Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Prophetic Encounters: An Interview with Dan McKanan

By Garrett FitzGerald 
February 2012

As a part of our mission statement here at, we invoke and claim as our own inheritance "the storied legacy of progressive religious activism in United States." Firmly believing that "the beliefs and practices developed by progressive religious activists have played an integral role in nearly every movement promoting liberty, equality, and solidarity in the history of this nation," we have sought to draw inspiration and understanding from those who have come before us as we labor to keep their visions and struggles alive in the 21st century.

So you can imagine how excited we were when we got wind of a recent book chronicling the very legacy which we here at the site claim for ourselves. In Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition, Harvard Divinity School professor Dan McKanan weaves dynamic accounts of the seemingly disparate movements that have comprised the Religious Left into one coherent, compelling narrative of social and spiritual transformation. Via Beacon Press: 
In Prophetic Encounters, Dan McKanan challenges simple distinctions between "religious" and "secular" activism, showing that religious beliefs and practices have been integral to every movement promoting liberty, equality, and solidarity. From Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the nineteenth century to Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and Starhawk in the twentieth, American radicals have maintained a deep faith in the human capacity to transform the world. This radical faith has always been intertwined with the religious practices of Christians and Jews, pagans and Buddhists, orthodox believers and humanist heretics. Their vision and energies powered the social movements that have defined America's progress: the abolition of slavery, feminism, the New Deal, civil rights, and others.
I sat down recently with Professor McKanan, and we explored some of the themes featured in Prophetic Encounters.  An audio recording of the interview is available below, and you can find the full transcript after the jump. 

Okay, I'm here with Professor Dan McKanan, who is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School. We're here discussing his new book, Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition, out now from Beacon Press. Thanks so much for talking with us today, Professor McKanan. 

Thank you, Garrett. It's lovely to be in this conversation. Garrett and I first met when he enrolled in my class on this topic three and a half years ago, now.

It sparked a lot of interest, and arguably to a certain extent it sparked a website as well. So, really excited to be having the conversation. I would like to start with a little bit of background. 

What motivated you personally to write Prophetic Encounters?

Well, this is really at the heart of my personal religious identity. I am someone who grew up in a Christian tradition, and as I walked my own faith path, got involved working with homeless people in college, and became aware of traditions of liberation theology particularly, gradually work for social change became the heart of my faith, not an adjunct to faith, but the main thing I see myself doing religiously. For me, personally, that involved affiliation with the Unitarian Universalist tradition, but I was also aware of people in many other faith traditions - Buddhists and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals - who also put work against war, work for socialism, work for women's rights, work against racism at the heart of their faith. So that's my personal commitment.

In my teaching career, I was eager to teach this heritage, and I became aware that most of the scholarship on religious radicalism in the United States is movement-specific. There are great books about the religious traditions that fed into the abolitionist movement in the early 19th century, there are great books that trace the story of the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the 20th century, or the role of Catholic and Protestant and Free-Thinking opposition to war in the time of World War I and World War II, and there is a lot of great scholarship of course on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and other forms of 1960s radicalism. But no one had tried to take these different stories and knit them into a common narrative, and as a result an image was created of religious social change activism as primarily a series of discreet movements - movements that pop up at a particular point in time and then do some work and then subside - and I wanted to tell the story as a story about a tradition, about people who are inspired by those who come before them, are inspired by people who might be working on a somewhat different issue than their own and build on those practices and those ideals in a way that has a great deal of continuity over time.

In exploring this tradition you return again and again to this idea of the encounter, encounters between groups and encounters between individuals. What drew you to that as a framework for exploring the tradition of American radicalism? 

