The Religious Left in Modern America

Doorkeepers of a Radical Faith

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Leilah Danielson, Marian Mollin, Doug Rossinow
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , May
     303 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If you’re as depressed and despairing as I have been feeling lately, this is a good book to read. No, it won’t make you think everything’s going to be OK, nor does it intend to do so. But it will remind you of the long arc of history which doesn’t necessarily always bend towards justice, but can be bent that way by those imbued with vision, passion, and organizing skills. 

The editors have put together a terrific collection of essays that cover a wide range of movements from the religious left in America, including Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish people and organizations from the late 19th century to the present. It would have been nice to have a chapter with something from the history of Asian-American religion, but the diversity represented here in general is a laudable intervention and will introduce virtually every reader (certainly myself) to histories they will know little to nothing about. In other cases (in my case, chapters focusing on religion and the civil rights movement, for example), readers will be more familiar with the history, but grateful for new and challenging perspectives. 

This is not a comprehensive list of the essays by any means, but it includes some notable pieces: Janine Giordano Drake provides a taste of her larger work on the working class religious left in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Her essay is followed by Christopher Evans’s sequel on the YMCA after the Great War. Michael Rademacher (on Dorothy Day), Felipe Hinojosa (on the Catholic Left and immigrants in Davenport, Iowa), and Marian Mollin (on Ita Ford and the murdered Sisters in El Salvador from 1980) give us three compelling chapters on different parts of the Catholic Left. Two essays focusing on different eras center on Judaism and the left, and there are several essays on different approaches to religion and the civil rights movement. Finally, Lillian Barger’s essay on women, religion, and politics in the 1970s, a part of her recent landmark work on liberation theology, draws examples from many traditions. 

Each essay is carefully crafted, succinct, well researched, and thoughtfully argued. Some (like Sarah Azaransky’s work on the international roots of the civil rights movement) are bite-sized chunks of larger published works. Others, like David Swartz’s fruitful offering, “Global Encounters and the Religious Left,” and Douglas Thompson’s analysis of Martin Luther King’s conception of a Christian America, stand out as intellectually reorienting works that presage larger forthcoming works. The editors provide an on-target introduction, mapping out major issues and themes in the field. You could ask for little more from a scholarly anthology. 

With these kinds of volumes, readers often select the essays they are most interested in reading. To each her own on that. Beyond cheerleading in hopes (at least) that as many libraries as possible will buy this, I want to focus on thoughts derived from reading the compilation as a whole.

In “‘Saints for this Age’: Religion and Radicalism in the American Century,” a piece drawn from her outstanding larger work American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), Leilah Danielson begins with an observation that, for me, pervades much of the collection: “Around mid-century there was a fundamental shift in the history of the American left from a Marxist framework rooted in working-class organization and mobilization toward existentialism and direct action by marginalized groups” (101). Danielson is making the point to set up her study of Muste, but we can find it in many other examples here as well. Thus, the volume begins with essays (by Drake and Evans) that are mostly focused on organizations and their leaders (unions, churches, denominations, private-sector philanthropies, and parachurch organizations). As the volume progresses, there are more personal explorations and stories of a religious left in which marginalized groups take center stage. By this point, perhaps, religious movements of majoritarian or dominant groups had moved to the right. 

If this is true—not in every example or case, but as a general rule—then the implicit hope underlying this work may come down to whether the more individualized quests and liberation theologies with little institutional contexts outside marginalized communities can coalesce into a larger political force. Figures such as William Barber and the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, to name one of several examples that come to mind, are testing that proposition currently. 

Some years ago an excellent, very conservative student of mine asked me what my political and/or religious beliefs were (this student could not determine my religious or political orientation based on my classroom teaching style, which basically involves arguing with students almost no matter what they say). I said, in jest, something like, “If there were a religious left, I would sign up for it.” That wasn’t serious. Of course a religious left has existed, and at times it has moved the culture in fundamental ways. Thanks to this volume, I know a whole lot more about it. For that, I am profoundly grateful. First-rate scholarship like this is a necessary predecessor to clear-minded thinking about the future.

But part of my response reflected an ironic nod to the relative lack of a religious left organized into powerful groupings in recent years. In comparison, the right has often conducted powerfully effective organizing (both the religious and secular right—hence the complete or partial domination of the Southern Baptist Convention, the AM news outlets, the highest-rated cable news television network, the political discourse of “liberty” and “freedom,” the Supreme Court, and large chunks of the formerly populist heartland, all of them the result of decades of careful planning, quiet legal maneuvering, earnest intellectual efforts in think tanks and prayers in churches, and faithful voters). And so this outstanding volume leaves me with the haunting question: What is to be done in this new Gilded Age? The stories told here give us not just pieces of fine scholarship (wonderful as that is), but a myriad of possible answers to that question.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Harvey is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Leilah Danielson is Professor of History at Northern Arizona University, USA.  She has written extensively on the role of religion and race in left politics and the peace movement, and is the author of American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (2014).  

Marian Mollin is Associate Professor of History at Virginia Tech, USA. She is the author of Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Egalitarianism and Protest. Her current book project, The Power of Faith: Understanding the Life and Death of Sister Ita Ford, explores connections between gender, religion, and politics in the postwar era.

Doug Rossinow teaches history at the University of Oslo, Norway. He is the author of The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (1998) and Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (2007), among other works.


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