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Spiritual Socialists

Profiling an eclectic group of activists such as Sherwood Eddy, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Vaneesa Cook argues that "spiritual socialists" held that the most basic expression of religious values—caring for the sick, tired, hungry, and exploited members of one's community—created a firm footing for a new society.

Spiritual Socialists
Religion and the American Left

Vaneesa Cook

2019 | 272 pages | Cloth $49.95
American History / Religion / Political Science
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Table of Contents

Introduction. Cultivating the Kingdom of God
Chapter 1. Reconstructing Socialism in the Wake of World War I
Chapter 2. The Kingdom of God in the City and the Country
Chapter 3. Spiritual Power and the Kingdom Abroad
Chapter 4. The Religious Left and the Red Scare
Chapter 5. Socialism of the Heart
Conclusion. Spiritual Socialists in the Twenty-First Century


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Cultivating the Kingdom of God

In the 1940s and 1950s, the American Left was in disarray. Chastened by the failure of Marxism to liberate the masses and generate socialism in either the Soviet Union or the United States, many radicals began to question their faith in fundamental change. The Red Scare attack on Communism and any radical politics only made matters worse. Some activists gave up on the revolution completely. Others carried on by searching for alternatives to the moral bankruptcy they perceived in the Communist Party. Foremost among them were New York intellectuals, leftist writers, and radicals, including Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, and Dwight Macdonald, who had become sickened by amoral state and party power. In 1944, Macdonald founded politics magazine with the intent to express a new vision of socialism, stripped of its doctrinal baggage. Two years later, in 1946, he wrote a seminal essay, entitled "The Root Is Man," on the topic of a moral reckoning for the Left.

In "The Root Is Man," Macdonald addressed the fundamental problems he found in Marxism: its scientific certainties, bureaucratic collectivism, historical abstractions, and, above all, ethical shortcomings. Speaking on behalf of "renegade Marxist[s]," Macdonald declared, "We feel that the firmest ground from which to struggle for that human liberation which was the goal of the Old Left is the ground not of History but of those non-historical values (truth, justice, love, etc.) which Marx has made unfashionable among socialists." Marxism, according to Macdonald, lacked a human pulse and therefore could not resonate with the rhythms of daily human life. It was impersonal, amoral, and thus obsolete. Yet the failure of Marxism did not mean, for Macdonald, a rejection of socialism as a lost cause. Instead, he considered his disillusionment with Marxism as a reawakening to the possibility of building a socialist society, but this time on deeply rooted, moral grounds—into the heart and soul of "man" himself.

Democratic socialist Irving Howe, despite his frequent disagreements with Macdonald, shared a similar mission to realign the American Left around a new paradigm of what he called "democratic, humanist and radical values." In 1954, five years after politics folded its publication, Howe founded Dissent, dedicated to forging a "third-way" path around the weeds of liberalism and Communism and resurrecting the moral core of socialist belief. In the opening issue's introduction to readers, the editors described Dissent as a forum to discuss "what in the socialist tradition remains alive and what needs to be discarded or modified." Totalitarianism, for one, was out, as was Communism. The commitment to socialism, however, remained strong, though unorthodox. As they made clear from the beginning, they hoped to revive "not the 'socialism' of any splinter or faction or party, but rather the ethos and the faith in humanity that for more than 100 years have made men 'socialists.'" Howe too was searching for roots.

Notably, Macdonald and Howe, though atheists, pointed to religious activists and writers as the primary exemplars of the kind of spiritual socialism they were looking for. Macdonald gave Simone Weil, the French religious philosopher, a podium in the pages of politics. In the 1950s, he also wrote favorable essays about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, extolling their virtues as practical yet utopian visionaries for the Left. And both Howe and Macdonald celebrated the spiritual socialism of Italian novelist Ignazio Silone, whose disillusionment with Communism and Marxism matched their own. "No more . . . than Silone could avoid the subjects that had chosen him, could I avoid his work once it had chosen me," Howe recalled in his memoirs. "His questions were also mine."

The pressing questions for many disheartened, "homeless" radicals in the 1940s and 1950s came down to this: how would they revitalize the ethical basis of socialism, make it practical, and build a "New Left" movement flexible enough to maneuver around the impasse of anti-Communism? Silone, in novels such as Bread and Wine, and essays such as "The Choice of Comrades," provided the theory. Socialism, he deduced, presupposes democracy; democracy depends on community; and community grows from the simplest human actions, such as caring for the sick, breaking bread, and sharing wine. These gestures of love and compassion, Silone contended, also defined Christianity—not supernatural, institutional, or doctrinal Christianity, but a kind of sacred experience inherent in the practice of social solidarity. "What remains then is a Christianity without myths, reduced to its moral essence," Silone wrote. "In the Christian sense of fraternity and an instinctive devotion to the poor, there also survives, as I have said, the loyalty to socialism. . . . I use it in the most traditional sense: an economy in the service of a man, not of the State or of any policy of power." Expressing his hope that socialism would endure the traumas of the 1920s and 1930s, Silone concluded, "I do not think that this kind of Socialism is in any way peculiar to me."

Silone's religious approach to radicalism was not unique to him, and his message resonated with scores of American leftists at midcentury, who believed that the spiritual dimensions of the human condition needed more attention. Howe, Macdonald, and many socialists throughout the world received Silone's work as a harbinger of a New Left shift toward values and morality. But there were already activists in the United States putting the essence of Silone's thinking into practice. Spiritual socialists, such as Sherwood Eddy, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Myles Horton, and Staughton Lynd, had recognized the moral dearth of Marxist politics well before the 1950s. Through community building and direct action, they offered an alternative to secular Communism and religious conservatism that ended up reshaping the American Left and American religion by the mid-twentieth century. Their focus on community, cooperation, peace, and individual dignity softened the state socialism of Communist-affiliated organizations and created a discourse of human values and democratic activism that would define the New Left movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Spiritual socialism was, they could claim truly, an organic American tradition and not a subversive foreign import, international experiences notwithstanding.

Leftists at midcentury needed such claims. After the collapse of the Communist Party in the late 1950s, radicals of the "Old Left" were at a crossroads, and those associating with the "New Left" coalesced from across the radical spectrum, including pacifists, anti-Stalinist democratic socialists, former fellow travelers, and community activists with a shared interest in nonviolence and decentralization. Spiritual socialists, however, do not figure prominently in these accounts as a comprehensive tradition that predated the crisis of Communism in the 1950s and circumvented the confusion, for the most part, unscathed. That is, they were able to maintain a vision of moral social change despite the criticisms of anti-Communists and serve as a vanguard for the New Left as it developed out of the turbulence of the Red Scare.

At a pivotal time of realignment for the Left and religious revival, generally, spiritual socialists offered American radicals the theory and practice that would reshape socialism in the mid- to late twentieth century. They made moral and even religious values relevant for leftist discourse, and, crucially, they broadened the Left's agenda. No longer tied exclusively to Marxism or the "labor metaphysic," as C. Wright Mills would later call it, spiritual socialists addressed the whole person as a sacred agent of God. Accordingly, issues of oppression were extended to include race and gender and state-sponsored violence, in addition to class. The spiritual socialist vision made progress on these fronts (in fact, on all fronts of oppression) a theological and practical necessity. In other words, the only way to cultivate the Kingdom of God was through careful attention to root, structural problems that obstructed human dignity and harmony in any way. It is not surprising then that spiritual socialists were able to influence and dovetail with emerging social movements on civil rights, pacifism, and New Left politics in the 1950s and 1960s. They shared similar values and objectives. For example, white supremacy, a glaring problem in the United States, had no place in the Kingdom of God. It had to be overcome in order to achieve God's will for the nation and the world. Marxism, though still relevant for many spiritual socialists as an economic analysis, offered little help with these broader, cultural issues of race and religion. Consequently, spiritual socialists turned to the Bible rather than The Communist Manifesto for answers and inspiration.

This story has not been told. While some historians have addressed the history of religion on the left, the narrative remains fragmented, and the popular perception still envisions the conservative "religious Right" as the voice of politicalized Christianity. Excellent work has been done on religion and liberalism, but most scholars, let alone the general public, have little information about the religious Left or its rich history. Even many historians of the "long civil rights movement" have sidelined religion in favor of more secular sources of black radicalism. Yet religion was not antithetical to the Left or merely tolerated as a supernatural sideshow to serious political activism. Instead, religious activists, especially spiritual socialists, helped bring the Left back to its moral baseline and helped project a new hope for the future of radical change. The impact of the religious Left on secular radicals like Howe and Macdonald in the 1940s and 1950s makes this clear.

Midcentury is an important moment in time for understanding how socialism evolved from a labor-oriented European doctrine to an Americanized moral project of democratic community building and values. To do so, we must uncover the tradition of spiritual socialism. Americans need to know what the rest of the advanced industrial world figured out long ago: that socialism has many forms and should not be relegated to a rigid definition. Nations can and must find their own version, cultivated organically from their own political culture. It is also important for understanding the revival of democratic socialism today. In an era when concepts like "ownership of the means of production" have little meaning, and top-down bureaucratic systems have little appeal, it is crucial to educate the public about how socialism can be made to work for them and their values in their daily lives. Socialism today is no longer the "dirty word," as one activist put it, that it was in the mid-twentieth century. Instead, it has become heralded as a viable democratic, moral alternative to traditional politics. To trace that transformation, we must analyze the role of the religious Left and its relationship to socialism.

