Charley Earp is the blogger behind Radical Progress and Leftist Quaker and lives in the Chicago area. A Pentecostal preacher’s kid who lived with a commune for 9 years, which led to his political radicalization. A 3-time college drop-out with a day job in the travel industry, he is currently completing a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and planning to pursue a seminary degree focusing on congregational ministry and activism. No longer a Christian, yet actively involved with the progressive wing of Quakerism both locally, with the national Conference, and ecumenical and interfaith work. Born in 1963, married for 30 years, with two adult children. His current long-form writing project is a theo-political autobiography titled, “Jesus Made Me a Communist.” He is currently the acting Chair of the Socialist Party USA’s Commission on Religion and Ethics.
On Integrative Socialism
C. Derick Varn: So you have been in dialogue with a bunch of anarchist and marxists, but you try your politics from a different set of traditions than Marxism. What about historical Marxist theory do you find problematic?
Charley Earp: The problematic parts of Marxist theory question is pretty broad. I don’t know if my background details clarifies things, but I came into left politics by way of Christian pacifism (with an anti-capitalist component). So, initially atheism was an issue.
Also the legacy of Stalinism still seems very much to have tainted the entire tradition, even the anti-Stalinist parts of it. One of my Maoist friends jumped in on a Facebook thread on my wall when someone dissed Stalin with the assertion “Hating Stalin is like hating Abraham Lincoln.” He meant that the US Civil War was just as bloody and devastating to the US as the Stalin period for the USSR.
I’ve written a blog post on Marxism, which says that I do think certain parts of Marx are essential to left revolutionary politics. Class struggle, commodity fetishism, etc. However, as I stated there, to call revolutionary politics “Marxism” is like calling evolutionary theory “Darwinism.” We’ve gone a long way past Darwin, and I would argue, Marx. We don’t call General Relativity “Einsteinism.”
Beyond theoretical naming conventions, I do think Marx was Euro-centric to a fault. His later ethnographic notebooks do apparently correct this, but they are generally accessible only to academics. His main theory is really written for Europe, not even so much the US. This raises the “American Exceptionalism” problem.
Today, I am closer to atheism, so that’s now moot for me, but still very live for the religious majority of the US. It’s occurred to me that I still think about politics in terms of mass movement, not professional revolutionaries. This means I want a politically unifying vision that can be embraced by lots of people, including that religious majority. That’s why Christian Socialism and Liberation Theology still seem importantly relevant, even though the 80s are long gone.
C.D.V.: Can you expand on what you see as the Euro-centric limits of Marxist theory? Would this apply to Maoism?
C.E.: You’ve asked the question in a way that goes beyond where I am confident. I have limited knowledge of Maoism, though I have some elementary hypotheses.
My concern with Euro-centrism is mostly bound up with African peoples, first of all African-Americans. As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, we learned to view Black Pentecostals as in some sense even more spiritual than us white folks. Their churches were more emotional, which is a good thing for Pentecostals. As I got older, this combined with my admiration for Dr. King, who I still view as the most important figure of the 1960s. He was able to set forward a radical (Christian) Americanism that still operates in many parts of our left movements.
Where this gets to the Euro-centrism of Marxist traditions is that both in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the US, people of African descent are more religious and, much more so than Asians, have embraced the European Christian traditions. This means, I think, that we cannot have an American left radicalism without it being led by a coalition of Black and White Christians. This is why Liberation Theology, which first emerged in Latin America, is so critical for North American radicalism. The Black version of Liberation Theology was first articulated by James Cone of Harvard. This work had a direct effect on Chicago’s Trinity UCC pastor Jeremiah Wright, and therefore Barack Obama.
In a funny sort of way, the form of Euro-centrism in Marxism is actually weaker than the Euro-centrism of American Christianity. It’s just occurring to me now that my reservations about Marxism may be less about Euro-centrism, than about atheism. With respect to Maoism, some Marxists have charged that Mao borrowed themes from Chinese traditional religion in order to advance the acceptance of his ideology. Similarly, Stalinism restored some power to the Orthodox Church after it had been outlawed by Lenin.
My own take on religion is what I call “religious naturalism” which maintains that religion arises from something pervasive, perhaps even hard-wired into human beings. Even Dawkins can see the truth of this when he theorizes that religion is the extension of a child’s unquestioning obedience of its parents, a necessary survival mechanism. I know that my own shift to naturalism from supernaturalism was accompanied by psychotherapy that worked most directly on my abusive relationship to my father. I wouldn’t universalize that abusive relationship, since I have met many religious people who actually had healthy parents. Religion does seem to me to express a projection of familial relations and human agency on to the natural world.
If Maoism is a sort of amalgam of Marxism and Traditional Chinese religion, then it makes sense that it appeals to the peasantry in places like China, Vietnam, and Korea. In North Korean Juche, we see the most obvious form of personality cult and religious nationalism combined with Maoism. Black Nationalism in the US took hold most powerfully among Black Muslims, though there are some Christian churches like Trinity UCC that have adopted some form of Black Power, though it is often called Afro-centrism by them. I remember listening to one of Wright’s protege’s a few years back at a conference on urban ministry talk about Africentrism.
It is interesting that Maoism in the US has been more committed to anti-racism than, say, Trotskyism. The argument in part seems to be about the question of “stagism,” that is, do non-European nations have to pass through a capitalist phase, or can the struggle for communism be waged directly? Maoism says yes to a direct struggle for communism. In Africa, I think only Ethiopia has had a Communist government, and that has been replaced by a Democratic Socialist coalition. In a real sense, Africa does reflect a more Euro-centric orientation than Asia.
Back to Marx’s Euro-centrism. In Marx’s time, it was easy to believe that religion was dying out, because it actually was in Europe. It wasn’t in any other part of the world. In fact, with Arabic and North African immigration into Europe, the European populace is becoming more religious, that is Islamic, but the racial barriers in Europe have kept the electorate as mostly white secularists. The untenability of that situation was reflected in the riots in France among North African youth a few years ago. Banning the Burqa antagonizes this same populace.
C.D.V.: I would disagree with your characterization of Juche as it doesn’t have much relationship to Maoism but to Soviet Stalinism plus Japanese racial ideology with some lingering confucianism, and I may also disagree with you on Trotskyism there. After all, C.L.R. James was a Trotskyist. That said, there is a general critique here that is interesting.
What do you think the limitations of Maoism has been in the US?
C.E.: First off, a bit of self-criticism. My ignorant conflating Juche to Maoism was no doubt premised on my own Eurocentrism, even perhaps racism. Just because Korea and China are Asian nations, for me to jump to the conclusion that Maoism and Juche were related was racist. I am out of my depth on Asia and Maoism.
Having my full confession of guilt and ignorance in hand, now, I am terrified of tackling US Maoism! I’ll retreat to story-telling. My most extended interaction with Maoism involves Bill Martin, a philosophy professor at Depaul U. Chicago. I had barely studied Marx when I met him in 1990, but was already on the path that would lead me from Christian Anarcho-Pacifism to more secular revolutionary politics. Bill was at the time a fan of Jacques Derrida, but also a “fellow-traveler” of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Bill later co-authored a book with RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, a series of dialogues about philosophy and politics. Avakian later declared himself the greatest Marxist since Mao, penned the “New Synthesis,” and began expelling intellectuals from RCP. From those expulsions we now have the Kasama Project, which under Bill Martin’s influence has turned to an engagement with Alain Badiou, also a former Maoist.
Oddly enough, long after I met Bill Martin, I learned that one of the first student left groups I ever got involved with was actually a covert Maoist group, called “Progressive Students.” I never knew they were Maoist and the meetings and demos I attended with them were all typical peace and justice stuff, anti-Apartheid, reproductive freedom, anti-homophobia, etc. Those student activists became part of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization. The Chicago group I’d come to know, later led a split in FRSO and to this day they are “anti-revisionist” FRSO associated with “Fightback!” newspaper. In fact, Joe Iosbaker, one of the activists arrested in the FBI sweeps of anti-war activists was one of the Progressive Students leaders and I’m still on friendly terms with him.
One other Maoist group with whom I had some interactions, though they are perhaps anomalous, is the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. Both LRNA and RCP’rs have approached me in the context of my advocacy for a religious Left. RCP’ers were involved with the Chicago protests against housing project demolitions. Since RCP seems to seek out the “most oppressed” sectors, housing project residents probably qualify in some sense. LRNA was interesting because in contrast to RCP, they were more non-White. Nelson Peery is a black Maoist from California with a long history on the left. The Chicago group when I knew them also had several Christians, mostly in the black church.
So between FRSO/Fightback!, RCP, LRNA, and Kasama, I’ve gleaned a sense of Maoism as sort of the “most radical” activists on the block. They talk about Mao, call themselves communists, revolution, reject any electoral work, and are strongly aligned with the third world revolutions, China, Naxalites, etc. They also highlight racism, what in Leninism is called the “national question.”
What are the limitations? Remembering that I am largely non-expert on Maoism, they seem to be the most alienated from the mainstream of the US, left or otherwise. They don’t attract large crowds to their demos, but do attend most of the ones I have and probably a lot more. I can’t imagine any of my religious left friends having any interest in them. Since I believe that the Christian Left is the only sizable left constituency in the US, that’s a big weakness. Why wouldn’t Christian Leftists be interested? Because Maoism and Stalinism is so hostile to Christianity. LRNA seems to me to be the exception to that rule.
Of course, and here I’m going away from the question of specifically Maoism back to religion, race, and the Left, the US left isn’t largely revolutionary. There is an un-articulated anti-capitalism, but as we’d both agree, that can actually be regressive. I’ve become concerned lately that so many of my Christian pacifist friends are now talking about anarcho-primitivism. I’m seriously thinking about creating a critique of anarcho-primitivism on Christian grounds. If people are curious about Christian anarchism, one of the best sites is www.jesusradicals.com
On racism, the black churches do have a left-wing element, of which Jeremiah Wright is typical. Cornel West is also very important. I’ve probably learned more about racism from West than anyone else. Say what you will about his DSA affiliation, his undisciplined pragmatism, or showy dramatics, he does develop a very solid alterntive to Black Power in his writing on racism.
I’m actually becoming involved with a local Black church here to immerse myself in that milieu. I’m seriously thinking about going to the UU seminary here in a few years and doing field work with this church. The pastor is a spectacular guy. He’s an ex-Pentecostal like myself, an Oral Roberts protege, a former mega-church leader, who took a strange turn into universalism and “New Thought” and was summarily ostracized by the mainstream churches. He’s also a vegan now and a gay rights advocate. These sorts of “mutations” within Christianity fascinate me and convince me that left-wing Christianity has an important future.
C.D.V.: You have argued in a few posts that anarchism is the most consistent logically of the various left-wing positions, but seems practically complicated historically. Would you like to go into that line of thought?
C.E.: Anarchism is ultimately consistent, as I think even Marx would acknowledge, since Marx stated that in communist society the state would wither away. In other words, it’s correct about the complete abolition of hierarchies and classes. Marx would add, dialectically, that historic social contradictions make anarchism idealistic and thus doomed to political failure.
