The National Catholic Review
Olga Bonfiglio

Speaking to the tradition of religious radicalism, Dan McKanan, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, offers a history of the relationships be-tween religion and movements for social change in America.

McKanan argues that religious practices, ideas and institutions are at the heart of a continuous tradition of American radicalism. Radicalism, he believes, embodies a deep faith in the human capacity to transform the world, and it has always been intertwined with the religious practices of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, orthodox believers, humanist heretics and pagans. While not offering a complete history of American radical history, the author aims to “highlight important religious threads within the fabric of the Left.”

McKanan looks at some of the greatest victories of the American left, from the abolition of slavery during the Civil War to the elimination of racial segregation during the Civil Rights era, and shows how early radicals were striving to create God’s Kingdom on earth. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Dorothy Day and Starhawk, McKanan looks at the prophetic encounters of those American radicals who have worked to extend the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity to all people.

A most interesting chapter is “Encountering the City,” which illustrated a new wave of concern in the late 1800s, when a growing urban population was leading to increased social problems of poverty and alcoholism. It likewise produced new movements that promoted industrial workers’ rights, child labor laws, women’s rights and civil rights for African-Americans.

Religious radicals emerged to generate a new theology that asked,“What is meant by following Jesus?” which focused on social rather than individual salvation. This Social Gospel inspired settlement houses, church institutions, denominational social justice agencies and ecumenism.

Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago, for example, helped poor, illiterate immigrants adjust to their new society; and the settlement house movement provided a springboard for interfaith cooperation on such issues as public health, racial justice and clean city government. It also promoted government action to deal with the plight of the poor.

Institutional churches formed social clubs for young people and African-Americans, and they attacked problems of “police collusion.” The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People formed from one of these clubs an alliance with W. E. B. DuBois’s call for full civil rights for African-Americans. Racial justice, however, would not go far in the white community, especially in the South, where the Jim Crow laws re-created an oppressive society not seen since before the Civil War.

From this heady time also dates the split between the religious and secular as some radicals aimed to reform government policy through socialist agendas of cooperative management of industries, comprehensive social insurance, public jobs programs, progressive income taxes, political and economic equality for women and African-Americans and an end to lynching.

These reforms lasted until they were met by the forces of the right-wing conservatism first articulated by the anti-tax, anti-Communist ideology of Barry Goldwater and the anti-gay, anti-feminist fundamentalist Jerry Falwell. Radicals turned to a more globalized agenda of injustice as Reagan administration policies beat up on little countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua and advanced nuclear weapons proliferation to overwhelm the Soviet/Communist menace. The radicals responded with Sanctuary, demonstrations against the School of the Americas, Plowshares, anti-apartheid, Christian Peacemaker Teams and environmental movements that served up statements, pledges and acts of civil disobedience.

Left-wing radicals were also challenged by the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, which used grass-roots organizing to advance a political and social agenda that advocated anti-abortion reform, renewal of family values and the mistrust of secularists from the left. Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, and Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, attempted to reintroduce religion into the radical left and to be true to its social agenda. They attracted mostly college-educated baby boomers.

It was Jesse Jackson, however, in his run for the presidency, who made the greatest impact as he resonated with disenfranchised Rust Belt workers and small farmers as well as identity groups that had built up movements during the 1970s. As Wallis said of him, Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition created “a new coalition for change which crossed the boundaries of race, class and issues.”

Where is radicalism going in the 21st century in the wake of the fall of Communism in 1989, the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, the decline of the American empire, growing globalization and dominance by corporate entities, the reduction of resources and the increasing dangers of climate change? McKanan says it’s too soon to tell. In looking over history, however, he makes this claim:

American radicalism has endured because it has never been thoroughly defeated and because it has never completely triumphed. We are still living in the age that began in 1776, still trying to discern whether new institutions would better serve the core values that are cherished by almost all Americans.

The hope he sees for more universal change is in the “interpersonal practices of encounter” currently exemplified by community gardens, farmers’ markets, volunteers from out-of-town who help people rebuild their lives in devastated places like New Orleans and island nations facing flooding from climate change. He calls these meeting grounds “sacred space,” which calls on a “power that has been known variously as spirit, mana, God.” They are rooted in the 19th century, when congregations and local religious communities were often the base for American radicals. “Congregations gave birth to the voluntary societies, agitating newspapers, experimental communities and third parties that were unreservedly committed to radicalism,” he writes.

While the author’s premise is interesting and compelling, the execution is dry, academic and encyclopedic. The book reads like a catalog and sometimes distracts from the author’s point.

Today’s radicals, however, may be inspired and urged onward by exploring the diverse religious traditions of radical movements through history. Prophetic Encounters invites them to follow the path of their predecessors and continue to encounter one another deeply, “glimpse the face of the divine, and change the world.”

Olga Bonfiglio is a freelance journalist, a contributor to The Huffington Post and the author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq.