Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition

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9780807013151: Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition

A broad, definitive history of the profound relationship between religion and movements for social change in America

Though in recent years the religious right has been a powerful political force, making “religion” and “conservatism” synonymous in the minds of many, the United States has always had an active, vibrant, and influential religious Left. In every period of our history, people of faith have envisioned a society of peace and justice, and their tireless efforts have made an indelible mark on our nation’s history.
 
In Prophetic Encounters, Dan McKanan challenges simple distinctions between “religious” and “secular” activism, showing that religious beliefs and practices have been integral to every movement promoting liberty, equality, and solidarity. From Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the nineteenth century to Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and Starhawk in the twentieth, American radicals have maintained a deep faith in the human capacity to transform the world. This radical faith has always been intertwined with the religious practices of Christians and Jews, pagans and Buddhists, orthodox believers and humanist heretics. Their vision and energies powered the social movements that have defined America’s progress: the abolition of slavery, feminism, the New Deal, civil rights, and others.
 
In this groundbreaking, definitive work, McKanan treats the histories of religion and the Left as a single history, showing that American radicalism is a continuous tradition rather than a collection of disparate movements. Emphasizing the power of encounter—encounters between whites and former slaves, between the middle classes and the immigrant masses, and among activists themselves—McKanan shows that the coming together of people of different perspectives and beliefs has been transformative for centuries, uniting those whose faith is a source of activist commitment with those whose activism is a source of faith.
 
Offering a history of the diverse religious dimensions of radical movements from the American Revolution to the present day, Prophetic Encounters invites contemporary activists to stand proudly in a tradition of prophetic power.

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About the Author:

Dan McKanan is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and the author of Identifying the Image of God, Touching the World, and The Catholic Worker after Dorothy. His writing has appeared in Sojourners, America, and many other journals.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

From the Introduction

Everyone needs a history, especially those who seek to change the fu­ture. When radical activists confront the entrenched legacy of racism and sexism in both our institutions and our textbooks, we are tempted to imagine that all history supports the status quo. In an era in which prominent representatives of American Christianity are outspoken in their support of reactionary politics, it is easy to imagine that the history of religion is doubly conservative. But there have always been Ameri­can radicals—and those radicals have always drawn strength from their diverse faiths, Christian and Jewish, pagan and Buddhist, orthodox and humanist. To forget our predecessors’ work is not only to risk repeat­ing their mistakes, it is to lose their wisdom and inspiration. And so, as we organize our neighborhoods or march on Washington, we must tell the stories of the cloud of witnesses who came before us. To encounter them is to discover the human sources of radical faith.
 
On August 11, 1841, Frederick Douglass made his first public speech at a convention in Nantucket. The prospect of addressing white people, Douglass would later recall, was “a severe cross” because he still “felt myself a slave.” Yet the act of speaking proved to be liberating for Doug-lass and revelatory for his audience. “I spoke but a few moments,” Douglass wrote in his autobiography, “when I felt a degree of freedom.” The antislavery editor William Lloyd Garrison, for his part, reported that “I think I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment. Certainly, my perception of the enormous outrage which is inflicted by it, on the godlike nature of its victims, was rendered far more clear than ever.” For both men, their meeting was an encounter with the divine, and they retained a sense of its religious power long after their personal paths diverged. Thirty years later, Douglass mused that it was only through his encounters with other radicals that he could “get any glimpses of God anywhere.”
 
Echoes of this sentiment can be heard in every American move­ment for social transformation. A century after Garrison met Douglass, a radical journalist named Dorothy Day found herself longing to en­counter the “poor and oppressed” immigrants, whom she regarded as “collectively the new Messiah.” Noticing that most immigrants were Roman Catholics, she joined the church, but soon missed the militant idealism of her socialist past. Why, she wondered, could not Catholi­cism also gather “bands of men and women together” for social change? Day launched a national network of farms and households where pious Catholics, committed radicals, and the desperately poor encountered one another as they fed the hungry, comforted the afflicted, and afflicted the comfortable.’
 
