Religion and the American Radical Tradition
by Dan McKanan
Beacon Press, 2011, 290 pp.
Looking back on her youthful days as a secular radical during the First World War, Dorothy Day evoked the desire for redemption that drove her to political struggle. “I was in love with the masses,” she recalled in her autobiography. Her ardor assumed eschatological proportions, as the wretched of the earth would break their shackles and enter a promised land. “The poor and the oppressed were going to rise up, they were collectively the new Messiah, and they would release the captives.” To Day and her messianic comrades, religion was a drug for the weak or the unenlightened. Beguiling the downtrodden with assurances of heaven, the clergy peddled the religious opium that tough-minded radicals rejected. If “the strong did not need such props,” religion was something Day needed to “ruthlessly cut out of my life.”
Through most of the 1910s, Day lived among the lyrical Left: writing for the Call and the Masses, marching with anarchists, socialists, and Wobblies, seeking out a life of downward mobility by subsisting on welfare rations. (In the course of carousing with her fellow bohemians, she once drank Eugene O’Neill under the table.) After the war, as other radicals trimmed or abandoned their hopes, Day’s passion for the masses remained unabated—but she abandoned her secularism. Moved by the rites and festivals of her neighbors and inspired by Peter Maurin—a French Catholic vagabond-intellectual and “peasant of the streets”—Day fused her left-wing politics with devotion to the old Messiah. In the Catholic Worker movement and newspaper much of the old radical agenda remained: abolition of wage labor, eradication of the state, workers’ control of production. But Day now saw, not the people as Messiah, but the Messiah in the people. “It was seeing Christ in others, loving the Christ you saw in others.” “Greater than this,” she continued, “was having faith in the Christ in others without being able to see Him. Blessed is he that believes without seeing.”
In Prophetic Encounters, his survey of religion and American radicalism, Dan McKanan briefly traces Day’s pilgrimage, but he doesn’t examine Day’s claim to have encountered the old Messiah in the new one or other pertinent theological reflections scattered throughout her writings. By neglecting Day’s theology, he obscures the ideas on which she drew to make sense of her turbulent life and encounters, and that elision reflects the pervasive flaw that mars his otherwise invaluable book. It’s an odd shortcoming, as McKanan is one of the foremost scholars of religion and radical politics. A senior lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, he has written extensively on antebellum Christian pacifism, contemporary Christian intentional communities, and the post-Day Catholic Worker movem...
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