The narrative of spiritual socialism reveals the social thought of left religious radicals who refused to measure progress on a scale of issue-oriented political gains, church attendance, or denominational conversions. Their tradition must be traced along a much longer arc of continuous struggle for socioreligious renewal throughout the mid- to late twentieth century. Socialism, in the minds of these activists, did not fail in either the United States or the world; it simply had not been afforded the time required for it to take root and permeate human relations. Socialism as a spiritual project, they predicted, could take millennia to achieve. Their patience, however, had political consequences, making them less apt to compete for sensational media headlines on hot-button topics such as abortion and affirmative action. What's more, their message of a selfless life lived for others was much harder to advocate than the individualistic and sometimes materialistic peddling of the religious Right.

The figures in this narrative are fairly well known, but not necessarily in the context of socialism. Some spiritual socialists, including Muste and Day, fall under the label "pacifist," and accordingly they have been afforded passing mention in studies on nonviolent direct action. They receive more thorough treatment in scholarship on the history of American pacifism, but such distinctions fragment the tradition, especially because spiritual socialists were not always staunch pacifists. What is more, the issue of violence was not the central problem of the twentieth century for these activists. Nonviolence, even for Muste and Day, operated as a practical means to a higher end: the building of the Kingdom of God on earth. By this they generally meant the gradual process of establishing God's will for the world. More specifically, spiritual socialists envisioned a future, utopian society that reflected the teachings and practices of Jesus. They believed that the Kingdom of God on earth, when brought to full fruition, would be a society of perfect peace, cooperation, and equality among all persons. This amounted to their spiritual interpretation of socialism, another word they used to describe the Kingdom come. As such, Christian nonviolence was, for them, an interpretive religious means for building a socialist society of peace, equality, and fellowship. It was not an end in and of itself. By studying these activists exclusively as pacifists, then, we miss the multidimensional aspects of their larger, eschatological project. Spiritual socialists went beyond pacifism, channeling it toward a completely new society. Not only did they espouse antiviolence and antiwar principles in a negative sense; they also proactively projected a world of complete equality and cooperation. Direct action, for the absolute pacifists in this group as much as for the self-proclaimed "pragmatists," was geared toward demonstrating alternatives. It was not about just preventing and disrupting immoral actions. It was also about making moral action seem possible and practical.

Neither were spiritual socialists mere "religious radicals," broadly understood, threading their way through the rise and fall of the American Left, and serving as prophetic voices. Scores of activists in U.S. history offered a social interpretation of religion. Yet this study of spiritual socialists goes deeper into the historical significance of a tradition that carved a special space in the psyche of the American Left. Spiritual socialists were serious socialists, who spoke as and to socialists, often identifying themselves as such, though qualifying the term to avoid confusion with the forms they sought to contest. These radicals did not tout a traditional, political conception of socialism, and that made all the difference to independent leftists like Macdonald and Howe. Rather than encouraging centralized power politics, they promoted small-scale, local organization from the bottom up. Instead of privileging the proletariat or some special vanguard, they embraced the inherent dignity of all individuals. And, instead of dogma, they spoke of values and moral behavior. They showed that religion could be revolutionary and not just reactionary, and they gave hope to the disillusioned, an important role they played since the 1920s, when their distinctive thought and practice began to find traction, after the Great War caused many radicals to lose faith in progress. The religious Left, many believed, was on the wane. However, a study of spiritual socialism shows that the religious Left has never disappeared from American politics or culture. It remained strong among progressives throughout the twentieth century and continues to shape political and social action today.

Back in the early twentieth century, before the Great War, left-liberal religious activists believed they had good reason to proclaim their confidence in the coming Kingdom of God on earth. For one, foreign missionary work was thriving, impelled in part by what John Mott, the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) coordinator for the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), called an "unprecedented development of missionary life and activity among young men and young women." Writing in 1900, Mott reinforced the ambition among Protestant missionaries to "evangelize the world in this generation" by spreading the Christian gospel into every uncultivated corner of the globe. At home in U.S. cities, advocates of the social gospel, a mission to apply Christian values to social problems, were also projecting high hopes. They marshaled their evidence of a rapidly advancing Christian society from progressive political policies, laws, and social relief agencies that had been instituted in little more than a decade. The spirit of God seemed to be moving mankind inexorably into a modern, moral dispensation that would soon reflect all the qualities of heaven unto earth. Muste, remembering the optimism of the time years later, wrote that "there was a general feeling . . . that the Kingdom of God was pretty close at hand here in the United States. At any rate, we were going to make steady and almost automatic progress towards its realization." Former-minister-turned-secular-leader Norman Thomas, the longtime leader of the Socialist Party of America, also characterized the early twentieth century as an era of hope. "I vividly remember my own youthful conviction that all the great victories essential to the onward march of man had already been won; what was left was but to press onward toward that far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves."