My first book was about religious understandings of violence and nonviolence among social change activists in the early 19th century, and as I worked on that story I tended to identify mostly with people like myself, people whose role was often that of the ally: the white ally in the struggle against slavery, the male ally in the struggle for women's rights. So I was particularly conscious in that research about the kind of interpersonal encounter that gives rise to that relationship of ally-ship. What is it that allows someone like William Lloyd Garrison, a white man raised in sea-faring towns in northern New England, to identify with the struggles of enslaved Africans for freedom in the American South? As I looked at those experiences I saw there was a strong spiritual dimension to the encounters that bring about ally-ship. When somebody like Garrison encountered someone like Frederick Douglas, a black abolitionist who had himself been enslaved, Garrison saw in Douglas the image of God, saw the Divine present in Douglas' struggle for freedom. And I really resonated with that, and that fit closely with my own personal theology.

So that was the view of encounter that I started with in working on the book, and I think I chose the title already thinking about encounter in that way. And as I taught this, and I think this happened in your class, Garrett, people really challenged me to think about both sides of that encounter between Garrison and Douglas - and I do still begin the book by telling the story of what happened when Garrison first heard Douglas speak in Nantucket. Students asked, "Did this encounter really work the same way for Frederick Douglas as it had for William Lloyd Garrison?" And that question led me to a lot of really helpful recent scholarship on the emergence of black abolitionism and the ways in which black radical organizations of the 1820s really paved the way for the work of white abolitionists like Garrison, beginning especially in the 1830s. And it became clear to me that Douglas was available to Garrison as someone to encounter only because other communities had already lifted him up and given him a sense of self-hood. Even before he had arrived in Nantucket, he had learned to read from other enslaved and free African-Americans in Methodist circles in Baltimore. In the ways in which black Methodists had found in their churches a sense of purpose and identity and vision very different from the identities that were imposed on them by the racist power structure of this nation, those identities forged by black spiritual traditions were what made possible the white-black encounter between Douglas and Garrison.

And I further realized that African-Americans were not the only people having these kinds of community-building encounters in the 1820s. The so-called Workingmen's Movement, one of the earliest incarnations of labor radicalism in the United States, also hinged on people who shared an experience of oppression coming together, telling their stories, engaging in what we would now call 'consciousness raising, and feeling more powerful as they came to understand that the hardships in their lives were not about them individually, but about larger structures they could work together to change.

So I came to the view that the fundamental power source for the radical tradition, or the Left, is not the kind of encounter that brought Garrison and Douglas together, but the prior encounter among communities of the oppressed, whether they be African-American, whether they be the working men that I just talked about, whether they be the women who came to the salons organized by Margaret Fuller in the 1830s to learn how to speak in public because they lived in a culture that said it is unfitting for women ever to speak in public. And Fuller realized that if this was going to change, women were going to have to get together and develop the skills and the confidence that would then allow them to engage the public more fully.

So I tell the story of the Left as the story of three different kinds of encounters. Encounters of identity are the basic building block, the ways in which oppressed people form their own sense of communal identity. Personal encounters are the first step toward ally-ship, when a representative of that self-empowering group meets face-to-face with someone of greater privilege and bring them on board as an ally. And then I also talk about communal encounters, situations where individuals of privilege choose to place themselves in impoverished neighborhoods, in labor unions, whatever it might be, thus encountering the whole whole social structure of oppression simultaneously. And that was really important at the beginning of the 20th century with industrialization and urbanization, as people felt the need to immerse themselves in the struggles of the city.

Since I was talking about identity encounters, I do want to highlight that that is one way of understanding what is happening in the Occupy movement. People are coming together as we're facing what could be a long-term economic decline in this country, and people who are negatively impacted by that - whether they are individuals who have been experiencing homelessness for years, or whether they are recent college graduates who have discovered there is no job waiting for them at the end of $100,000 in debt - these folks are coming together and claiming this new identity, the 99%, as a basis for power.

One of the things that really struck me while I was reading the book was that so many of the movements that you look at now seem like the products almost of historical inevitability: the abolition movement, some of the successes of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and some of the other consciousness-raising movements. It's really kind of refreshing to hear them re-contextualized as something that was so wholly radical at the time. 

Could you say a little bit about how something that, at the time, was really on the fringes of society and religion and religious practice, came, in our current minds, to represent the real heart of those eras?

