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January 12, 2007


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Adam Kotsko

Just to take issue with what Wallis is saying -- assuming that he means by "progressive" what we used to call "liberal" before it became a swear word, he appears to be simply begging the question. There *already are* churches and other religious organizations that are progressive.

They are not exactly thriving in the same way that evangelical Republicanism is, and it's important to try to figure out why that is -- because they *did* use to be thriving, just as the more liberal or social-justice-oriented wings of the Catholic Church used to be thriving.

I only complain because he acts like this is something that has to be learned from scratch -- typical evangelical that he is, at the end of the day he thinks that evangelicals are the only religious people who exist.


Adam, your remark reminds of a joke I heard growing up: St. Peter is showing a group of the newly dead around heaven. They pass some Jews, some Muslims, some Catholics. Then, he tells the group to be very, very quiet. They are about to pass the Southern Baptists, who think they are the only ones there.

I've mentioned here before that my mother was a writer for the Southern Baptist Convention. My son's godmother was employed for years and years at Convention headquarters in Nashville. Both would describe the battles involved in the fundamentalist take over of the convention. The guy who baptised me, Jimmy Allen, was a former president of the SBC. Anyway, he was active at a time when there was a huge effort at global missions. I was brought up to understand this in pretty inclusive terms, not just one's of winning souls (this may have been false or propaganda or a misunderstanding on my part). But, that it may be right accords with my mother's statements regarding fundamentalist hostility to the initiative.

I was also taught that the fundamentalist take over was about money--controlling the budgets, the press, the seminaries. My son's godmother lost her job with the coup.


I'm a new reader to your blog and it is fastly becoming a daily for me. I really appreciate all the posts but this one is particularly hitting home. I'll never forget how the concept of pre-destination divided the church I grew up in. You should get a purple heart for surviving the SBC! ;) -great joke btw and soooo true. I'm curious if you think the new Chris Hedges book - which I have not read - will have any substantial impact on the debate as to the nature of Christianity and political/commercial Christianity in this society?

cynic librarian

I think this is an important posting because the leftist evangelicals have some way to go to redescribe their theology without the baggage of statism and liberal concepts of the individual.

Communalism is nice and has proven successful in Liberation Theology. But beyond the kumbaya factor, communalism will only become seriously religious when it undermines the liberal ideologies of the individual and state.

Wallis has been reading up on that theology according to a posting he made at his blog, but I wonder how far he's willing to take those ideological critiques.

I heard a recent talk by Tikkun leftists discussing what parishioners and modern religionists in the pews believe. The speaker talked about marketing-like surveys that had been done to ascertain these beliefs and needs. If that way of understanding how modern reliogious leftists will approach introducing leftist ideas in their theologies, I doubt they'll do anything except buttress a prevalent strand in liberal ideology that itself is the problem.

I am not sure that the leftist religionists are willing or even able to undertake an attack on the very ideological assumptions of the liberal individual or the state.


CL--you raise important points. It may be a matter of which 'leftist religionists' one has in mind. Some radical Christian and post-Christian feminists have had extremely pointed criticisms of the liberal individual and the state. I suspect that work like theirs, however, has little to do with, say, what goes on with Jim Wallis and his group.

HLB--thanks for your kind words. I read recently a pan of Hedges's new book, but I don't recall where. It said it didn't stand up to his first book or to another recent book in this area Kingdom Coming.


As a Progressive I am ready to welcome any person of any religion to our movement who will understand that belief in god is an individual choice and that....

They must respect my decision not to believe if they want my respect for their belief.

Very, very few are willing to do this.

Kenneth Rufo

I wonder if it's possible to build a leftist religious identity around (or still allow the inclusion of) non-Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths, or if doing so poses to great a challenge to the universal belief that animates that particular religious trifecta.

Adam Kotsko

Does anyone know much about the relationship between Maoism and Confucianism? (My knowledge of both is far below dilettante level.)


Isn't the left's attempts to exclude the religious from political participation the flip side of liberals attempts to exclude communitarian groups from democracy? Kind of like Europe's no veils in public schools (that is if you're Muslim, it was OK when Catholics did it).

One the one hand, the left criticises liberalism's attempt to homogonize democratic participation, on the other we can't absorb religious belief into a coherent opposition. This goes beyond the the right's co-optation of religious language and perversion into anti-religious political action - it speaks to how the left supports others that oppose power, but from a different context.

The result is similar - for capital we have democracy vs. nationalism, and in the opposition we have a disorganized left vs. committed religious believers who are allies (perhaps not natural allies) in a attempt to make this world a better place.

BTW, the decision to not believe is a decision to believe in a lack (which of course is respected). And isn't that what God is - a lack/refusal of participation in this world, opening up a space for humans to step up?

Kenneth Rufo

pebird, can you clarify your last paragraph? seems like two opposing sentiments...


I think when most people say they do not believe in God they are really saying they believe God does not exist, which is a belief nonetheless.

Kind of like jumping off the cliff with your back to the void instead of facing it. More a matter of style than substance.

cynic librarian

There are several questions that I left with: Can religious leftists do anything by theorizing outside the faith?

Take an example: Luther brought about political changes--not via directly political writings--but by dealing with faith issues. The political fell out as a consequence of his spiritual turmoil.

Isn't it a matter of how you answer the historical questions here? That is, what was Luther doing and what was he attempting either consciously or unconsciously?

Adam Kotsko

Many of the political consequences of Luther's teachings were apparently contrary to his expectations, given the way he reacted to the peasant uprisings. But more broadly, I think that it's a mistake to act as though Luther didn't have an explicitly political element to his teaching -- from the very beginning, he wanted to empower the monarch over against the church.

