. Ecumenical Protestants on the right, like Dulles, were more likely to become Cold War hawks, to preach economic individualism, and to insist that segregation should be confronted through education rather than through legal or political initiatives. Others, like Reinhold Niebuhr, defied easy political categorization. Despite disagreements, what remains remarkable is the extent to which globalism empowered activists seeking to combat segregation, lessen economic inequality, and undermine Cold War norms. Between the 1920s and 1960s, these separate strands of Protestant human rights activism were tied together into a single global outlook that transformed both international affairs and American politics. ♦

Gene Zubovich is an Assistant Professor of History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY and a 2021-22 John W. Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He writes about the US and the World, religion, and human rights. You can follow him on Twitter @genezubovich. Photo credit: Sarah Wintle.

Recommended Citation

Zubovich, Gene. “Protestant Globalism and Human Rights.” Canopy Forum, April 17, 2022.