The Religious Left: Democratic Imaginaries for Uncertain Times

Endorsed by S-USIH

Friday, March 31, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Politics; Religion


Moments of profound crisis across the 20th century inspired activism to reshape the U.S. liberal democratic project. Religious-inflected activists, such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, members of Acción Civica Evangélica, and the midwestern PrairieFire Rural Action, inserted themselves into social and economic crises. In the midst of their uncertain times they responded to what they saw as dangers of excessive individualism, capitalism, militarism, nativism, and environmental calamity. They undertook grassroots institution building, community organizing, political networking, and public engagement. Their visions of a radically democratic society offer a lens to reevaluate historiography of 20th century religion and politics and to see the possibilities of new democratic imaginaries both in the past and in our own uncertain times. Historical scholarship on the rise of conservatism has noted evangelicals’ role in the rightward turn that culminated in Ronald Reagan’s election. Yet an emerging historiography of the religious left suggests alternative ways religion has shaped political culture. This session raises historiographical questions: How have individuals and organizations on the religious left intervened in moments of national crisis to imagine and interpret the meaning of American democracy? What shared values, practices, and aspirations have constituted the religious left? Randi Storch’s paper discusses how Rabbi Stephen S. Wise responded to the crisis in industrial democracy in the post-World War I period by focusing on his activism in the 1919 steel and the 1926 Passaic textile strikes. She argues that Wise expressed Jewish liberalism in his engagement with these strikes and analyzes his leadership as part of a larger struggle of Jewish liberals to broaden the meaning of American democracy. Using Dorothy Day’s writings and activism at key points in the 1930s-60s, Laura Westhoff’s paper explores her intellectual grounding in distributism, personalism, subsidiarity, and argues that the democratic imaginary that emerges is one prioritizing social practices--of radical love and equality in daily lived experience. Felipe Hinojosa’s paper focuses on Acción Civica Evangélica, a community organization of Pentecostal and mainline Protestant churches that emerged in 1974 as the largest and most influential Latino religious organization in New York City. Believing that the church is incomplete “unless the Good News of the congregation leads to the well-being of the community,” Acción Civica forged networks of mutual aid. Hinojosa argues that in the process it created the possibilities for the modern immigrant rights movement to demand democratic inclusion. For the activists in PrairieFire Rural Action that David Mislin examines, the Farm Crisis of the 1980s offered an opportunity to reinvigorate a grassroots progressive religious tradition in the rural U.S. and turn back Reagan-era conservatism. Their aspirations faltered as these activists failed to comport their ideals to reality. Contributing to an emerging historiography and chronicling the strong links between moments of profound crisis and movement activism that remakes democracy, these papers together ask: What did these religiously inflected activists offer the most uncertain moments of American democracy in the 20th century and what might they offer us today?

Papers Presented

Dorothy Day as Democratic Imaginary

Dorothy Day and fellow Catholic Workers appeared in nearly every major social justice movement across the mid decades of the twentieth century, a testament to the ways that Catholic identity and radical democratic politics could thrive together. Adopting economic theories of distributism, a philosophy of personalism, and the Christian gospel’s works of mercy as an ethics of embodied care and radical love, Day and Catholic Worker Movement co-founder Peter Maurin mounted a fierce critique of corporate industrial capitalism, militarism, and liberal individualism, at moments of crisis and uncertainty--in the Great Depression, World War, and the Cold War. This paper explores the democratic imaginary that emerged from the intersection of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker intellectual commitments to distributism (wide distribution of ownership), personalism (the primacy of human dignity), subsidiarity (localized decision-making), and practices of voluntary poverty and embodied care of the most vulnerable as prescribed in the works of mercy. Using Day’s writings and activism at key points in the 1930s-60s, it argues that the democratic imaginary that emerges prioritizes social practices--of radical love and equality in daily lived experience–as the foundation of vibrant democratic community. It thus expands understanding of Day’s role in mid twentieth century U.S. political culture and her contributions to the cultural and social dimensions of the religious left.