World War I, according to most historians and contemporaries, challenged these lofty assumptions. At best, the wartime crisis arrested the momentum of progressive politics in the United States. At worst, it produced a patina of disillusionment among many reformers who could no longer profess a faith in the steady, moral development of civilized nations. The war, in this sense, did not so much destroy the movements of left-liberal and social Christianity as it deflated the general spirit on which such idealism had found buoyancy. The Great War dealt a major blow to facile predictions, as social missioners realized that the baser instincts of human nature were more entrenched and intractable than they had previously thought. As Thomas put it, "No one—certainly no American—who grew to maturity in the years before World War I could in his wildest nightmare have imagined the horrors which have become commonplaces of the daily news since 1914." If progressive religion was going to survive the demoralization the war had wrought, radicals had to reevaluate their assumptions and approach to social change.

Faith in the possibilities for world peace and brotherhood, in the end, was not all lost. Between 1920 and 1970, a new expression of religious activism, what I call spiritual socialism, developed among a variety of historical actors who insisted that the process of constructing a truly humane world in which the spirit of God infuses every social relation would take more time, require more radical methods, and demand more concentrated attention at the local level. Spiritual socialists, including Muste, Eddy, Day, Henry Wallace, Horton, Martin Luther King Jr., and Lynd, all returned to the fundamental elements of their faith, believing that simple acts of caring for the sick, tired, hungry, and exploited members of one's community would eventually change the world. Creating the Kingdom of God on earth, they understood, was not a matter of political expediency, but a long-term process of social cultivation that must address both spiritual and material needs in local cooperative communities. For these activists, the recurring social setbacks and political failures of leftist movements did not shatter their sense of mission; instead, it radicalized them.

The intellectual tradition of spiritual socialism is crucial for understanding the remaking of the American Left after World War I. By emphasizing religious and democratic values as crucial components of modern life that had gone missing in Marxist theory and practice, their unorthodox perspective on the spiritual and cultural meaning of socialist principles helped make leftist thought more amenable to Americans, who associated socialism with Soviet atheism and autocracy. Spiritual socialists, in short, reconstructed an American Left based on religious values and democracy that became relevant to mainstream politics. Emphasizing the "social" side of socialism as a religious way of life, spiritual socialists held that the most basic expressions of religious values—caring for the sick, tired, hungry, and exploited members of one's community—created a firm footing for a socialist society. Traditional Marxists, they contended, neglected these human values in their focus on violent and immediate revolution implemented by the party or proletariat. By insisting that people start treating each other better in everyday life, spiritual socialists transformed radical activism from political policymaking into projects of local, grassroots organizing.

Spiritual socialists used religious values to reformulate leftist thought into a moral project relevant to mainstream American politics, but they also made religious values more acceptable to American radicals. For example, civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s used Christian values to couch their claims for social change. The emerging New Left movement of the 1960s picked up on this radical rhetoric and proclaimed to "speak American" in their demands for democracy, individual dignity, and equal treatment. Many leftists, in fact, promoted a spiritual, not just material, understanding of social progress and exhorted Americans to think of socialism as a moral imperative. The tradition of spiritual socialism provided the American Left with a moral foundation and language that made religion and radicalism congruent, not antithetical.

To be clear, when these figures referred to "religion" or the "spiritual," they did not mean formal religion or its theology and observances. Each spiritual socialist brought their own personal beliefs and Christian content to their activism, but they could agree with Thomas that religion reduced to basic human values. As Thomas wrote, if "religion is a deep sense of values transcending quantitative measurement, then I think religion is necessary to the good life and to the good society." Spiritual socialists wanted to liberate religion from doctrinal dead-ends and give its essential values, including equality, human dignity, peace, and cooperation, a live option in daily practice. Equating the coming Kingdom of God on earth with a socialist society, they insisted that religious values were necessary elements for building a new world order, since they had the substance and power to transcend both narrow-minded materialism and petty human selfishness. Yet spiritual socialism remains an overlooked tradition of left radicalism, one that has continually put pressure on liberals, conservatives, and Marxists to address the interplay between morality and social justice. They put the human spirit back onto the political agenda in the mid-twentieth century and the social work back into socialism.

