U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Gandhi Roundtable, Part 3

Editor's Note

Dear reader: What follows is part three of our seven-part roundtable on Leilah Danielson’s remarkable book, American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). For part one, by me, go here. For part two, by Tim Lacy, go here. This essay, by Lilian Calles Barger, seeks to put Muste in the context of the long history of the prophetic tradition of religious dissent. Lilian is an intellectual, cultural and gender historian and an independent scholar. Her book entitled The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. She is currently researching the history of feminism and the gender revolution. Contributions to follow are by Wes Bishop, Janine Giordano Drake, Ray Haberski, and a response to the roundtable from Danielson. Enjoy. Andrew H


“Without a Vision, the People Perish”

By Lilian Calles Barger

Commenting on Leilah Danielson’s excellent intellectual and political biography of A.J. Muste, I suggest that we draw attention to him within the larger historical framework in which he belongs. I read the book in the midst of revising my own manuscript on the liberation theologies of the 1970s and found an abundance of intersecting ideas that stretched all the way back to the nineteenth century. In decades of pacifism and social justice work Muste’s theo-political views were part of an alternative religious stream that emerged with the nation’s founding among religious dissenters and political resisters. Instead of abandoning Christianity for a rationalist faith, African Americans, labor activists, and women’s rights radicals repeatedly turned to a reimagined prophetic religion to make their case for justice, which often stood in opposition to the religious orthodoxy and politics of the day. In the twentieth century, Muste’s life reminds us of many of the same religious impulses for justice and touches on multiple social and intellectual movements that typified a revolutionary social democratic idealism.

However, as Danielson demonstrates, for our purposes here, Muste is best understood within the twentieth century history of social Christianity and the religious radicalism it spawned, which has received scant attention in the history of the left. She offers a bridge between the left, often seen as secular and religiously alienated, and committed religious social activism. She breaks the opposition between politics, seen as both secular and public, and religion, considered a private matter of belief and personal morality, to illuminate our understanding of the religious contribution to radical social–political thought. Muste, as an exemplar of this idea, practiced his religion in the world of politics and social movements and exemplified Jesus’ pragmatic-sounding injunction, “by their fruits you will know them.” [i]

With a career that spanned five decades, Muste lived within a milieu of a modernist theology that had reworked Calvinism, embraced the progressivism of the social gospel, turned to a pragmatic approach to religious truth, and, in the advent of World War I, became more conflicted over the ethics of war. These intellectual changes provided him the ideas to actively support justice for workers, nonviolence in the battle for civil rights, the New Left’s vision for a new society, and the anti-war and post-colonial movements throughout the world. His idealist faith, expressed in his books Non-Violence in an Aggressive World (1940) and Not by Might: Christianity, the Way to Human Decency (1947), was founded on a belief in the goodness of humanity and brushed up against the limits of how one could hold an absolutist pacifist position in the pressing call for revolutionary action.

The progressive social gospel from which Muste emerged, with its democratic aspirations and middle-class promoters, shaped social thought for decades and made major contributions to Americans’ understanding of democracy. Danielson examines many possible reasons for Muste’s neglect in the history of the left. I suggest that one may be what happened to the social gospel and its legacy. The social gospel came under intense criticism in Depression-era politics, charged with being an idealistic and politically unworkable blend of religious ethics at odds with the realities of exercising political power. It fell out of favor and was characterized as a white, middle-class movement, which out of paternalism and arrogant self-regard gave Christian salvation a social emphasis. Considered dead, the social gospel, along with pacifism, was supplanted by Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism, which helped build the Cold War arsenal and dampened the social engagement of middle-class churches for decades. This prejudiced the historiography of the social gospel.