Presented By
Laura M. Westhoff, University of Missouri, St. Louis

Dreams of Community: The 1980s Farm Crisis, Progressive Religious Activism, and a New Vision for the Rural United States

For progressive religious activists, the profound social upheaval wrought by the Farm Crisis of the 1980s provided a singular opportunity to bring the United States into closer alignment with their values. The “ripple effects” of farm foreclosures and drought had led to “the breakdown of relationships and the fracturing of community.” In response, grassroots organizations like PrairieFire Rural Action fused a “prophetic vision” with concrete policy proposals. They sought to revitalize family farming, combat corporate agriculture, and invest in infrastructure that would revitalize rural parts of the nation. Religious progressives believed the Farm Crisis would allow them to turn back the Reagan-era advances of political and religious conservatism by proving the merits of their vision of a spiritually rich democratic community. This paper explores the initial promises and ultimate failures of this effort to reimagine democratic community following the nation’s worst agricultural crisis since the Great Depression. PrairieFire and related groups invoked progressive religious ideals from the earlier Social Gospel movement, especially its emphasis on the sacred nature of manual labor. They fused these principles with the rhetoric of democratic agrarianism to demand equitable distribution of land and economic autonomy for farm communities. These organizations also looked beyond their white, Midwestern base, imagining solidarity across racial and regional boundaries. Yet, the accomplishments of these efforts rarely matched their ambitions. An emphasis on parochial local concerns and nostalgia-infused rhetoric proved a pernicious combination, revealing the limits of a highly idealized social vision in meeting the needs of people experiencing a very real crisis.

Presented By
David Mislin, Temple University

“A spirit of revolt:” Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Jewish Liberalism and Industrial Democracy in the 1919 Steel and 1926 Passaic Textile Strikes

Randi Storch’s paper will discuss how Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1874–1949), one of the most significant and respected Jewish-Americans of the twentieth century, expressed Jewish liberal activism in the face of the post World War I crisis in industrial democracy by focusing on his leadership in the 1919 steel and the 1926 Passaic textile strikes. The steel and textile strikes represented the commitment of American industrialists to push against wartime labor gains and the nation’s commitment to industrial democracy. The strikes raised the questions of workers’ rights to organize unions, the role of communists as union organizers, immigrants’ rights, employers’ responsibilities to their employees, and the role of the state in mediating labor conflict. In both examples, Wise gave sermons and speeches that were widely disseminated and discussed, he partnered with reform activists, and in the case of Passaic joined in interfaith alliances to support workers’ rights and to push state actors to help workers prevail. Wise’s Jewish liberal activism, shaped by his interpretation of Jewish moral principles and his brand of Liberal Judaism, inspired Wise to take a public role in both strikes even though neither of these labor conflicts involved primarily Jewish workers. Through his relationships, speaking engagements and writings, Wise shared his commitment to shaping a New American political economy; and by doing so, he infused Jewish liberal ideals into American society.

Presented By
Randi Jill Storch, State University of New York, College at Cortland

An Unlikely Host The Church of the Epiphany and Chicana/o Civil Rights Movement

Whereas the Black civil rights movement has largely documented its religious leitmotif, Chicana/o studies has long overlooked a spiritually centered social movement history. Scholarship on the Chicana/o movement has been predominately studied through a secular lens, all but ignoring the communities longstanding religious values. Yet, religion played a critical role in the victories of the 1960’s Mexican American civil rights movement. Using oral interviews, oral histories and archival data, this research document the radical theological praxis and faith politics of the Episcopalian Church of the Epiphany during the 1960’s Chicana/o Movement. This little Episcopalian church in the Lincoln Heights barrio of East Los Angeles became the center of political activity during the Chicana/o movement; it was an organizing hub for the Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers, it was where the famous Chicana/o high school blowouts were planned, where the Brown Berets were founded, and where La Raza newspaper, one of the principal underground newspapers of Chicana/o history was found and printed, and the church also played a critical role in the moratorium against the war in Vietnam. These organizations have been documented as instrumental to the success of the social-political goals of the Chicana/o movement. Yet, because of Chicanx Studies’ reluctance to accept the contributions of religion to its history, very little is said about the Church of the Epiphany’s impact Chicana/o history. Giving credence to the intersections of religion and Latinx studies inevitably lifts the narratives of everyday people, especially women, who because of their faith and commitment to the community, have had a profound impact on Latinx self-determination. As such, this research documents agents of change, narratives of resistance, and radical spaces that have been left out of history of the social movements of the 1960’s. It underscores the complex relationship that Chicanxs have with religion while showing the potential of community building through one of the most utilized institutions in the Latinx community, the church. I show that self-determination and liberation are not just socio-political goals that exist in the secular arena, but can be considered a highly spiritual praxis.