In relation to anarchism, I would want to pose the claim that ecology is the most comprehensive of sciences and therefore of a scientific theory of social relations and revolution. This claim comes from combining two of my influences, one of which is Murray Bookchin’s anarchist/communalist social ecology. The other important influence is Scottish Christian Socialist John Macmurray (1891-1976) who figures in more basically to my ecological perspective. Macmurray was very concerned that religion be viewed as a natural feature of human existence and that it be modernized to accept scientific objectivity as the standard for knowledge, including its theological claims. He constructed a grand theory of science as a comprehensive reduction of phenomena to general laws, a la Kant. In this comprehensive framework, he sees physics as the most elemental level, then chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology (including political economy). (He also critiques Kant’s dualism as untenable ultimately, so he is something of neo-Kantian. Even earlier in his career, he argued for Christian Communism as the dialectical fulfillment of both religion and communism.)
I would encompass all of those sciences within ecology. I went back and forth on this over the years, since I was also attracted to Marxism’s arguments regarding economics as the base of all social relations. If one uses economics as the grand paradigm, then ecological phenomena and systems are actually natural economies. And, politics is a human economy of power structures, and so on. I decided that this was really too reductive, so I now conceptualize ecology as the over-arching paradigm. Political economy is a subset of ecological systems.
Macmurray would have rejected my ecological view as much as he rejected economic reductionism, since his overarching paradigm was personalistic, and insistent on not reducing humans to animals or organisms or mechanical objects. In Macmurray’s view, psychology had failed in his time to develop the sort of objective character that had been achieved in physics or biology. He held that this was due to the intrinsic difficulties of self-criticism and self-understanding. He might have even accepted the view that class, gender, and sexuality distorts attempts to understand human psychology objectively. Despite his socialism, Macmurray wasn’t very strong on class struggle.
For Macmurray, psychology is the science that is most resistant to scientific reduction, and human experience forms the doorway to religious transcendance, ie God. I don’t go all the way with Macmurray there, since I consider supernaturalism itself a sort of dualism, a non-physical extra level that works out in social practice to repress human embodiment and freedom. However, Macmurray’s concern that we not have a reductionist psychology, e.g. Freud’s libidinal two-drive model, stands as a challenge that I think needs to be taken on board left politics.
To complete the argument, ecology is the scientific horizon within which all human life is objectively understandable. However, human psychology resists being reduced to either physical or biological science. This is substantially because the struggle among humans for freedom is incomplete. Capitalism, industrialism, and science have collaborated in modernity to enable a nearly global mastery of the world via economic systems, which comes close to truly mastering humanity and nature itself, but it fails – and resorts to violence – because of the divisions within humanity along political, gender, class, and racial divides. Also, the natural world is ecological, not reducible without remainder to economics, so ecology is the final frontier in politics and science. I will resist the question of space travel and colonizing the solar system, but yeah, I also have a transhumanist streak!
Psychology, economics, and sociology are also incomplete because humans cannot be reduced to economic actors. Each of these knowledges need to be developed in terms of human freedom and equality in political terms and struggles.
Murray Bookchin’s anarchist social ecology is among the best attempts to embrace all of this complexity and I still think he is the anarchist thinker with which the left needs to engage. I have come to believe, however, that his anti-statism ends up being a barrier to political struggle. If we can’t directly contest the power of the state at the national and international level – which Bookchin rejects in fsvor of municipalism as a building block to confederalism – then we don’t have the tools to actually overthrow the existing states or systems. In other words, I’ve accepted the social democratic and Marxist argument that a successful anti-capitalist (and anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc.) revolution will have to apropriate some of the powers of the State.
My original alternative to Bookchin’s anti-statism was to support the Green Party as a combination of prefigurative and reformist politics with a revolutionary potential. Within the party organization, participatory democratic, anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist practices would shape a new collective ecological revolutionary subject that could contest for political power. Not exactly building the new society “within the shell of the old,” the ecological party would interconnect the alternative social forces that would be able to challenge and overthrow the old orders.
I am now rethinking this reliance on the Green Party, as they aren’t explicitly taking on board an anti-capitalist perspective. I might even have to vote for Obama, since the religious right is becoming so damn frightening in the US. While I still think there’s some point to creating a “counter-society” on the left via parties, organizations, unions, communes, cooperatives, progressive churches and mosques, etc., the Democratic and Republican parties are the powers that be which must be overthrown. I can’t see that happening within the Greens at this point. I’ve been loathe to join something like “Progressives for Obama” but in 2012, there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell for an existing third party, despite “Occupy Wall Street.”
Anarchism is some sense still the final state towards which revolutionary politics aspires, but the way forward is obscured by social divisions within the present. As much as I give credence to a socialist view of the State, it may be that we have passed the moment in history when the State can be used to further emancipation. Neoliberalism seems to have decisively rejected social democracy, universal healthcare, etc, which are being dismantled in Europe, which was once the alternative to the Communist road. It reminds of the Matthew Arnold poem, “wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”
C.D.V.: What would be distinctly Christian or post-Christian in your conception of Socialism?
C.E.: My view is ex-Christian, pluralistic, and post-secular. No one can purge decades of religious engagement, especially if that engagement goes back to the very beginning of one’s life. I remained a Christian significantly longer than most ex-Christians I know, until the age of 34. I was a passionate Christian who went to extraordinary lengths to fulfill my commitment to Jesus. At the age of 23, I moved my wife and daughter to a Christian commune and lived there for over 9 years, as a church member and resident, though not financially invested in the commune. I was also a pacifist and studied advanced theology constantly.
I suppose that my personal history has compelled me to conceive the relation of religion to creating a revolutionary post-capitalist society (whether we call it socialism or something else is an open question for me at this point) within a post-secular framework. “Post-secular” was a term I first learned from my post-Maoist friend Bill Martin. In fact, it was the first topic I ever heard him present at a local left philosophy forum.
If we divide all of humanity into religious and non-religious, the non-religious are out-numbered by nearly 6 to 1. If the left is to have a realistic chance of winning a majority of humanity to a post-capitalist revolution, it will have to convince a significant number of religious people that this revolution will advance the aspirations of their religions. The situation is pluralistic, we don’t just need a Christian vision of revolution, but also Muslim, Hindu, and more. We not only need these religious visions of revolution, but also to advance mutual respect and pluralism between religions as well as across the religious-secular divide. Christians, Muslims, secularists, and others need to develop a framework for mutual recognition within a revolutionary politics.
As a Quaker, I am actually involved with ecumenical (dialogue between different denominations of Christians) and interfaith (dialogue between different religions) work on behalf of my denomination. As a nontheist within a generally theistic tradition, I have begun to develop a general perspective on the character of religion and its relation to revolution that explicitly goes beyond the abstract public/private split of liberal politics. Liberal secularism reduces religion to matters of private assent to unverifiable propositions. This has never been religion’s own understanding of itself. The real shift for religion in modernity is that it can no longer command public assent to a specific aspect of its formulation.
That aspect is specifically “supernaturalism.” Religion and supernaturalism are not identical and it is possible to be a supernaturalist without being religious, as in a believer in superstition or astrology. However, for religion one needs an inter-subjective structure, not merely beliefs, but membership, ritual, governance, morality, and an actual community of persons. In this sense, atheism could be a religion, though outside of groups like the American Ethical Union most atheists do not participate in a governed community with membership norms.
On the other hand, it is also possible to be religious without supernaturalism. That is essentially my position, similar to AEU. In the case of my chosen membership in Quakerism, it has a fairly modern history, with a substantial archive of events, practice, and belief, including significant involvement in abolishing slavery, opposing war, and founding feminism. It is also an offshoot of Christianity and in a real sense depends on that tradition. As a nontheist Quaker, I have to read that tradition critically, without supernaturalism, but also affirmatively, appreciating its real world potential for inspiring progressive activism.
To my way of thinking, the left has two choices, either continue to battle religion as forms of supernaturalism that leads to social regression, or to support religious revolutionaries in redefining their traditions in progressive directions. Some significant examples of such redefinition are Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Christian Feminism, and Liberation Theology. The first path of battling religion serves to alienate huge numbers of people from revolutionary ideas. The second path isn’t a guaranteed success, but it seems obvious to me that it has a better chance than the militantly atheist approach.
C.D.V.: What do you make of the claim that has been made that any irrationalization of Marxist theory undercuts it and leads to fascism? That may sound extreme, but several scholars of fascism, including Ze’ev Sternhall, have argued that fascism is an irrationalization of Marxist doctrine.
C.E.: That’s not a lot to go on, since I am unfamiliar with theories of fascism. On the surface it does seem extreme. To make such a claim one would have to argue that all three of the major fascist states, WW2 Japan, Italy, and Germany each were lead by irrational Marxists. How many such people need to be in leadership to be able to dictate fascist policy? That’s the sort of questions I ask of such theories. From both Marxism and pragmatism, I take a focus on practice that subordinates theory. In other words, it seems incredible to hold that fascists are working with an irrational theory of Marxism in their heads that leads them to the policies they enact. If anything, I’d say fascists are working with a theory of anti-Marxism in their heads. Joel Kovel’s book on anti-Communism comes to mind.
I am not that fond of the rational actor view of humanity, I think we are largely driven by complex mixtures of fear and affection. Even our rational moments have an underlying emotionality at their base. Irrationality occurs, in my view, when we reject sound logic due to warped emotional development that amplifies the fear of others. Our society is so pathological that most people are at least neurotic, if not psychotic. To place the blame for fascism on irrationalized Marxism seems to presume that every leader or subordinate who is not such an irrational Marxist isn’t contributing their own pathological bent to the determination of social policy.
C.D.V.: What do you see as the way forward for the left?
C.E.: It’s strange what draws one’s focus. This week, I’ve been somewhat fixated on the question of whether there is a middle ground between state socialisms, like social democracy or Leninism, and anti-state socialism like the various anarchisms. Samuel Konkin III coined the term “minarchism” as something of a disparagement of the libertarian right. He argued for a more thoroughly anarchist non-capitalist market economy. Alain Badiou and Simon Crithcley talk about politics “at a distance from the State.” Certainly for Badiou, there’s an entanglement of the French Left with the bourgeois state that is problematic in ways that we don’t face here in the US.
What we do face in the US is the complete canalizing of the politics of the State within the major parties and an inability to mobilize any kind of effective third party challenge. I submit that it is precisely the existence of more proportional electoral systems in Europe, Australia, and Canada that made possible things like universal healthcare. If FDR and the New Deal hadn’t eviscerated the Socialist and Progressive Parties, the US might have had its own universal healthcare.
So, as I perceive the blockages to social democracy and proletarian revolution in the US, the anarchist strategy becomes more salient. Occupy Wall Street and its satellites makes it plain that this election year will be one in which the politics of local uprisings may be the most potent appearance of the left. OWS is informally connected to other sites like Oakland, but a formal network may yet emerge.
Oddly enough, trying to once again figure out what to do with what I see as the necessity of engagement with the State, but also it’s near futility, I happened across Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Mass Strike” in which she argues that the Russian Revolution of 1905 showed the Marxists that it was time to embrace the mass strike as a socialist tool. Maybe this year, socialists will embrace the local assembly. Certainly Pham Binh’s quarrel with organized Trotskyists takes on that flavor. Platypus and Kasama are also having to engage with the politics of Anarchism. Perhaps a new synthesis of Marxism and Anarchism is in the offing, a Minarcho-Socialism? Adorno’s ghost may be reincarnated as the Spirit of the Future.
C.D.V.: I think we will talk again soon Charley. Anything you’d like to say in closing for this first interview?
