Fall 2015

Liberal Religion in the United States

Listed in: Religion, as RELI-236

Moodle site: Course (Guest Accessible)


David W. Wills (Section 01)


Contemporary attention to fundamentalist or conservative religious movements on the one hand and the rejection of all religion on the other has sometimes obscured the influential role in the United States, past and present, of liberal religion. Religious institutions with marked liberal tendencies (most obviously “mainline” Protestantism) may be in numerical decline, but the influence of liberal attitudes toward religion arguably remains very much alive and well in American culture generally and formative in the lives of many communities and individuals. What makes a religious movement “liberal” is hard to specify precisely. One might say it is a rejection of tradition, but liberal religious movements often present themselves as deeply faithful to core elements of tradition. It has also been argued that religious liberalism is itself a tradition and, like all religious traditions, is characterized by many strands and sometimes contradictory tendencies.

This course will trace the development of American religious liberalism, broadly understood, from the Deists and Unitarians of the Revolutionary and Early National period to the “I’m spiritual but not religious” movements of the present day. Emphasis will be placed on the emergence, development, and cultural influence of liberal movements within American Protestantism, but attention will also be given to liberal tendencies within other traditions, e.g., Catholicism and Judaism. The course will examine the various tendencies within religious liberalism to embrace a pluralistic approach to religious truth, to seek a universal form of religion above and beyond any particular religious tradition, or to promote a religious sensibility detached from traditional belief in God. Attention will be given both to influential figures such as Channing, Emerson, James, Dewey and to institutional developments and popular religious movements. Note will be taken of the role of religious liberalism in higher education, e.g., at Amherst College.Fall semester.  Professor Wills.


2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015, Spring 2017