The Religious Left in Modern America

The Religious Left in Modern America June 20, 2018

I’m pleased to welcome Doug Rossinow, a professor of history at the University of Oslo, to the Anxious Bench. In 1998 he wrote one of my all-time favorite books, a model piece of scholarship entitled The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America. A beautifully written, close study of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Texas at Austin, it illuminates broader trajectories in the New Left and of the 1960s. He is also the author and editor of many other articles and books, including The Religious Left in Modern America: Doorkeepers of a Radical Faith (2018), which is the subject of this interview. (Full disclosure: Doug and Leilah Danielson and Marian Mollin, the other editors of the book, were kind enough to include a chapter from me on global encounters and the evangelical left.) Welcome Doug!



David: Could you define (briefly, if possible!) the term “left”?

Doug: You see a lot of different ideas out there of what the left is. Some people think of it strictly in Marxist or at least anti-capitalist terms. Others use the term as a synonym for progressive politics very broadly defined, to describe any pressure for equality or human rights. In the introduction to our volume, we take a different path: we state that we see the left tradition as a radical one, not merely a reformist one. Leftists are those who think there is something fundamentally flawed about their society–in this case, modern America–and who think a profound change is needed. But in terms of substance, we see three central values in this American left tradition: equality, liberation, and unity. For us, leftists want to create social and economic as well as political equality for human beings. They also very often want people to be freed or liberated from stultifying, inherited social roles and mores. You can see this in terms of gender and racial hierarchies and bigotry. And leftists strive for a new vision and reality of social unity, a whole society, one not shot through with the experience of alienation or estrangement. Now, lots of leftists have embraced some of these values and not others. Most relevant here is that atheists on the left may often eschew the idea of creating social unity–which means reconciliation with people who are now their enemies–but this has been an important value for religious leftists.

David: What does this book argue?

Doug: We argue that there really is a coherent religious left tradition in the United States since the time of heavy industrialization and urbanization, from the 1880s until the present. It is an extremely heterogeneous tradition. But it’s there, and coheres around the values I mention above. Basically, we argue that religion in modern American politics is definitely, absolutely not confined to the religious right! It never has been.

David: With books by Leilah Danielson, Heath Carter, Brantley Gasaway, Elesha Coffman, and many others in the last five years, there has been a renaissance of scholarship on the religious left. What does this book offer that is new?

Doug: We offer an ecumenical, wide-ranging account. Lots of great people who have done scholarship on the religious left, or religious progressivism more broadly, have focused on one confessional or faith tradition, e.g., mainline Protestantism, social Catholicism, the peace churches, or something else. We try to break through those silos and get Catholics, Protestants–and white, black, and Latino/a people–all in one volume. We also have a couple of essays on Judaism and the American left. I’m sorry to say it, and there are good reasons for it because this is not easy, but getting coverage of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in one book–even just Protestants and Catholics!–is highly unusual.

David: There are quite a few famous people—such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Reinhold Niebuhr—who appear in this narrative. But there are others who may be less familiar to readers. Who is the most significant figure in the modern religious left we’ve never heard of?

Doug: So many choices. Many who know Dorothy Day will also know A. J. Muste–they are the two most famous pacifists in modern America, she Catholic and he Protestant. But I might give a nod to Howard Thurman, a great underground force with many American activists and radicals. Thurman was an African American theologian who was most famous for writing Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), a book that influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and that in some ways anticipated the Theology of Liberation. Thurman was a crusader for nonviolence and justice and was instrumental in spreading the thought of Mohandas Gandhi in the United States. In our volume, Sarah Azaransky has an essay in which she discusses Thurman along with Pauli Murray and Bayard Rustin.

David: You teach at the University of Oslo now. Has there been an equivalent progressive religious movement in Europe?

Doug: Basically, no, not that I’m aware of (I’m no expert on Europe!). There is a Christian Democrat tradition in European party politics, which is a mainstream conservative tradition here but which might seem kind of left-of-center, at least in some ways, in the United States. But the left in Europe is quite atheist. At least that’s my impression. I teach in Norway now, where there is a state church, and where there is a kind of bible belt in some regions, but the urban culture is really post-Christian and that’s where the left is based.

David What is the genealogy of William Barber and the contemporary iteration of the Poor People’s Campaign? Where does he come from?

Doug: Barber was born only days after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I believe. So it’s a neat coincidence that he’s really taking up the standard of the major progressive demands of King and his comrades in the 1960s: political and social inclusion and economic fairness–which means, in part, including the poor in society, not treating the poor as surplus people, as eyesores on our otherwise pleasant cityscapes and landscapes. I don’t know a lot about Barber’s personal origins, but that’s his tradition, I would say. He clearly comes from the church and the NAACP, which has had a bigger involvement with African American religion than some people may realize.

David: This probably goes against all your instincts, but stop being a historian for a moment. What will the religious left look like in 2040?

Doug: OK, I’ll bite. The religious left is already very ecumenical, and that convergence of progressives from different confessional and faith traditions will continue, I expect. That is not just because those on the left feel a need to match the strength of the rather ecumenical religious right, where you see a lot of Catholic-Protestant cooperation, for example. It’s also because diversity has become such an important value for the left, including religious leftists. But I don’t think that is going to mean that the specific church–or synagogue and mosque and temple–traditions or structures are going to fade. Actually, I think the durability, and the resources, of those institutions are important in sustaining the various elements of the religious left. Its big challenge, I think, will be to see whether it can capture some of the energy of the Millennial generation, who are supposedly estranged from organized religion. But, you know, saying “no religion” in a survey doesn’t mean “atheist,” and it won’t surprise me if a lot of Millennials eventually look for some kind of religious home where they can act on their values in a meaningful, consequential way. So I see growth ahead for the religious left, somewhat along the lines we see emerging now.

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