C.E.: I’m torn over whether the “Adorno’s ghost” quip is pretentious or actually clever. But, let it stand. While I tend to be an “ordinary language” kind of philosopher, it’s hard to really adhere to that when we’re talking about the nearly inconceivable possibilities of human emancipation. Yeah, probably pretentious, after all.
On Religion and the Left
C. Derick Varn: What do you see as the Quaker relationship to the Left? And what do you see as secular Marxism and anarchism relations to the the radical reformation such as the Puritans, Levelers, Anabaptists, etc.?
Charley Earp: Just to note that I surprise myself at the directions these questions lead me. More so, the second one.
The Religious Society of Friends is a small family of about 5 or 6 distinct groups. Demographically, the largest group of Quakers are the Kenyan yearly meetings, of which there over 133,000 members in 14 yearly meetings, with a theology that is revivalist evangelical and politically conservative by Western standards (though that is ambiguous within Kenyan politics). For most of this interview, I will assume we are talking about unprogrammed “liberal” Quakers, which are concentrated in North America (both U.S. and Canada), United Kingdom (England, Ireland, and Scotland), and a few small yearly meetings in continental Europe. In the anti-war movement, Quakers are most visible as the American Friends Service Committee, which was created in 1917, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for its WW2 relief and reconstruction work in Europe and Asia. How many liberal Quakers are there? My denomination numbers around 35,000 and in the U.S. that doesn’t include 3 liberal yearly meetings in the Western U.S. such as Pacific YM in California which numbers about 1450 members. If you were to add up all the Marxist groups in the U.S. I wonder whether they’d outnumber us, they might.
I put “liberal” in quotes, because that term has both political and religious meanings and they don’t exactly overlap. While FGC Quakers are generally theologically liberal, politically I’d place them as left-liberal. They do vote Democratic generally (or Liberal or NDP in Canada) but with an uneasy conscience due to their pacifist views. Most are quite critical of capitalism as a system, and would probably favor some form of Social Democracy, if not outright socialism. Within that generalization, one would also find some flavors of Anarchism, such as primitivists or Anarcho-pacifists.
The Left in the U.S. I see as really beginning with the pre-Civil War era and the rise of Abolitionism, in which Quakers were fairly prominent. They also were influential in the formation of U.S. Feminism. Class struggle politics are definitely a minor note among Quakers today, though the Socialist Party has usually had a good number of Quakers, such as Bayard Rustin. Anti-capitalist struggle in an odd way may have begun in England just prior to the origins of Quakers in Gerrard Winstanley’s Diggers or True Levellers. A fascinating article on the relation of the Diggers to Quakers by my friend David Boulton is found here that argues for at least 10 areas of convergence. Winstanley is buried in a Quaker cemetary, which is usually always a sign of membership. Of course, Quakers didn’t call for the “common treasury of the earth” that Winstanley did. Feminism was there early on, as Quakers were the first Christian denomination to vociferously sanction women’s preaching and give women a nearly equal role in church government.
In terms of what we mean by “the Left”, I’ve already thrown out terms like left-liberal, Social Demcracy, Socialism, and Anarchism. Per your blog readership and some of mine we really mean the “far Left” as in socialist or left anarchist philosophy. Most of my U.S. Quaker siblings are chary about Marxism, though Bayard Rustin and Staughton Lynd are exceptions there. In England, there is actually a Quaker Socialist Society group, which I place as Labour Party leftists. One of the more interesting groups to me was the 1960s “Movement for a New Society” which might be styled utopian socialist or anarcho-pacifist, and essentially broke from FGC to be more consistently radical. Their self-description in 1979 reads, “Movement for a New Society (MNS) is a nationwide network of groups working for fundamental social change through nonviolent action. Together we are developing an analysis of present-day society; a vision of a decentralized, democratic and caring social order; a nonviolent revolutionary strategy; and a program based on changed values and changed lives.” Most of MNS has since dissolved back into FGC, though New Society Publishers still exists as their legacy.
Perhaps even more relevant to the topic of Quakerism and far left philosophy is my favorite philosopher John Macmurray. Recently, I’ve rediscovered one of his early books, _Creative Society: A Study of the Relation of Christianity to Communism_ which was published in 1936. Macmurray became a Quaker after he retired from teaching philosophy in the 1960s, though his philosophy is quite congruent with early 20th Century Quakerism. _Creative Society_ uses the distinction drawn by Friedrich Schiller between the “hunger-motive” and the “love-motive” that formed the template for Freud’s eros and death-drive theories. Macmurray argues that Marxism (which he consistently calls Communism) is the historical negation of the love-motive in favor of the hunger-motive. This negation he considers both a historical necessity and a tragic deformation. Macmurray had been raised in Scotland in the Plymouth Brethren, one of the earliest modern Fundamentalist groups. He rejected fundamentalism while in university, and in turn all churches, but not his own ideal of authentic Christianity, which he later argued best existed in Quakers. Macmurray argued that all the churches he knew had done the dialectical opposite of Marxism by negating the hunger-motive in favor of an idealist formulation of the love-motive. His grand project, which I argue exists even in most of his later work, though more subtle and complex, is to reunite the love-motive with the hunger-motive into a new synthesis of Christianity and Communism. Compare this formulation in 1936 with the emergence of Liberation Theology in the late 1960s, and I’d say Macmurray was there ahead of the game. I’ve been so inspired by re-reading “Creative Society” in the light of the current “theological turn” of left philosophy in Zizek, Badiou, Critchley, and Hardt (Hardt is less theological, but still taking up the love-motive thread) to begin my own book, which I’ve provisionally titled _A Communism of Love_. For me, personally, this marks a new paradigm turn in my thought beyond the things I’ve written on radicalprogress.info, though not in my mind a negation of it, just a new grand frame. I’ve yet to publish this turn anywhere, so consider this a sneak preview and a web exclusive! Ha, my adoring fans will be thrilled!
On the relation of Marxism and Anarchism to radical reformation movements, I’d say that the relation is fairly causative up until Marx, Engels, and Bakunin made atheism the de facto position of the left. “Utopian Socialism” was very much bound with religious radicals. In Macmurray’s analysis, this tragically necessary negation of the Christian Communist possibility came about because of the alliance of the national churches of Europe (as well as most U.S. churches) with capitalism. Belief in God as loving father of humanity who is creating a universal kingdom of heaven on earth becomes alienated into an exclusive focus on the afterlife, which is gained by a legalistic salvation by grace that issues in personal piety and moralism, but not socially critical prophetic activism. Hutterite radical reformers, in contrast, were and are explicitly anti-capitalist and to this day stand as the longest-lived communist experiment, though ultimately purely sectarian utopian.
The communist impulse in Christianity is recurrent over its entire history, first in the church in Jerusalem depicted as holding “all things common” in the aftermath of Jesus’s crucifixion, resurrection, and the Pentecost outpouring. It is taken up again several times, but never as more than a sliver compared to the mainstream church. Community of goods is tried on a local scale several times, but never survives for long, except among Hutterites. An interesting version of this was the Oneida colony founded by John Humphrey Noyes with his perfectionist theology of “Bible Communism” that included group marriage. Today’s polyamorist movements owe something to Noyes, though they don’t emerge from his theological milieu.
In a somewhat academic vein, the radical reformation is a specialist term in church history centered on the Anabaptist movements in the Germanic regions in the 1600s, such as the Munsterite Communists, the Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, and the now mostly extinct Spiritual Anabaptists forming the original milieu. Some also include Czech Unitarianism in this, but that is controversial especially among confessional Mennonites, the largest direct descendents of the Anabaptist tradition. Quakers can be seen as a sort of anomalous dissociated flowering of Anabaptism in England, as can the early British Baptist movement. The connections between Quakers and the radical reformation is most strong in their similar pacifist tendencies, but Quakers at best seem to represent a historic shift away from some of the radical reformation characteristics such as biblicism and social separatism (though this did become prevalent in later generations of American Quakerism), and also to prefigure later developments of pietism and Wesleyanism.
We can talk about the relation of religion to the left generally as well, since I hold the view, again following Macmurray, that religion is a natural outgrowth of the human capacity to reflect, it contains within its holistic apperception the seed-forms of art, science, and ethics, which are distinguished more formally within secularist philosophical approaches. These seed-forms resonate in philosophy with the Platonic forms of the Good, Truth, and Beauty, which Thomas Aquinas argued were actually infinitely united in the simple unity of God. Kant uses this triad to construct his three critiques of pure reason, practical reason, and (aesthetic) judgment. In Schillerian/Kantian terms, the love-motive is the basis of art, hunger-motive the basis of science, and the quest for the Good is the unifying of both motives within one transcendental apperception.
To tie this to the emergence of a renewed Hegelian left, the talk of love and theology still seems to me to need the Kantian corrective of a unifying conception of practical reason as the unification of the hunger-motive and the love-motive into a categorically imperative commitment to the Greatest Good. The relation of the greatest good to the love-motive or the hunger-motive can be deformed in a few different ways, such as left romanticism and aestheticism which overvalues the aesthetic in a narrow sense of appreciating that which satisfies the affections, but doesn’t commit to actual social struggle as an overarching revolutionary praxis aimed at the good society. Another deformation is the purely pragmatic one that dethrones the greatest good in favor of the expediencies of reform. “The movement is everything, the goal is nothing.” This greatest Good in Christian terms is the kingdom of heaven on earth, “Thy Will Be Done, Thy Kingdom Come.”
So, what do I do with “God” since we’re talking about religon? I take a post-supernaturalist stance as to what the term “God” refers. I believe that the abstraction of scientific methodology from its religious origins in an idea of an absolute creator of rational immutable Natural Law, has yielded centuries of verifiable facts and theories about the world as it is, as it has become. God in monotheism was the name given to the source of the world, in contrast to polytheism’s more “order from chaos” perspective. God or the gods as personal is a natural projection of the human cognitive architecture. we attribute agency to natural phenomena, since we are agents. In the pre-scientific world, there was no way to test whether the God of Moses or the gods of Egypt were real or whether the stories about them were true, all that could practically be done was to see whether a people’s faith in their highest aspirations could be realized by collective action. The Gods were personifications of the forces and ideals of ancient social systems.
Science has depersonalized the universe as a whole for secularists, but many people still find this unacceptable. They demand meaning for their lives and struggles. Marxism proposed that the proletarian revolution was the fulfillment of human destiny and would issue in the Kingdom of Freedom, Communism. This ideal, as I argued earlier is based on a prioritization of economic hunger-motives over relational love-motives and Communism is an intellectual signifier that stands for what the inheritors of the revolution can build in revolution’s aftermath. Communism as the Greatest Good is a word with little clear and compelling content, especially in terms of the love-motive, but also in the grander religious sense of a revelation of how the world ought to become. I’m almost beginning to think as I live into this new “Communism of Love” paradigm that I should declare that Utopia is actually possible, if we collectively decide we want it, we can do it. We can begin now, not in the sense of David Graeber’s “Communist freedom already exists” but in the Gospel sense that we can be empowered (sanctified) to be transformed into agents of revolutionary love. Love is the name of the Greatest Good and Love is God. Parenthetically, I would mention the analogy of this to Buddhist self-extinguishment and the Boddhisatva vow of compassion towards all beings.
