A Religious Left? Radical Christianity, Peace, and Justice in the American Century

Saturday, April 17, 2021, 11:15 AM - 11:45 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: International Relations; Religion


Since Ronald Reagan’s embrace of the Religious Right, which propelled him into the White House in 1980, historians have written extensively about the alliance between conservative Christians and Republicans. Yet, as the Religious Right fought to protect traditional family values, promoted free-market capitalism, and encouraged a more aggressive stance towards the Soviet Union, other Christians spoke for a different kind of world. Though commonly portrayed as irreligious political activists more likely to quote Marx than Jesus, the actors explored in our panel show how religion influenced anti-war, social justice, and anti-imperialist activists from the 1960s through the 1980s. This panel aims to challenge a set of intertwining narratives that downplay the role of religion in post-1960s American radicalism and, as a result, portrays the Religious Right as the only faith-based movement shaping American politics and the religious landscape during this era. Religious activists led the first anti-Vietnam War protests in 1963, remaining at the forefront of the anti-war movement into the 1970s. With the rise of liberation theology in Latin America in the late 1960s, premised on the notion of a “preferential option for the poor” that encouraged Christians to aid the poorest of God’s children, the Religious Left engaged in solidarity work beyond America’s borders. The transnational activism of the Religious Left expanded dramatically in the 1980s. Even more so than during the Vietnam War era, religion stood at the center of the U.S. Central America peace movement in the 1980s. Groups like Witness for Peace, the Pledge of Resistance, and the Sanctuary Movement encouraged tens of thousands of Americans to protest the Reagan administration’s Central American policies. Thus, even as the Religious Right and Republican Party took the nation’s domestic and foreign policies in a conservative direction, radical Christians continued to develop their own more egalitarian and cosmopolitan blueprints of heaven on earth. There is no doubt that conservative Christianity dominated American political life since the 1970s, but pockets of resistance existed in which the Religious Left thrived. Focusing on the Camden 28, a group of primarily Catholic activists who raided a draft board office in 1971, Michelle Nickerson argues that even as the secular New Left expressed an aversion to religion, its search for inclusiveness meant that faith-based activists found a home in the movement against the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, Nickerson contends, the alliance proved short-lived. At the same time, the story of Sister Ita Ford, the subject of Marian Mollin’s paper, illustrates the enduring presence of the Religious Left within the United States and beyond its borders. Mollin contends that Ford’s activism in Latin America not only bridged two continents, but also helped merge faith-based and social justice movements, creating a truly global Religious Left. Brian Mueller’s paper aims to breakdown the artificial boundaries separating politics and religion in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. Though criticized for politicizing the campaign to aid Central American refugees, Nicgorski argued that her partisan actions were a response to a biblical call to help the poor and oppressed.

Papers Presented

From Cooperation to Alienation: How the Left Gave Christianity to the Right in American Politics

My paper, from my book project Catholic Resistance: How the Camden 28 Put the Vietnam War on Trial, focuses on the story of political activists who raided a draft board in 1971. Caught red-handed by the FBI, they faced more than forty-years in prison. In a shocking verdict, their jury acquitted them on all accounts. I will talk about the role of Catholicism in 1960s-era radicalism. Contrary to typical characterizations of the youthful “secular” New Left politicized in university classrooms, I demonstrate the fluid network through which religious and non-religious activists organized at the time. Even as many activists rebelled against organized religion, the New Left showed a remarkable degree of tolerance for and even interest in religious ideas. I argue that this acceptance for conflicting belief, desire to cultivate meaningful community, and ability to form coalitions contributed to the huge impact of this generation on American politics. I also argue that the Christian Right gradually stole this political thunder over subsequent decades. Starting in the 1980s, as conservatives forged ties across denominations to fight abortion, gay marriage, and other battles, the left became increasingly anti-religious. As atheism and distain for religion became a popular aspect of progressive demonstration, Christians on the left learned to downplay their spiritual lives when speaking out. Even though they continue to align their Christian and democratic ideals in their hearts, church progressives only rarely articulate their religious beliefs as part of their political practice.

