The religious left

An old tradition for a new day.


For the past three decades, many political commentators have assumed that the United States was divided between the “religious right” and the “secular left.” Churchgoers, in the prevailing media image, were anti-gay and anti-feminist; they preferred private charity to public welfare; they waved the flag whenever the United States sent troops overseas. Liberals, by contrast, were depicted as big-city elites with disdain for heartland prayer, unwilling to utter even a friendly “Merry Christmas” or a patriotic “God bless America.” Unitarian Univer­salists often felt left out of this picture—and so did Roman Catholics who cared about poverty and evangelicals who worried about global warming. In many ways, the picture reflected the worldview of a newly assertive political movement, the religious right, which assumed that anyone who questioned biblical literalism was a hopeless secularist. But even those of us who were left out of that picture rarely questioned its accuracy. When it comes to “God’s politics,” progressive evangelical Jim Wallis complained, “the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn’t get it.”

The 2008 U.S. presidential election shook up this tidy picture. Barack Obama, a former faith-based community organizer with an inspirational story of conversion to Christianity, was elected with the enthusiastic support of agnostic college students, goddess-worshipping environmentalists, African American Protestants, and Latino Catholics, not to mention a slight majority of white Catholics and just under half of all white mainline Protestants. The campaign introduced Americans to the fiery Black Power preaching of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the evangelical environmentalism of Richard Cizik, and the Rev. Rick Warren’s puzzling blend of support for AIDS research and opposition to gay marriage. We also witnessed an outpouring of quasi-religious devotion directed at Obama himself. Clearly, the relationship between religion and politics is not what it once seemed.

From a longer historical perspective, things are getting back to normal. Despite its recent prominence, the religious right is only about thirty years old, while the religious left has a genealogy that stretches back more than two centuries. In every generation people of faith have brought their bodies and spirits to the causes of human freedom, racial and gender equality, economic solidarity, and global peace. Catholics and Calvinists, theological liberals and evangelicals, adherents of indigenous spiritualities and immigrants of every faith have worked to extend the radical vision of the American Revolution to all peoples.

Indeed, it is nearly impossible to separate the “religious” from the “secular” left in U.S. history. Americans are among the most religiously observant people in the world, and we bring our diverse pieties to social change movements. Deeply religious reformers have sometimes broken their ties to the churches not because they had lost faith in God but because they believed the churches had broken faith with the divine cause of justice. Other reformers remained in the churches, but drew inspiration from nonreligious radicals. Ostensibly secular organizations, such as the Industrial Workers of the World at the turn of the twentieth century and the hippie communes of the 1960s, claimed kinship with “comrade Jesus” and developed their own rituals to foster a radical faith.

Unitarian and Universalist participation in the religious left stretches from Judith Sargent Murray’s feminist writings in the 1790s to our current campaign to “stand on the side of love” with immigrant families and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. But we often misunderstand our place in the movement. Many of us experience liberal religion and radical politics as mutually reinforcing, but they are logically distinct. Unitarian Universalists embrace liberal theology, but some take moderate or conservative positions on sociopolitical issues, just as many religious leftists, from John Brown to Dorothy Day, have been orthodox in their theology. A broader awareness of the theological diversity of the religious left can help Unitarian Universalist activists build more effective alliances.

The cause of liberation

America’s religious left was born not in the theologically liberal churches that would embrace Unitarianism or Universalism but on the shores of colonial Virginia and South Carolina, where enslaved Africans found the strength to keep living in the songs, dances, and rituals of their traditional faiths. It took on a new flavor when the children and grandchildren of those Africans discovered a message of liberation in the sacred books of their captors. “Let my people go!” thundered the God of Exodus. These words, coupled with the protective amulets of African folk religion and the international network of Freemasonry, inspired a series of insurrections that rattled the slave system. And in the “free” but deeply segregated north, black preachers Richard Allen and Jarena Lee refused to accept secondhand status in the white churches, creating “African” congregations to honor the principle that there is “neither slave nor free” in Christ.