To round out the claim that “Love” is the Greatest Good i.e. God’s Will, it must be stressed that Truth and Beauty (the affections, including more romantic forms of love) both must be robustly present within Good, i.e. a normative ethic that extends its intentions to all humanity and the earth as the gift of the cosmic force of natural law. We cannot call this communism of universal love if it doesn’t include all humanity, the animal and plant kingdoms and their habitats, our best scientific methodology freed of capitalist and imperialist constraints, and artistic creativity freed from profit and commodification.
In one strain of Christian thought that includes Martin Luther King, Jr., a distinction is drawn based on Greek terms; Eros, Philia, and Agape. Eros is affectionate physical love. Philia is brotherly love. Agape is self-sacrificial non-sexual love in its highest form as exhibited in Jesus’ crucifixion. It isn’t a particular love, but the perfect Love an infinite all-knowing being of Love has for its creation. God’s love knows every feeling you’ve ever had, every kind or malicious thing you’ve ever done, but that Love is unchanging, since it knows everyone from even before conception or the Big Bang itself. This is theology and in mythological language certainly, but it is also possible to be appropriated critically using the tools of modern psychology and philosophy and the “rational kernel” deployed for revolutionary ends. As Zizek says, “we must approach atheism through the Christian experience.”
As I said, this whole train of thought has been something of a new thing, and surprisingly compulsive.
C.D.V.: What do you make of both the Quaker and Anabaptist commitment to pascifism?
C.E.: It’s often forgotten that the first Anabapist group to be so labeled were the radical Musterites. They took over a small city and turned it into a commune, pending the outbreak of Armageddon. They were not pacifists. Similarly, the Diggers in England weren’t strict pacifists, though they did have some leanings that way. Several Quakers in fact were partisans of the Cromwell regime in its earliest days. That faded fairly quickly and was part of the impetus for forming Quakerism as a distinct group during Cromwell’s reign, before religious tolerance.
Initially for both pacifist groups, beyond their Biblical justifications, nonresistance was about withdrawing from the State Churches. In both Switzerland and England, regime changes had meant a forced choice between accusations of hidden loyalty to the dethroned order or becoming conformed to the new Protestant order. Both said, “none of the above” and declared themselves under a new order of Christ where the sword was renounced.
This sectarian nonresistance didn’t flower into political pacifism until the late 19th century, perhaps earlier for some Quakers. The idea that war could be abolished worldwide has a geneaology from Tolstoy to Gandhi to A. J. Muste and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Muste was a Quaker for a while as well and wrote an influential pamphlet _The World Task of Pacifism_ that is still read by Quakers. It can be read here:
Pacifism does have some deformed expressions, in my view, as in language-policing, passive-aggressive suppression of conflicts, or political neutralism. Probably the latter is the most troubling from a left perspective. I remember when I was just getting into the peace movement in the early 80s, one of the tensions was over whether to support the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, since they had a mandatory military service policy. Daniel Berrigan defended the regime critically, despite his pacifism, others were more inflexible.
I began my own pacifism fairly early as a response to my father’s dictatorial rule, my infatuation with hippies & Jesus Freaks, the Sermon on the Mount, and my perception that we were in Vietnam for no good reason. All of this had gelled in me by 1975 at the age of 12, when I remember Nixon’s resignation in disgrace. I spent decades studying pacifism seriously to answer the objections such as “what about Hitler?” “what about Grandma?” and “what about the Commies?” I will never forget my somewhat smug satisfaction that the pacifists had been right, we didn’t need war to end Communist Party rule in the USSR.
My own grappling has lead to me to reconsider whether the Just War Theory might have something to say about a Just Revolution Theory. I had to face this quite explicitly when NATO intervened in Libya. I didn’t support Gaddafi and figured that those Libyans calling for NATO intervention were probably some new emergent ruling class, the literal “rock vs. a hard place” dilemma.
The perverse twist on this anti-intervention stance is that now we have a group of Syrians in the US trying to team up with anti-NATO protestors in Chicago. The signs they were carrying explicitly supported the current regime! How is that a left stance?! However, strict pacifism does lead to such problematics. I still don’t feel easy with NATO intervening in Syria, but definitely want al-Assad out of power.
I guess what keeps me so close to pacifism is that in the end I see it as siding with the majority who do not have the wealth to outgun the ruling classes. We have to defeat them by means other than an armed struggle, as I see it.
C.D.V.: Why do you think the Protestant tradition in America has taken such a rightward turn, Charley?
C.E.: The Right turn in protestantism goes back to Martin Luther’s anti-semitism and support of class warfare in the Peasant revolts. The Left wing of any religion is always under siege whenever the religious leaders get into bed with the ruling class. Now if we compare the religious Right in the U.S. with Europe, then part of the answer lies in asking why is Europe generally more favorable to Social Democracy? It follows that such sympathies would express themselves in religion.
The lack of a robust labor union system, no legacy of State Churches, and racial division in the working-class leaves (white) U.S. religion stuck without much on which to hang a leftist political theology. Black and Latino churches are a different story. Caucasian Religion becomes about avoiding falling into poverty by not behaving criminally nor consorting with blacks. It is interesting that the decline of liberal Protestantism and Catholicism tracks with the regression of organized labor.
The younger generation of Evangelicals, however, show some signs of leftward drift. The “Emergent Christianity” movement is building off of the tiny old Evangelical left from the 70s that shaped my politics to open up spaces within Evangelicalism on issues such as poverty, war, gender, sexuality, abortion, and race, as well as incorporating participatory practices into church structure. An interesting figure here is Jay Bakker, the tattooed son of televangelist Jim Bakker. Jay runs a church called “Revolution NYC” that is gay-inclusive and streetwise. The torment Jay experienced during his parents’ ministry collapse certainly set him up to question the right-wing church. One of Jay’s favorite theologians is Christian Socialist Paul Tillich, an influence on Adorno!
C.D.V.: This leftward turn seems sincere, but also am I correct in seeing it to be predominantly based on lifestyle? This seems like a marked departure from say the semi-liberation theology one say in Azuza Street Pentecostals for example?
C.E.: Is Emergent Evangelicalism largely a “lifestyle?” I confess that I can’t prove it either way. My main contact with it is through the internet and its impacts in Chicago. My former Mennonite church with peace movement and counter-culture ties has seen an influx of young adults from places like Wheaton College with left, liberal, even Anarchist leanings. JesusRadicals.com was founded by two young adult Evangelicals who discovered Anabaptism and are now trending Anarchist with a tendency towards primitivism, but hopefully that won’t overtake them entirely. They’re not the mainstream of the Emergent trend, for sure, but at least in the urban centers, Emergent Evangelicals seem to lean to the left.
As for the Liberation Theology of Azusa Street, it’s an irony of history that Pentecostal doctrines were formulated by Charles Parham, a white segregationist who let a black preacher named William Seymour audit Bible School clases from a window. That black preacher fostered the Azusa Street revival. The first generations of Pentecostals had a lot of pacifists among them, as well as an organic connection to Wesleyan abolitionists like Charles Finney.
Azusa Street theology was multiracial and egalitarian in both gender and church governance. I don’t have a sense of its class politics, but most early Pentecostals were poor folks. I encountered hostility to labor unions as a kid growing up in the 70s among Pentecostals, but by then most caucasian Pentecostals had long abandoned any social radicalism.
C.D.V.: Are these emergent church types actually popular as most of the dominations in Protestant Christianity to show growth are fairly conservative theologically and politically?
Charley Earp: I don’t think it’s their popularity that makes them important. It’s their role as “in-house” critics of Evangelicalism. They are lightning rods for issues often considered closed topics. For example, ex-Pentecostal Emergent theologian Tony Jones was invited to give a plenary address to the Society for Pentecostal Studies annual conference in 2010. SPS is an association of confessional Pentecostals who hold academic positions. It tends to be conservative, but it does have a left-wing element, which is represented via the “Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace and Justice” organization. Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, an assistant professor at Azusa Pacific University Graduate School of Theology and member of PCPJ, was organizing the annual meeting and invited Tony Jones. When word of that got back to denominational leadership in the Assemblies of God – the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world – a fight broke out as these leaders tried to get Tony banned from the conference. Tony openly advocates for same-sex marriage and theological liberalization. He’s quite a fan of Jurgen Moltmann who was inspired by Ernst Bloch to create the “Theology of Hope.”
I’m not saying that emergent Christian leaders are going to entirely turn Evangelicalism to the left, but they are dividing significant sectors of the younger generation against elements of the New Christian Right.
C.D.V.: What do you think of Christianity’s movement politically on the world stage?
C.E. Christianity is a multifarious mass. Christians inhabit all social classes and cultural niches. It is the most successful human organization in history, outside the nuclear family. It has united people across cultural divides, as well as built brand new ones out of its own doctrines.
There will be Christians on all sides of any future revolution. There are forces inside and outside Christianity that will remold it and overcome its conservative tendencies. Liberation Theology seems to me to be the only viable interpretation of the faith that can persist after the collapse of capitalism, whether that collapse comes sooner or later.
I also hold that Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Atheism, and all other metaphysical subcultures will be forced to deal with each other and rethink their absolutist claims in light of intensifying cross-cultural interactions. This is already happening in many arenas and will only accelerate.
C.D.V.: I am more skeptical about this as intercultural exchange is not unique to capitalist modernity. Also what elements of Christianity are a successful social forms? It seems hard to see what social relationships are consistent in all strands of Christianity. However, there are pretty consistent trends in Protestantism in Asia and Africa where Christianity tends to act as a liberalizing force in its early encounters with native culture, but in also all such societies is now socially and increasingly economically conservative: although the latter seems very context dependent. For example, in South Korea and Japan a Protestant Christian socialism was the dominant strain of thought, but the churches have increasingly mirrored American Protestantism and have become politically entangled with the right. Protestantism in Latin America still seems to be predominantly a slightly left-economic force, but it’s harder to place socially. So while I recognize Christian tendencies on all sides of the question: there does seem to be definite trends that can be sorted out.
C.E.: Intercultural interaction didn’t originate in capitalist modernity, but it will reach its climax and denouement in a similar fashion as capitalist modernity will run its course. Ken Wilber emphasizes that never before in history have the greatest religious and cultural traditions across human history become so widely accessible around the world. It isn’t complete, but it will only accelerate. In Chicago I have my choice of more than a dozen different Buddhist centers from Tibetan to Vietnamese to Japanese to Korean to Westernized practice. That has occurred entirely in my lifetime, it wasn’t true when I was born. In my Quaker denomination, I’ve participated in various interfaith meetings and this dynamic is even being theorized in Evangelical and Pentecostal seminaries as we speak, not always with conventional orthodox results.
My children attended Chicago public schools and were exposed to dozens of different ethnicities and religions. My daughter is actually very attracted to Korean Protestantism, for some reason. My son is a Quaker, too, but he’s still figuring out what that means, since Quakers don’t use a catechism or enforce creeds.
C.D.V.:Islam and Christianity has seen massive retrenchment in Christianity as the there is a real decline in the mainline denominations to both left and right variants of theology. Why do think this is and what do you think the relationship is to secularization?
C.E.: Secularization seems to me to be one of the responses to pluralism, to the way modern communications and immigration patterns have forced world religions into new levels of interaction. Modern secularism arose in Europe as a response to the “wars of religion” in the aftermath of the Reformation. Today secularism in the global context as a product of primarily Western Europe and American expansion is viewed by significant parts of the world outside those spheres as both anti-religious and Christian imperialist incursions. How it is perceived depends on whether a given situation elicits a retrenchment of religious identity to resist imperialism – such as in Muslim nations – or for opportunistic economic development – Asian Capitalist “Tigers”.
