Scope and Content Notes:
Both the Marxist and anarchist traditions usually opposed religion because they conceived of rationalism as the only path to human liberation. Religion, they argued, befuddled the masses in two ways. First, by basing itself on the supernatural, religion encouraged irrational thinking and discouraged the masses from developing rational capacities. Second, by promising rewards in a future life for dutiful behavior in this life, religion encouraged passivity and discouraged protest. However, these arguments ignored how radical social movements had been inspired by egalitarian elements in Judeo-Christian theology from the peasant wars of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance mobilized by dissenting Protestants and heretical Catholics to the radical wing of the English civil war inspired by radical Christian sects to the abolitionist movement in which evangelical Christians had played an overwhelming role.
Two significant cohorts of Christian Socialists operated within the orbit of the major left-wing movements from the 1890s through the 1960s: Protestants influenced by Social Gospel Protestantism and Catholics influenced by liberation theology. Both argued that the moral visions of socialism and Christianity overlapped and that you could not be a true Christian in the modern world unless you committed yourself to social and economic justice. The first group formed a Christian Socialist Fellowship affiliated with the Socialist Party that published The Christian Socialist and encouraged ministers to seek Socialist Party nominations for public office. Some of the most prominent Socialist politicians were ministers and members of the Christian Socialist Fellowship including George R. Lunn, mayor of Schenectady, N.Y. and J. Stitt Wilson, mayor of Berkeley, Ca.
While several individual Catholic priests also supported the Socialist Party and the IWW, they faced concerted opposition from an overwhelmingly anti-socialist church hierarchy. Catholic support for the left expanded in the 1930s when Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement garnered support not only among lay Catholics but also among some members of the Church hierarchy. Both the rise of the CIO and the emergence of the Popular Front in the late 1930s offered more political space for radical Catholics. The former involved massive strikes and protests by industrial workers who were disproportionately Catholic and expected Church validation for their actions. The Popular Front made collaboration between religious and non-religious agitators less problematic because the Communists toned down their inflammatory rhetoric and actively sought alliance with anyone who would work with them.
By the 1960s liberation theology had become a mass movement in Latin America and radical Catholics could take prominent roles in both the Civil Rights movement and the antiwar movement without fearing retaliation from the Church. Religion also, perhaps, fit in with 1960s protest because of protestors’ widespread interest in mysticism and spirituality.