Presented By
Michelle Nickerson, 20th-century U.S. history

Sisters at the Center: Ita Ford, the Global Sixties, and the Hemispheric Pursuit of Justice

This paper examines the foreign mission work of Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford, placing her pastoral efforts within the context of the social movements of the “long 1960s,” and highlighting how religious North American women acted as a critical bridge between nonviolent struggles for justice in the U.S. and Latin America. From 1973 until her death at the hands of the El Salvadoran National Guard in December 1980, Ford actively engaged in a distinctive style of grassroots pastoral mission work, first organizing Christian base communities in Santiago, Chile, and then assisting refugee aid efforts in rural El Salvador. Her participation in these projects highlighted a personal and congregational embrace of the tenets of Latin American liberation theology. Just as important, her efforts reflected knowledge gained by following and participating in social movements in the United States. I argue that Ford’s style of pastoral organizing brought these two strands of activism together in a way that tangibly linked leftist movements and activists across the hemisphere. Focusing on this dimension of Ford’s life deepens and complicates historical understanding of the “long 1960s” and the globalization of social movements. Ford’s story provides evidence of overlooked connections between the religious left in the U.S. and Latin America. Ford and the Maryknoll Sisters engaged in nonviolent struggles for justice on both continents in ways that placed them at the center of an increasingly radical vision of social change. Their collective transnational efforts provide evidence of an intriguing and largely unexamined dimension of the Global Sixties.

Presented By
Marian Mollin, Virginia Tech

What Would Jesus Do? Darlene Nicgorski, Solidarity, and the Sanctuary Movement

In 1985, the U.S. government indicted sixteen Sanctuary Movement activists for smuggling illegal aliens into the United States from Central America. Among the accused was Sister Darlene Nicgorski, a Catholic nun associated with the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America (CRTFCA), which transported refugees from the U.S.-Mexico border to sanctuary churches across the United States. Nicgorski often spoke of being in solidarity with the poor, oppressed, and marginalized peoples of Central America, but her advocacy on behalf of the migrants extended beyond humanitarian concerns. As the CRTFCA’s coordinator at the border, Nicgorski not only saved refugees from likely death, but also allowed them to tell their stories publicly and expose U.S. intervention in Central American. These testimonies angered Nicgorski’s allies in the Sanctuary Movement, who warned against politicizing what they considered a pure and simple humanitarian issue. Nicgorski, however, refused to ignore the connections between U.S. immigration policies and foreign policy. Thus, she extended her gaze beyond the Mexican border. This paper illustrates the synergy that existed between the solidarity and sanctuary movements of the 1980s by examining the distinctive activism of Nicgorski. Despite pressure from others involved with the Sanctuary Movement, Nicgorski refused to choose between the spiritual and political. Yet, unlike most anti-interventionist solidarity activists, Nicgorski did not act out of any allegiance to the revolutionary Marxist guerrilla forces in the region. Her motivations were religious rather than political. A biblical call to solidarity compelled Nicgorski to stand with Jesus as the defender of the persecuted.

Presented By
Brian Scott Mueller, Independent scholar

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Leilah Danielson, Northern Arizona University
Leilah Danielson is professor of history at Northern Arizona University. She obtained her doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003. Her research and teaching focuses on the politics and culture of the modern U.S., specifically cultural and intellectual history; social movements; labor history; and U.S. empire and transnationalism. Her book American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), drew upon the life and thought of political activist A.J. Muste to argue for the influence of religion on the intellectual and political history of the modern American Left. More recently, she co-edited (with Doug Rossinow and Marian Mollin) The Religious Left in Modern America: Doorkeepers of a Radical Faith (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), an anthology that offers a comparative and long-term perspective on religious groups and social movements often studied in isolation, and fully integrates faith-based action into the history of progressive social movements and politics in the modern United States. She has also published a number of articles and book chapters that explore the intersection of race, nation, and religion in American social movements, including “Civil Religion as Myth, not History” in Religions; “Supernaturalism and Peace Activism: Expanding the Boundaries of Peace History” in Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research; “‘It is Day of Judgment’: The Peacemakers, Religion, and Radicalism in Cold War America” in Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation; “Christianity, Dissent, and the Cold War: A.J. Muste’s Challenge to Realism and U.S. Empire in Diplomatic History; “The ‘Two-ness’ of the Movement: James Farmer, Nonviolence, and Black Nationalism” in Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research; and “‘In My Extremity I Turned to Gandhi’: American Pacifists, Christianity, and Gandhian Nonviolence, 1915-1941 in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture. Her current research focuses on the history of the workers’ education movement of the interwar years. Some of that research served as the basis for a chapter entitled “Marxism and Americanism: Revising the Cultural Front of the Interwar Years” that is forthcoming in an anthology to be published by University of Manchester Press (2021).

