The Institute for Christian Socialism Wants to Bring Left Politics to American Christianity

The Institute for Christian Socialism is trying to build left-wing solidarity within religious communities. In their eyes, an awareness of and commitment to socialism is inherent to the Gospel.

The Institute for Christian Socialism (ICS) follows the “socialism of the gospels,” claiming that the teachings of Jesus are irreconcilable with capitalism. (Aaron Burden / Unsplash)

In the twenty-first century, the religious right has something close to a stranglehold on public-facing Christianity. From Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, white Evangelicals have had a long and fruitful love affair with the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the Federalist Society has placed six conservative Catholic judges on the Supreme Court. Today, Christianity as a political project seems to belong to right-wing reactionaries. Left-wing Christians exist, yet it is difficult to imagine what an American mass movement of them would even look like.

The Institute for Christian Socialism (ICS), founded in 2019, is trying to change that.

ICS follows the “socialism of the gospels,” claiming that the teachings of Jesus are irreconcilable with capitalism. Inspired by the many liberatory traditions influenced by Christian teachings — the communitarian societies of the Catholic Worker movement of the 1930s; the Latin American base communities that radicalized rural populations in the 1970s and 1980s; and the nonconformist Diggers, who built early agrarian socialist communities in the seventeeth century — ICS welds Christian faith with socialist organizing. It teaches that faith in the gospel must include a commitment to overturning capitalism and building a better world.

The organization operates under a membership model in which new members join small groups, called base societies. These groups present ICS as a gathering space for left-wing Christians who want to learn and organize in a community of like-minded comrades.

ICS cofounder Angela Cowser, associate dean of black church studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, hopes to organize new ICS members around economics, politics, and religion in their base societies. She wants to see these three areas organized around an understanding of a “jubilee economy,” in which debt is forgiven and poverty is eliminated.

“To take Jesus and to take jubilee seriously means we have to look at a different kind of political economy,” said Cowser.

Imagining a different kind of world, she looks to a leftist reading of the Bible, and specifically to Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In these books, she sees society organized around debt forgiveness and land regeneration.

According to Cowser’s reading, environmental sustainability and the jubilee economy — an economy in which all debts are regularly forgiven, in total — have been with us since Old Testament times. Cowser says, “There was a way of organizing Israel, laid out in the Torah, that was very explicit around how you treat strangers, how you treat the poor, and why we don’t want high concentrations of wealth.”

Today’s Christian socialists come from a rich tradition of left-wing biblical interpretation and radical Christian practice. But the American Christian religious left has been organizationally homeless for many years, and their religion has become fused with reactionary right-wing politics. The religious right has gone about this project by building well-financed religious institutions with deep ties to conservative politics.

Nothing remotely like this infrastructure exists for the Left. Due to a lack of institutional support and years of distancing from churches and churchgoing communities, socialists have cut themselves off from historically some of the strongest, best organized, and most passionate movement builders out there.

ICS cofounder Timothy Eberhart, associate professor of theology and ecology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, laments the lack of religious people organizing on the Left, especially given how powerful faith can be in sustaining people through the hard work of social change.

“There’s a deep sense for some of us that spirit is on the side of justice, that divinity is on the side of those who struggle, that God is actively present in history organizing for something like a more social just order,” Eberhart told me. ICS’s base societies want to tap into that wellspring of power.

Whole Worker Organizing

The power that can emerge from communities of faith has long been understood by trade union organizers, who know to tap into local religious organizations when drumming up interest in an organizing drive. In organizer Jane McAlevey’s assessment of the first failed union drive at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, she sees the absence of local faith organizations in the campaign as a part of its failure.

In her book Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, McAlevey defines this approach as “whole worker organizing.” Workers aren’t simply names on a spreadsheet but whole human beings, with families and churches and things that matter to them that aren’t political or related to their wage labor. To get organized, it is necessary for labor organizers and worker activists to appeal to the whole of workers’ lives, not just aspects immediately relevant to a unionization drive.

“Workers organizing in the workplace are also mothers and fathers and neighbors and members of faith communities,” Eberhart says. “To effectively organize means bringing the fullness of who they are and the power that they represent into the movement.”