Recently, the history of the social Christianity has experienced something of a renaissance in books such as Heath W. Carter’s Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford University Press, 2015), Gary Dorrien’s The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (Yale University Press, 2015), and the edited volume The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (University of Illinois Press, 2016) to which our own Janine Giordano Drake is a contributor. The new historiography is finding parallel and diverse expressions of social Christianity that break through the assumption of tepid progressivism and mid-century demise. These diverse and more radical streams of the social gospel did not depend on white middle-class benevolence but instead sought a theo-political expression rising from below—from workers, African Americans, women, and other marginalized groups. The new historiography illuminates religiously motivated activism that continued all the way to the 1960s civil rights battles, to the innovations of the 1970s liberation theologies, and to social justice movements still evident today. The reconsideration of the social gospel and its radical political legacy has added complexity and color to the movement’s long history. This is just where we find A.J. Muste—making Danielson’s biography especially timely.

Muste’s theological bearings can also be located within a broad liberal theology of the age, which had turned to historicism, social theory, and pragmatism, resulting in an emphasis on ethics over dogma allowing Marxist-Christian dialogue. Attending New Brunswick Theological Seminary and later Union Theological Seminary in New York City, he was in the midst of the most fashionable developing theologies of his day. This blended religion had its beginning in the formal reworking of theology in the late nineteenth century becoming the liberal theological mainstream. Theologians who embraced historicism mixed with the likes of John Dewey and Jane Addams and grappled with the religious ramifications of the pragmatism expressed by Charles Peirce and William James. They reformulated theological ethics for the twentieth century by giving precedent to right action over right belief. Muste expressed his emphasis on action in a prophetic “Judeo-Christian” mix that has marked the religious left ever since—a tradition that is at once prophetic, pragmatic, and radical. This mix was later conceptualized by Cornel West as an enduring “prophetic pragmatism,” which he ascribed to black religion. [ii]

Danielson’s American Gandhi does a great service by filling the gap between the progressive era’s social Christianity and the 1960s, as Muste persevered through the travails of the labor movement, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam, never abandoning his belief in the possibility of a just world. She sympathetically traces his radical career through the ebbs and flows of a confident religious faith and doubt, and estrangements from, solidarity with, and breakups with political movements. He did not follow a straight line to a just society, and she captures a complex, and sometimes contradictory, deeply socially minded thinker who attempted to reconcile Marxism, prophetic Christianity, and pragmatism. Ultimately he held that improving the world would require the collaboration of God and flawed, but fundamentally good, human beings. Holding to the Hebrew proverb “without a vision, the people perish,” Muste sounded a prophetic call to many, beginning with his “Challenge to Progressives” in 1929 and his influence was evident in the words of Martin Luther King, Paul Goodman, and Allen Ginsberg in the 1960s (17).

Danielson gives us a visionary whose religious faith we cannot regard as a mere eccentricity; it was the foundation for Muste’s moral vision and energy. He never departed from it long enough to forget its prophetic call, through five decades of hope, reversals, social change, and activism, making him an aspiring and yet very human figure. American Gandhi is one of the best intellectual–political biographies I have read—detailed, rich, sympathetic, and unremittingly realistic about the perils of messianism and human foibles. Given its deep archival references and totaling 469 pages of a detailed yet fast-paced examination of Muste’s public life, it’s difficult to suggest that Danielson should have done more. It remains for others to engage more thoroughly with Muste’s written work and to locate the multifarious sources of the ideas he came to embrace. Maybe we will find other religious radicals who are similarly in need of intellectual recovery, helping us draw a more complete picture of the left in America. Along the way, some may be inspired to cast a new vision.

[i] See Howard Brick & Christopher Phelps, Radicals in America: The U.S. Left since the Second World War (Cambridge University Press, 2015). This book gives scant attention to Muste and the religious left; Charles Peirce use this phrase as a measure of the truth of any proposition in “Pragmatism” in The Essential Peirce (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 401.

[ii] Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982).

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  1. “She offers a bridge between the left, often seen as secular and religiously alienated, and committed religious social activism. She breaks the opposition between politics, seen as both secular and public, and religion, considered a private matter of belief and personal morality, to illuminate our understanding of the religious contribution to radical social–political thought.” If this is true Danielson is contributing to a necessary new politics. Thanks for this overview, Lilian.

  2. Excellent, Lilian! You captured aspects of both mine and Janine’s reviews herein. …Now to read Bishop’s and Haberski’s—and to reread Danielson’s response. – TL

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