First, I want to say that with most of the movements I talk about in the book, there's a mix of success and, I don't want to say failure, bu certainly of deferment. So let's talk about the Workingmen's Movement of the 1820's, the first people to sound the alarm about rising plutocracy in American society. One proposal they came up with for preventing plutocracy was universal, publicly-funded education. We got that, pretty quickly, in the wake of their agitation. Both major parties incorporated that idea into their platform. Another idea that the Workingmen put forward was a 100% estate tax, so when you die all your money goes back into the community and that money is used to basically give everyone who turns 18 an economic foundation in their lives. This is a time of small, artisan entrepreneurs, so they assumed if you, at age 18, inherited from the community - not necessarily from your parents, but from the whole community - if you inherited a certain amount of money, that would allow you to get your own workshop, your own set of tools, your own small farm, whatever it would be, so that you could be an economically independent citizen. That's an idea we should still be talking about now, and I think the Occupy movement has given us some good platforms to talk about it. But it certainly was not achieved in the time of the Workingmen.

But now back to your initial question, of how a fringe movement becomes mainstream. One of the things that I think it is really important to understand is the relationship between what I call American radicals and what I call 'institutional liberals.'

American radicals, or the Left, if you like, I see as people who embrace the core revolutionary principles of liberty, equality, and solidarity, and are willing to fight for those values even at the risk of existing institutions. So, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas, in their different ways, were both willing to see the American system crumble for the sake of ending slavery. Institutional liberals are people who also cherish the values of liberty, equality, and solidarity, but who think that those values are already embodied fairly well in our political structures, and are thus willing to extend those values only if they don't endanger existing structures. So the great institutional liberal that Garrison and Douglas came up against was Abraham Lincoln. Personally, he despised slavery, bu he loved the Union more, and he made it very clear that his priority was saving the Union with or without slavery.

A similar dynamic holds between the Socialist agitators of the early 20th century, people like Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, on the one hand, and the two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, on the other.  Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt were classic institutional liberals. They saw some value in what Socialists were putting forward, but they did not want to endanger existing institutions.

There is a certain kind of alchemy that can happen between radicals and institutional liberals that can bring about change. I say alchemy because it is not exactly cooperation. If you look at radical newspapers from the 1932 presidential election, it's pretty clear that they did not hold out much hope for Mr. Roosevelt. He was a small man, a sort of classic party politician, who was not going to make the kinds of bold changes that were needed to get the country out of the Great Depression. But it turned out that they made enough noise about the kind of bold changes that were needed to get the country out of the Depression, and working people - longshoremen in California, auto workers in Detroit, people in so many cities - created so much movement on the streets and in the factories that Roosevelt's political instincts kicked in and he began borrowing pages from the Socialist playbook. And that is basically the way that social change has happened in this country. I'm not saying we'll never have a bona fide revolution, but the great changes that we've seen since 1776 have always involved this interplay between radicals who simply put an ideal out there and push it as hard as they can, and politicians who say, "well, there's value in that, and I might be more likely to win the next election if I can transfer some of the energy from that agitation to myself."

In more recent history, a lot of the fervor that I think should have been directed so social change was instead directed to the personal symbolism of Barack Obama as a political candidate. And what we've seen is that, in a way, that tied his hands as a creative leader. When the American public could see no difference between Barack Obama and the Left, it was actually very difficult for him to adopt any of the principles of the Left in his own policy-making. It's very exciting now that the left is starting to act much more independently of Obama, putting forward a sharp critique of plutocracy, and that's given him a little more maneuvering room to be an institutional liberal who borrows some of those themes from us.

I do want to come back to the question of what the contemporary Left can glean from the book. But before we come to that, you do spend a chapter discussing the rise of highly politicized conservative religion in the last several decades. So before we come to what the contemporary Left can learn, I would like to hear your thoughts on what is new, what is old, and what is most challenging about contemporary conservative religious influence on American politics and public life.