This way of thinking, common enough in successful union drives, is curiously absent in much of the grassroots socialist left. The vast majority of leftists are secular, and it is something of an unspoken dictum among committed socialist organizers that your religion, alongside so much of what makes organizers rich and interesting human beings, must be put to one side in the struggle to build a better world.

It is through organizing in a near-constant state of triage, as so often happens among activists, that burnout happens fast. The pool of organizers shrinks as people are forced to return to the things that constitute the rest of their lives: children, jobs, families, food, art, and love. Without a deep community to fall back on in difficult times, good organizers drop out of the movement. A political organization that just wants to nourish the soul isn’t practicing politics, but a political organization that refuses to acknowledge all the parts of ourselves that make us human will be prone to decay.

Eberhart says:

There have to be spaces where people spend time together, where they share in joys and struggles, getting to know one another’s stories, encouraging one another in work, passing along ideas and opportunities of how to engage for a more just society.

ICS’s new base societies, small communities of like-minded Christian leftists drawn together to organize and study as people of faith, aim to provide that space of belonging: a place where Christian socialists can find spiritual nourishment that they can take back to their political work. Supplementary groups like ICS, which can nurture its members through difficult times, can keep people inside radical movements longer by building deep, interconnected communities.

ICS members are often deeply engaged in local and national political campaigns. They are church leaders, electoral organizers, and grassroots activists. ICS is meant not as a space to compete with political campaigns or socialist organizations, but as a support for them. They do not aim to be a Democratic Socialists of America for Christians, but rather a supplemental community that is part of a network of left-wing groups that can build communities and even left-wing families. These groups can ease the burden of organizing and engage people looking not just for an activist organization but for a political and spiritual home.

“Part of what the base societies offer are those kinds of spaces of belonging,” said Eberhart.

Base Societies

Organizations capable of developing members’ politics through their faith commitments have deep roots in the Christian socialist tradition. ICS’s membership model of base societies is fashioned after the base communities from the Latin American liberation theology tradition. Engaging in participatory democracy and drawing inspiration from union councils, these groups meet to reflect on scripture and discuss how to apply their lessons to what is happening in their communities.

The “base” in base communities refers to the social location of participants: they are typically exploited workers. These groups gained popularity in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when the US-endorsed dictatorships throughout Latin America made it difficult and dangerous for groups to meet outside of religious meetings. Under brutal dictatorships in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Brazil, base communities became some of the only places where workers could convene safely. Across Latin America, members of base communities — rural peasants, urban slum dwellers, and poor workers — participated in revolutionary activities. Many were violently repressed by vicious regimes.

ICS hopes to place their base societies within this tradition, both as a means of continuing the revolutionary heritage of liberation theology and as the beginnings of an institutional bulwark against the religious right.

Joshua Davis, an Episcopalian theologian and ICS’s executive director, hopes the base societies will reclaim politically radical Christian traditions as a means of building networks of power. A nondenominational organization, it hopes to impact churches of all kinds and to draw people together in an expression of solidarity with emancipatory secular struggles. Just as the Right has built institutions that changed the way preachers preach and changed how Christians think about being Christian, ICS seeks to build infrastructure that can support Christian leftists as well as the broader secular left.

“There is a religious dimension to the way capitalism orders society, which is inimical to the practice of the Christian faith in its fullness,” said Davis. While many on the Left have disengaged from religious communities in the last half century, ICS hopes, through its base societies, to rebuild the big tent of democratic socialism to include people of faith.

These small, eight-person base societies gather to study a base curriculum with a trained facilitator. Participants learn important concepts and approaches within the tradition of Christian socialism, and they learn to understand them through their biblical sources. Alongside religious teachings, they hope to provide a material analysis of capitalism. Participants read the Old and New Testaments, Cornel West and the radical Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, as well as secular texts from Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Erik Olin Wright.

During base community sessions, members are asked to complete take-home assignments in organizing practice. In one instance, they are asked to have a conversation with someone about the debt that they bear and how their lives would change if that debt was forgiven. Through a leftist reading of the gospels, participants are asked to imagine the defunding and dismantling of the carceral state. Sessions include spiritual exercises in which participants engage in acts of collective empathy and imagination to encourage comrades to take larger roles in political actions. They are asked to resist the urge to correct other members or to debate them and instead focus on listening to one another.

