The Power of Radical Religion

Against the Current, No. 14, May/June 1988

Ken Todd

YOUR TOPICS AND the level of discussion persuaded me, after reading several issues of ATC, that there now exists an American left, prepared to tackle today’s socialist issues in a productive way. ATC 10 proved no exception. The articles by Paul Buhle and his respondents’ addressed what experience and discussion have led me to consider a crucial question of the left in the next years: the influence of religious radicalism in progressive American politics and our relationship to religious activists. Unfortunately, I feel two essential aspects of these problems remain untouched in the discussion.

Neither Buhle nor his respondents seem to me to do justice to the history and social character of religious activism. As his respondents note, Buhle does not carefully distinguish contemporary progressive and reactionary politicism. This distinction, or its absence, also has an historical dimension.

Anti-catholic nativism, for instance, swelled into political prominence alongside abolitionism in the 1840s and ’50s. As neither movement defined itself primarily against the other, it strikes me as fruitless to seek their determination in the revolt of a left-reformation against Puritanism.

Perhaps we might consider religion as a fundamental social resource suited by its emotional nature to the expression of social trauma and aspiration. Social struggle turns religion into one of its battlefields and not vice versa.

In the same vein, it may not suffice to “take seriously” the relation of progressive religion and Afro-American ethnicity or their political and cultural contributions. Opposition to slavery and expansionism did not necessarily or exclusively imply sympathy for the conditions of Blacks and Indians. We need also to consider the simple abhorrence for the oppressor’s moral condition that still treated the victim with racist condescension.

If our first step leads us to abandon cultural preconceptions, our second must carry us toward a grasp of the historical analysis that can unravel the motive forces for the enduring spectrum of political religiosity. Only their treatment from a class perspective can account for their past and future social significance.

Alongside the ideological and cultural contributions of progressive American religion, we must recognize its equally crucial social peculiarity. I apparently owe to my Baptist upbringing a view of this use markedly different from those held by any of the commentators in ATC. From the age of thirteen, I participated as a full member in the autonomous democratic administration of church business. Every office and every significant action was chosen through public discussion and collective decision. Members also provided fundamental social services and human kindness for others within the congregation, and in the community beyond.

These practices constitute the principal difference from the centralistic, authoritarian institutionalized churches familiar to the European working class. They also distinguish people’s churches from the bourgeois political and economic milieu that has always surrounded them here.

Thousands and thousands of American Christians share my experience of effective local communal self-reliance and voluntary non-coercive centralization. I believe this democratic and collective self-responsibility sustains the popular appeal of much American religion, particularly of its progressive political and social forms. How many socialist groups (I have recently joined the local chapter of Solidarity) provide the same practical experience of organizational and personal solidarity for their members? We have much to learn for our practices and programs from the historical and contemporary detail of American religious life.

If the authors did not fully come to grips with American religious politics in this historical and theoretical sense, they simply did not address what I would consider the essential point, the practical consequences of widespread religious currents for socialist work today.

My own experience suggests much of the emergent ‘80s left admires the militant stand taken by religious activists throughout the Americas, and finds any criticism incompatible with this admiration.

Just as we emphasize the centrality of class to socialist analysis, so too our work and its theory, ought to sustain the socialist principles of progressive unity, where cooperative action on concrete political goals provides the foundation for discussion of our philosophical differences.

A clear grasp of these differences assumes more than theoretical importance when we work with the religious, as we must in every progressive movement in America today, because clarity of conscience cannot substitute for clarity of conception in formulating and executing political strategy. Of course, we cannot help but respect the commitment moral integrity breeds, but a sober concern for the complexities of social struggle should temper this regard.

Moral decision ultimately rests on the same fallacious individualism and reductionism that dialectics has exposed in bourgeois economy, politics and science, Metaphysical opposition roots in the oppression it aims to overturn. Socialists might recognize both that Christian progressivism represents a substantial and perennial force in this country and that our responsibilities as class-conscious activists require us to cooperate sincerely with those who embody that force, while we criticize with friendly honesty the ultimate inadequacy of their means to our shared ends.

Now that I have put in two-cents worth, I would like to add fifteen bucks more, along with the request for a subscription to ATC.

May-June 1988, ATC 14

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