In the wake of January 6th, 2021, when insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol building, it has become clear that American democracy faces an existential threat. The sources of that threat are many. One crucial factor is the recent decline in social solidarity—a decline with both institutional and intellectual dimensions—that has undermined the very idea of a common good upon which democracy depends.

Not long ago, however, that solidarity was quite strong—and religious institutions played a key role in building it. Historical scholarship often depicts mid-century U.S. religion as either a prop for the Cold War crusade or a prelude to conservative revival. By contrast, my research–based on archival collections and oral histories collected over the past two years–reveals the degree to which mid-century liberal religious institutions embraced a new social gospel: a vision of faith as a wellspring of democratic values and a source of solidarity across racial, class, and regional lines. 

Inspired by this vision, mid-century liberal churches worked assiduously to foster social engagement, especially among their young congregants. They embedded students with migrant farmhands in Texas. They founded community organizing programs in Appalachia. They ran study-abroad programs to decolonizing nations. Such ‘social action’ initiatives invited participants to reimagine churches not only as places of worship, but also as democratic and democratizing communities. The history of those programs illuminates the role that religion once played in building social solidarity and can help us to imagine ways to rebuild it in our own time.

In 1948, three Union seminarians hatched the idea for one such program: an experimental urban ministry, dubbed the East Harlem Protestant Parish (EHPP).1George W. Webber, God’s Colony in Man’s World (New York: Abingdon Press, 1960); Bruce Kenrick, Come Out the Wilderness: The Story of East Harlem Protestant Parish (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962). One was a Black Baptist. The other two were white Congregationalists. All three had served in the recent war and were witnesses to the postwar recovery, which distributed American prosperity more equally than at any time in the twentieth century. Yet their affluent campus was situated just blocks away from a pocket of racialized poverty in East Harlem, a neighborhood marked by overcrowded tenements, absentee landlords, and inadequate public services. As it had for an earlier generation of Social Gospelers, the proximity of poverty and plenty prompted these seminarians to reflect on the ethical implications of their gospel for urban life.

According to their published memoirs, their response was shaped by two strands of thought, both of which were central to the postwar embrace of a new social gospel. The first was the conviction that the church needed to be of and for ‘this world.’ In the view of EHPP’s founders, too many of East Harlem’s churches preached about personal salvation or retreated into pietism. Their gospel was an escape mechanism, irrelevant to the challenges of the postwar city. Such an approach to church life, as one of the founders put it, was a “denial of the incarnation.”2Ibid. Christ was not “crucified in a Cathedral between two candles,” he argued, but on “a Cross between two thieves.”3Webber, God’s Colony in Man’s World. He came not primarily to preach of the next world, but to walk with the dispossessed in this one. The true church would embed itself in the social struggles of East Harlem, and thus walk in the footsteps of Christ.

Second, EHPP’s founders embraced an ethic of discipleship. In contrast to earlier generations of domestic missionaries and social reformers, they did not seek to ‘organize the ghetto’ from the comforts of campus. They did not want to engage in mere charity. They strove to avoid the paternalism of imposing their own ideas on East Harlem from afar. Instead, they believed that true Christians would ‘identify’ with the dispossessed, forsaking the comforts of this world’s cathedrals, and living humbly amongst those whom they sought to serve.

The EHPP was, in both form and function, an effort to incarnate these twinned values. Physically, it boasted no soaring house of worship. Instead, it was housed helter-skelter in tenement apartments and abandoned furniture stores, embedded in the built environment of the community, quite literally of and for the world it served. It hosted worship services, of course. But its buildings also housed a legal aid clinic, a free library, an addiction treatment center, and a medical clinic. The EHPP strove to serve the community without standing apart from it, to find sacred meaning in the quotidian spaces that knit communities together.

