Matthew S. Hedstrom
Historian of Religion in the United States, University of Virginia

Works in Progress

I write and speak on a wide range of topics in American religion and American studies, but I specialize in religion, culture, and politics in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My central questions probe the intersections of American modernity and Protestant and post-Protestant religious modernity in the United States, which means I think a lot about religion, secularism, and spirituality. Race, religion and psychology,  mass culture, religious liberalism, cosmopolitanism and internationalism, and poltics, formal and informal, all figure into my research. My book in progress is The Religion of Humanity: Faith, Politics, and the United Nations.

The Religion of Humanity: Faith, Politics, and the United Nations

 The Religion of Humanity: Faith, Politics, and the United Nations explores the deep religious history of the United Nations—the religion of the UN as much as religion in and about the UN. The project reaches back into the nineteenth century and forward to the late twentieth, but is centrally concerned with the UN and its American religious contexts, conflicts, and constituencies in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The long arc of the plot follows the intersecting histories of two great liberal dreams of the modern age—the religious vision of a “religion of humanity” and the political vision of world government—as they converged and diverged across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These grand ambitions came together concretely in the efforts of American Protestants and their allies and fellow travelers to establish the UN, to rally American churches in its support, and to create a proper spiritual environment for its thriving.

The project begins with a deep dive, exploring the roots of the “religion of humanity” in the Enlightenment, and tracing its evolution from Comte’s rationalism through mystical and transcendentalist liberal circles across the nineteenth century, especially in the US. This history also links evangelical missionary activity with a broadening trans-Atlantic ecumenical movement, leading to important shifts in the twentieth century toward global governance and human rights. African American Christians, as well as white religious internationalists, established global networks, tying the struggle against Jim Crow to global anti-colonial struggles. After narrating this deep context, the plot narrows to the UN and its immediate context. Evangelical and fundamentalist opposition to the UN is widely recognized, yet less well known to historians are the large campaigns among mainline Protestants and business allies to rally support, including UN-oriented Sunday services and UN prayer campaigns. Here the project also explores the spiritualizing of the UN itself, which features American Protestants and their efforts to bring prayer, meditation, and moments of silence to the UN, but also the work of religious esotericists—theosophists, New Agers, and a whole host of modern-day mystics—to develop a more robust and comprehensive spiritual vision of the UN, typically seeing it in evolutionary or even postmillennial terms as the telos of human striving toward harmony or oneness.

These final stages of the project look at the careers of Secretaries General Dag Hammerskjöld (1953 – 1961) and U Thant (1961 – 1971)— Hammerskjöld the Swedish mystic, and Thant a spiritually oriented Burmese Buddhist—as well as the related work of the UN Meditation Group led by Sri Chimnoy, and the long career of Assistant Secretary General Robert Muller, the New Age prophet of the UN. These figures transformed Christian and Enlightenment universalism into a global post-religious spirituality suited for the international diplomatic mission of the UN—a global spirituality, as they saw it, for a shrunken, interconnected world.

The large theoretical questions that frame the project come both from religious studies and American religious and political history. Secularism and secularization are critical topics in the field of religious studies today, and this project centrally probes these at both conceptual and historical levels. Hammerskjöld spoke of the UN as a secular church, for example, but more broadly the UN reflected a grand sublimation of nineteenth and twentieth century missionary dreams into politics. In a related way, the project also charts the transformation of liberal religion, especially the liberal Protestantism of its founding American generation, into a broader, secularized “spirituality” as seen in the move towards meditation and moments of silence to solemnize the pluralistic gatherings of the UN. The American abolitionist and transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson dreamed in 1871, “There will come a time when … from the most remote portions of the earth … there will be gathered hymns and prayers and maxims in which every religious soul may unite,—the magnificent liturgy of the human race.” Though of course never realized—and in its way a dream as much of liberal hegemony as of true religious unity—this vision informed the religious and political ambitions that culminated in the UN and its form of pluralistic spirituality. In American religious history, the UN represents one of the main sites of political contestation between liberals and conservatives, battles about the nation, religious pluralism, and even salvation, both individual and corporate. Too often American religious historiography matches the polarization of American religion itself, and in this work I aim to weave together accounts of conservative and liberal religious and political actors.

Other Works in Progress

I am currently writing essays on spirituality and civil religion, on the history of religious liberalism, and on the place of psychology in the formation of spirituality as a pan-religious cultural formation.

Harry Anderson, Prince of Peace (1961)

Other Activities

Broadcast Interviews
Spiritual But Not Religious, With Good Reason (public radio), September 17, 2016 

What Do Mormons Believe?, Virginia Insight (public radio), September 13, 2012

Christianity in the Locker Room, WNRN radio (central Virginia), August 19, 2012
Popular Essays
“Scientific Spirituality: How mindfulness became the Buddhist fulfillment of a Protestant dream,” Tricycle, Spring 2017 

Mad Men and the Enlightenment of Don Draper,” Religion and Politics, June 8, 2015  

‘The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief’ by George M. Marsden, in Washington Post, March 28, 2014
"Religion v. Religions," August 29, 2013  

“When the Mainline Told Us What to Read,” June 5, 2013

"A History of the Unaffiliated: How the 'Spiritual But Not Religious' Gospel Has Spread," Religious Dispatches, October 26, 2012
Select Conferences and Workshops 
Ecumenical Protestantism and Post-Protestantism in the United States 1917-2017, UC Berkeley, October 2017

Fifth Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture. Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, IUPUI, June 2017

Being Spiritual But Not Religious: Past, Present, Futures. Rockwell Symposium, Rice University, March 2016 

Religion and Politics in the 21st Century, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. Hosted by the SMU Center for Presidential History and the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics, Washington University, St. Louis. Broadcast on C-SPAN, November 2014.

Third Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture. Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, IUPUI, June 2013
Participant, 2010-2012

Young Scholars in American Religion

American Studies Association 
Religion and American Culture Caucus 

American Religious Liberalism Project
Yale, 2009

Cultures of American Religious Liberalism
Princeton, 2008
Religious Liberalism: Retrospect and Prospect

Conference Co-Organizer
Religion Across the Americas, April 2018, University of Virginia


Postal Address

Department of Religious Studies
University of Virginia
PO Box 400126
Charlottesville, VA 22904

Office Location

Gibson Hall
1540 Jefferson Park Ave.
Room S013 (Ground Level)