Religion and the American Left
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019
Hardcover. 261 pages. ISBN 978-0812251654. $49.95
Reviewed by Benjamin Lynerd
Christopher Newport University, Virginia
There are few lonelier places in America than on the Religious Left. To promote Christianity and socialism at the same time is to court fire on multiple fronts, none heavier than from the Christian Right, whose bourgeois orthodoxies have long dominated the American church. This fact, of course, is a curiosity unto itself. Historical Christianity has distinctly communitarian roots, from the agrarian laws of ancient Israel to Jesus’s plain warnings about the corrosiveness of wealth. Paul offers the gospel as freedom from the very dependencies on which capitalism thrives. Indeed, for most of their history, Christians have, at least publicly. pitied the kind of materialism and myopic individualism that marks the American church today.
So, why are religious conservatives such committed capitalists? Historians generally trace this proclivity to the 1970s, when the Cold War, the welfare state, and the sexual revolution united libertarians and religious conservatives in a reactionary electoral coalition. I have long contended that the church’s embrace of free market ideology far predates the New Right, and have spent years wrestling with the theological modus vivendi that underlies this commitment. As far back as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the extent to which American Christians had made peace with commercialism and the small government ethos.
In our fascination with the Right, however, scholars have largely ignored the Religious Left, treating communitarian Christians more like unicorns than as members of a movement requiring historical scrutiny. Precious little is known about their beliefs, much less about how they have operated as a group over time, navigating politics, the church, and the intellectual life of the nation. Vaneesa Cook’s Spiritual Socialists : Religion and the American Left, takes an essential step in recovering the historiography of what is a vibrant, diverse, and yet highly cohesive tradition. Her work also sheds light on why traction for this movement is ever elusive – why, in her words, religious thinkers on the left will always find themselves to be “activists in limbo.”
Spiritual Socialists examines a dozen or so figures over a pivotal stretch of American thought between the 1920s and the early 1970s. The survey covers a motley cast of characters, including the labor activist A.J. Muste, Sherwood Eddy, a Protestant missionary, the Catholic journalist Dorothy Day, Pauli Murray, the first Black woman to be ordained to the Anglican priesthood, and Henry Wallace, the American vice-president during World War II. What binds these thinkers together is not just the fact that they were all Christians with leftist inclinations, but that their various agendas were informed by a particular understanding of Christianity, what Cook calls “spiritual socialism.” Related to, though not completely aligned with, the earlier “social gospel” tradition of Walter Rauschenbusch, spiritual socialism emphasizes “community, cooperation, peace, and individual dignity” in ways that set it apart not only from religious conservates and libertarians, but also from New Deal welfarism and certainly from the totalitarian programs of the Bolsheviks. Spiritual socialists seek, above all, to redeem modern humanity from the soullessness of capitalism. As Cook explains, they see “the whole person as a sacred agent of God,” and view the trappings of the modern west as obstacles to what God intended for human life. Their goal is to cultivate “the Kingdom of God on earth in small-scale communities.” It is in straddling these macro- and micro-dynamics of this vision that spiritual socialists diverge into so many disparate missions.
Anyone who questions the very legitimacy of a prevailing system faces the strategic dilemma of whether to reform that system from within or to establish a new one altogether. Puritans split over this question in the seventeenth century, as did socialists in the nineteenth. It is hardly surprising that a movement blending Puritanism with socialism should also grapple with these competing instincts. The separatist wing of spiritual socialism took its brief flight with the Delta and Providence Cooperative Farms in Mississippi, experiments in communal living that Sherwood Eddy, a longtime missionary in Asia and the Middle East, established in the 1930s, and which survived for nearly twenty years. Originally conceived to compensate for the racial disparities in the federal government’s Resettlement Administration, Eddy’s cooperatives were open to Black and White farmers, and were egalitarian in their design. Compared to similar initiatives in the nineteenth century (like Robert Owen’s New Harmony settlement in Indiana, which lasted less than two years), the Delta experiments were remarkably durable. Still, the co-ops struggled to maintain profits after World War II, as well as to live up to their own goals. “Implementing idealized concepts such as cooperation and equality,” Cook notes, “proved difficult from the outset.” It was ultimately impossible to shield these communities from the pressures of racism and classicism that raged everywhere else.
At the other end of the spectrum is Henry Wallace, arguably the highest-ranking socialist in American history. For Cook, Wallace epitomizes all of the compromises that shadow a radical reformer working within the system. His vision for a socialistic revival was never a secret to the American public. As Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture in 1934, Wallace published Statesmanship and Religion, which openly asserted the futility of the New Deal in the face of America’s deeper spiritual problems of greed and exploitation, calling for a recovery of agrarian justice in the mold of Hebrew antiquity. And yet, Wallace could be an Old Testament prophet one day and a Democratic insider another. In time, Cook explains, “Wallace was willing to accept the New Deal and reformed capitalism as temporary measures to lay the groundwork for the Kingdom, just as he was willing to accept war against Fascism as a temporary fix for protecting that groundwork.” Wallace’s single term as vice-president, which happened only because of his esteem among midwestern farmers, was a height of influence that neither he nor any anti-capitalist would ever replicate in American politics. Wallace was demoted to Commerce Secretary in 1945, resigned in 1946, and ran as a progressive, anti-segregationist candidate in the overcrowded presidential field of 1948. The inside game, it turns out, poses its own challenges to spiritual socialists in America.