By understanding the unique vision of spiritual socialists, who believed they could create the foundation for a better world, historians may break out of the standard "rise and fall" declension narratives that have dominated politically centered studies of both the American Left and U.S. religion. Spiritual socialists conceived of socialism as a decentralized, religious way of life, not as an economic system or political program for proletarian revolution. Consequently, they regarded political "failures" to achieve power or affect policy as temporary setbacks. They also regarded campaigns for political power during World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and within the Communist Internationals as misapplications of moral values. They focused instead on the much longer struggle to build small socialist communities that would prefigure the coming Kingdom of God on earth, which they understood to be an ideal, spiritualized state in which socialist values—equality, peace, and cooperation—become normative social practice. Their approach to international relations, therefore, offers an alternative to the recently renewed interest in conservative religion and liberal Christian realism. They did not all advocate absolute pacifism, but they did believe, contrary to conservative evangelists like Billy Graham and Christian realists such as Reinhold Niebuhr, that human virtues and moral values could reshape international relations and redeem a sinful world. They argued that a religious way of life learned in small, local, cooperative communities would eventually transform the global landscape through cultural reconstruction.

If spiritual socialists have not found a footing in the historiography, it is in large part because they had a hard time finding a definitive place among their contemporaries. They were activists in limbo, deemed too radical for Christians and too religious for many on the left. The very nature of their thought and practice also kept spiritual socialists from claiming a more visible role in national circles. Having accepted the fact that their eschatological objectives to produce a new world order outstripped their capabilities at the global level, spiritual socialists opted for building socialism from the bottom up in cooperative communities, rather than channeling their energies toward topical solutions at the national or international levels. They did not abandon high-level politics completely, but they knew that their writings and speeches amounted to empty rhetoric without the accompanying work of constructing a new social order.

Dissatisfied by the unethical trade-offs of mainstream politics, they continuously returned to the most fundamental social sources of their idealism and started again, just as Howe and a host of independent radicals began to do in the 1950s. Though the regrouping of independent leftists after the 1930s has been a slippery topic, the story of spiritual socialists offers a fresh perspective on the opportunities and failures of the American Left during this fascinating time of transition. They may not have escaped the noose of the Red Scare completely, but their religious convictions gave them a certain measure of credibility among Americans. And their coolness toward Communism allowed many of them, though not all, to sidestep the internecine battles among radical sects that only added to the ideological exhaustion of the Left by midcentury.

The unique thought and practice of spiritual socialists made them politically less visible, but no less influential. In the 1920s, for example, YMCA missionary Sherwood Eddy began publicly identifying himself as a socialist, intent on preaching a message of grassroots democracy and building alternative institutions in the United States, such as his Delta Cooperative Farm in Mississippi. Around the same time, radical journalist Dorothy Day cofounded the social Christian program that became known as Catholic Worker in New York City, and Myles Horton established the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Peace activist A. J. Muste also advocated a revolution in daily communal practice, which, as he told his labor comrades at the alternative institution Brookwood Labor College, was the only rational means to radical ends. In 1948, Henry Wallace, the former New Deal administrator and vice president, ran for president on a spiritually infused platform that called for prioritizing spiritual socialism at home over military crusades abroad. Historians tend to see his loss to Truman as an example of the futility of national strategies on the left. Yet Wallace ended up inspiring a generation of spiritual socialists, including New Left historian Staughton Lynd, to change the world through local to global community building and cooperative diplomacy aimed at the spiritual, not just political or material, needs of nations and their peoples.

Notably, these spiritual socialists came from different religious backgrounds and experiences. Eddy grew up as a Congregationalist; Muste gravitated from the Dutch Reformed Church, to Congregationalism, to Quakerism, to the nondenominational Labor Temple within the span of two decades; Day remained a staunch and lifelong Catholic after her conversion in the late 1920s; Horton grew up Presbyterian; Wallace experimented with an array of religions including Presbyterianism, Theosophy, and Native American mysticism; and Lynd attended a Jewish Reformed school and later identified as a Quaker. In later years, Pauli Murray became an Episcopal priest, Cornel West was raised Baptist, and the Reverend William Barber currently preaches for Disciples of Christ. Jews, however, are not strongly represented in this story, though they did find common cause with spiritual socialists from time to time. There were exceptions to the general rule, and perhaps some residual religious sympathy, but Jewish leftists, by and large, tended to make their moral claims in secular, ethical language. Howe and Coser, for example, appreciated spiritual socialism on moral and practical grounds, but they never subscribed to a theology.

Despite the diversity of their denominational affiliations, however, spiritual socialists all shared an ecumenical commitment to the same basic religious values that they believed any Christian should practice and apply. Instead of specific dogma, they emphasized the social message of Jesus, who repeatedly told his disciples to love and care for each other and the members of their community through simple acts of compassion and cooperation. Eddy, Muste, Day, Horton, Wallace, and Lynd took this commandment for community building very seriously, a point of convergence that marks them as fellow spiritual socialists with a common cause. Instead of working for social reform through top-down policy or political activity, they all insisted that the best (and perhaps only way) to build the Kingdom of God on earth was through local, social work in small groups, towns, and neighborhoods where people interacted face-to-face.

