Recommended Reading: Prophetic Encounters

Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition by Dan McKanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011)

In most of the radical social change movements I’ve been a part of or otherwise come into contact with, there has been the distinct idea that “religion” is part of the problem. More often than not, you’ll usually get an ill-informed tirade on how oppressive “religion” is. When pressed, one hears the usual, though clumsily given, examples of crusades and witch trials, the purportedly universal homophobia and misogyny among the religious. All important, of course, and much of it true. But what about the religious impulse to make the world more just? And what about the longstanding place that religion and spirituality have had in radical movements—movements that fought for human dignity and racial reconciliation and peace among nations?

Dan McKanan’s Prophetic Encounters is a good antidote to contemporary progressive activists’ antipathy toward organized religion and spiritual movements. Anyone whose view is that religion’s role in public life is necessarily conservative needs to read this book. In it, McKanan sweeps across US history with an eye toward exploring the relationship that religion and religious traditions have played in movements for radical social change. Indeed, that there is an unbroken radical tradition in the US with a religious element.

Beginning with the anti-slavery movement and moving through the women’s, labor and civil rights movements, Prophetic Encounters documents and discusses the active role that religion has played in each. Key players in each era are considered, from William Lloyd Garrison to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King to Starhawk.  McKanan introduces or re-familiarizes readers with historic figures, painting a biographical portrait as well as a chronicle of their contribution to the American radical tradition. Their relationship to each other and following generations is also outlined. The picture that emerges is of an ongoing radical movement, rather than sporadic organizing around disparate issues.

For readers already familiar with the territory covered here, this history will read like a brief overview without much analysis. The author’s organizing principle is that of encounter—the encounter of white activists and Blacks, activists from the urban North encountering poor Southerners,  among others—and the transformative energy that is created in that mutual encounter. “When human beings encounter one another deeply,” McKanan writes, “in the midst of their struggles for freedom and equality and community, prophetic power is unleashed.”

Prophetic Encounters can read like a history of the American Left from a religious perspective and it can also be read as a history of organized religion’s radical stream. McKanan is dismissive toward the critiques of the secular left by Rabbi Michael Lerner and evangelical pastor Jim Wallis. In the journals that each founded (Tikkun and Sojourners, respectively) each has been critical of secular leftists and opportunistic Democrats who either deride or try to manipulate religious constituencies. McKanan describes these as “straw men” for Lerner and Wallis to knock down; he finds the antireligious attitude of leftists to be far more benign.

It is true that the division of Religious Right and Secular Left is too simplistic, and the fertile ground tilled by religious leftists and leftist people of faith is demonstrated in this important work. But the hostility toward faith among leftists is real and often spiteful.  Participants in organized religion in the US will benefit from reading McKanan’s history whatever their politics; the recovery of this tradition within American religion is important, if for no other reason than to recognize themselves, their forbears and their coreligionists in movements long stereotyped as militantly secularist.

For those people of faith who are interested in social justice and the progressive tradition in American religion, along with those interested in the story of US radicalism but who lack knowledge of the country’s religious history, this is the ideal book.