As the culture wars of the last several decades unfolded, religion seemed to loom over every aspect of American life. Would public schools host class-wide prayers, teach intelligent design, and require daily deference to the American flag? Would television shows deal frankly with sexuality, abortion, and unconventional families? Would Americans find hope and vitality in an increasingly secular, progressive future, or in an idealized Christian past? Today, as the fog of this protracted cultural struggle clears, it appears that religion—specifically Christianity—was itself contested, rather than merely serving as the moral bulwark of one particular side.
This is because, as historian Kevin Kruse points out in his recent book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, co-opting the rhetoric and symbols of Christianity was useful for American capitalists, at least for a time. The result of this unhappy marriage was the Christo-capitalism of the modern Christian right, a species of American conservatism that left a bitter taste in the mouths of leftists. But if this is all that remains of the legacy of Christian politics in America, it will be an affront both to Christianity and to leftism.
Viewing the relationship between Christianity and leftism as inherently antagonistic is firstly a disservice to history. Despite the efforts of the business leaders who conquered Christian thought during the Great Depression, American Christians have never supported capitalist domination of governance or of society. Consider, for instance, a recent study by historian Heath Carter of the Christian roots of labor union organizing in Chicago during the Gilded Age. In Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago, Carter recovers what has been lost to the rhetoric of the Christian right, namely that Christianity (even its evangelical iterations) aligns very well with the goals of organizers fighting for justice and dignity in their work. Indeed, America’s labor movement has long enjoyed support from Christianity of all stripes, from the Catholicism of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, to the peace-oriented Protestantism of A.J. Muste and the Society of Friends.
Outside of labor organizing, Christian theology has also influenced other leftist social movements, such as black power in the United States and liberation theology in Latin America. American civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked this theology of liberation to agitate not only for racial justice, but for equality everywhere and for everyone, including in the sphere of economics. Today, the same line of reasoning is evident in the words and writings of Pope Francis, who has added environmental concerns to the issues we must address so that all can flourish equally.
Christianity, in other words, is no more destined for a cozy relationship with neoliberal, free-market politics than any other ideology, and perhaps less so, given its longstanding interest in the poor. The fact that Christianity is reflexively associated with conservatism in the United States is not so much an accident of history as it is a concerted effort on the part of vested, moneyed interests. Still, making a bad match for American conservatism doesn’t necessarily mean that Christian thought is overly inclined to a pure, secular leftism: indeed, there will always be tensions between Christian doctrine and the tendencies of left political action when it comes to social issues like the family, sexuality, and fertility. The values of an orthodox Christian leftist in these matters will undoubtedly differ from those of a secular leftist. But there are two reasons why Christians should remain an important left contingent, and a valuable resource for the left. First, because the kind of mass politics necessary to achieve left goals will rely in part on reaching the world’s approximately 2 billion Christians. Second, because Christianity can help challenge reigning neoliberal views on property, poverty, and the role of government.
Consider, for example, Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, an encyclical released in May to respond to growing ecological crises worldwide. In Laudato, Francis writes that “[t]he principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.” He then goes on to note “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” Francis is exactly right: since the earliest writings of Christianity, theologians have held that property should support human flourishing, not impede it. Property comes, in other words, with what Pope John Paul II called a social mortgage—a due owed to the remainder of humanity for privatizing a piece of creation that was made for all to enjoy.
The implications for Christian politics based on this observation are massive, especially because so much of liberal political logic hinges on the inviolability of property rights, and the conception of the self as a kind of property. It is difficult to challenge the valuation of property rights over life and, more importantly, human need, from within a heavily property-focused liberal framework. And because virtually all American political rhetoric is caught between two liberal poles, most of our political discourse also seems incapable of making the sharp critiques of liberal thought that we so urgently need.
But Christianity, in part because of its long pre-liberal history, remains a valuable wellspring of such criticism. Pope Francis can criticize liberal property theory and its impact on government (consider conservatives who view taxation for public spending as de facto theft, and therefore immoral) precisely because Christian theories of property and governance emerged long before liberal ones, and conceptualize value in radically different ways.
And because Christianity is still practiced by large swathes of people both inside and outside the United States, these critiques are still deeply meaningful to many, and embody values and truths they hold most dear. This means that, along with providing a program for left political action, Christianity also imbues it with passion, which has been as much a driving factor in America’s anti-oppression movements as the theories on which they’re based. The Christian legacy for left politics, especially today, is therefore one worth fighting for.
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is a staff writer at The New Republic.
This article is part of Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read its counterpart, by Susan Jacoby, click here.