This radical social approach of spiritual socialists in their response to national and international problems, in fact, distinguishes them from religious reformers of the past—that is, before World War I. Socially concerned Christians, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Jane Addams, Shailer Mathews, George Herron, Francis Peabody, W. D. P. Bliss, and Harry Ward, certainly promoted and even practiced ideas of the cooperative community and social responsibility, but they filtered their Christian ethics through a Victorian-era worldview laced with the assumption that moral suasion, legislation, and policy reforms, managed and directed by a political and religious leadership, would change society in the near future. These "social gospelers," as the historian Robert Handy acknowledged, "were not so much activists as they were preachers, proclaimers, and educators." Spiritual socialists, on the other hand, learned from their experiences during and after World War I that incremental, piecemeal reforms had limited any effect on the real sources of social and economic problems, including capitalist exploitation, poverty, and health care. Political victories, for them, amounted to hollow victories if unaccompanied by concurrent changes in social values and interpersonal relations in the long-term overhaul of an immoral, fundamentally flawed system.

Muste was one such activist for the religious Left who, in the wake of World War I, began to think differently about the possibilities of achieving both a socialist society and the Kingdom of God on earth—twin visions of a future state of peace, equality, and human cooperation. He carried on the social gospel faith in postmillennial social salvation, but blatantly rejected their methods of mechanical, political management of society. He favored instead the organic, internal cultivation of an entirely new social order. "The difficulty with the late 19th and early 20th century," Muste explained in 1944, "was that people were obsessed with mechanism, with the machine, and derived from that obsession a conception of life which led to the idea that the problems of the social order could be met by changes in the external arrangements of life." According to Muste, the Victorian conception of social crisis as a problem of "mechanics" and "social engineering" neglected the human soul as the most primitive and important source of social behavior. Social gospelers of that time, he believed, wasted their moral vigor applying Band-Aids to a social cancer of violence, competition, and greed that really required complete eradication from the inside out. They righteously worked on behalf of the coming Kingdom of God, but with flawed, futile methods of reformism and propaganda. "The liberal Christians were never, in my opinion, wrong in cherishing this vision," Muste made clear. "Their mistake, and in a sense, their crime, was not to see that it was revolutionary in character and demanded revolutionary living and action of those who claimed to be its votaries."

The term "social gospel" or "liberal reformer," then, does not adequately represent spiritual socialists who belong to a lost lineage in leftist religious thought and action. In fact, the use of the term "social gospel" has become historically problematic. For one, it is discussed most often in the context of a declension narrative, marked by its emergence at the turn of the twentieth century, by its climax as a progressive reform movement in the years just before the outbreak of World War I, and then by its decline, if not complete disappearance, since the early 1920s. Some historians have noted that a new manifestation of the social gospel seemed to coalesce in the 1960s as civil rights protestors, New Left activists, and liberal clergy once again expressed their political and social views as an extension of social Christian belief. Yet the religious Left, as this study shows, did not disappear from history in the years between 1920 and 1960, even if it went missing in the historical narrative. By focusing on the tradition of spiritual socialism instead of the social gospel, we may complicate declension narratives of twentieth-century religion in America.

One reason why historians have had trouble recognizing the endurance of left-liberal religion pivots on the problem of categorization. The term "social gospel" is either tied to Progressive Era politics or employed as a broad and inclusive term referring to liberals, legislators, imperialists, anti-imperialists, radicals, reformers, social conservatives, and theologians. Therefore, the term holds very little tangible substance, especially when trying to trace its significance along the contours of social movements. My hope is that the term "spiritual socialist" cuts through this confusion by identifying a particular type of activist, one who equated socialist and religious values and called for the cultivation of the Kingdom of God on earth in small-scale communities. They identified themselves as revolutionaries on the left, not as liberal reformers, but as small "s" socialists with a serious radical program for fundamental political and economic change by way of social and cultural reconstruction.

The term "Christian socialist" also fails to accurately describe these activists, not only because the concept carries connotations of continental communal philosophy and a turn-of-the-century mind-set about mechanical social engineering, but also because Christian socialists were too tied to class struggle and Marxist analysis. Spiritual socialists moved beyond Marx to consider multiple forms of oppression, including race and gender. Calling them Christian socialists also undermines our understanding of the profoundly ecumenical inclusion that spiritual socialists advocated. Although they took their cues from the gospels, spiritual socialists cared more about applying social ethics than they did about their particular religious source. Theologically, spiritual socialists shared a belief in the immanence of God, working in history through human agents toward postmillennial salvation in the coming Kingdom on earth, which they conflated with a socialist society. But they purposefully kept it vague in order to connect with as many people as possible. In fact, spiritual socialists used phrases like "Kingdom of God," "cooperative society," or "socialist society" so interchangeably that their religious philosophy often resembles a vague, conceptual shell game without concrete substance.