The leaders of ICS and the designers of these base societies take their solidarity-building mission literally. As experienced organizers themselves, both inside churches and universities and in the secular and public sphere, they are bringing radical politics into an ecclesial space. The program seeks to train Christian socialists to build coalitions in their churches and within the nonreligious left. They honor the experiences of their membership, including the traumas they may have suffered from their religious upbringings.

Given that ICS members often feel alienated by their faith communities as well as leftist communities, they hope to put an end to the antagonism toward religion in socialist circles.

“The Left itself is really bad at engaging Christians,” said Joshua Davis. Given the immense power inherent in churches, by disengaging from religious people the Left is ignoring an enormous source of energy.

Centering Material Politics

The leaders of ICS sensed a call to nurture and grow the Christian socialist movement. Today’s Christian socialists must contend not merely with well-funded right-wing Christian institutions, but also progressive Christian groups who have abdicated the pursuit of political power. Several of the founders of ICS spoke to me of a dominant “third wayism” in supposedly left-wing Christian politics: a method of political participation in which taking power is seen as negative.

Progressive Christians, like most liberal Americans, have a poor understanding of how power operates in society. Many progressive Christians retreat into the idea of politics as individual expressions of justice, mercy, and forgiveness.

“A lot of Christians will tell you that the word ‘power’ scares them, because they imagine that involves something like violence and coercion,” said Aaron Anderson, a cofounder of ICS and the managing editor of their online publication, the Bias.

For many Christian progressives, politics is seen as building consensus with people with opposing viewpoints, meeting across the aisle and working things out through civilized negotiation. Today’s Christian progressives are insistently moderate, in a way that obscures how power in politics actually works.

The civil rights movement, which was hugely dependent on a socially conscious Christianity, would have been impossible with today’s set of progressive Christian values. Contemporary liberal Christians are a far cry from the radical church leaders of generations past, who took active part in struggles for social and economic justice, striving and even dying for the cause of freedom.

Minister-activists Martin Luther King Jr, Ralph David Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth helped to successfully coordinate the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott. They went on to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to confront segregation through civil disobedience. (They also confronted white clergy for their inaction and stubborn moderation, as King famously did in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in 1963.)

The SCLC’s leadership was primarily made up of black ministers who believed it was their duty as Christians to preach nonviolent resistance and to organize direct actions in the American South to battle Jim Crow. In the late 1960s, members of the SCLC founded the Poor People’s Campaign, turning toward democratic socialism to combat the economic inequality at the heart of racism and segregation.

Where many of the most significant Christian theologians of half a century ago were Christian socialists, today’s Christian progressives get bogged down in abstract moral critiques and stand at a remove from practical political struggle.

“Progressive Christians talk incessantly about the marginal and the poor,” Davis says:

But for them, technocratic liberalism is pretty much the horizon of radical politics. They’re holding technocratic liberals to a high moral standard of some kind but never engaging in the politics of fossil fuels or all the significant questions that Chrisitan socialists of a previous generation would have actively engaged in.

A Socialism and Christianity for the Twenty-first Century

The founding leaders of ICS hope to seed a generation of religious leaders with radical politics and organizing principles for the contemporary age. This base of religious leftists is a potential wellspring of energy for the Left. Their organization could create a practical, supportive foundation of people of faith who can energize and nourish left-wing campaigns. In time, perhaps, it can even draw socialist organizing into communities best accessed through their churches.

ICS is just in its beginning stages, but its potential for developing a radical religious left is enormous. Given how powerful faith leaders can be in liberatory struggles, its entrance into socialist institutional organizing is a welcome one.

“Capitalism is itself a kind of spiritual illness,” says Aaron Anderson, “a way of breaking humanity’s spiritual connection and its connection with God.” The Institute for Christian Socialism and its base societies are attempting to create a space for Chrisitian socialists to take part in socialist organizing by framing it as a collective form of spiritual healing.