The religious left expanded as European Ameri­cans listened to the testimony of African Americans. The Quakers were among the first: By the late eighteenth century, the Philadelphia Friends excluded slaveholders from membership. A generation later, Quaker editor Benjamin Lundy launched his Genius of Universal Emancipation. After moving his paper to the heart of Baltimore’s free black community, in 1829 Lundy welcomed a young New Englander, William Lloyd Garrison, as associate editor.

Radicalized by his encounters with African American teachers and activists, Garrison was soon jailed on charges of libel because of his vigorous attacks on a slave-trading sea captain from his hometown. In 1831, Garrison returned to Boston to launch the Liberator, a newspaper that challenged northern racism as well as southern slavery, focusing particularly on the American Colonization Society’s scheme to send freed slaves back to Africa.

For the next thirty years, Garrison was the central figure not only in the abolitionist movement, but also in a radical coalition that championed women’s rights, nonviolence, economic cooperation, and religious freedom. Alternately venerated and despised in his own day, Garrison’s fervent style and paradoxical personality made him an emblematic religious leftist. It is worth dwelling on some of these paradoxes because—for better or worse—they have shaped social change movements ever since.

“A few white victims must be sacrificed to open the eyes of this nation,” Garrison declared after his release from jail. By publicizing his own imprisonment, Garrison turned the ancient religious tradition of martyrdom—the veneration of those who suffer for the faith—to political ends, setting a standard that would be emulated in later years by leftist prisoners Eugene Debs, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Millions of activists have been inspired by these martyrs, yet their legacy raises troubling questions. Should people who suffer under oppressive systems seek out more suffering as they work for change? Does the practice of martyrdom drive a wedge between a self-suffering elite and the rest of the movement?

Similarly, Garrison’s choice to attack the Ameri­can Colonization Society as well as slavery itself was an effective tactic of agitation: Many colonizationists were eventually convinced that people of African descent were fully a part of the American community. But it also established a precedent for less fruitful schisms. Within a decade, the American Anti-Slavery Society had split over women’s rights, pacifism, and participation in politics. Post–Civil War feminists divided over the relative priority of voting rights for women and for African American men; socialists, communists, and anarchists went their separate ways early in the twentieth century; and integrationists clashed with Black Power advocates during the civil rights era. Though many activists longed to draw people together rather than splitting them apart, they achieved fleeting unity on only a few occasions, most notably the Civil War, the years just before World War I, and the beginning of the civil rights movement.

Garrison also had a paradoxical relationship with religion. Raised by a devoutly Baptist mother, he initially assumed that churches would be his allies in the cause of freedom. When both evangelical and Unitarian churches refused to host his meetings or exclude slaveholders from membership, he turned bitterly against them, attacking first the Sabbath, then the clergy, and finally the Bible itself. But just at the time when he was universally regarded as an “infidel,” he added a giant picture of Jesus to the masthead of the Liberator, along with a stirring biblical quote: “I come to break the bonds of the oppressor.” The infidel was unwilling to cede Jesus to the more conventionally religious.

Garrison was by no means the only giant of the religious left in the abolitionist era. His pacifist comrade the Rev. Adin Ballou—a minister who served both Universalist and Unitarian congregations, as well as launching the communal village of Hopedale—was the era’s great theorist of nonviolence, carefully explaining that the “nonresistance” of Jesus really entailed fervent resistance to evil by means of noncoercive love. This vision traveled around the world, influencing Leo Tolstoy in Russia and Mohandas Gandhi in India, before returning to the United States during the civil rights movement. The pioneering feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton credited Garrison with helping her “saw off the chains of my spiritual bondage”; she would anticipate twentieth-century feminist theology in her Woman’s Bible. Frederick Douglass, the most famous fugitive from slavery, was also an early religious humanist, declaring in one speech that he could see “glimpses of God” only in his comrades in the antislavery movement. Among those comrades was John Brown, a fervent Calvinist whose Harpers Ferry raid was largely funded by radical Unitarians. American socialism was also born during the abolitionist era, partly at Hopedale and other utopian communities, and partly through the pioneering journalism of Universalist Sarah Bagley, who launched the Lowell Offering as a voice for female mill workers in Massachusetts’s first factory town.