This problem of imprecision is exacerbated by their common tendency to reject biblical literalism and liturgy in favor of lived religious experience, actively applied in real-life situations. Beyond the basic principles of social Christianity, spiritual socialists did not concern themselves with theological doctrine, a point of pliancy that made them more open to religious and cultural diversity throughout the world. The spiritual socialists profiled in this book all happened to express their social vision in ecumenical Christian terms with Christ's basic social message as the driving imperative for their activism. However, they were not interested in converting radicals to Christianity or Christians to socialism. They wanted people to put the morals that underlay both Christianity and socialism into practice, generally recognizing the importance of a humanitarian deed over any fixed creed, as long as that deed demonstrated a religious quality to bind people together in cooperation, fellowship, and love. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and even secular socialists who applied Jesus' message of goodwill were all welcomed as co-creators of the Kingdom of God on earth. As Lynd explained, "We [believe] that there [is] a common religious experience that different persons might use quite different words to describe." Underlying this respect for religious pluralism, spiritual socialists' abiding belief in a form of personalism or the dignity of every human being as an equally valued child of God framed their ecumenical acceptance of diverse perspectives.

Such spiritual open-mindedness did have its disadvantages though, especially when it left them vulnerable to accusations of watered-down, impractical utopianism. When pressed to define their vision more explicitly, spiritual socialists often fell back on idealistic, romanticized notions of love, cooperation, and the Kingdom of God. Their significance in the history of American radicalism, therefore, lies more in their understanding of means rather than ends. Though they did not offer a clear blueprint for the future, they did maintain a faith in concrete Christian acts, however small, that they believed would contribute to the Kingdom's slow-going construction. Jesus' social program and the model of primitive Christianity, practiced in local communities, contained enough spiritual power to transform the world, they claimed.

Just as spiritual socialists dismissed religious dogma, they also discounted the political doctrines that secular socialists typically wielded in sectarian debates. Spiritual socialists took an active interest in issues of social justice, and many of them, such as Muste, Day, Horton, and Lynd, participated directly in the labor movement. They agreed, for example, with the basic Marxian premise that industrial capitalism operated as a corrupt and corrupting system based on monetary gain rather than human values. Yet their opposition to capitalism emanated from religious reasoning—it was incompatible with the new world order, not because it contained economic contradictions that would inevitably hasten its demise, but because it contained ethical contradictions that hindered the spiritual development of humanity. The problem with capitalism, as practiced in the twentieth century, was that it encouraged people to express and act on their most selfish impulses, a culture of behavior that could never exist within the Kingdom of God. If people could learn instead to suppress these base instincts and follow the example of Christ in their relationships with others, then over time a revolution of practical religious values would transform the world into heaven on earth.

Spiritual socialists' version of socialism deviated from orthodox Marxism in a number of other significant ways. They did not subscribe to dialectical theories of inevitable progress, violent programs for achieving political power, or a secular vision of an ideal society centralized around top-down state authority. Neither did they advocate overthrowing the government and establishing a centralized workers' state. Instead, they went to work on behalf of all exploited peoples without singling out a particular class or group (such as the proletariat) as the exclusive vanguard of a new world order. Workers in the ideal, socialist society would have democratic access to the means of production, but only by virtue of their identity as respected and valued children of God, not because of their privileged proletarian status. For these reasons, most spiritual socialists did not herald the Socialist Party, or any secular organization, as the best vehicle for achieving the Kingdom of God. They may have appreciated and even joined them for a time, but more often than not, they became disillusioned with the myopic focus on materialism and political expediency in these national groups as well as the general rejection of religion that the Socialist Party, for one, espoused.

With their ethical resolve regarding radical politics, spiritual socialists projected a unique vision of religious redemption for both the industrial-capitalist system and secular alternatives to that system. They demanded that the means to the ideal society prefigure that society, or, in other words, that a future world based in peace, love, and honesty could emerge only from the deliberate practice of those principles. Their experiences with secular radicals, who often encouraged violent and unethical tactics in the quest for a socialist state, revealed to them the futility of rationalizing immoral strategies for moral objectives. That is why they were often wary of identifying with the term "socialism" and all the negative connotations it conjured. Instead of a workers' state, spiritual socialists heralded the Kingdom of God. Instead of venerating proletarian heroes such as Joe Hill, killed in Utah for his radicalism in 1915, they identified Jesus Christ as the most relevant model for left-labor revolution. For spiritual socialists, the struggle for revolution amounted to a social process of practicing moral principles, not merely a political project for establishing power.

