Visions of Progress


I recently returned from a Humanities Symposium in Boulder, where (among others), Wendy Brown, the Berkeley political theorist and contributor to the blog Immanent Frame, gave a brilliant analysis of Marx and religion, and the profaning nature of market culture, which is still buzzing in my head. Along the way, she discussed the religious iconography of the "Obama phenomenon." The gist of her paper can be found in her blog entry on Charles Taylor's new book on secularism, here (as she puts the discussion with Taylor there: He [Taylor] wants to think about who a secularist is and what secularism achieves and sacrifices in relation to belief, and I want to think about the subtle violences of the forces that we might call secularizing.

We've entertained considerable speculation on the blog about the fate of the so-called religious center/left, its possible (or mythical) resurgence, where Catholics fit in, etc.

Now for some excellent historical grounding for these speculations: The historian Doug Rossinow, author of The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (Columbia, 1998), which we've blogged about here before in our conversations with John Wilson about the historiography of the 1960s, is featured on HNN's "Outstanding Young Historians" page.

His new book may not get noticed by religious historians, but should be: Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America. He writes the following, of this new work:

I'm an historian of American politics. I never expected to be an historian of religion.

Actually, I never really did become an historian of religion, in any conventional sense. But I did acquire a lasting interest in the intersection of religion and political dissent-a connection I might have expected to encounter if I had undertaken a study of political radicalism in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century America, but one I did not anticipate exploring so deeply while investigating the political left in post-1945 America. Eventually I managed to compress about one-hundred pages on Christian existentialism down to a single chapter. I decided that was about what the topic deserved in the context of a study of white youth radicalism in Austin, Texas, which eventually took the form of a book, The Politics of Authenticity.

However, religion is something that pops up in unexpected places when studying American history. I have continued to explore what I call the prophetic dimension of American political radicalism in twentieth-century America-radical politics typically directed toward very nonreligious ends. And I still teach a course on religion and politics in American history.
In my new book, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America, I've moved (for now) away from monographic research and toward a synthetic perspective. One of the things I learned in researching my first book is that radical and reform politics in U.S. history have sometimes had more in common than is usually recalled. The left and liberalism are neither mutually exclusive categories nor (as a Fox News viewer might think) identical categories; they are overlapping categories.

I emphasize that American radicals, between 1880 and the present, frequently have done the work of liberalism, trying to realize the liberal ideals of constitutional government, natural rights, and other things, while, during at least some of that period, plenty of liberal reformers took a more critical stance toward American capitalism than recent history would lead us to believe. The prophetic stance is visible, too, but in ironic fashion: consciously religious social criticism was pervasive within American reform as well as among radicals in the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and even later; but it became the more exclusive province of radicals during the cold war and after, even though recent American radicals have usually been ardently secular people. Go figure.

I recently got a message from a student at a seminary in Austin, saying that some folks there are interested in establishing an intentional religious study community. He had read about another such community in the 1950s in The Politics of Authenticity, and wondered if I could send him some documents I had cited in my book. Now I'm glad I held onto those dissertation research files.


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