As for what he wanted broadly, it was a reformed version of Christendom, in substantial continuity with medieval Catholicism. Troeltsch's *Protestantism and Progress* is pretty interesting in this regard.

Adam Kotsko

W/r/t peBird's comments -- it'd be interesting to bring in Bonhoeffer's prison writings here. He portrays the modern period as "the world come of age," when humans finally take full responsibility for their destiny. The eclipse of religion (which seems to be an accurate diagnosis at least of the European situation) means that tasks that people previousy "outsourced" to God have to be handled by human beings.

Bonhoeffer argues that if Christianity is to survive, it has to participate in this process and act as if God did not exist -- which of course sidesteps the question of belief altogether. (I find discussions of the question of God's existence to be incredibly boring and even stupid, frankly.) It's interesting that the socially-engaged mainline churches are often criticized for not "really believing" and thinking that social justice replaces worship, etc. Perhaps the fact that mainline churches no longer seem so hegemonic -- the shift from Reinhold Niebuhr to, say, James Dobson -- is indicative of the shift from modernity to postmodernity.


I disagree about acting as if God does not exist - it's more like acting as if the nature of God is like Hegel's Spirit - a negative God instead of the classic positive God.

It's humans job (pun entirely intended) to create the conditions for the positive God to reveal himself.

The perversion of classic religions is that the world has to go to hell for revelation to occur - instead of humans demonstrating they can be worthy - which is Christ's point.

That is what I get from Z's comment on "Father, why did you forsake me", the realization that God is a negative God who opened the space for humans.

Adam Kotsko

That kind of thing is why some are saying that Zizek is basically a "death of God" theologian, independently discovering many of the insights of people like Thomas J. J. Altizer (who was partly inspired by Bonhoeffer, but much moreso by Hegel).

Surreally enough, Altizer sometimes writes for my blog -- this is the latest thing:


I'd love it if someone, somewhere would respond to it, because it seems like a terrible waste for America's most important theologian to be writing on my stupid blog only to have it scrolled to death without anyone really noticing.


Adam - I'll need some time to catch up on your site and think, but I will do it.

At least he must be authentic if he is posting on a (far from) stupid blog and no one is noticing.

cynic librarian

Adam, I noticed Altizer and forwarded it to an atheist/marxist friend. I thought Altizer was saying some things that are reminiscent of my own concerns, especially nihilism and the sense of responsibility.

On Luther: I'm no expert for sure, but the main point of my comment was asking whether his spiritual struggles included the political--which you seem to suggest--or whether we can speak of those as solely subjective and eminently pre-political, maybe even anti-political?

As Skinner paints the picture, Luther's political views fell out from his spiritual conflicts. That is, the spiritual preceded the political concerns. Skinner seems to disagree with Troeltsch on this, though the emphasis in Skinner is that Luther's solafideism drives a wedge between the inner and the outer. Luther's work saves faith by divorcing it completely from the political, secular realm altogether.

Anyway, my question is whether faith issues are inherently bound up with the political and only appear to be separate from them or whether faith is separable in this way. If so, then I was asking whether Luther had to get his faith right before he could move on to the political.

Adam Kotsko

It seems to me that the Luther of the 95 Theses is certainly spiritually motivated, but his primary concern is getting rid of corruption in the church (indulgences, etc.). He becomes more and more radicalized theologically as he keeps getting no results from Rome -- presumably he comes to feel that there are deeper theological roots to the practices he deplores.

Also, the secular/religious divide doesn't seem to be operative in Luther in the way we normally conceive it -- he views "secular" occupations as *themselves* religious duties. And he doesn't shirk from "secular" involvement in church politics if the church leaders aren't going to get their shit together -- but this precisely because the prince is presumably a Christian who has authority in the church due to the priesthood of all believers.

It takes a long time for the category of the "religious" as we understand it to become operative in any effective way, probably until the conclusion of the Wars of Religion -- not quite there yet for Luther.

Anthony Paul Smith

Someone may have done it already, but someone should compare the Lutheran doctrines to Spinozist ones. I've done it a very little bit in a paper, but I'm not a big Luther fan and didn't want to spend time reading much of his work. This is also purely a historical interest, again outside what I want to be doing, but it does seem interesting in some ways.


I admit it -- I do not like religion, for the most part. I am suspicious of it, negative about it, hostile even. I prefer Marx and Freud to liberation theology and . . . . well, you get my drift. But, being someone who almost believes the notion of devil's advocate, I am always tempted into being pro-religious by those who are anti. Maybe I am just wishy washy. Or maybe, we reall the products of a historical seperation of the notions of religion and politics in the west, with the very particular consequence of making many of us lefty types hate what we have come to see as the residue of religion

cynic librarian

Anthony Paul: Quentin Skinner has not compared the political thought of Spinoza and Luther per se. He does oppose the two traditions of radical scholastic political thought (which he says Lutheran political thought resorted to) and neo-Machiavellianism, which he says Spinoza represents.

cynic librarian

Adam, Again, I am relying on Q Skinner here, who thinks that he's shown how Luther's Wittenberg Tower experience forms the basis for Luther's later position via via the Catholic Church. This experience showed Luther that human nature is so sinful that it cannot do anything but sin.

This sinfulness is so deep that Luther rejected any form of free will, thereby obviating the notion that humans can do anything positive in regards to their earthly lives. "The church" for Luther was simply the collection of believers and had no relationship to the secular at all.

Skinner does go on to say that Luther later adopted a more pragmatic stance vis a vis the political, advocating a variation of radical scholastic political thought.

I have over-simplified Skinner's findings here, of course. He does not state things so bluntly.

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