Book Review: ‘Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left’ by Vaneesa Cook

Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left

Review by Heath W. Carter. Carter is an associate professor of American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford University Press).

“Socialist” has more than double the letters of the average expletive and, for generations now, has packed a corresponding punch in American public life. To hurl the word at someone has been to mark that person not just outside the mainstream but dangerously so. What reasonable person could espouse such a “godless” political philosophy, not to mention one so prone to nightmarish consequences on this side of the veil?

For many Americans, the very mention of socialism evokes dystopian visions of totalitarian rule and endless breadlines, whether in the old USSR or in contemporary Venezuela. Certainly such associations lurked behind Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore’s June declaration on Twitter, “I hate socialism. I’ve seen its wreckage up close. It’s based on a faulty view of human nature. Plus, it doesn’t work.” Just last month, Prestonwood Baptist pastor Jack Graham put an even finer point on the matter, tweeting, “No serious Christian can support socialism.”

And yet many serious Christians have, as Vaneesa Cook underscores in her thought-provoking new book, Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left. Cook finds in the past ample evidence that the intersection of Christianity and radicalism in the modern United States has in fact been quite bustling.

The heart of her story lies in the half-century between World War I and the Civil Rights movement, a time when “spiritual socialists,” as she calls them, stretched the boundaries of Christian social and political imagination, even as they helped reorient the American Left away from doctrinaire Marxism. As that latter point suggests, for Cook, as for her characters, socialism is a far more fluid category than the oft-cartoonish representations of it might suggest. Consistent with countless readers of magazines like Christianity Today, “spiritual socialists turned to the Bible rather than The Communist Manifesto for answers and inspiration.” It was their faith that led them to reject the American Dream. They felt a call, deep in their hearts, to seek first, instead, the kingdom of God.

‘A Revolution of the Heart’

Spiritual socialists did not agree on every detail of how the kingdom would come, but nearly to a person they believed that it was not through the state. As Cook observes, “Rather than encouraging centralized power politics, they promoted small-scale, local organization from the bottom up.” Dorothy Day offers one case in point. During the international economic crisis of the 1930s, which prompted countless Americans to put their trust in an expanding national government, she poured her energies instead into the fledgling Catholic Worker movement. She put little stock in the New Deal’s alphabet soup of lumbering federal bureaucracies; but unlike its conservative critics, she also had no faith in the free market.

Day urgently sought a “revolution of the heart.” She practiced and promoted voluntary poverty, lived out ideally in rural communes and urban houses of hospitality, where all would always be welcome. In an age that lionized expertise, she scoffed at the very notion of strategic planning, declaring at one point, “Instead of having plans and blueprints we have the actual people, the kind nobody wants, that the government will not help, the kind that are always being passed on.”

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Source: Christianity Today