Socialist” has more than double the letters of the average expletive and, for generations now, has packed a corresponding punch in American public life. To hurl the word at someone has been to mark that person not just outside the mainstream but dangerously so. What reasonable person could espouse such a “godless” political philosophy, not to mention one so prone to nightmarish consequences on this side of the veil?
For many Americans, the very mention of socialism evokes dystopian visions of totalitarian rule and endless breadlines, whether in the old USSR or in contemporary Venezuela. Certainly such associations lurked behind Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore’s June declaration on Twitter, “I hate socialism. I’ve seen its wreckage up close. It’s based on a faulty view of human nature. Plus, it doesn’t work.” Just last month, Prestonwood Baptist pastor Jack Graham put an even finer point on the matter, tweeting, “No serious Christian can support socialism.”
And yet many serious Christians have, as Vaneesa Cook underscores in her thought-provoking new book, Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left. Cook finds in the past ample evidence that the intersection of Christianity and radicalism in the modern United States has in fact been quite bustling.
The heart of her story lies in the half-century between World War I and the Civil Rights movement, a time when “spiritual socialists,” as she calls them, stretched the boundaries of Christian social and political imagination, even as they helped reorient the American Left away from doctrinaire Marxism. As that latter point suggests, for Cook, as for her characters, socialism is a far more fluid category than the oft-cartoonish representations of it might suggest. Consistent with countless readers of magazines like Christianity Today, “spiritual socialists turned to the Bible rather than The Communist Manifesto for answers and inspiration.” It was their faith that led them to reject the American Dream. They felt a call, deep in their hearts, to seek first, instead, the kingdom of God.
‘A Revolution of the Heart’
Spiritual socialists did not agree on every detail of how the kingdom would come, but nearly to a person they believed that it was not through the state. As Cook observes, “Rather than encouraging centralized power politics, they promoted small-scale, local organization from the bottom up.” Dorothy Day offers one case in point. During the international economic crisis of the 1930s, which prompted countless Americans to put their trust in an expanding national government, she poured her energies instead into the fledgling Catholic Worker movement. She put little stock in the New Deal’s alphabet soup of lumbering federal bureaucracies; but unlike its conservative critics, she also had no faith in the free market.
Day urgently sought a “revolution of the heart.” She practiced and promoted voluntary poverty, lived out ideally in rural communes and urban houses of hospitality, where all would always be welcome. In an age that lionized expertise, she scoffed at the very notion of strategic planning, declaring at one point, “Instead of having plans and blueprints we have the actual people, the kind nobody wants, that the government will not help, the kind that are always being passed on.”
When pressed on the efficacy of her program, such as it was, she loved to bring up the feeding of the five thousand: “we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the action of the present moment but we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all of our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.” Her life inspired a generation of Christian activists, and perhaps against the odds the Catholic Worker movement lives on to the present day. It is hard to imagine that Day, who reveled in divine mystery, would be surprised. “It all happened while we sat there talking,” she reflected in the final sentence of her memorable spiritual autobiography, The Long Loneliness, “and it is still going on.”
In local communities, spiritual socialists found the space not only to experiment with radical alternatives to capitalism but also to defy the racial strictures of Jim Crow America. In the early 1930s—at a moment when many on the secular left were emphasizing the paramount importance of class divisions and most white Christians were giving their amen to racial apartheid—the radicals that founded the Highlander Folk School in the mountains of Southern Tennessee forged a more faithful path. They had studied at places such as Union Theological Seminary and Vanderbilt Divinity School, where they had an opportunity to learn from Reinhold Niebuhr, Alva Taylor, and other leading exponents of American Social Christianity. By the time Zilla Hawes, Myles Horton, James Dombrowski, and Don West graduated they were eager to practice what their esteemed teachers preached—and then some.
Highlander quickly became a hub of interracial labor organizing and went on to develop into a laboratory for civil rights activists, who piloted not just teachings but also tactics guaranteed to push the boundaries of a deeply racist church and society. Sure enough, their norm-shattering faith got them into holy trouble. As Cook writes, “The school’s purposeful integration, a crucial cause for spiritual socialists, angered white supremacists in the community and provoked accusations of Communist-inspired infiltration.” But like the Catholic Worker movement, Highlander’s legacy far outstripped its numbers. Its circles encompassed many of the leading lights of the modern Civil Rights movement, including Septima Clark, Ella Baker, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, and Rosa Parks. “It was a place I was very reluctant to leave,” Parks would later reflect. “I gained there the strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks, but for all oppressed people.”
Cook’s riveting story features a wide-ranging cast of other characters too, including some, such as Martin Luther King Jr., who are household names and a variety of others that deserve to be. In the latter category are the likes of A. J. Muste, who came up through the Dutch Reformed Church and went on to devote his life to a variety of crusades for peace and justice; Henry A. Wallace, whose espoused a radical faith even while serving as Secretary of Agriculture, Vice President, and Secretary of Commerce under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s; and Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest, and one of a smaller number of spiritual socialists who emphasized the need to push not only for economic and racial but also gender equity.
Lines of Continuity
Spiritual socialism defies tidy boundaries, and yet, by book’s end, one still longs for just a bit more clarity on its extent and limits. This reader wondered, in particular, whether the lines of continuity between Cook’s characters and an earlier generation of social gospelers and Christian socialists may be stronger than they appear here, and also whether minoritized voices may be even more central to the story than they are in this telling of it.
Yet such lingering questions should not detract from the tremendous service that Cook has done in lifting up a spiritual-socialist tradition that has languished too long in obscurity. The Cold War propelled a countervailing gospel of free enterprise to the fore, and our contemporary context remains deeply shaped by it. Little wonder that, fully 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so many American believers struggle to conceive of the possibility that anything good could come of socialism. The remarkable witness of the radical Christians at the heart of this book suggests otherwise. Their faith moved mountains. The least we can do is expand our moral imaginations.
Heath W. Carter is an associate professor of American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford University Press).