I was just looking at your website before the interview, and I saw that your lead story was on Dominionism, which is one particularly troubling dimension of the broader phenomenon of the Religious Right. One thing that is very important to say is that the Religious Left has a longer pedigree than the Religious Right. It is not at all difficult to identify folks in the early 19th century - whether it be William Lloyd Garrison, whether it be Theodore Dwight Weld, whether it be Sojourner Truth - who are claimed as ancestors, as guides, by the likes of Michael Lerner or Jim Wallis or Starhawk.

There is a real continuity in the Religious Left. I don't think there is anybody in the 19th century that a Jerry Falwell or a Michele Bachmann can really claim as an antecedent. There was a bit of a movement in the middle of the 19th century to essentially overturn the First Amendment and include a constitutional amendment declaring this country a Christian nation, and so you can see a little bit of continuity there. But I don't think that those Christian nation amendment people in the 19th century were allied with capitalist corporations and anti0tax agitators in the way that someone like Michele Bachmann certainly is. Focus on the Family, despite its names, has "lowering tax rates" as one of its central platforms. And that kind of marriage really is a phenomenon of the late 20th century.

That being said, lack of pedigree has certainly not prevented the Religious Right from having a great deal of power. I think one of the things that the Religious Right has understood, maybe didn't understand at the very beginning but understood very quickly, was Tip O'Neill's dictum that all politics are local. That when they didn't win big early on, they started putting a lot of effort into school committee elections and building up local bases of power that way. That is the base on which somebody like Michele Bachmann can build.

I think any kind of radical movement neglects the local at its peril, and neglects the local congregation at its peril. In earlier US history this was even more so, but even today local congregations are probably the primary way, apart from their employment, that people are organized today. So a lot of power flows from local congregations, or has the potential to flow from local congregations. But the way in which that happens is going to be different on the Left than on the Right. You can talk about the Religious Right as the Christian Right without much trouble. You cannot talk about the Religious Left as the Christian Left in any meaningful sense. Even Left organizations that might seem on the surface to be quite religiously particularistic,  like the Catholic Worker movement, which is often associated with Dorothy Day's somewhat liturgically traditional style of Catholicism, when you look more closely you discover that Dorothy Day's Jewish Marxist friends found ways to participate in what she was doing as she built houses of hospitality and farms. You discover that much of what Dorothy Day promoted in terms of direct action against war was inspired by Ammon Hennacy, who saw himself as a non-church Christian with a very idiosyncratic spiritual vision. You find places like Haley House Catholic Worker here in Boston where the founders became Buddhists as part of their spiritual journey.

The thing about Left activism, because it leans so heavily on interpersonal encounters, it has a naturally interfaith dimension to it. People are always open to the spiritual wisdom of a Gandhi, or of an Abraham Joshua Heschel, or or of a Thich Nhat Hanh. So it's really a matter of Christian Right, Interfaith Left. And one of the challenges is to find the kinds of strong, grounded, local institutions that can fully reflect that interfaith spirituality as an organizing base for radical action. I think if you look at some of the spirituality tents in the Occupy movement, that's one nascent model for building interfaith community at the local level.

One of the things that I keep returning to in my own writing for the site is this idea that the internal pluralism of the Religious Left is, depending on how effective we are in addressing it, going to be the movement's greatest weakness or its greatest strength. To what extent do you feel like the visions of encounter or the different models of encounter that you describe in the book could contribute to helping address and work though the incredible internal pluralism you see on the Left.

One thing I would underscore is that the religious pluralism of the Left is nothing new. We often imagine that America found its interfaith identity only in the wake of the Asian immigration brought about by the 1965 immigration reform law. It is certainly true that immigration reform in 1965 brought about a new kind of cultural pluralism, in which the interfaith conversation could more naturally be Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Buddhist/Hindu. But, especially on the Left, in the 19th century you always had a conversation that was Christian/Spiritualist/Free-Thinking, and so forth. Culturally similar people, but people with very different spiritual views. And it made a great deal of difference whether or not those people were able to work together, or whether they allowed their theological differences to push them apart.

