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Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition

Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition

by Dan McKanan

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

Though not well-remembered today, the United States has always had an active religious left. In Prophetic Encounters, Dan McKanan shows that encounters between people of differenct perspectives, races, and classes have been transformative


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

Though not well-remembered today, the United States has always had an active religious left. In Prophetic Encounters, Dan McKanan shows that encounters between people of differenct perspectives, races, and classes have 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 Revolution to the present day, Prophetic Encounters invites contemporary activists to stand proudly in a tradition of prophetic power. 

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In the current U.S. political environment, it's easy to forget the prominent role that the religious Left has played in our history. McKanan (Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer, Harvard Divinity Sch.; The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation) comprehensively chronicles the history of the "sibling" rivalry and relationship between religion and radicalism in the United States. Covering religious groups as diverse as Protestants, Catholics, humanists, Jews, and neopagans and radical causes such as labor, abolition of slavery, civil rights, women's rights, and opposition to war, McKanan highlights the important religious threads within the fabric of the Left over time. As "siblings," the connection between religion and radicalism has drifted between cooperation and combativeness through the years, but almost never reflects indifference as the two have found themselves intimately linked at many key historical moments. VERDICT A fine storyteller, McKanan may inspire readers to seek out more on many of the topics he covers here. An excellent starting point for those interested in learning about a frequently overlooked aspect of American history.—Brian T. Sullivan, Alfred Univ. Lib., NY
Kirkus Reviews
Examination of religion's place in American political radicalism. McKanan (Theology/Harvard Divinity School; The Catholic Worker after Dorothy: Christian Communities Transforming Society, 2008, etc.) explores the role of faith communities in movements ranging from abolitionism to environmentalism. He documents the individuals and organizations across the history of American radicalism, identifying and explaining links that may not be obvious to casual readers. Protestant Christianity necessarily plays the major role here, but McKanan goes to great lengths to discuss the radical aspects of Catholicism, Judaism and even such belief systems as Wicca. He begins with the nation-dividing anti-slavery question, illustrating not only white church involvement in the abolition movement but also the rise of historically black churches during this era. The author moves on to discuss the fight for women's rights, a decades-long process that witnessed a great deal of change in American Christianity. The energy of the suffragist and temperance movements, combined with mini-revolutions within the late-19th-century church, gave way to a new radical emphasis on urban needs and the labor movement. McKanan explores American socialism and especially its tie to immigrant Catholics in the era before the Great Depression and World War II. After the war, American radicals of faith turned their attentions to race relations and the civil-rights movement. With the deflation of mainstream Protestantism, the post-1960s era provides a new and changing template for faith involvement in radical politics. "Radicalism thrives in times of crisis," writes the author. So too does religion. An illuminating book.
From the Publisher
“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 in the history of this nation. ”—The Tavis Smiley Show

“McKanan’s meticulous and thoughtful scholarship gathers a cloud of witnesses who testify to the success that can be achieved when religion and radical action coalesce.”
—Rebecca Parker, Journal of Unitarian Universalist History

 “Today’s radicals . . . 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, America

“McKanan narrates these tumultuous and dizzying developments with great lucidity and sympathy.”—Dissent

“…[H]is packed chronicle stands to be the book-of-first-resort on the intersection of religion and radicalism in America.”—Booklist   

“An illuminating book.”—Kirkus 

“Dan McKanan’s Prophetic Encounters is a revelation of a book. Beautifully written and boldly conceived, it the most accessible and comprehensive study to date of the ‘sibling’ relationship—and rivalry—between radicalism and religion in American history. Shattering the stubborn myth that politics and religion don’t mix, McKanan shows us instead that we can’t possibly understand one without the other. Prophetic Encounters insists that the American radical tradition itself is the strongest sign we have of our stubborn faith in the power of the nation’s founding ideals and the possibility of building a world where they are finally, and fully, realized. This book is a must-read for activists and academics, people of faith and non-believers alike.”—Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Harvard University, co-editor of The Radical Reader: A Documentary Anthology of the American Radical Tradition

