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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Harvey Cox: James Luther Adams, Evangelical?

A two-part announcement: With a little help from yours truly, the James Luther Adams Foundation now has a website. The JLA Foundation promotes the ongoing relevance of the theology and social ethics of Professor James Luther Adams, the most important Unitarian Universalist theologian of the twentieth century. At the foundation's Forum on Religion and Society this year, Harvey Cox will speak at Harvard Divinity School on the topic, "James Luther Adams: Evangelical Unitarian or Unitarian Evangelical?" The lecture is Tuesday, March 13, at 5:15 p.m. in the Sperry Room at Andover Hall. You know you're wondering what Cox will have to say.

P.S. I'll be especially eager to ask Cox what he makes of the final chapter of Chris Hedges' book, American Fascists, which says Adams predicted that the Christian Right would be the vanguard of neofascism in the United States in the not too distant future. (American Fascists will be the most widely read book discussing Adams in a very long time.) I read that chapter in the Harvard Book Store this weekend and couldn't help but think that Hedges might have misunderstood Adams's larger point. When Adams visited Nazi Germany, he was indeed astonished that the liberal churches and the universities of the 1930s had capitulated to Nazism. He found resistance to the Nazis on two fronts: on the secular far left, to be sure, but also — and more impressively, to Adams the theologian — in the "confessing church" among pastors like Karl Barth. Adams focused on the theology of the Christian resistance, hoping to show American liberal Christians how to be wary of their own capitulation to general trends in the larger culture.

Hedges' book is not addressed to American Christians, however, but to readers of The Nation. That's a pity, because secular lefties already believe Evangelicals (and "religion" in general) are the problem in America. Adams would disagree. It's the churches that need awakening, and they need awakening in the name of the gospel. Hedges may be right that some wings of the Evangelical movement are actively pursuing some form of theocratic nationalism, but I guess I'll need to read the rest of the book to see what social force he hopes to mobilize to strengthen liberal democracy.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 20 February 2007 at 8:13 AM

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Liz Schwartz:

February 20, 2007 10:25 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the thorough look at Adams in regard to Chris Hedges new book. Your point about his audience is really striking. I'm a fan of CH so i listened to his segment on democracy now yesterday. About 5 minutes into the interview, i did a search of the transcript to see if he was going to defend religion at all in addition to attacking it. He didn't. Not beyond saying that he identified as christian. I thought that was a shame.

I haven't read the book either, but in regards to suggestions for action, sadly, it seems to me that he, like so many otherwise-good journalists, doesn't think in terms of grassroots, social force driven solutions. I wonder if they're all just too focused on the possibility that high up officials might read their work and be directly moved to action. I mean, he said that if Iran was attacked, he would stop paying his income taxes so that he would be able to go to his friends in the middle east and ask their forgiveness. It'd take THAT MUCH to relieve his guilt and make him feel like he took a stand? I love him, but he seems just as prideless as the Democrats he criticizes.


February 20, 2007 12:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

I just picked up American Fascists. I will let you know what I think. By far my favorite book in this vein has been Michelle Goldberg's "Kingdom Coming." She spoke here in Kansas City about a month ago and I lucked into a seat right across the dinner table from her before the lecture.

I've heard that Hedges' tone is very combative, confrontational, and angry and that his editor might have been wise to tone him down. I'll see if this rings true when I read him.

Mike Hogue:

February 20, 2007 05:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hi Philocrites!
I was just alerted to your post on JLA! We're working through Adams tomorrow in a class I'm teaching, as a counterpoint to John Dewey's "A Common Faith". I know I won't be able to make it to here Cox's lecture, so can I ask in advance that you provide us with a way to hear an audiofile or print a copy of his lecture?

Mike Hogue


February 20, 2007 06:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

Mike, you'd probably need to request a recording or transcript from Cox or from the HDS public relations office, but I do plan to attend and hope to comment on it.

(If you'd like to find other posts I've written about Adams, click here.)


February 21, 2007 03:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

My take on Hedges book, especially the last chapter, is that he is using the "fascism" as a metaphor for the Calvinist concept of depravity, which he endorses. He believes that fascism will ultimately prevail because it appeals to what is weak in the human heart. He writes, "The promises of Christian harmony, unity, happiness - in short a utopia- held forth by the dominionists have a seductive quality that will never be countered by the tepid offerings of democrats, who at best can offer citizens the opportunity to seek their own happiness and construct their own meaning."

Indeed, Hedges expects that in the near future there will be an apocalytic confrontation between democracy and fascism and that, because of the fundamental weakness of liberalism and democracy, fascism will win. He has no political program to defeat this. In this life, depravity wins the worldly contests. He has a spiritual program. We should be "placing our faith in tiny, unheroic acts of compassion and kindness."

This seems to me to be pretty close to Arminian Calvinism, albeit with language updated to suit Nation readers. Hedges puts a lot of his argument into the mouth of James Luther Adams. Since Hedges is remembering private conversations and JLA isn't around to defend himself, one wonders whether JLA really shared Hedges' vision of an apocalypse caused by human depravity. In his famous Berry Street lecture on human nature JLA observed "...prophets always abound who take a melodramatic attitude toward history..."

But maybe JLA's vision darkened in later years.