Neglecting the cultural and social substance of socialism has caused Americans to underestimate the lasting influence of leftists who have worked for long-term changes in small communities. On the social side of socialism, religion becomes much more important. Spiritual socialists insisted that only changes in the hearts and minds of men and women could create a new culture of social behavior. Concomitantly, they believed that only religious values possessed the power to initiate and sustain such changes. Jesus commanded the disciples to love and take care of one another; and for spiritual socialists, this simple decree underscored all social action in the here and now. It meant healing the sick, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, sharing wealth, and respecting the dignity of every person as an equal member of the human family in the image of God. These gestures of fellowship and compassion formed the fabric of the Kingdom of God on earth—in the practice of social solidarity and essentially socialism. The coming Kingdom of God on earth, then, was the ideal socialist society, in which peace, love, and justice become practical realities, first developed in local communities and then extrapolated to more complex social environments at the national and international levels.

Spiritual socialists all shared this belief in common; they spoke of religious and socialist values as one and the same; they dreamed of the Kingdom of God and a socialist society in tandem. By deconstructing socialism down to its fundamental roots in human experience, they recognized a naked moral impulse, a spiritual source so primal that it contained universal meaning. However, none of the spiritual socialists in this book claimed to know the political dimensions of the Kingdom of God on earth, a blind spot in their vision that often made the entire concept seem vague and illusory. They talked in terms of its social process, but not as much in terms of its fully fledged structure and operation in a complex world. As Muste acknowledged in 1954, "We cannot foresee the society which is to be and we must finally accept the fact that we are dealing with a process and it is in the process that we find our success rather than in the realization of a static plan for society."

Their method of practicing direct action in one's community (helping those in need and sharing resources) seemed like a far more powerful and realistic approach to social revolution than moralizing. Individuals would learn by doing good works, and society would change through the practice of fellowship. "What we do on our own street has a kind of reality that is not present in mere resolutions and therefore has more significance than much talk," explained Muste. Essentially, however, spiritual socialists still relied on moral suasion to convince people that their interests were better served by cooperating with others. The social revolution might begin in the hearts and minds of men and women, but that kind of change called for nothing short of religious conversion, one person at a time. Spiritual socialists were aware of this matter. It is why they spoke of long-term cultivation measured by generations. In the interim, though, they continually confronted people's penchant for instant gratification. They also had to contend with a public polity responding to immediate threats from perceived enemies at home and abroad. The Progressive Party campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948, for example, faltered on this issue of practicality. Wallace could not convince voters to trust in his program of long-term, patient process while Truman was appealing to their sense of urgency and crisis. In an imperfect world full of danger and violence, it was far easier for people to vote according to their fears rather than their hopes.

It also proved much easier for people to accept the theological notion of individual salvation over social salvation and original sin against human perfectibility, a point that helps explain why conservative, fundamentalist churches have seemed more successful in their efforts to build a grassroots base of political power and influence in the mid- to late twentieth century. Conservative evangelicals, like their political counterparts, tapped into the fears and biases of their followers to great effect, emphasizing the negative features of human society and human nature and drawing acute lines of separation between the saved and the depraved. Wielding a message of biblically based discrimination in their Sunday sermons, conservative clergy have cultivated a grassroots movement against the grain of left-liberal efforts to foster ecumenical acceptance of cultural diversity and social equality.

This is not to say that left-liberal activists have failed to exert any influence on society, even if their presence as an organized constituency is less visible than that of the religious Right. Liberal and left idealists have had a significant impact on ideas of race, gender, and class differences in the popular consciousness. Marshaling hard evidence of cultural and intellectual influence, however, is more challenging than a study of political polls and policy, making it difficult to determine the historical achievements of many left liberals. Yet by understanding the vision and grassroots activism of spiritual socialists, historians may appreciate more fully the importance of subversive, slow-moving social movements that operate at a cultural register less evident and perceptible than political movements. This book gives them a voice. It also invites scholars to reconsider the Left and its ongoing relevance to U.S. politics, including the democratic socialism of recent presidential candidate Bernie Sanders or the moral revivalism of Reverend William Barber. Spiritual socialists teach us that we cannot understand the Left in U.S. history without grappling with the ways in which religious values helped ground socialist theory in the mainstream currents of American political culture. They also help us understand socialism in a broader context. The word "socialism" has taken on multidimensional meanings over the course of the twentieth century, and, therefore, the history of socialism deserves multidimensional treatment, especially if we are to trace the ways in which radicals sought to claim a distinctively moral and decentralized form that has survived the Cold War and the ideological battles of the twentieth century.

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