Presenter: Marian Mollin, Virginia Tech
Marian Mollin is Associate Professor of History at Virginia Tech. Her research explores the connections between gender, protest, activism, and culture, with a focus on the history of American social movements and the religious left. She is the author of Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Egalitarianism and Protest (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), co-editor of (with Doug Rossinow and Leilah Danielson) The Religious Left in Modern America: Doorkeepers of a Radical Faith (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). She has published journal articles in Peace & Change (“The Solidarity of Suffering: Gender, Cross-Cultural Contact, and the Foreign Mission Work of Sister Ita Ford,” April 2017, Honorable Mention winner of the 2019 Charles DeBenedetti Prize in Peace History), History Compass (“Women’s Struggles within the American Radical Pacifist Movement,” May 2009), Oral History Review (“Communities of Resistance: Women and the Catholic Left of the Late 1960s,” Summer/Fall 2004), and Radical History Review (“The Limits of Egalitarianism: Radical Pacifism, Civil Rights, and the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation,” Winter 2004). She has also published book chapters in The Religious Left in Modern America (2018) and Howard Brick, ed., A New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement and Its Times (Ann Arbor: Maize Publishing/Michigan Press, 2015), as well as numerous encyclopedia entries and book reviews. Mollin’s current book project, The Power of Faith: Understanding the Life and Death of Sister Ita Ford, is a historical biography of one of the four North American churchwomen murdered by the El Salvadoran military in December 1980.

Presenter: Brian Scott Mueller, Independent scholar
Brian Mueller is a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research interests include radicalism, social movements, intellectual history, and U.S. foreign policy. His first book, Democracy’s Think Tank: The Institute for Policy Studies and the Fight Against Cold War Liberalism, is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press. He has also published articles in several peer-reviewed journals, including Peace & Change (“Waging Peace in a Disarmed World: Arthur Waskow’s Vision of a Nonlethal Cold War), Diplomatic History (“Confronting America’s National Security State: The Institute for Policy Studies and the Vietnam War”), and the Journal for the Study of Radicalism (“An Alternative to Revolution: Marcus Raskin’s Theory of Social Reconstruction”). Mueller’s current project is provisionally titled Faith & Solidarity: The Central America Peace Movement of the 1980s, which aims to illustrate the myriad ties between the faith-based movement to end U.S. intervention in Central America and the more politically-oriented solidarity activists seeking victory for the armed revolutionary forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Presenter: Michelle Nickerson, 20th-century U.S. history
Michelle Nickerson is Associate Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago where she teaches courses on the history of U.S. women and gender, politics, social movements, cities, and American religion.

A native of New Jersey, Nickerson received her B.A. with majors in history and German at Rutgers University. She also studied at the University of Konstanz in Germany through the Rutgers junior year abroad program.

After graduating from Yale with her Ph.D. in American Studies and completing a fellowship at the Huntington Library, Nickerson taught for five years at the University of Texas at Dallas before joining the faculty at Loyola in 2011. In 2012 she published Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right (Princeton University Press),which documents the grassroots activism of conservative women in Cold War Los Angeles and explores the impact of that activism on the emerging American right. This work led to her interest in regional and metropolitan political-economic development, which she examines in a volume of essays, co-edited with historian Darren Dochuk called Sunbelt Rising: The Politics of Place, Space, and Region (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Her current book project, Catholic Resistance: How the Camden 28 Put the Vietnam War on Trial tells the story of Catholic radicals arrested by the FBI for raiding a draft board office in 1971. Catholic Resistance examines the action, arrest and trial as a window into the world of faith-based activism of the 1960s. It documents how Catholics—by then mainstreamed into American society—influenced the larger culture and political landscape. Nickerson has won several grants and fellowships for this project, including a yearlong Sabbatical Grant recently awarded by the Louisville Institute.

Nickerson is an enthusiastic mentor to graduate and undergraduate students at Loyola, where she has, so far, directed three Ph.D. dissertation to completion and served on numerous dissertation and exam committees. Thrice nominated for the university’s Sujack distinguished teaching award, she gave a televised classroom presentation last year on the history of deindustrialization in the United States for the nationally broadcasted C-SPAN program, “Lectures in History.”

In addition to teaching and research, Nickerson writes and gives talks for public audiences. As an OAH Distinguished Lecturer, she speaks to groups about the history of fake news and the history of the populist presidency in the United States. She has given keynote talks at the Huntington Library and Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and delivered three endowed lectures. As an expert on American conservatism, she has published opinion essays in the Washington Post’s “Made by History” column.

Nickerson also organizes programs at Loyola for the university community and the public. Last year, she worked with the Hank Center for Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola on a series of panels, film screenings, and other events to commemorate the tumultuous events of 1968.

Lastly, Nickerson was recently awarded a Fulbright fellowship to teach a Summer 2020 semester at the University of Heidelberg in their American Studies program. She will offer a graduate reading seminar on the history of women, gender, and sexuality in the United States.