A similar hunger for encounter brought several feminists together in a California storefront in the 1970s. They had already had their con­sciousness raised, but they yearned to tap more deeply into the woman-power that, they believed, had inspired ancient worship of the goddess and the medieval healing practices that were stigmatized as witchcraft. Their conversation about magic became a ritual, as the women “took hands, and started breathing together.” Realizing that “a circle had been cast,” they anointed themselves, kissed, and began chanting the names of ancient goddesses, entreating them to “pour out your light and your ra­diance upon us. . . . Shine! Shine! Shine!” As the energy subsided, they chose a coven name, Compost, thus reassuring themselves that “what­ever magic brings, it will not take away our ability to laugh at ourselves.” They also realized that magic could empower them to change the world. Coven leader Starhawk introduced their Spiral Dance at a massive dem­onstration against a nuclear power plant, and soon pagan-inspired rituals were an integral part of direct action campaigns against war, environ­mental destruction, and globalization.3
 
The empowering encounters of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Dorothy Day, and Starhawk stand in a tradition that has gone by many names. Some would call it the path of the prophets. Others speak of the “American radical tradition” or simply “the Left.” It is the tradition of abolitionists who called on their neighbors to immediately renounce the sin of slavery, of feminists who recognized patriarchy as itself a form of slavery, of socialists who labored to build a “cooperative commonwealth,” and of pacifists who saw war as the ultimate affront to humanity.
 
What holds this tradition together is the experience I have tried to encapsulate in my opening vignettes. When human beings encoun­ter one another deeply, in the midst of their struggles for freedom and equality and community, prophetic power is unleashed. This is power to denounce, to condemn those who would “grind the faces of the poor into the dust,” in the words of Isaiah. It is also power to announce—to proclaim God’s Kingdom that will be realized here on earth, the beloved community of black and white and brown together, the new society within the shell of the old. Prophetic power enables people to speak boldly in the face of brickbats and bludgeons and fire hoses. It empow­ers them to tell new stories and build new communities. Because in­terpersonal encounters are the source of this power, their place within radicalism is analogous to the role of divine revelation within traditional Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. For this reason, I describe them as pro­phetic encounters.
 
By placing prophetic encounters at the heart of my story, I hope to share three guiding insights about the American radical tradition. First of all, it is a tradition. Too often we remember abolitionism or feminism or socialism as self-contained “movements” that emerged in response to particular social problems and disappeared when those problems were overcome or changed form. Such memories obscure the way in which activists of each generation have built alliances and drawn inspiration, religious convictions, and strategies from those who have gone before. Garrison and Douglass were as eloquent in denouncing the sin of sexism as the sin of slavery, and they helped to inspire the pacifists and social­ists of their day. They also pioneered activist tactics that have lasted for centuries. Garrison used his imprisonment for libeling a slave trader to raise awareness of his cause, while Douglass repeatedly refused to leave segregated railway cars until he was expelled by force; Dorothy Day and Starhawk were among the thousands who followed in their footsteps, facing arrest for refusing to participate in civil defense drills or for dis­rupting the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. One scarcely needs seven degrees of separation to trace the personal con­nections among the four: Garrison’s grandson was among the founders of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, which worked with the Catholic Worker movement to sponsor the civil defense protests and Vietnam-era draft-card burnings; the first man to go to prison for draft-card burning would later marry Starhawk. Though the Left has not al­ways been one big happy family, even in its divisions and rancor it has been a family.
 
Second, religious ideas, institutions, and practices have always been intertwined with radical activism. American radicals drew inspiration from religious communities as diverse as Frederick Douglass’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Dorothy Day’s Roman Catholicism, and Starhawk’s neopaganism. It is common nowadays to speak of a “reli­gious Left” that is distinct from secular radicalism, or to suggest that the prophetic tradition possesses a wisdom lacking in both the “religious Right” and the “secular Left.” Such formulations fail to do justice to the spirituality of even the most seemingly “unchurched” radicals. Many of the most bitter critics of the churches have been people of deep per­sonal faith, inspired by the example of Jesus driving the moneychang­ers from the temple, while those who have tried to separate radical causes from religious language have often hoped to make room for per­sons of divergent theologies. Though Dorothy Day’s orthodox Catholic piety was far removed from the dogmatic materialism of the Communist Party, it is not possible to draw a line that neatly separates religious from secular radicals.
 
Indeed—and this is my third guiding insight—leftist activism is al­most a form of religion. It occupies much of the same psychological and sociological space. People are drawn to religious communities and radical organizations in order to connect their daily routines to a more transcendent vision of heaven, salvation, or a new society. Both religion and radicalism offer individuals powerful new identities—as “children of God” or “class-conscious workers” or “New Negros.” In order to extend this power, radicals build organizations—social reform societies, utopian communities, third parties—that have many churchlike quali­ties. Radicals come together to sing hymns and hear sermons, often gathering on Sunday morning; they articulate their defining beliefs and excommunicate those who dissent; their marches are like pilgrimages and their “line-crossing” in civil disobedience like a ritual of initiation. Radicalism is more like a religion than like mainstream political tradi­tions, which suspend questions of transcendence in order to reconcile competing interests and build electorally viable coalitions.