Presented By
David Flores, Cal State Sacramento

Session Participants

Chair: Doug Rossinow, Metropolitan State University
Doug Rossinow is professor of history at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned his PhD in history from the Johns Hopkins University. A scholar of social movements, political culture, traditional political history, and transnational history, he is the author of The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (1998), Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (2008), and The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s (2015), and the co-editor of several volumes, most recently (with Leilah Danielson and Marian Mollin) The Religious Left in Modern America: Doorkeepers of a Radical Faith (2018). He has served as president of the Peace History Society, he is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to teach and conduct research in Norway, and in 2018 he delivered the annual Eleanor Roosevelt Lecture at the Institute for the Americas, University College London. Between 2016 and 2019, he taught history at the University of Oslo in Norway. He served as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Metropolitan State from 2019 to 2021. Currently he is at work on a book project entitled Promised Land: The Worlds of American Zionism, 1948–1995.

Commentator: Leilah Danielson, Northern Arizona University
Leilah Danielson received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently Chair and Professor of History at Northern Arizona University. She specializes in twentieth-century U.S. history, and writes about race, religion, culture, class, and social movements, and more broadly the intersection between power and culture in modern America. She is the author of the book American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of American Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), a historical biography that highlights the role of religion and culture in the American left, with an emphasis on labor, peace, and civil rights. She is co-editor (with Doug Rossinow and Marian Mollin) of The Religious Left in Modern America: Doorkeepers of a Radical Faith (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), which covers a diversity of perspectives, including Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish history, and important essays on African American, Latino, and women’s spirituality. Her articles have appeared in the journals Religions, Diplomatic History, Religion and American Culture, Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research, and Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, and she has several chapters in edited anthologies. Her current research examines the pedagogy, politics, and culture of the workers’ education movement of the 1920s and 1930s. A chapter on this new research, “Marxism and Americanism: A.J. Muste, Louis Budenz, and an ‘American Approach’ Before the Popular Front,” has just been published in Christopher Phelps and Robin Vandome, eds., Marxism and America: New Appraisals (University of Manchester Press, 2021). She has another side project conducting oral histories of the women active in the “Bronx Coalition” of the late sixties and early seventies, highlighting their efforts to bring free reproductive health care to Bronx residents. She is active in professional organizations like the Organization of American Historians, U.S. Intellectual History, and the Peace History Society, often serving as chair and commentator on panels related to the history of nonviolence, American radicalism and reform, and the religious and cultural history of the twentieth century.

Presenter: David Flores, Cal State Sacramento

Presenter: David Mislin, Temple University
David Mislin is associate professor (instructional) in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University, where he also teaches courses in history and American Studies. He is the author of Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Cornell, 2015), which was an honorable mention for the 2016 Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize of the American Society of Church History, and Washington Gladden’s Church: The Minister Who Made Modern American Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). His current book project, tentatively titled Progressive Heartlands: The Faith and Work of Religious Liberals in Small-Town U.S.A., is supported by research grants from the Louisville Institute and the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Presenter: Randi Jill Storch, State University of New York, College at Cortland
Randi Storch is Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at SUNY Cortland and teaches courses in twentieth century US, women’s history and labor history. Her first book is entitled Red Chicago: American Communism at Its Grassroots, 1928-1935. Her second book is entitled, Working Hard for the American Dream: American Workers and their Unions from World War I to the Present. She has received a number of National Endowment for the Humanities grants, with co-director Kevin Sheets, to lead workshops for K-12 teachers on the history of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and has recently been awarded a Humanities Initiative grant to lead professional development for college faculty. She has published articles in American Communist History, Labor, Teaching History, and on Labor Online and has been awarded a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is on the editorial board of American Communist History, Teaching History, and the on-line editorial board of Labor: Studies of Working Class History of the Americas. Her current book project Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Promise of America examines the activism of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise to understand the way that new forms of Jewish liberalism worked to realize American democracy in the first half of the twentieth century.

Presenter: Laura M. Westhoff, University of Missouri, St. Louis
Laura Westhoff is professor and chair of the History Department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She research U.S. Gilded Age and Progressive Era reform, democracy and social movements, the scholarship of teaching and learning history (SoTL), and the history of education. She is the author A Fatal Drifting Apart: Democratic Social Knowledge and Chicago Reform (The Ohio State University Press) which examines social constructions of knowledge and the emerging tensions between democracy and expertise in modern America and is currently working on a book on mid-twentieth century democratic practices, titled Educating for Activism (under contract with the University of Illinois Press). Her work has been published in the Journal of American History, The History Teacher, Women’s History Review, and the History of Education Quarterly. Until her current stint as department chair, she was a joint appointment in the College of Education at UMSL; she remains committed to advancing history education at all levels, in all venues. She holds a Ph.D. in U.S. History from Washington University in St. Louis, and remains always curious about the role historical understanding plays in personal and collective meaning-making and social action for the common good.