The rise of the ‘social gospel’

After the Civil War, the single most influential leader on the religious left was Frances Willard, a revivalist Methodist who served two decades as president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. It may seem strange to list an anti-alcohol activist as a leader of the religious left, but from the 1830s to the 1930s the temperance cause was as integral to the religious left as environmentalism is today. Willard’s motto was to “do everything” to liberate families from the scourge of alcoholism, and on this basis she endorsed both women’s suffrage and socialism. A much less divisive leader than Garrison, she built a national movement that included evangelicals and theological liberals, African Americans and Southern whites. Her coalition politics had its own shadow side, however. When anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett claimed that in some cases white women seduced black men and then accused them of rape, Willard attacked her for impugning the purity of Southern womanhood. The result was a tragic division between two activists, despite the fact that both recognized that most cases of lynching did not even involve an accusation of rape.

Over the course of Willard’s career, the religious left was transformed by urbanization. As immigrants—most of them Catholic, Jewish, or Asian—streamed into the sweatshops and factories of Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, urban Protestant pastors were first alarmed by the threat of “anarchy” and then inspired by the struggles and faith of the workers. Gradually, they glimpsed a social gospel that required Christians to ask “What would Jesus do?” when confronted with the poverty of their neighbors. By the early twentieth century, the mainline Protestant “Social Creed” demanded collective bargaining rights, old-age insurance, an end to child labor, and “a living wage as a minimum in every industry.”

Meanwhile, the immigrants brought their own religious traditions into the American left. Reform Jews allied with Protestant social gospelers, while other ethnic Jews translated their faith’s prophetic idealism into the new idiom of Marxist socialism. Roman Catholics became mainstays of the more moderate trade unions. When Pope Leo XIII initiated a tradition of “Catholic social teaching” that sought a middle path between socialism and capitalism, he built on work that was already being done by American bishops and unionists. Together with the social gospelers, these Jewish and Catholic activists turned religious idealism into concrete legislation early in the new century.

World War I brought the era of Progressive legislation to a traumatic end, as Americans rallied uncritically to a “war to end war.” But the war also brought together a cluster of pacifist ministers who lost their pulpits or denominational status as a result of their preaching against the war. During the Roaring Twenties, these ministers—all members of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation—would plant the seeds of future activism. The Rev. Norman Thomas, a Presbyterian who had ministered to a working-class church in East Harlem, became the Socialist Party’s perennial presidential candidate. The Rev. John Haynes Holmes, a Unitarian, built the Community Church of New York into a hub of civil liberties and antiracist activism, and introduced the American public to Gandhian nonviolence. The Rev. A. J. Muste became a labor educator, gravitating theologically from the Dutch Reformed Church to Quakerism and Trotskyism before experiencing a dramatic re-conversion to Christian pacifism.

By the 1940s, Muste was America’s “number one pacifist,” according to Time, and the most important link between the social gospel and civil rights generations of American activists. With African Amer­ican civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and James Farmer, he began using Gandhian techniques to fight American racism; with Catholic Worker Dorothy Day he resisted the logic of the Cold War by refusing to participate in New York City’s civil defense drills. New York’s decision to discontinue the drills was one of the first victories in an ongoing fight against nuclear weapons.

A different tradition of religious activism was born in Chicago in the 1930s, under the leadership of a man who was never particularly religious. Saul Alinsky was raised on the tough streets of Chicago, the child of Orthodox Jewish parents. As a student of urban sociology at the University of Chicago, he was attracted to the union-organizing methods of Congress of Industrial Organizations leader John L. Lewis and began to wonder if these could be used to organize neighborhoods as well as workplaces. They could, he concluded, if local congregations—the most powerful institutions in urban neighborhoods—were enlisted in the cause. In Chicago’s Back of the Yards and Woodlawn neighborhoods, Alinsky fine-tuned his approach, going on to train a national network of organizers and win the enthusiastic support of Catholic leaders, who would eventually channel hundreds of millions of dollars to Alinskyite projects. By the 1990s, virtually every metropolitan area in the United States was home to a congregation-based community organizing project supported by one of several foundations committed to Alinsky’s methods.