Much of Cook’s analysis explores the varieties of activism that lie somewhere between the Delta Farm and the machinery of party politics. In different ways, those extremities represent spiritual socialism at its most grandiose. Most activists in this tradition, for reasons that fit well with the movement’s philosophy, have instead targeted their efforts at American civil society, seeking to change how people understand the Kingdom of God by interacting with them in schools, churches, workplaces, and through the written word. A.J. Muste and Dorothy Day embody this incremental approach.
Ordained in the Dutch Reformed Church in the early 1910s, Muste’s early ministry in Washington Heights, New York, exposed him not only to the pathologies of American industry, but also to the activism and ideology of Walter Rauschenbusch. By the start of World War I, Muste was connecting the dots in his own mind between globalized capitalism, the exploitation of workers, and war, all of which he came to believe were rooted in sins of greed and aggrandizement that the Dutch Reformed, along with the American church more generally, were choosing to ignore. Muste left the ministry and became an advocate of organized labor, helping to coordinate the textile mill strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1919. The strike vaulted Muste to prominence within the movement, and in 1921 he was offered the directorship of the Brookwood Labor College in New York, a position he held until 1933. In Cook’s account, Brookwood typifies the under-the-radar nature of spiritual socialism. Never aligned with any particular union, and never admitting more than about forty students at a time, the college under Muste’s leadership aimed to foster a certain moral sensibility within the labor movement at large, promoting racial integration, cooperation between skilled and semi-skilled workers, and social services provided by unions. Its most visible initiative was its theater program, the Brookwood Players, which traveled the Northeast with productions of various plays that explored working-class themes. Suffering from declining finances during the Great Depression, the college shut down in 1937, but its impact (and Muste’s) on the labor movement came to be felt as its graduates climbed the union ranks and promoted its values.
Dorothy Day was a single mother in 1920s New York when she converted from atheism to Catholicism. Almost immediately disillusioned with the church’s lack of civil consciousness, Day searched the scriptures for an understanding of Christianity’s social dimensions. In 1933, Day co-founded with the Lasallian theologian Peter Maurin the Catholic Worker, a newspaper dedicated to highlighting the spiritual poverty of capitalism, whose proceeds funded “houses of hospitality to feed and shelter the urban poor.” Of the various initiatives Cook profiles in this book, the Catholic Worker is the only still in existence today. Though sometime at odds with the Vatican, and though often rebuking American Catholics for their hyper-materialism, the Catholic Worker was primarily a Christian answer to its Communist counterpart, the Daily Worker, New York’s leading Marxist publication that ran from 1924 to 1958. Indeed, in addition to deploring Stalinism, the Catholic Worker consistently refused to get sucked into supporting the broader agenda of the American Left on issues ranging from abortion to state-run welfare, which it perceived as impersonal and godless. In her pacifism, however, Dorothy Day was steadfast, a stance which brought her into a close friendship with A.J. Muste in the 1960s, and which occasionally led to precipitous drops in subscriptions for the Catholic Worker, which she edited until her death in 1980.
Cook devotes an illuminating chapter to the spiritual socialists’ interaction with the Civil Rights movement. The star of this chapter is Pauli Murray, who began his career in the 1940s as a civil rights lawyer before becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church in the 1970s. A great many figures on the Religious Left promoted racial equality as far back as the 1920s; what is more, Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King shared many of socialists’ concerns about the corrosive effects of capitalism on society; and on the principles of nonviolence protest, the two movements were in perfect harmony. Still, Cook highlights several points on which the movements diverge, including King’s faith in the federal government as an agent of structural change. Advocates of Black power and Black liberation theology, of course, also shared this skepticism, but their focus on exclusively racial empowerment made them unacceptable to the agenda of spiritual socialists, particularly Murray.
Taken together, Cook’s portraits of these assorted figures reveal an important feature of the Religious Left at large. Other than its antipathy toward capitalism, the defining characteristic of spiritual socialism is patience – a belief that God, not humanity, will ultimately advance the Kingdom and its perfect justice. Its advocates exhibit a strange indifference toward the kind of deliverable achievements that most other movements, right and left, depend on for their viability. They also resist the kinds of political compromises and cultural sloganeering that could generate a much larger following – indeed, which has turned the Christian Right into a powerhouse over the past century. Spiritual socialism is micro-focused by default. “Their tradition,” Cook insists, “must be traced along a much longer arc of continuous struggle for socioreligious renewal.” This would be exasperating for most activists and their financial backers, and it certainly helps to account for the relative solitude that persists even today on the Religious Left. However, for true believers in the Kingdom of God, Cook’s historiography should only confirm what they already hold to be true – that God is committed, in his own time, to redeeming the fallen world. His people are responsible simply for keeping up the work, not for ensuring the results.
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