To say that radicalism is almost a form of religion is not to deny the tension between the two but to explain it. Radicals seek to live in rela­tion to a better world that might exist here on earth in the future; most conventionally religious people orient their lives to realities beyond this world. While radicals achieve empowered identities through interper­sonal encounters, most religions offer a new identity through encoun­
ter with spiritual beings. (The major exception, religious humanism, has rarely clashed with the Left.) As a result, the relationship between the Left and conventional religiosity has the volatility of sibling rivalry. Some radicals find their religious and radical commitments to be mutu­ally reinforcing; others come to see their cause as the true church. Many American leftists have, from time to time, found themselves in both of these postures. The tensions run deep and should not be dismissed as a matter of secularist prejudice.
 
I will return to these three guiding insights—the Left is a tradi­tion, the Left is thoroughly intertwined with religion, the Left is it­self analogous to religion—throughout this book. Before entering into my narrative, it may be helpful to define some terms. I use “Left” and “radicalism” interchangeably to designate a tradition of social move­ments and organizations that seek to extend the values of liberty, equal­ity, solidarity, and peace. These values are rooted in the American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth century, and American radi­calism in particular is defined by its twofold relationship to the heritage of 1776. On the one hand, American radicals place themselves in the legacy of the Revolution. Taking pride in America, they imitate the rhet­oric of the Declaration of Independence and hope to persuade all Americans to join their cause. On the other hand, American leftists are radically dissatisfied with the Revolution’s institutional heritage. They refuse to believe that American structures of political democracy will inevitably lead to greater liberty, equality, and solidarity. And they refuse to worry that present agitation will undermine past gains. American rad­icalism has included movements to end slavery; to include people of all races, genders, and sexualities fully in the national community; to build a cooperative or socialist economy; and to limit or end war and violence.

American radicalism as I have defined it excludes incremental forms of progressivism that are more concerned with preserving the institu­tions of the Revolution than with extending its values; my definition ex­cludes as well as separatist movements that renounce American ideals. Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, neither Mar­cus Garvey nor Elijah Muhammad were truly American radicals by my definition, though Garvey and Muhammad were radicals of another stripe. This is not to suggest that true leftists must hold themselves aloof from such people. The Left has learned from Garvey’s and Muhammad’s passionate devotion to their people, and it has often embraced tactical separatism as a way of empowering people for sustained struggle. Simi­larly, the Left’s critique of institutions does not preclude fruitful dialogue with persons who support those institutions. True radicals have never been comfortable within the two-party system of American politics, but some have worked to nudge the parties to more radical ground. Others have cheered from the sidelines when men like Lincoln and Roosevelt embraced elements of their agenda.
 
In arguing that American radicalism constitutes a sustained tradition with a two-hundred-year history, I do not mean to suggest that it is sealed off from other traditions. Radicalism has always had transatlantic and global dimensions, though limitations of space preclude more than glancing acknowledgment of those. American radicals were inspired by the European revolutions of 1830, 1848, and 1917, and by the global anticolonialism of the 1950s and 1960s, just as partisans of those causes drew strength from the “spirit of 1776.”
 
Similarly, radicals hold multiple allegiances—to specific religious traditions, to their crafts or professions, to their ethnic communities. To say that Dorothy Day was part of the radical tradition, heir to the legacy of Garrison and Douglass, is not to deny that she was also part of the Catholic tradition and heir to the legacy of Thomas Aquinas and Thérèse of Lisieux. Unlike Catholicism, radicalism has lacked a continu­ous institutional framework to help preserve a consciousness of tradition. As a result, it is easy to imagine that Catholicism was the only tradi­tion that shaped Day’s activism in a profound way, or that the black church was the only tradition informing Martin Luther King Jr. My task is to correct this impression by tracing the contours of the tradition all radicals shared, not to diminish the contributions of other traditions.
 
My view of the Left as a tradition does not deny the presence of deep divisions among radicals. Radicals have maintained a sense of shared identity in part by arguing about the best way to promote liberty, equal­ity, and solidarity. Pacifists and revolutionaries repeatedly squared off over the question of whether nonviolent suffering or holy violence was the best way to change institutions. When anarchists and Marxists split over the role of the state in bringing about a cooperative common­wealth, they echoed a nineteenth-century debate between nonvoting Garrisonians who believed that the U.S. Constitution was inherently proslavery and Liberty Party members who countered that its antislavery potential needed only to be unleashed. Other radical debates focused on the value of small-scale utopian experiments, the meri...

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