In the process, the EHPP both facilitated and stimulated efforts to democratize local institutions, while affirming the dignity and agency of community actors. As oral histories that I conducted with former EHPP participants reveal, it housed meetings of the Young Lords and the local chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization. It coordinated rent strikes and founded a local credit union. It supported a campaign for community control of neighborhood schools, which culminated in the occupation of the city’s school superintendent’s offices. In each of these instances, according to participants, the EHPP provided meeting space, resources, and solidarity. But it did not dictate strategy, instead letting local actors take the lead.

At the same time, the EHPP built solidarity that transcended neighborhood lines. Seminary students at Union are required to do field work during their second year, applying their theological education in practical settings. More than five hundred students did their field work with the EHPP. Most of them were outsiders, the chief beneficiaries of postwar prosperity, reared in affluent communities and schooled in elite institutions. But while working for the EHPP, they were not permitted to remain outsiders. Interns were required to move to East Harlem, where they lived in tenements and supported themselves by working local jobs. Their internship was not a route to self-actualization. It was an effort to break down their privilege and convert them to the ethic of discipleship.

The impact of that conversion experience reverberated well beyond the borders of East Harlem. As those same oral histories reveal, alumni went on to join the Freedom Rides and march in Selma. They were arrested during interracial pray-ins in Jackson, Mississippi and while resisting military draft orders in downtown Manhattan. One became the executive director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, organizing migrant labor with Cesar Chavez. Another became an Assistant General Director within the Methodist Church’s Women’s Division, mobilizing local congregations on behalf of women’s equality and reproductive rights. In their conversations with me, all of them said their EHPP internship led them to a life of social justice activism.

In other words, EHPP’s influence was at once local and national in scope. It drew on national resources to build local civic infrastructure, through which neighborhood actors could collectively reconstruct their environments. It amplified local agency by thickening the social bonds that ran through the community. It called on the privileged to identify with the poor. And in turn, it transformed not only the neighborhood, but the church itself. It helped a cohort of seminary students to reconstruct the social theology of an earlier generation, with a renewed emphasis on individual action.

Yet even as the EHPP’s influence was reaching high tide, it was outflanked by structural changes in American life. After decades of migration into urban spaces, Americans, especially middle-class white Americans, were decamping for the suburbs. And unlike the urban spaces from which they fled, the built environment of the suburbs was deeply privatized. Residents lived in single-family homes and commuted in private vehicles. Their neighborhoods were homogenized, their public services circumscribed. They gathered not in squares, but in shopping malls.

Amidst this political economy, a new moral economy was born. Downtown pews thinned out, as preachers took to the airwaves, beaming their sermons directly into the car radios of commuters. Evangelical revivals swept the nation, especially in the sprawl of the Sunbelt South, offering an individualized experience of rebirth and salvation. Therapeutic theology topped the New York Times bestseller list, peddling a gospel of positive thinking and self-affirmation.

The privatized individual, unmoored from a thick conception of community and social obligation, thus crept into the center of the suburbanized moral imagination. And even as programs like EHPP sought to counteract these trends, confronting suburban apathy with a call to social action, they were outpaced by structural realignments beyond their control.

Those transformations continue to mark the afterlife of the ‘social action’ moment. Many of its forms linger on, in secular programs like Teach for America. Yet such programs often foster a culture of self-actualization, gilding their participants’ path up the corporate ladder. Harlem, meanwhile, has more white residents than ever. Yet they are the harbingers of gentrification, displacing the communities that EHPP once sought to serve.

The solution to the recent decline in social solidarity does not necessarily lay in a revival of the churches. Even at the peak of social action, denominations were lumbering bureaucracies, riven by internal strife and slow to practice the gospel they preached. EHPP was funded by their largesse. But in form and function, it was also a critique of their institutionalism, and a vision of collective witness beyond church walls.

An ethic of discipleship, however, does need to be revived, if our democracy is to survive. We need to rebuild a world in which the common good is rendered concrete, in which our social interdependence is made visible, and in which we can build a solidarity that transcends the self.  Reconstructing the example of EHPP for our own time will not be enough. But as the population of America’s urban centers swells once more, it may be a place to start.