Religion and the American Left: A Tradition of Transformative Encounter

For more than two centuries, people of faith have been at the forefront of social change movements in the United States. White Unitarians, Quakers, and revivalists worked alongside Black Methodists and Baptists in the struggle to end slavery. Nineteenth century labor leaders honed their speaking skills in Universalist churches and congregations of Freethinkers. Early twentieth century socialists claimed that Jesus, too, had been a socialist. Mohandas Gandhi’s Hindu discipline inspired the people who ended racial segregation in the American South, just as the Roman Catholics Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton provided a pacifist spirituality for those who protested the Vietnam War. This long tradition is alive today in the Occupy Movement, which regularly sponsors public worship and private meditation. It was also on display at the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, where thousands of people demonstrated at a detention center for undocumented immigrants. Religious faith, these Unitarian Universalists declared, called them to “Stand on the Side of Love.”

This presentation will explore the surprising stories of religion and the American left. Circumstances unique to the United States, such as the national embrace of religious freedom, made it easier for religious people to work for social change in the United States than in many western societies. But, as a consequence, American leftists discovered a truth that can be experienced in any culture: when human beings meet one another deeply, glimpsing the divine image in their struggles for freedom and equality and community, they gain the power to change both themselves and their world.

Lecturer: Prof Dan McKanan, Harvard Divinity School