What kinds of encounters make it easier for theologically diverse people to work together? That is a great question, and one I hadn't thought of in quite these terms. I think what I would say is, I would really lift up the value of intentional community here. The Congress of Racial Equality was the first organization devoted to using Gandhian nonviolence to fight racism in this country. It emerged in the wake of World War II, and was the brainchild of a guy named James Farmer. Farmer was the son of a black Methodist theology professor who, as a young child prodigy and college debater, was mentored, on the one hand, by Howard Thurman, the great black religious mystic of the 20th century, raised in the black Baptist tradition, but with a free-thinking father.

Let me actually trace this back and say intentional community and real family connections. So Howard Thurman was raised with a Baptist mother and a Free-Thinking father. And he saw his female relatives stand up and make sure that his father got a proper funeral even though he was a religious nonconformist, and Thurman took that sensibility into his own formation as a minister, seeking out diverse spiritual traditions. He spent time at Haverford delving into the Quaker mystical tradition, he spent time interacting with white Social Gospellers and picking up on that tradition, and so he was available to mentor people working more conventionally within Christianity for change.

So along came James Farmer. James Farmer, as a young man, was mentored by Howard Thurman, and he was also mentored by this guy V.F. Calverton, who was a white Socialist ex-seminarian who had lost his Christian faith but who had not lost his appreciation for the power of spirituality in bringing about social change. For whatever reason, Calverton, as a white radical, saw it as part of his job in the 1930s and 1940s to spend time at historically black colleges in the South serving as a debate judge, as a drama judge. And this is where he encountered James Farmer. So Farmer had the spiritual insights of these two very different mentors. They were very different in their personalities as well. Thurman had a bit of a reputation as a saint; Calverton had a bit of a reputation as something of a rake, was definitely in an open marriage and sexually non-conventional. Farmer, drawing on these two inspirations, came to identify himself as a religious Humanist, but as he was founding the Congress of Racial Equality he built living communities that were intentionally interracial - white and black people living together - to provide the foundation for them going out and trying to de-segregate coffee shops and skating rinks in Chicago in the 40s.

But that living together was also a time of spiritual cross-fertalization. Homer Jack, who was a Jewish Socialist who was becoming aligned with the Unitarian tradition, was part of that mix, as well as Catholics and more conventional Protestants. I think the fact that those Gandhian techniques were developed in an interfaith context is what made it possible for Martin Luther King Jr. to link them to the spiritual practices of the historic black churches in the South in a way that also spoke to idealistic college students in the North - both white and black - who had much more tenuous relationships with organized Christianity. You didn't see the same kinds of spiritual battles among these folks that you certainly did see between Evangelical and Free-Thinking abolitionists in the 1830s, and I think part of the reason you didn't see those battles is that people had been living together across thsoe religious lines.

Bring it back around to the contemporary Left, such as it is, what do you think is the book's most powerful message for activists today? 

I think the most powerful message is that we have a tradition. We have a cloud of witnesses. You know, I was talking to a student yesterday about the role of religion in social change and the role of economics in social change, and which we think is the greater causal force. And while we were talking it occurred to me, something that scholars of comparative religion have often noticed, that belief in God of gods or supernatural realities is probably not the most basic common denominator for religious traditions. One of the things that may actually be a little more basic and fundamental would be attention to the ancestors. Churches, whether they be Unitarian Universalist Humanist churches or Jewish synagogues, including Reconstuctionist synagogues that may not have any particular belief in God, or more conventional Catholic or Protestant churches, all of these congregations are places where people talk about the ancestors. They talk about people who are dead.They tell stories about people who are no longer here to tell their own stories.

The marketplace, the mall, television, these are not places where ancestor stories get told. These are places where all the value is on what's new. The contribution of my book, but also the contribution of religion to the Left, is that it has the capacity to mobilize the ancestors for the struggle that we're in now. And we do need these ancestors. We do need our Abby Kelleys and our Frederick Douglases and our Eugene Debs and our Norman Thomases when we stand up against the plutocrats of today.

You mentioned in the closing chapter of the book a number of movements - specifically the movement for environmental justice, for LGBT rights, and self-conscious contemporary Christian radicalism - as three current examples of the American religious radical tradition. But looking forward, what frontiers for justice do see on the horizon, either in terms of new, novel challenges or the dreams of the ancestors that have been deferred down to today?