American Christian fundamentalism is an important historical development in the interaction with secularizing trends. This fundamentalism was originally a reaction to the rise of unorthodox theologies that originated in Europe, as well as to the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” Some fundamentalists did try to harmonize evolution and creationism, but that viewpoint was often rejected in favor of more rigid views. A key element of fundamentalism was an apocalyptic pessimism. This interpretation of the Bible predicted a great Anti-Christ One World Government arising after the Secret Rapture of Christians. This issued in a nearly complete passivity and social disengagement. Evangelism and World Missions to non-Christian cultures took on an urgency and politics became unimportant. The engagement with other religions took the form of strategizing the most effective evangelistic techniques to penetrate non-Christian societies with Americanized versions of the gospel. This gospel was not the original message of Jesus about a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, but a purely apolitical personal salvation focused on the afterlife and coming apocalypse. This apoliticism was quite useful in inculcating docility in the face of capitalist and imperialist exploitations of these societies.
After World War I, the fundamentalist agenda began to emphasize other aspects, such as Zionism and Anti-Communism. After the defeat of Fascism, fundamentalism again assumed a fairly apolitical quiescent role. This was ended when the Civil Rights movement arose using a fairly orthodox Christianity against racial segregation. The “social gospel” that had been targeted as apostasy by fundamentalists came back with a new compelling moral critique. The “New Christian Right” arose in significant measure from the old-line segregationist preachers like Jerry Falwell. The new targets were feminism, homosexuality, drug war, abortion, and the welfare system.
The decline in secularization in the latter 20th century was a result of the way a segment of the business class partnered with the New Christian Right to attain political power. Today, we are seeing a new wave of departures from Christianity and repressive religions in the U.S. though it is far from a tidal wave. The “New Atheism” was a reaction to 9/11 as an assertion that that tragedy flowed directly from religion. This argument is compelling if not analyzed very carefully, so lots of energy has flowed into that movement.
Add to this the inability of the Christian Right to win the presidential nomination, losing it to Romney, who they nearly all reject as a Christian. Some of the more pragmatic voices on the Right will try to persuade Christians to still vote for Romney, but it’s amazing to me that the choice for evangelical Christians is between a liberal Christian like Obama and a “cultist” like Romney. My family are mostly conservative Pentecostals and we were taught very young how evil Mormons were. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
I’d say secularism and pluralism are back on the agenda and in the ascendancy. If Romney wins, there will be ascendancy. Theologically strict Christians will have to work through their cognitive dissonance with Romney. They either embrace him and pragmatically elevate their politics over their doctrines, or they reject him and he’s weaker than nearly any Republican candidate since Gerald Ford. Reagan himself had weaknesses such as his divorce to contend with. Mormon heresy will seem much worse than divorce to many Christian Rightists.
C.D.V.: Do you think Christianity could completely schism over these tendencies?
C.E. I’d say the schism between regressive and progressive religion is permanent and fatal and the progressives will win, unless the Apocalypse of human self-extinction occurs. Unpragmatic walled-garden Fundamentalism (Christian or Islamic) cannot survive for long as a political movement. Even Jerry Falwell was viewed by the apolitical camp as a compromiser for working with different groups of Christians and even neo-conservative Jews! Even the Plymouth Brethren (the original source of apocalyptic fundamentalism) have regrouped and reconciled many of their dozens of schisms. Now, Romney pushes that pragmatic necessity to new heights. Before long, you might even see a politically potent New Atheist Right, followers of Ayn Rand who favor traditional marriage and banning abortion. In a weird way Ron Paul is already in that vein, though he’s still a Christian.
Christianity has been around for so long and is disseminated in the Derridean sense of producing multiple incommensurable discourses, of which one cannot choose the “correct interpretation.” This is why I, who doubts if Jesus was an actual historical person, still consider the Communist threads in the Biblical texts as powerfully useful in creating a new post-Marxist communism, which Badiou and Zizek have confirmed for me. As I’ve said before, Christian Communism isn’t a new idea for many of us, I’ve just hesitated to articulate it while Marxism still seemed to have more life within it. Latin American theologies like Jose Miranda’s 1982 book “Communism in the Bible” were here before me. Here the Zizekian story from “Looking Awry” about the man who leaves his wife and children and then turns up a decade later with a new wife and children seems to exactly characterize the possibility of Communism being reborn as a post-supernaturalist pluralist religious discourse.
Zizek’s point here was that perceiving your life as if you were moving forward to something entirely new is always deceptive, because if you look backward retrospectively, you see that you are really just going where you’ve already been. I left Christianity over 15 years ago, but I keep going back to it in new ways. I don’t think there’s nothing new in this repetition, after all, perhaps your new spouse isn’t as verbally abusive as the old one, and so on. Quakerism is much healthier for me than Pentecostalism. In fact, an argument can be made that Pentecostalism was a variant on Quakerism. Old wife same as the new wife.
As for the left and religion, I see my continuing passion to be advocating radical ideas among religious people. Atheists generally find me annoying, since I keep insisting that they are missing out on a potentially enormous mass audience. If both Christian and Islamic forms of Communist vision can be articulated, as well as other post-Marxist religious and atheist Communisms, we have a message to the world that can resonate in the present. Rather than fighting for early modern secularism of the liberal or Leninist types, a new post-postmodern political pluralism seems to be urgently needed that creates avenues of mutual understanding between Atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Neo-Pagans, and others. I have even less knowledge of Hindu traditions than Muslim, though this past weekend I re-watched the film “Gandhi” and know that there’s fertile soil there as well.
I also think we can mine the traditions of Anarcho-communism here as well. In fact, some of the hard but necessary work seems to me to revolve around how to split the differences between statist and anti-statist communisms. Anarcho-communism hasn’t really had a political program for a long time (not since Catalonia, I’d say) and if they care to create one, it will have to face hard into the fact that State power isn’t going to disappear, so a new “via media” will have to be found between doctrinaire anti-Statism and engaging state power. Here I sit in an odd relation to Badiou and Critchley who both advocate “politics at a distance from the State.” This makes sense if one is talking to Marxists, not so much when talking to Anarchists. Meeting in the middle ground seems unexplored territory, yet Noam Chomsky has been there for decades advocating saving the welfare systems while maintaining his generally anarchist critique of most State actions.
All of these post-Marxist developments impinge on the possibility of multiple religious revolutionary movements that are progressive in an authentic sense, not regressive like 1978 Iran. Even Hugo Chavez has something to offer this moment, as confused as he is about Iran.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
C.E. I hope it’s alright with you if I take the opportunity to address a topic that came up between you and I outside the context of this interview on a Facebook thread. In particular, whether my approach takes religious beliefs seriously enough? You and I have disagreed over in what sense absolutism and religious beliefs are connected. I won’t assume that I really understand your take on it, since our discussion has been so informal.
I was a believing Christian almost from the time I could form the sentence, “Jesus is my savior.” However, as I’ve studied theories of cognitive formation such as Piaget and James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” research, I can now look back and see that my religious beliefs evolved without my conscious control of them. My cognitive and emotional grasp of ideas of God, heaven, infinity, absolute morality, and so on took place within my growth from a schoolboy to adolescent to young adult to older adult and, as Fowler documents, our “faith” “evolves,” even if a person never really goes beyond what he calls a “conventional” religious stance.
Beyond Fowler’s individual psychology, there are the social systemic orders to consider. I believe that each of us living today have been born into societies that are complexly structured by systems of domination, oppression, repression, and exploitation. Most religious believers of any known society anywhere are on one side or another – usually the disempowered side – of multiple binaries of dominated or dominating, exploitated or exploiting, and so on. A white working-class male can simultaneously be a leader in his church, a patriarchal husband, a racist, and yet be a minimum wage worker in capitalism, which leads to a subjective amalgam of both dominator/exploiter and dominated/exploited attitude formation. The facticity of being a worker under capital has been believed somewhat vulgarly by some Marxists as automatically endowing them with a revolutionary potential. However, these forms of Marxism see the process of consciousness formation in far too mechanical terms.
What has come to engage a significant amount of my thought is trying to understand the hierarchical mind that seems to take pleasure in being a subordinate. I chafe under male domination so badly that I never held a job for more than a couple years from the age of 17 to 39, when I began working for a travel company that was managed almost exclusively by women. I’ve been with them for over 9 years. My immediate supervisors have been women for that entire time and I’m generally a model employee. Apparently, I only take pleasure in being exploited by women! Apparently, many workers take pleasure in being subordinated to capitalism and that messes with simple Marxist notions of revolutionary agency.
My general observation about the complexity of consciousness and its reference to religious beliefs is that using my eightfold framework of gender, sex, class, race, religion/irreligion, politics, ecology, and aggression/violence I understand each person is embedded in these systemic dynamics which make holding a single consistent set of cognitive religious ideas nearly impossible. When I was an active participant in Christian churches as an adult for over two decades, I discussed theology at every opportunity and in nearly every single conversation I’d find some unorthodoxy in every person, many of whom were members in good standing and even leaders in confessional denominations that had fairly specific tenets. Many had a hard time accepting the Trinity, or the incarnation, or hell, or whatever. These private conversations revealed that almost no one bothered to work through their cognitive dissonances about their beliefs with much seriousness.
Even theologians and the discipline of theology are themselves built upon the need to try and resolve cognitive dissonance and it is largely unsuccessful, though one might ask is any academic pursuit ever successful in the sense of resolving all cognitive dissonances about a topic? Imagine the enormity of the task of creating the “One True Orthodox Faith” that is entirely self-consistent and coherent! It has been the agenda of certain religious elites since at least the first Nicean Council of 325 C.E. and of course, even further back. Have they succeeded? Of course not, look at the thousands of churches that the heretics, apostates, gnostics, and ostensibly orthodox have formed.
So, religious belief is a shifting protean mass, much like the various Marxisms. This is why I insist radicals and revolutionaries do not have the luxury of treating religious beliefs in isolation from the complexities of social dynamics. We can’t try to both convert people to revolution and to atheism in the manner of Lenin, Trotsky, or worse, Stalin. Our organizations should be consciously pluralist.
Just as the ruling classes manipulate religion and atheism for their ends, so should the revolutionaries. I don’t mean the term “manipulate” in a baldly cynical manner, either. There are revolutionary theologies out there, notably Latin American liberation theologies but many more, that can be inserted into the religious cultures of any society as a productive intervention against ruling class religion. Atheism has limited success because it, too, is severely shaped by the elitisms within the matrix of domination. The necessary response to religious and irreligious dominator ideologies from above is to encourage a flourishing pluralism of religious and irreligious revolutionary visions from below.
Will there ever be a society that has the luxury to create a wholly consistent metaphysical system that everyone can believe? Not in my or your lifetime. Can we achieve revolutionary unity that can win the fight against capitalism, racism, sexism, tyranny, religious supremacism, and ecocide? Consider how capitalism and representative democracy came to rule the planet. Is it consistent, coherent, and lacking in cognitive dissonance? No, yet it rules effectively. A revolutionary pluralism can also come to rule in the name of a emancipated humanity and flourishing ecology.
