Religion and the Remaking of Leftist Thought in the 20th Century

AHA Session 63
Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Lobby Level)
Casey Blake, Columbia University
Eugene B. McCarraher, Villanova University

Session Abstract

Historical scholarship in the past ten years has focused on religion and Right-wing social movements and politics. This panel, however, examines religious intellectual/cultural traditions that contributed to the remaking of the Left in the twentieth century.  Theologians and activists such as Dorothy Day, Curtis W. Reese, M. M. Thomas, and Patrick Ford do not fit standard categories of atheist Marxism or liberal Christianity. But they had an important impact on leftist and religious thought. Their unorthodox perspective on the spiritual and cultural meaning of socialist principles opened up debates about the moral substance of leftist radicalism - debates that still continue today.   

Notions of community-building and humanism lay at the heart of their theological worldviews.  But, their political activism was rife with ambiguity, an indication that religious values have not grafted seamlessly onto radical politics.  Dorothy Day had a hard time identifying with leftist organizations and politics, given her misgivings about the moral commitment of institutions, whether church, party, or state. Curtis W. Reese grappled with the political implications of Unitarian theology and the meaning of humanism as activism.  M. M. Thomas, an Indian Marxist theologian, struggled to promote a unifying framework for global, ecumenical Christians that could surmount Cold War polarities, debates over non-violence, and denominational differences. Some activists, such as Patrick Ford, an Irish-Catholic labor radical, became deeply disillusioned with what they deemed the immorality of leftist politics.  Ford’s understanding of Christian values eventually led him away from the radical left and toward cultural conservatism by the end of the First World War. 

In four paper presentations, this panel aims to examine the complexity of the religious Left and critically assess its historical and political impact in the twentieth century.  Our scholarship should appeal to those interested in religious history, intellectual history, politics and social movements.

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