It is a little disappointing that the book has been written to avoid saying anything positive, or even very substantive, about religion. For example, JLA is introduced as an "ethics professor". There is no reference to him ever being associated with a religion. Maybe the Nation Institute felt that the idea that any decent person would ever go to church was too controversial for their readers. The book is #18 on Amazon. Maybe they were right.


February 21, 2007 03:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

One well-informed review of Hedges' book is by Rick Perlstein. See "Christian Empire" (New York Times Book Review 1.7.07).


February 21, 2007 09:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

uuwonk, what an interesting interpretation! Thanks especially for pointing to Adams's awareness of the prophetic temptation to take a "melodramatic" view of history. A knowing cynicism — like the egg-headed conspiracy theories embraced by theologians David Ray Griffin and Davidson Loehr, one of the tiny handful of ministers Hedges thanks in his acknowledgments — seems characteristic: Ah, the world is ending, but at least I know the truth.

What's odd about the way Hedges presents Adams is that the focus of Adams's ethics was not social criticism as such; he was primarily interested in the "voluntary association," the social organization formed around a particular vision of society and committed to its particular way of life. He saw voluntary associations as the marrow of liberal democratic societies, and believed that they emerged out of the church, the original voluntary association. Even though he believed that the Holy Spirit was active in these associations even when they were not manifestly "religious," he always gave special attention to the need for churches as voluntary associations to see themselves as prophetic organizations. He would have criticized the social vision of the conservative church as too narrow, but he would have recognized the truly religious character of their commitments. He would have strongly urged liberals and liberal churches to clarify and commit themselves to living out their social vision, too. Individual smarts or "independent thinking" were never enough; "by their groups ye shall know them," Adams sometimes said.

Unfortunately, UUs sometimes act as if we can simply take our melodramatic or conspiratorial views of the world, or our naive enchantment with legislation, and use the church to demand that some other social entity enact our vision of the good. We don't persuade, we don't build, we scold. Adams was pointing to something else when he asked whether a church, or a board, or a nonprofit organization, could be prophetic. I think he was asking whether a group could enact a new vision of social life; whether a group could act in ways that innately offer a challenge to the "principalities and powers" of the status quo. He was pointing to the way the church, or another social organization, can be more free and more liberating than the state, the law, society, or nature. In this way, a group could be prophetic. It could be the seed bed of broad social change, as Christianity was to the rise of the notion of inalienable individual rights, or as English Methodism was to the eradication of slavery, or as the black church was to the civil rights movement. (I'm not making a historical argument; I'm just pointing to the kinds of examples Adams himself used.)

If Hedges really does neglect the social organizations that are the very lifeblood of liberal democratic pluralism, of course he's going to be hopeless. Adams would chastise his student for failing to see and emphasize this point. Adams would remind liberals today that liberalism is unsustainable without its own social foundations — and that chief among these foundations are vibrant social organizations oriented around human liberation and committed to it in a way that we'd recognize as truly religious. Religious communities that do not retreat into private-club mode are central social institutions, on the right but also on the left.

I wrote more on this theme one month after the 2004 presidential election: "What Democrats [or, you could say, liberals more generally] need to do is recognize the importance of 'thick we' voluntary associations in which people invest their time and generate social capital — and churches, synagogues, and other religious communities are perhaps the most enduring examples of the associations in which many Americans find themselves part of a 'thick we.'"


February 21, 2007 09:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

What you must understand is that Germany prior to the Nazi regime was in a sort of economic peril that only our grandparents can dream of.

Crime was rampant. Inflation was rampant. People were using money to light their fires.

Thus, it was very easy for German citizens to rationalize away putting a gang of thugs led by Adolf Hitler.

We have never seen anything like that and it's a wonder that America didn't turn out like the Nazis.

People will do desperate things in desperate times. I don't see of them as these times.

But history can only serve us so far. It is where we have been---but it is only applicable to the common day so far as all constants about humanity: money, greed, sex, power, etc.

Human nature is constant. Evolution is not.


March 11, 2007 03:31 AM | Permalink for this comment

Well now I've been convinced. I need to read James Luther Adams. I haven't read Hedges but Reinhold Niebuhr addresses the kind of despair that those without power can have (and the arrogance of those with power often display). He suggests it's born out of the sense that we alone are the primary if not sole actors in world. We act as if there was no sense of the transcendent, of history, or of a wider world. In this, both the left and the right, exaggerate their own role in this world.


March 14, 2007 04:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Turns out Harvey Cox's title -- "James Luther Adams: Evangelical Unitarian or Unitarian Evangelical" -- was a tease. Which is a pity, since a room of very senior UU ministers had assembled to hear the answer.

However, Cox's paper was fascinating in its own right, and I'll get around to reporting on it in a separate post. He asked how well Adams's theories about the connections between voluntary associations, Protestant churches, and the rise of democracy apply in Latin America, where Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have been growing at an incredible pace. He focused especially on Brazil. I did take notes and even made a recording, so we'll see what more I can bring you on that score.

I did also ask Cox about Chris Hedges, who is a friend and former student of his. In a nutshell, he thinks Hedges is exaggerating the danger of Christian fascism in the U.S., not because there aren't authoritarians and national chauvinists on the Evangelical right; there certainly are. But the political theology of American Evangelicals is broadening out, not narrowing, he said, pointing to the National Association of Evangelicals' work on the environment, torture, and poverty. He also singled out the Catholic right -- naming Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak at First Things -- as potentially more dangerous in promoting an authoritarian and antiliberal Christianity.

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