The Transcendant Dimension

By Cox, Harvey Gallagher | The Nation, January 1, 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Transcendant Dimension


Cox, Harvey Gallagher, The Nation


I remember well my first rethinking of religion and its relation to politics. It was a traumatic moment, but it had a happy issue. Raised in a small-town Baptist church, I lost my parochial innocence (but not my faith) during a brief tour in the merchant marine. Then, as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1940s, I fell in love with the young socialist study group on campus. For me it all seemed to fit together. After all, hadn't the prophet Amos thundered woe against those who grind down the poor, and didn't Jesus himself extol the blessedness of the peacemakers? But a couple of the zealous Christians in my dorm and some of the even more fervent members of the socialist club were not pleased. Separately, but with equal gravity, both parties told me that this odd coupling could not continue. I would have to choose.

Dispirited, I mentioned my dilemma to an old pacifist minister who had once been the student secretary of Walter Rauschenbusch, the founder of the Social Gospel movement. Scanning his bookshelf, he pulled down a battered volume to lend me. It was called Moral Man and Immoral Society, by someone named Reinhold Niebuhr. I at least recognized Niebuhr's name. His face, framed by storm clouds and a distant cross, had recently appeared on the cover of Time. I started to read the book that very evening. At 3:45 the next morning, with the premed student who shared my minuscule room trying to sleep with a pillow over his head, I knew that both legions of my tormentors were wrong. Here was a man who talked about imperialism, the acquisitive society and class conflict on the same page with God, sin and redemption. And it all made exquisite sense. So, I reasoned, if Reinhold Niebuhr (and Amos and Jesus) could do it, why couldn't 1? That cold winter morning, at 36th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia, a theological vocation was born.

Over the next decades, out there in society, the tension between the camps that had once dueled for my late-adolescent allegiance hung on. To me the spat has always seemed pointless. Secular progressives tend to forget that there are at least two major traditions of Christian political activism in American history. One is the ugly know-nothing, anti-immigrant, frequently racist and often anti-Semitic strand. The other is the populist, anti-corporate, often pacifist and sometimes utopian one. Christians, on the other hand, tend to forget that the American progressive tradition, though it has sometimes had episodes of anti-religious bombast, draws on values of compassion, neighborliness, distributive justice and peace-seeking that are nourished by religious narratives and sustained in live congregations.

During my adult life I have been involved in the civil rights movement, the protest against the Vietnam War, and the Central American sanctuary movement. Religious leaders were in the forefront (and in the trenches) of each of those movements. I doubt that I will ever forget Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel intoning the Kaddish for the American and Vietnamese dead at Arlington cemetery; or Martin Luther King Jr. citing Moses at Mason Temple during the garbage workers, strike on the night before his death in Memphis; or William Sloane Coffin praying during the draft-card-burning service at the Arlington Street church in Boston. And through it all, Dorothy Day was a beatific presence. These figures represent a sector of American religion that is still quite alive today, though badly disorganized, frustratingly out maneuvered, annoyingly underreported and outrageously outspent.

One of the many historic coalitions that have fallen into disrepair in recent years is the one that united religious and secular progressives. Today, fear of the "religious right" has pushed many secular liberals into opposing virtually any religiously motivated effort to influence public policy debate simply because it is religious. Nothing delights the pooh-bahs of the Christian Coalition more than this mistaken equation.

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