C.D.V.: My disagreement with you is not just about seriousness because we believe in the same basic set of facts:
1) The secular and religious have been co-defining each other by various levels of cultural dominance over time, so even those concepts are inter-dependent in ways that are to break down, but if that it is the conceptual case, then the matter becomes solely about truth claims.
2) Religion is a historically development both it is beliefs and its social forms. The very idea of religion has an incoherence at it’s core that makes sense only when you look at the Pre-Christian and non-Christian categories. The way Stoics and Platonists talked about their beliefs were similar terms to the way Confucians and Buddhists talked about theirs, and yet we label one a religion and the other a philosophy. But anyone with any historically aware categorical sense
will tell you that neither of the categories really holds in the way we believe them now. Furthermore, the ideas of within a religion are similarly historically confused and that is actually a good thing: some may call this historical contingency, moral progress, or the dominance of the zeitgeist. I suppose we can take our pick on which one we mean. But this means that values that would be considered secular, as in values outside of the purview internal to religious ideology, drive the manifestation and justification of religious ideas.
3) The suppression of religion backfires if it is actively pursued. Both in the case of extremely conservative variants of Russian Orthodoxy and of “radical” (reactionary) Islamism develop out of the state suppression of religion in the various secular Pan-Arabist movements as well as in colonial periods. Often leftists lazily conflate the two reasons for suppressing religion because the outcome was the same, but that brings me to where we differ.
4) Even the most die-hard atheists has points of ethical and ontological commitments that are not empirically or rationally justified, or even justifiable. Therefore, everyone has a political “theology” in the sense that Carl Schmitt used to the term.
But our disagreement is profound and based on three key differences:
1) Historically, religious ideologies that make universal claims do so not on pluralist grounds–Abrahamic religions especially, but it is misleading to see it as unique to them because such developments can be seen in Buddhist nationalism in Japan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Thailand. All countries where Buddhism became dominant by interpolating or syncretizing prior beliefs and then actively suppressing them when they achieved state dominance and the support of a court or Imperial power. The versions of these religions that “remained” radical avoided or even anathematized state power, or have developed in context with other prior strong traditions would they could not entirely incorporate and had separate identities. The examples you give of the liberating versions of Christianity, for example, have never been socially predominant in their home countries at a political level, so we do not know what they would do with state power. We have a good idea though given that even proto-Orthodox, proto-Catholic Christianity immediately became tied to schisms and violent purges the moment it had any favor from the state. The first Nicean council is a perfect example of that.
2) You’re completely correct about the parallel to Marxism on one level: that as “Marxist” thinkers interpreted the texts they developed readings that were universal, but in application and faces with the realities of the state form, more excluding forms began to dominate and could only be maintained by active purging of prior forms. In fact, as one can see in say, the Maoist cultural revolutions: forms of a hypothetical function that were “deviant” were seen as more
dangerous than completely separate religions. Oddly, something that Islam seems to have foreseen as a problem in its holy texts and over its historical development tried to enshine a protection against in the idea of Ummah and dhimmi as opposed to the infidels. Yet even in that case, the religion to which Islam most resembles is Judaism, not Christianity, and the prime tension it has after dealing with the imperialism directed against the peoples under its ideological forms.
3) The reason for this is a concept that I think applies to human cognition nearly universally: dialectical scission. A totality always divides into pluralities, or particulars, in other to be comprehensible, but the moment one links the particularities in order to classify and understand them, a second-order totality re-emerges, which then has to be demarcated. If you want to claim universal-ism without pluralism implicit within it: then you must try to render the particular universal by stopping the demarcation and eliminating the other. This always fails in some sense even in successful genocides because the elimination or removal changes parts of the totality, this starting a comprehensible demarcation, and so the process continue. This is why the events I described in my second point seem to happen whenever an ideology, in the sense of idea, starts to dominate.
This leads me to an ultimate break with your line of thinking:
Any attempt to accommodate an claim about the ultimate into pluralism in which that absolute is given primacy will necessitate a political exclusion of some kind. Religion is not comprehensible without either a rupture of orthopraxy (“sin,” “miasma,”) or a rupture of orthodoxy (“heresy,” “wrongful speech,” etc). The pluralism necessarily undoes itself in the same way universal-ism does. While religious believers can be included in a plural universal, the moment you give privilege to that particularity, it will the process of scission will work itself out in history as groups seek to end exposed “cognitive dissonance.” The move to reduce cognitive dissonance and to end process of dialectical scission will happen in all most societies and when it is incorporated and privileged into a political praxis, it can only maintain it by using the states monopoly on the legitimization of violence. This is why I am a secularist in the sense that I do not wish to privilege any particularity to a universal status: I value the pluralism within the totality and want to learn to live with dialectical scission and the uncertainty it can create. In that sense, I agree with you on some of this but don’t think you take religion’s claim to WANT the absolute “seriously” enough. Just because people can’t come up with a coherent explanation: doesn’t mean they aren’t going to try. In history, that drive is one of the few constants.
Lastly, there is a way in which I think you are fundamentally misunderstanding capitalism and overstating on representative democracy:
1. Capitalism as a productive form exists nearly universally now in human cultures because it’s efficiency (and imperial impetus to it in the early states), but ideologies of capitalism are plural. All ideologues of capitalism, however, try to make their ideological justification for it universal. (Just like the religions do). It’s success is not predicated on that: it’s predicated on the fact that it is initially more efficient than most prior forms of organization. The list of reifications (sexism, racism, ecocide, etc) are abstractions of human relations–they are not real, you cannot fight them in that sense. Some of epiphenomenal to capitalist culture: racism and sexism are not dependent on capitalism, but existed prior and were easily incorporated into it as a means of assigning class. Reductionistic Marxists who claim that racism is just a class development completely miss the boat on this, but so to are the non-Marxist leftists who see a litany of oppression(s) that are somehow necessarily conflated into one whole. We can see scission at work here, can’t we? Until we can offer a productive form that can answer capitalism, we aren’t going to transcend all of it, or perhaps, any of it. Conversely, until we can offer a political praxis and narrative (myth) that can lead us to a “value” system that could produce said productive form, we are essentially doing eschatology. We don’t defeat capitalism just by trying to develop a pluralist ideology to combat it, even if I think that is necessary.
2. Just as a matter of empirical fact: representative democracy is the fastest growing state form, but it does not rule the world. At least 1/6 to 1/3 of the world’s populations do not live in representative democracies and the democracies of both the US and EU have most of their state functions in undemocratic or only
semi-democratic institutions. Representative democracy is incoherent at its core: in fact, it has a contradiction in it’s very conception and has since far before capitalist modernity. That does not, however, end the drive to make it coherent. That drive to make it coherent has been a liberating feature in the past, but as economic and geo-political conditions change, then this becomes harder to maintain and something that was liberating is now oppressive.
I think that draws out my disagreement with you, but I hope you see that while the disagreement is profound so are the points of agreement. I will let you have the last word as it is my interview of you, and I don’t want to be uncharitable by responding with a highly philosophical and long form of my polemical engagement with you. Anyway, you do give me hope that religious thinkers can come to right conclusions and should be seriously listened to, and not shut out or oppressed out of existence, but I do think ultimately “irreligion and religion” from below will predicated on secular pluralism in any political or social form “the left” (whatever that actually means now) advocates.
C.E.: On your first point of “our disagreement”, I think I see one disagreement and one apparent misunderstanding in this topic. I do *not* advocate any religion or atheism holding state power. As a communist of universal love (I should coin a term like “agapestic communism” maybe? Naah, too Christian.) with anarchist tendencies, if there is some transitional state apparatus constructed after the revolution, I see it as very limited, with most power being exercised in direct democratic councils that are specifically constructed to be pluralistic in matters of religion. I envision ecumenical and interfaith consultations being conducted that work out specifically religious conflicts, in contrast to directly economic and political ones. Of course, most religious conflicts will overlap with these other sorts, but disentangling the overlaps is still a substantive religious task. Interactions between religious and irreligious groups will be conducted in keeping with democratic, libertarian, and egalitarian forms.
Before the revolution, I advocate socialist, anarchist, and other left organizations partnering with religious leftists to highlight the diversity of ways that revolutionary goals and values can be justified and propagated by a plethora of atheist and religious “political theologies.” Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and atheist “theologies” of religious pluralism have already been developed in academic forms, these need to be taken on explicitly by revolutionaries and advocated in the public square.
So, the revolution will be pluralistic and no religion or atheism will lead it. In a majority Christian society like the U.S. this means we need to work to change the politics of the churches, mosques, and synagogues more than their theologies, which will subtly or overtly change their theologies, but the horse of political goals needs to lead the cart of religious reformation. This means convincing those in the religious and irreligious camps to come to political agreements that are justifiable from diverse theological and atheological premises.
On the second point of our disagreement, I am not sure where we actually disagree there. I would probably emphasize even more the horrendous effects of State-sponsored atheism on civil liberties and social freedoms. The massacres, imprisonments, and repression of priests, monks, and lay religious adherents by some Communist powers are simply staggering and appalling. Atheism is no guarantee of fair jurisprudence or policing.
The mutual hostility between Christians, Muslims, and Jews cannot be solved by a purely secular approach. These groups need to engage in a decades-long reconciliation process. This has been initiated by various bodies on all sides and the work of disentangling genuinely religious issues from non-religious ones is in part a theological work that cannot be carried out by atheists, though they should be brought into the dialogues as well. There is actually a movement for “interfaith humanism” being formed by younger folks who are getting involved in ecumenical and interfaith organizations to work out how to contribute to better understanding across the secular/religious divides. The blog nonprophetstatus.com is dedicated to this work.
You’re dialectical points in third section are little bit abstract. I am less than fully comprehending your totality/scission construct here. I don’t doubt that there’s valuable ideas in there, but it’d take some work on the background assumptions you employ to grasp some of this. If I can really vulgarize it, you seem to be saying that the quest for absolutism cannot be tamed within a pluralist framework, that a more robust secularism needs to be enforced so that absolutists can’t find the means to re-assert their dominance. My objection to that is, who the hell decides who enforces secularism? It’s democratic turtles all the way up and down the revolutionary social structure, to infinity.
Is absolutism a constant drive? Well, your darling Hegel was certainly an absolutist and Marx learned quite well from him. Not to be harsh on either of them, but I am inclined to believe that absolutism is actually a neurosis, sometimes a psychosis. It certainly was in my case. Is the very concept of an infinite creator an absolutism that has to be restrained by a secular functional atheism? There are grounds within the classic monotheisms for pluralism such as the notion of universal sinfulness, the critique of hypocritical religion, mercy & forgiveness, the very fact that this infinite creator doesn’t itself wipe out unbelievers wholesale, mystical incomprehensibility of the nature of G-d, the Golden rule, etc.
On the first point of my “misunderstanding,” I think we’re talking around similar issues, but you come at the problem of e.g. religious, male, white supremacy from the assumptions of Marxism, yet see Marxism’s limits so you move away slowly from Marxist ones towards a more complex formulation. I come from a religious supremacist viewpoint initially, moving away somewhat rapidly, but often not rapid enough, towards a pluralistic revolutionary viewpoint. Neither of us are reductionists, but we do think some things like capitalism have to remain close to the top of our revolutionary priorities, so we approach incorporating anti-capitalism with political theology from different directions. Maybe we’ll meet in the middle somewhere, but maybe our initial starting-points are on different planes, so we always just miss each other.
