SPIRITUAL SOCIALISTS: RELIGION AND THE AMERICAN LEFT reviewed by Jan Michael Ostrowski

Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left
Vaneesa Cook
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019

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Though I was still a kid at the time, I remember when it was announced on the evening news that Norman Thomas, the perennial presidential candidate for the Socialist Party and the “conscience of America,” had died. Aside from the fact that a third-party leader drew the attention of the major news networks, this was surprising for another reason: the use of the word Socialist and conscience in the same sentence. This was in an America that, not too much earlier, had found itself in the grip of the hysteria of the McCarthy Era. To most Americans, the word socialism was laden with images of gulags and the crushing disincentive effects of a sprawling state-run economy, as well as an official—and often brutally enforced—atheism. To many, linking the word conscience to a concept such as socialism would have seemed improbable and an oxymoron.

Yet Thomas, the erstwhile Presbyterian minister, was able to rise above the fray and present socialist ideals as not only compatible with equality, pacifism, democracy, and yes, Christian values, but the logical extension of such objectives. While many Americans viewed his opinions as naïve and quixotic, he was able to avoid being associated with the harshness of the Soviet system, and was a reminder of the existence of the non-Marxist left in the US political landscape.

Though today the political left is generally thought to dissociate itself from discussions of faith, whether due to a reverence for separation of church and state or adherence to the Marxist dictum of religion as the opiate of the people, religion-based socialism played a significant role in American radical thought and practice for a good part of the 20th century. It is precisely this group that Vaneesa Cook addresses in her meticulously researched and methodically organized book, Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left. The detachment of the Left from religious values has led to a perception that the Evangelical Right is the legitimate voice of politicized Christianity when, in fact, faith is not antithetical to progressive concerns about poverty, racial and economic inequality, military adventurism and the like, but rather is compatible with such concerns and shares a desire for solutions to the unavoidable results of unbridled capitalism.

The post-WW2 era was a problematic time for socialist and radical thinkers. Revelations of the Stalin Trials, government-induced mass starvation in Ukraine, and policies of oppression and terror led to disillusionment with the Great Experiment in Soviet Russia. Socialists like Irving Howe and Dwight Macdonald were opposed to the inherent corruption and totalitarianism of the Soviet system, and searched for viable alternatives to the innate inequalities and oppression of both the Communist and capitalist economies. Although both were committed atheists, they found working models in the programs and thought of spiritual socialists such as A.J. Muste, Sherwood Eddy, and Dorothy Day.

The approaches of these three socialists differed from the existing Marxist models in significant ways. Eschewing the highly centralized power politics and top-down discipline of the Marxist parties, spiritual socialists favored a grassroots, community-based approach. The Delta and Providence Cooperative Farms in Mississippi were founded by the YMCA chaplain and evangelical missionary Sherwood Eddy, and were experiments in socialized agricultural production. Based on principles of mutual cooperation, racial integration, and social Christianity, the farms were designed to support unemployed sharecroppers, whose financial difficulties were the unintended result of the New Deal. The board of trustees included Eddy as secretary-treasurer and his friend, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, as president. Eddy saw socialist and Christian values as indistinguishable, particularly when practiced in daily life and on the grassroots level, and envisioned the cooperative farms as an initial step towards the Kingdom of God on earth.

Similarly, when Dorothy Day opened her first Catholic Worker hospitality house in 1936 at 115 Mott Street in New York City, she saw it as an alternative institution to the bureaucratic state, one where she could put her ideas into practice immediately and have it serve as a model to follow and act as an agent of social change. Created to clothe and feed the homeless during the Depression, staffed by volunteers living in voluntary poverty to perform corporal works of mercy, Day envisioned it as a center to train missionaries of labor to create additional communities “loyal to the teachings of the Sermon of the Mount.” This grassroots, bottom-up approached was an attempt to change man’s behavior by creating communities that encouraged cooperation and small-scale local organizing to benefit everyone in direct opposition to the conventional Marxist approach of waiting until after revolutionary change to establish a communal societal structure.