All the traditions of the religious left came together in the work of Martin Luther King Jr. A child of the black freedom tradition, King was the son and grandson of two of Atlanta’s most influential Baptist pastors. Educationally, he was an heir of the northern missionaries who partnered with freed slaves to found Morehouse College, as well as of the social gospel tradition he encountered at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University. King readily embraced Gandhian nonviolence and made economic justice the centerpiece of the Poor People’s Campaign, which he envisioned as the culminating work of his career. As the United States’ foremost social prophet, King echoed the witness of the Hebrew prophets, celebrated the democratic ideals of the United States, and insisted on a radical confrontation with the “evil triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism.

With King’s assassination, the religious left succumbed to the schismatic fragmentation that had bedeviled it since Garrison’s day. The rise of Black Power gave the African American community a new religious and political depth, but few white allies responded with sufficient creativity to maintain earlier practices of interracial cooperation. (Indeed, one of the few groups to maintain its interracial radicalism into the 1970s, People’s Temple of San Francisco, was itself victimized by the sociopathic personality of its leader, Jim Jones.) The rising queer, feminist, and environmentalist movements so rattled some antiwar stalwarts, like the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and theologian Michael Novak, that they began a strange pilgrimage to the far right wing. Many more activists traded in their religious commitments for a free-form spirituality that others stigmatized as too individualistic to change society.

The religious left today

These divisions could not destroy the religious and spiritual left. Arguably, it is as strong at the grassroots as ever, though it has had few public policy successes in the past generation. Today, it can be understood as four overlapping clusters. First are the grassroots activists who continue the work of the radical wings of the civil rights and antiwar movements. Many of these activists live in Catholic Worker houses (185 of them, in both rural and urban areas) or the “new monastic” communities proliferating today. During the 1980s, many offered “sanctuary” to refugees escaping United States–sponsored wars in Central America or traveled personally to Central America to learn from liberationist-based communities there. Typically, they espouse a deeply biblical theology, declaring (with Dorothy Day) that “the Sermon on the Mount is our manifesto.” Yet many break with biblical literalism in supporting full equality for women and full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons, even though they may devote more of their activist energies to economic, racial, and peace issues.

A second cluster is centered around the denominational bureaucracies of the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches—such as the Uni­tarian Universalist Association’s Washington Office for Advocacy—which continue the social gospel tradition of working for “progressive” legislation, relying more on lobbying and letter-writing than on the direct action favored by the first cluster. Social justice lobbying networks provide avenues for laypeople to shape their own political involvements according to their denominations’ commitments, and Alinskyite organizations for congregation-based organizing provide rich opportunities for people of many faiths to find common ground in living wage, antiracism, or neighborhood renewal campaigns.

A third cluster includes all those who identify primarily with the theologies of liberation that reached a peak of influence in the seminaries in the 1980s. These activists are more radical in their policy prescriptions than the denominational bureaucrats of the second cluster, and they sometimes prefer revolutionary violence to the active nonviolence favored by the first cluster. Theologically, they often position themselves against what they take to be the excessively optimistic liberalism of the social gospel. In principle, they insist that each oppressed community must form its own distinctive theology, though in practice advocates of black and womanist, Latino and mujerista, queer and feminist, Native American and Asian American theologies have fought side by side against interlocking oppressions.

The biggest but least organized cluster includes “spiritual but not religious” people and many others for whom social activism is inherently spiritual. Some may have embraced religious traditions like Buddhism or Wicca, or they may draw eclectically from diverse spiritual traditions. Some—notably feminist witch Starhawk and Zen teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman—are rooted in earlier religious left traditions, while others are still groping to find their own activist voices. Unitarian Universalist congregations provide a welcoming home for many of these seekers.

As the era of the religious right comes to a close, these four clusters have a remarkable opportunity to forge real solutions to climate change, economic inequality, and the persistent injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Just as people of diverse faiths joined together in the antislavery, social gospel, and civil rights movements, so today we have the power to change the world. But we will do it only if we blend an awareness of our history with a creative openness to the possibilities of the present.

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