I conceptualize the multiple systems of domination not in terms of capitalism, racism, sexism, etc. at the most fundamental level, but as power inequalities between agents moving through collectively constructed relational networks situated within the ecosphere of planet earth. Capitalism, racism, religious/irreligious supremacism, ecocide, and sexism are constructed by (mostly) white ruling class males (with some female and non-white collaborators) to deploy multiple power dynamics, with some dominators spending more energy on maintaining gender inequities, and others more focused on economic ones, etc. In the end, they are all constructs of the ruling classes. The subordinate collectives (who are often already the construct of the matrix of domination) construct their counter-systems in opposition to some of the ruling classes’ powers, but these have historically been much weaker than the power of the ruling classes. The revolutionary break will occur when a progressive convergence of key oppositional constructs focuses enough social power to actually permanently undermine the stability of the ruling classes’ hegemonies.
On the second part of that, representative democracy is the public form that legitimizes the governments and, by tacit implication, the ruling classes of the US and Europe, which from there rule the world. I didn’t mean to suggest that every government on the planet is a representative democracy, nor that this form is the actual dominant power. Representative democracy and capitalism as paired terms functions as a sort of synecdoche for the current forms of the matrix of domination.
I’ve been dismissive of secularism in part because both its Communist and Liberal Democratic forms have only aggravated religious tensions and hostilities worldwide, which are embedded within the economic, racial, and political systems of domination. The working-classes, women, people of color, and ignorant masses of the world are predominately religious. Their absolutism(s) aren’t the absolutism of the powerful, but of the excluded and dominated. They absolutely believe that G-d or Buddha or whatever Final Judge may exist will exonerate them as innocent victims of unjust suffering. Just as science needs immutable natural laws to reach useful knowledge, humans needs a kind of moral certainty to demand justice in this world. Religion is far more capable of this than is atheism. In a world where the poor are finally emancipated then, maybe, religion will wither away like the Communist State.
C.D.V.: My last word is this: when the absolutism of below has power, what will tame it? There seems be a essentialization of people in there some where that assumes that having power won’t change the characters of the oppressed. My own Jewish roots make me skeptical of that given the history of Zionism and orthodoxy when the diaspora is ended. In a strange way, you talk more Hegelian than I do when it comes to religious progress: I don’t think there is an end to history nor do I think that religious moral certainty is actually all that certain in some key way atheistic frameworks aren’t. I don’t think you believe that either, but the language creeps back in. That’s the leap I don’t see since as we have both agreed that religious thinking change from things outside itself and internal to believers in a non-religious way, the moral certainty of individuals will come from somewhere. It may have been born of the church or innate to our biology, I suspect it’s somewhere in between. I think absolutism in second order logic is unavoidable as even the claim of epistemic relativism is an absolute claim in the second order. Those formal tensions to the way we structure thought have politically implications, but I definitely see the issue with enforced irreligion. That will turn most of those on that opium into raging addicts in withdrawal. No better way to make reactionaries than to make martyrs, and no better hypocrisy than that either.
C.E.: I don’t worry about some of these things, because I do see most political actions as practice that justifies its behavior retrospectively. I don’t think there is a way to give everyone a set of correct political opinions, nor a complete philosophical framework. You and I and many of our interlocutors do try and create philosophical frameworks to reach correct political opinions, but invariably, we are quite imperfect at this task. The Christians, left or right, are often victims of the Reformation’s insistence on correct “faith” which gets reduced to holding a correct set of propositional beliefs. Catholic ideas of orthopraxy mattering more than orthodoxy is quite in keeping with a late modern post-Marxist political situation in which we don’t have the luxury of believing in revolutionary inevitability.
So, we intervene where we can, imperfectly. For me, Christians are the people with whom I am most likely to discuss politics, whether it’s my conservative Republican mother, brother, and sister, or my Green Party wife (who I think voted from Obama in 2008), or the various young theologians I have the pleasure to know, or various Christian Quakers. My perception that there simply are not enough atheists to carry out a revolution in the U.S. leads me to think that I have to continue to work within that reality.
On the limits of the left and religion
C. Derick Varn: We chatted via e-mail recently about the characterization of the right and left as religious forces, and you were provoked by many of Keith418’s points in a recent interview I did with him. . Would you like to go into that in more detail?
Charley Earp: What provoked me in that interview was the statement that American conservatism is fundamentally different than its European predecessor, and therefore somehow an illegitimate rightism. Keith418 seems utterly taken up with a tradition of the Right that has very little traction in the US, though Ayn Rand’s followers are often as anti-Christian as are the kind of Nietszcheans Keith admires. The majority of the American Right does come out of a Christian milieu, but that milieu has some strange incoherence within it.
I watched as the Christian Right began to take over the churches in the Pentecostal tradition where I grew up, and it was definitely a external intervention, not something organic to Pentecostalism. This seems also true of other Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches, that is, those that defend the inerrancy of the Bible. I would almost say that what distinguishes American rightism is the presence of a large group of radical protestants that by pedigree belong in either centrist or leftist politics, not the right.
The Baptists, who comprise the largest group of Christians in the US outside the Catholics, were founded as an opposition to the very idea of a European State Church. The Methodists/Wesleyans, the next largest group of US protestants originated and subsist in perpetual tension with state churches. The modern Christian Right in the US was largely inspired by Calvinist ideas of a “Christian Nation,” a proposition quite foreign to the conversionist ethos of Baptists and Wesleyans. By definition, these traditions deny that an entity like a nation can be Christian because that title is only conferred by a conscious conversion experience to salvation in Christ. Calvinism in its original Swiss incarnation had no such conversion emphasis. Salvation was a predestined election by God that was not conferred by faith, but by irresistible grace. Therefore, no separation of secular and religious realms were recognized, law itself derived from biblical revelation.
This crypto-Calvinist incursion into Evangelical and Pentecostal churches occurred as a deliberate campaign by the architects of the New Right. What has always fascinated me is how Christian conservatives hold in tension two opposed ideas, that of a minority converted remnant church with incongruous idea that the US needs to be restored to its Christian heritage. A favorite saying of conversionist theology is “God has no grandchildren” and that means heritage is nothing, one must be saved by an immediate conversion. Most Pentecostals, even today, believe that someday very soon Jesus will secretly rapture all “true believers” from the earth, leaving behind false churches and the heathen masses to become the followers of the Anti-Christ. It is a wholly pessimistic worldview that had zero room for political activism, only for evangelism to save the souls of those who would miss the rapture. It is that tension that I believe is now unraveling as the younger generation of Evangelicals abandon political conservatism, though most don’t thereby become leftists. Why they don’t is often predicated on systemic race, gender, and class predispositions.
C.D.V.: Who precisely do you see as responsible for sneaking a Calvinist streak into all forms of American evangelicalism, particularly given the semi-socialist orientation of a lot of Protestant churches in the 1920s and 1930s in the US?
C.E.: It’s all somewhat murky to me, though I am familiar enough with various trends in the 70s and 80s that shaped the New Christian Right. Certainly the neo-Calvinist idea of theonomism and the “Christian Nation” as refracted through Francis Schaeffer’s dispensational Presbyterianism played a role. Jerry Falwell’s emergence from the segregationist right in the 60s to head the anti-abortion and evangelical Zionist Moral Majority was also significant. Underlying all of this was the politicization of the capitalist class and their bid to mold a populist right front, with things like opposition to high taxes, and Milton Friedman’s 10-part laissez-faire documentary, “Free to Choose” that aired on PBS in early 1980 just as Ronald Reagan was consolidating his presidential campaign.
Christians of the more literalist sort tended to be apolitical right up until the mid-80s, when the successes of Reagan’s first term convinced even more of them to support his policies in 1984, including my father, a Pentecostal preacher who had always voted Democrat before 1984. I personally was headed towards the pacifist and anti-capitalist left following the lead of Sojourners Magazine. If there was a semi-Socialist bent to many churches prior to the 80s, it was probably strongest among liberals in the Wesleyan and Catholic traditions. My mother still complains about the Social Gospel she heard growing up Methodist and how much it didn’t preach the true gospel of individual salvation.
These days I think the nucleus for a Christian Left lies mostly with African-American and Latino churches. White Evangelicals are coming to question their parents’ conservatism, but there is still a strong core of the (White) Christian Right out there and the Tea Party is still trying to reinvigorate that 80s right populism. If the younger generation who supported Obama in 2008 – but ignored the mid-term election of 2010, thereby hamstringing many reform efforts that might have been possible – could learn their lesson and pull off another Democratic congressional majority win like 2006 in 2014, I think the political basis for a national shift to the left will solidify. Even though I believe that a socialist movement will have to form to the left of the Democrats and the Green Party, that is, through a Socialist Party, one strategic prerequisite for that development is to shatter the social and religious basis of the 80s New Right, by advocating some form of Christian Socialism or Social Democracy. This is my motivation for the “Jesus Made Me a Communist” presentations and publications I’ve been working on since late 2012.
That turn for me personally has meant a rapprochement to my Christian upbringing, which I discarded in 1996 for a Universalist Quakerism. In fact, by 2005, I’d become flatly nontheistic and doubted the existence of a historical Jesus. I haven’t become a Christian all over again, but I have decided that it is more important to convince Christians to become Socialists and Communists than it is to convince Atheists on the Left to embrace Christians. It seems to me that a New New Left will be a largely Christian phenomenon and atheists and Marxists will become a minority among socialists by mid-century. Of course, along the way Christians will become more “liberal” and less orthodox theologically. This phenomena is already visible in projects like the “Jesus Radicals” anarchist webzine or the left flank of Emergent Christianity.
C.E.: The decline of Protestantism is probably overrated, just like the long predicted demise of religion itself. While there has been a small uptick in the numbers of Atheists in the world, religion continues claiming new coverts and baptizing more babies every day. Statistically, religion has a lead on atheism that would take decades to outpace.
If you mean US “mainstream” protestantism’s decline, I actually think that what will happen in the next period will be that more Evangelical young adults will drift towards either secularism, alternative spiritualities, emergent Church models, or back to the benighted mainstream Protestants. The megachurches will fade into history, I believe, just like the mass urban cathedrals of an earlier period of American life.
Mainstream protestants are generally committed to ecumenical mutual recognition. Denominational mergers which consolidate bloated church bureaucracies will likely make it possible for a comeback for many currently declining denominations.
My liberal Quaker conference is impacted by several trends. We’ve just restructured our denominational practices, reducing paid staff significantly among other cost cuts in the aftermath of a donor crisis. Our sister body, Friends United Meeting, may actually be fatally crippled by its own internal inability to reach agreement on a way out of that same crisis. Some FUM meetings have decided that our conference is more congenial to their values, especially on same-sex marriage for example.
We’re one of the few mainstream Protestant bodies to post growth figures in the past two decades, but one key element in that was that some independent Quaker Yearly Meetings joined our conference. I think we are slowing losing numbers, especially in comparison to population growth rates. However, an uptick in membership such as we experienced in the Vietnam era might change this quite suddenly. We were at the forefront of the same-sex marriage movement and are also quite active in environmental and anti-war concerns. We may very well have mass appeal in some quarters as the Obama era rolls onward.