“To be a radical means to go to the root of things. The root of American radicalism has been among religious people. Secularists, individualists, please take note! Encounters and dialogue between religiously motivated radicals and more secular activists remain important. America, ‘the nation with the soul of a church,’ cannot be changed by those who ignore or scorn religion. This book proves that in vitalizing stories. They go from our roots as a democratic republic to recent efforts to feed the withering branches of social activism with living waters for all souls. Blessings on Dan McKanan, a storyteller, theologian, and historian who feeds the activist soul!”—John Buehrens, co-author, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion in the 21st Century
“All too few historians have taken genuine heed of the diverse band of prophetic radicals who have stirred and galvanized the American Left. Dan McKanan’s history captures the spirit of that activist tradition. Casting a suitably wide net, he brings together evangelical abolitionists, Protestant progressives, Catholic Leftists, labor-agitating socialists, civil-rights protesters, post-Christian humanists, and Neopagan feminists in a compelling testimony to the nation’s radical inheritance. McKanan offers a prophetic history in sync with—and worthy of—the Left’s deepest aspirations.”—Leigh Eric Schmidt, Washington University, author of Heaven’s Bride

Prophetic Encounters is the most important book on the radical tradition in America to emerge in years. Spanning almost two hundred years of American history, and written with subtlety and grace, it tells the story of the intricate links between the radical reform tradition and the ‘prophetic power’ of religious belief. It is not only a brilliant work of scholarship, but a stirring handbook for present and future radicals—for in Dan McKanan’s deft hands, history becomes the activist’s muse.”John Stauffer, award-winning author of The Black Hearts of Men and Giants and Professor of the History of American Civilization at Harvard 

Prophetic Encounters is an endlessly fascinating history of America’s most creative dissenters. Dan McKanan’s vast knowledge and unflagging enthusiasm make this book essential reading for activists, for scholars, or for anyone interested in the religious dimensions of social change.”—Joseph Kip Kosek

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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.”1

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 merits of single-issue organizing versus comprehensive programs of reform, and the best way to reconcile the tensions among liberty, equality, and solidarity. A persistent and bitter debate concerned the family: was it better under­stood as yet another oppressive institution or as a sacred gift threatened by unjust institutions? Debates over how the Left should interact with mainstream religion also shaped radicalism. These debates contributed to bitter feelings and organizational schisms, but could not bring the con­versation to an end. Dorothy Day had strong positions on all the issues I just listed, and she recognized Fidel Castro as a comrade even though his views were diametrically opposed to hers. Given the scope of this book, I will devote more space to the debate over religion than to the others, but all would be of vital importance in a comprehensive history of American radicalism.

As I have defined it, radicalism is concerned with relationships among people, rather than with human connections to spiritual reali­ties or the material world. The Left as such is not committed to any particular understanding of God or spirits, nor does it prescribe specific practices of diet, dress, or sexual behavior. Yet in practice it is rarely pos­sible to separate human relationships from spiritual and material realities. For many activists, radical commitment has been unthinkable apart from belief in God, or from communication with the spirits of the deceased, or from the practice of free love or abstinence from alcohol. At specific historical moments, certain correlations have been almost ubiquitous on the left: it would be almost as difficult to find an 1840s radical who op­posed the temperance movement as a 1990s leftist who opposed recy­cling. My narrative will thus intersect with the stories of temperance and environmentalism as well as of such religious movements as Quakerism, Universalism, and Spiritualism. But I make no claim to tell the whole stories of such movements, and I insist that none of them has ever been entirely identified with American radicalism.

Like “radicalism,” the term “religion” is notoriously difficult to de­fine. I use it in two senses, corresponding roughly to my second and third guiding insights. On the one hand, I sometimes define religion as whatever people say it is—practices, institutions, and ideas that are con­ventionally labeled religious. Thus, I will track the intertwining between radicalism and such practices as Sunday morning worship, such organi­zations as the United Methodist Church, and such ideas as the claim that all people are created in God’s image.

Meet the Author

Dan McKanan is the the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, where he has taught since 2008. Previously he served as associate professor and chair of the Theology Department at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University in Minnesota. McKanan is the author of three books on religious social activism in the United States: Identifying the Image of God: Radical Christians and Nonviolent Power in the Antebellum United States, Touching the World: Christian Communities Transforming Society, and The Catholic Worker after Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation. His writing has also appeared in many publications, including Sojourners, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, America, the Journal of Religion, Harvard Theological Review, and Journal of the American Academy of Religion, as well as in multiple anthologies.

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