To the spiritual socialists, Marxists and capitalists erred in using strictly material incentives to justify their positions at the expense of moral and spiritual values that are necessary to ensure a truly just social structure. Spiritual socialists not only rejected the assertion that the end justifies the means, but they felt that the means—moral, ethics-based behavior rather than cold materialist social engineering—was crucial to bringing about real change. And though Day, Eddy, and others identified with specific Christian denominations, overall they were anti-dogmatic and thus managed to avoid the sectarianism that plagued the left, dividing it and rendering it less effective.

As Dwight Macdonald later observed, he had embraced the revolutionary Left because he felt they were accomplishing something, when in reality they were stuck in a continual loop of debating rarefied, intellectual talking points that had little real connection to the daily struggles of the working class. Spiritual socialists, on the other hand, were doing the hard work of practicing direct social action to address societal inequalities.

Cook proposes that a philosophical lineage continues through Social Gospel activists like Myles Horton, who became radicalized at New York’s Union Theological Seminary and went on to found the integrated, working class-oriented Highlander Folk School as well as the Citizenship Education Schools, designed to teach literacy and civics to African-Americans in response to the Jim Crow voting laws. Staughton Lynd’s Quakerism informed his pacifistic and socialist beliefs, and led him to associate with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as well as the early days of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Cook further posits that the Christian Left continues in the 21st century with such activism as that of Reverend William Barber’s Moral Mondays and Poor People’s Campaign, which seeks to inject a moral center into the public sphere.

One could reasonably ask, aside from an interest in a little-known aspect of American history, would and should this book have any significance to an Orthodox Christian. I would suggest the answer is yes. The fact that activists from various Christian denominations were able to find common cause in a decentralized, non-dogmatic pursuit of radical change points to the universality of such Christian ideals as ministering to the poor, pacifism, and social justice.

Further, though not mentioned in her book, the work of the Orthodox priest, Father David Kirk, demonstrates the compatibility of radical grassroots organizing with Orthodox values. Kirk, a protégé of Dorothy Day, may be better known for the counterculture appeal of his book, Quotations from Chairman Jesus, but his more lasting and pioneering legacy was the creation of Emmaus House in Harlem. After his early work with civil rights activism in the South, he began working in the Catholic Worker hospitality house in New York’s Bowery with Day, who later told him to go to Harlem where the need was greatest. What he created in Emmaus House was not a homeless shelter, but a community where the residents worked together to prepare meals, deliver food to the homeless on the streets, and later developed additional services such as advocacy programs for housing, a job-training cabinetry factory, a chefs’ school, a soup kitchen run by the homeless, legal services and support services, and housing for people with AIDS. He eventually created another community of 60 apartments with 90 residents, Emmaus Inns.

Although, to my knowledge, Kirk didn’t describe himself as a socialist, his work empowering the poor, creating a community based on cooperation where the residents were decision-makers, and his grassroots community organizing informed by morality, integrity, and Christian values, made him a successor to the ideals of spiritual socialism.

Spiritual Socialists may be purchased from the publisher or from Amazon.
For additional reading on Orthodoxy and leftist political activism see Deacon Stephen Hayes’ Radical Christian Activists of the 1960s and Orthodoxy and Jim Forest’s Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ: Why Should an Orthodox Christian Be Interested in Him?

Jan Michael Ostrowski holds a BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and  was a Master’s candidate in Art History at Hunter College, also in New York City, specializing in Late Antique/Early Medieval art and architecture. He spent his entire career in the private sector working in graphic design and marketing. Currently he teaches English to help those in immigrant communities transition and integrate more easily into their new surroundings in the US. His interests include the early Church, social justice, and humanitarian issues. He enjoys relaxing by reading French literature in the original. He is religiously unaffiliated. He has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue. 

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