C.D.V.: I can offers up some specific statistics: Pews data is as follows: even white evangelicals have seen a decline in the last years data down from 21% to 19%, which was the first reversal in a long a time. Religiously unaffiliated has grown from 5% to almost 10% in since 2005. Specifically “White” mainline protestants have move from 19% to 15%. Catholicism has maintained its percentage, but this seems to be from immigration. Pew didn’t study minority groups, which is interesting because that is where growth would actually be. Is this in line with what you are talking about? Why do you think progressive positions have left to declining populations within religious circles since the 1950s? This is a trend that can be seen all over the developed world, not just the US.
C.E.: I’d imagine that Black churches have declined as well. The stasis of Catholic numbers is very likely based on immigration from Latino countries. However, the rise of the “nones” isn’t tied to a rise in Atheism, but of people avoiding church on Sunday. That might lead to more atheism, but the polls don’t show as sharp a decline in theism, as they do in religious affiliation. For years after I left my former church, I’d have said I still believed in God. From 1997 to 2004 probably. That suggests that just because people have disassociated from churches doesn’t mean they’ve become atheists.
To clarify my earlier point, the decline in mainline and evangelical churches is indicative of the contradiction of American culture. Conservative religion does very well during a general economic stasis or slow decline, like the 70s through the 90s. However, as the economic crisis grinds on, people will leave those churches. They won’t immediately go to mainline protestants, though I did when I joined Quakers in 1998. However, if something changes dramatically, either a capitalist recovery that reduces unemployment or a new sharp drop in jobs, then the picture will shift again. In the former case, conservative churches might rebound. In the latter case, atheists, mainline protestants, and progressive Catholics might enjoy a new growth.
Those Catholics are unusually good at keeping their church alive. Over a millenia. It ain’t going away anytime soon. So, why doesn’t the left get over its view that it has to wage a secular revolution? The American and French Revolutions were secular liberal revolutions, why imitate them? Even blowing up churches like the Soviets did had little staying power, as Ross Wolfe documented recently.
Liberal secularism is based on the privatization of fundamental human passions. We keep the churches out of politics, just like we keep the masses out of politics. It wasn’t that long ago that all of Europe was nominally Catholic. When the Reformation tried to replace an international church with national establishments, it only succeeded in a few places, though they were key, England, Germany, Sweden, Holland, etc. Italy, France, Spain, and Eastern Europe remain solidly Catholic (or Orthodox) and also among those places where Communism has met with significant success. Liberation Theology didn’t come to Latin America because of liberal secularism, but because Catholic priests studying in Europe were exposed to Marxism and the synthetic and dialectic methods of theology dominant in Catholicism made an appropriation of Marxism almost too obvious.
My admiration for Catholic Leftists is only matched by my distaste for the hierarchy, especially at its higher levels. And yet, Catholicism continually makes corrections like adopting evolution and social democracy that many Protestants can’t make. The Church of England is in a funny way more aristocratic than the Catholic church, which doesn’t have many monarchs, dukes, and lords in its membership these days.
C.D.V.: I know you are not a Marxist, but do you see something dialectical about this? Also what do you make of both Badiou and Zizek calling for a serious consideration of the Christian identity while also sharply condemning theism itself?
C.E.: I confess that I don’t always know what Marxists mean by “dialectic.” I’ve been told that the interpretation of Hegelian thought as thesis>antithesis>synthesis is a vulgar misreading. However, I also don’t think I am just a linear thinker.
So, can you can say more how you see a dialectic at work in the religious situation today?
C.D.V.: The beginning of a dialectic is a contradiction within manifestation of a idea or material condition which enables an opposition or a countervailing tendency to emerge, and the resolution of this contradiction through various forms of negation sublates the problem and leads to something new. Do you see something like this at work?
C.E.: You assert that Badiou and Zizek “condemn theism.” I’d like to see how that is actually expressed. I’ve read a good bit of Zizek and while he asserts his atheism, he identifies theism with the Lacanian “Big Other” that is, an imaginary person outside one’s self who one believes incorrectly will come to one’s rescue. What is interesting for me is that my Pentecostal experience was that God did rescue me many times from bad choices. God, as I think about it now, functions as a kind of super-super-ego. God is the being with both a perfect moral will for each of us and perfect knowledge of the consequences of any specific action. Being sinful, we are prone to disobedience, which God knows in advance, and God created a world with beings who will disobey him constantly. His reason for doing so (according to classic Christian doctrine) is that this requires God to become an incarnate sacrificial lamb and redeem us from our sins. I used to love to quote Norman Geisler (though I’m not sure it’s his original phrase), “this is not the best of all possible worlds, but the best of all possible ways to become the best of all possible worlds.”
I don’t think theism is irrational, unless one wants to say that all of human history is irrational. I think gods have a certain deep logic, that of trusting our parents when we are children. As a kid, I knew very little about how much danger there was in the world, so I often chafed when my parents interfered with my choices. Now, I believe they were very wrong about some of their interference. Having raised two children, I am convinced that some interference with my ignorant volition was necessary for my survival. Theism is a projection of that benevolent protector onto the cosmos itself. Hey, we exist, the natural world must care that we exist. We know now that this is a hasty conclusion, but only after centuries of accumulating scientific knowledge. I think theism is hard-wired, nearly every kid believes in invisible beings of some kind.
C.D.V.: Why do you think the impact of Liberation Theology has been so varied?
C.E.: The impact of Liberation Theology is still growing, though not as fast as I would like. Liberation Theology has two basic roots, the Black Civil Rights struggle of the 60s and the radical Catholics of neo-colonial Latin America. The successes of the Sandinistas and the election of Lula would have been impossible without it. Even Chavez owes his success to it. Does that mean it is going to ever become the dominant understanding of Christianity? Maybe outside the US. Inside the US seems less likely, but that is partly for the same reason that socialism in general has had very little success.
C.D.V.: In the past two questions there is so much to respond to here that I am going to just focus on two things. You think theism is hard-wired, but you posited that notion with a notion of divinity is just a supernatural non-physical being, there have been cultures without any sense of the moral impulse or creation given to it’s divinity claims, so that is so thin a definition of God that it amounts to “most children believe in something like mind-body dualism innately.” Which I suppose stances to reason, but this would be illogical to draw any metaphysicals claims from it. It would be an informal logical fallacy, the naturalistic fallacy, to use the hardwiredness of dualist beliefs to argue that they are true, which is not what you are necessarily doing. But let’s clarify here. I find that much less compelling than the idea of divinity’s working as a kind of super-super-ego, but this really seems like a modernization of a pre-modern understanding.
But let’s get away from critiques of theism for its own sake: I noticed your drawing out of a God myth that resembles the scapegoating myths of Rene Girard. Do you share Girard’s view that Christian myth is an answer to necessity for violence as a basis of group bonding?
C.E.: Let me try to clarify. “Supernaturalism” seems to me to have arisen in late antiquity as a result of early Greek natural philosophy, perhaps due to the experience of building an international empire. Before this logic emerged, there was only one world, a wholly supernatural world created by god(s), peopled by spirits, and humanity themselves were special creations of god(s). The separation into two realms of incommensurable substances – spirit vs matter – arose when it began to dawn on the early philosophers that the gods couldn’t actually be part of the world they were beginning to examine with geometry and early physics. Our hard-wired theism then got mapped onto that duality as it became ingrained in Western culture. It’s interesting that this dualistic worldview arose just in time to be merged with the Christian movement in the second century.
I was certainly taught the Christian fall/redemption myth. Adam ate the forbidden fruit and passed on his disobedient genes to us. God is perfect so every sin must be atoned, and only a perfect sacrifice can do that, ergo the incarnate Christ gets crucified and resurrected. Girard’s view, with which I have a passing familiarity, implies that this myth has its basis in the tribe’s need for blood vengeance against lawbreakers within itself. I can’t say that whether I believe that is the true source of sacrifice myths. I’d want to do a cross-cultural analysis of sacrifice/redemption myths, which I have not.
The influence of Liberation Theology on me was to break down the sacrificial mythology and replace it with a “Christus Victor” mythology of Jesus as the miraculous revolutionary initiator of a millennia-long subversion of the bondage of the world and its people to a Satanic overlord who ruled via capitalism, tyranny, patriarchy, racism, and ecocide, which would culminate in a global overthrow of those systems by the oppressed. I’ve seen this sort of view working in various places, even in the US among Christian Anarchists, Black Churches, and the Evangelical/Pentecostal Left. This is why I believe that Communism can be embraced by Christians in the future without them abandoning theism.
I pose to the left that they can either work to change people’s theology or their politics, but changing both doesn’t work very well. I’ve seen many Christian abandon the faith and become libertarian atheists. Therefore, I try to change their politics by using the immanent critique of Liberation Theology to steer them towards the left.
C.D.V.: Do you see Christianity in specific as being key to liberation theology?
C.E.: Christianity is strategic in that it is the largest living religious tradition in human history. Liberation theology holds an important place as the “new left” period’s – 1955-75 – expression within Christianity. As I read the history of Communism it began as a religious idea first named “communism” by Etienne Cabet, who explicitly identifies the early Jerusalem church that “held all things common” as his inspiration. Then, it spread into secular left movements within the Enlightenment. Marx himself is tied to Christianity, both through his religious upbringing, but also by his Hegelianism. Liberation Theology reconnects the Christian origins of Communism – not only Cabet, but the Munsterites, Diggers, Hutterites, etc. – with its contemporary expressions, especially Nicaragua, Brazil, and Venezuela.
Judaism has its own connections to Communism and therefore a Liberation Theology also implicit. A literature has developed in the 2000s. I think Islam also has this potential, and there were some important expressions of “Islamic Socialism” that have been largely suppressed by Islamist movements and governments.
Other religions, such as Buddhism and Neo-Paganism can also develop liberation theologies that don’t rely on monotheism, but build from within their traditions and sources to connect their visions of ultimate value to a revolutionary politics. Atheism can also benefit from considering the emergence of Liberation Theology as a “worldly turn” that increases the possibilities for creative cooperation in left politics for religious-secular alliances.
Just as Badiou sees communism as implicit in the origins of Western philosophy, especially Plato, I see Christianity and Judaism as also containing important source material for elaborating a new Communist politics and culture.
C.D.V.: What do you predict will happen to North American Christianity over the next 50 years?
C.E.: I believe that a variety of post-conventional theologies will come to dominate at the lay level and eventually even most of the leadership levels. If the US turns to the left in the next half-century – as I sincerely hope and work towards – then religion will follow. As Caucasians become a de facto minority, both the overall percentage of Christians will decline, as will the strength of orthodox doctrines and the white supremacist versions of Christianity, which includes all the Continental traditions such as Lutheran and Catholic, as well as varieties such as fundamentalism.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
C.E.: My view remains that the Left needs to develop its capacity to collegially embrace religious diversity. For too long it’s been hostile or indifferent to religion. That needs to be replaced by a principled diversity. A quote is attributed to Augustine of Hippo “in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Since for a political movement the essentials are practical matters of principled action, this means that in the expression of religion, we should encourage liberty and diversity. I’d imagine that Black churches have declined as well. The stasis of Catholic numbers is very likely based on immigration from Latino countries. However, the rise of the “nones” isn’t tied to a rise in Atheism, but of people avoiding church on Sunday. That might lead to more atheism, but the polls don’t show as sharp a decline in theism, as they do in religious affiliation. For years after I left my former church, I’d have said I still believed in God. From 1997 to 2004 probably. That suggests that just because people have disassociated from churches doesn’t mean they’ve become atheists.