A lot has changed on the Left in the year since I finished writing this book.The final chapter of the book is by far the most dated part if it, because I really raised the question of whether the Left has a future, or whether some of the emerging movements might be going in such a different direction that they might do good work but might no longer fit under the rubric of the Left. A lot of my questioning of whether the Left had a future flowed from my own observation of the Obama campaign of 2008, when I saw people of your generation mobilizing with incredible energy, and the sort of energy that's usually given to leftist causes, for a candidate that I saw as decidedly non-leftist. So that raised a lot of questions for me about the future of radicalism in this country. And then the Occupy movement made it clear that people of your generation are in fact quite able to mobilize in large numbers on behalf of issues like economic inequality that have been mainstays of the Left for 200 years. So that is a new data point for me.

I will also say that, at the time I wrote the book, I assumed that the big issue moving forward was the environmental issue. I really saw the current economic crisis as inextricably related to environmentalism, so I thought it was very unwise of President Obama to put other issues, to put economic issues, ahead of environmental issues in his policy. What I would have wished he could have done would have been to implement a massive jobs program as his response to the economic crisis, and to devote that jobs program entirely to developing a sustainable energy infrastructure. The reason that I believe the current crisis is not just a temporary downturn, but a systemic one, is that I see this as the death knell of the oil-based, the petroleum-based economy. We're not going to be able to return to genuine prosperity and real economic hope until we reconstruct our economy on a sustainable basis.

But it's clear right now that the most intense energy, the most intense activist fervor in this country, is on the economic inequality issue, and not on the environmentalism issue. And I hope that this will be agitated in a way that keeps these two issues connected. Certainly what I would project over the next couple of years is a reintegration of - you know, the New Left, one of the things that was new about the New Left in the 1960s was that people who had experienced a couple decades of steady prosperity were trying to shift the leftist paradigm away from the bread-and-butter issues of socialism toward issues of identity and culture, particularly around race and gender, and then sexuality of course emerged as another cultural issue. The Left right now is waking up to the fact that over these 50 years of attention to these very important identity issues of race, gender, sexuality, we've allowed the gains of the New Deal to be dismantled. And we've allowed the United States to return to a kind of economic inequality typical of the 1920s or the Gilded Age.

So the immediate task of the Left is to lift class issues up again without pushing identity issues down. Identity-based organizing, I still believe, is where we get our power. So it's particularly heartening to me that there has been attention to the particularities of race, and gender, and sexuality within the Occupy movement, and that those issues aren't being sidelined, but rather are being integrated into the way people are doing things. So that's really the task, to integrate 60's-style agitation with 1930's-style agitation, and to do it all within a steady state rather than an expansionary economic model. How can we give more economic hope to people without increasing the amount of physical resources we extract from the earth?

Terrific. Any closing thoughts?

I think that's good. This has been a really fun conversation. I'm just so thrilled that you're doing this great work of lifting up this idea of the Religious Left. You know, I live in a Divinity School bubble where the idea that there is a Religious Left is pretty obvious to people. Publishing this book has exposed me to some folks who are skeptical, who are unaware of it, especially again people of your generation. They don't remember the visual images of religious radicals in the 60s and who haven't paid attention to congregation-based community organizing and the other things that have been happening all along, and they are skeptical of the idea that faith can be brought to bear on politics in a non-conservative way, and so it is really important work that you are doing.

Well, we really appreciate it, and I definitely have you to thank in no small part for bringing many of these ideas of the Religious Left to my attention and for putting them in historical perspective for me. Thanks so much again for talking to us today. Again we have been talking to Professor Dan McKanan at the Harvard Divinity School. The new book is Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition. Thanks so much for listening!


  1. This is so rich with history! Thanks for linking to some of the people he mentions. Is the book on Amazon?

  2. Sure is! You can find it on Amazon here:

    For the Kindle here:

    or straight from the publisher here: