Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 92 (April 1999): 56-59.
The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America. By Doug Rossinow. Columbia University Press. 500 pp. $32.50
Reviewed by Scott McConnell
It is jarring to discover that the history of the 1960s is now being written by people who—as the young historian Doug Rossinow describes himself—had "never heard" of the New Left before entering college in the 1980s. But after recovering from such confirmation of one’s relatively aged status, it is possible to concede that "historical" study of the tumultous decade can shed light on topics that have elsewhere been neglected. One such topic is explored in the early sections of Rossinow’s The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America—the role played by a certain kind of explorative or "existential" Protestantism in the political and moral education of some white students who went on to become active leftists later in the decade.
This seems a genuinely new wrinkle in the discussion of how American religious faith intersected with the ’60s left. It is of course widely understood that the civil rights movement germinated first in the black churches in the South, and that its key leaders came from the black clergy. It is less broadly trumpeted but hardly disputed that the white student left in the early 1960s was predominantly Jewish—in this case a description of ethnicity more than religious practice. As delineated most thoroughly in Roots of Radicalism, the seminal work by Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter, the early New Left, at least on the campuses where it first flexed its muscles, was an outgrowth of the Old Left. A substantial number of its early cadres were the children of parents once or even still in the orbit of the Communist Party, and thus American Jews of a particular stripe. The background of these so–called "red diaper babies" sometimes manifested itself in displays hardly typical of the irreverent 1960s, as when students engaged in sit–ins at Berkeley during the 1964 "Free Speech Movement" held Hanukkah services and sang the Israeli national anthem.
As the Vietnam War escalated, the New Left began to expand beyond this relatively elite group attending a handful of highly competitive colleges. The year 1965 was a watershed, as new recruits from the larger state universities in the Midwest and Southwest flooded into Students for a Democratic Society (the main radical student group); unlike their predecessors, the newcomers generally did not come from left–wing families or even liberal professional homes, and though still disproportionately Jewish, they were so to a much lesser extent. The students of the so–called "Prairie Power" influx tended to be more deeply rebellious—engaged in ferocious battles with their own conservative parents as well as with American society at large.
One SDS leader from Texas described the differences thus: "We were by instinct much more radical, much more willing to take risks. If you were from Texas, in SDS, you couldn’t go home for Christmas. Your mother didn’t say, ‘Oh isn’t that nice, you’re involved. We supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War . . . and I’m glad to see you’re socially concerned.’ In most places it meant, ‘You Goddam Communist.’"
This coterie of students tended to drink more heavily, drive faster, and be less hesitant about violence; they were not so easily depicted by sympathetic liberal social scientists as the brightest and most sensitive members of the new generation.
To this red diaper baby/prairie power dichotomy Rossinow adds a third and seemingly new element: a tributary of Christian "existentialists" flowing early in the decade from the student YMCAs and YWCAs and other Christian institutions for the young—first into civil rights protest and then headlong into the revolutionary white left once the sixties began to break open.
Rossinow’s inquiry is narrowly focused (the book originated as a doctoral dissertation) on the University of Texas at Austin and its periphery. Texas was then very arid soil for any kind of leftist movement: football and fraternities dominated college social life; beyond the campus, a liberal community revolving around figures like Texas Observer editor Ronnie Dugger was small and individualistic—more a cranky band of dissidents than a real force, relying on a respect for civil liberties and tolerance to stay afloat at all.
In such an environment, Christian groups provided a sort of sanctuary for people who thought differently, and where a New Left could begin to germinate. At the U of T, a key locale was the Christian Faith and Life Center (CFLC), a religious training and study institute headed by charismatic former fundamentalist preacher John Wesley Matthews. Some considered Matthews manipulative and unreliable, and Dugger dismissed him as a fraud. But Tom Hayden, an SDS founding father who married his first wife Casey at a CFLC ceremony in 1961, described the center as a "liberated zone" on the Texas campus. The Port Huron Statement, the keystone New Left document largely drafted by Hayden the following year, resonates with language drawn from CFLC pamphlets—about young people engaging in a "search for meaning" amidst "an old world passing away and a new world being born."
The actual intellectual and political content of all this remains fuzzy. Students at the CFLC (who took courses there in addition to regular requirements) read Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich; several were active protesting segregation on the campus and in surrounding Austin. What seems most distinctive about these liberal Christian groups was their tone, earnest and questioning: "What does it mean to be a person?" and "To whom and what am I responsible?" were typical titles of U of T YMCA–YWCA pamphlets. Rossinow labels these concerns existentialist—a fair enough usage of a notoriously vague label.
In their practical political judgments, the young Christians could be extremely gullible. One young U of T woman returned from a 1961 YWCA–sponsored summer tour of the Soviet bloc to give a series of talks in which she observed, among other things, how much socialism had done for the Polish people, though it might not be appropriate for America. Pro–Castro sentiments were rife. But despite this philo–communism, there were stark differences from the political style that would later characterize the full blown New Left. CFLC and other young Christian concerns were expressed in language that seems dated and easy to satirize, overly sincere and a world apart from the hip, ironic, and deconstructive sensibility that flourished in the sixties and now permeates much of American culture.
While this exhumation of a prodromal Christian New Left in Austin is intriguing, Rossinow’s claim of real linkages between "existential" Protestantism and the decade’s radicalism isn’t convincingly established. A great deal of the argument seems to turn on the personage of Casey Hayden, a singular woman from Victoria, Texas, who may have been the only person who was involved in both the student Y’s and the CFLC, was present at Port Huron, and was active in the early SDS. Other Texas students did move from the Christian groups into civil rights activism, but not many seem to have fully embraced the New Left. Yes, the Y’s and CFLC did provide a haven for people to question societal arrangements. But even Rossinow has to concede how tentative is his argument, pointing out that "young white activists in later years were far less likely to recall the religious roots" of their outlook. After 1962—early in the narrative scheme of a book that eventually turns into a full–scale history of the white New Left—one hears scarcely a word about Christianity in any form.
Yet one comes away with a sense that there might be more possibilities in Rossinow’s general thesis than he actually pursues. A study more national in scope would surely have something to say about such a figure as California’s Episcopal bishop James Pike, an early ’60s rebel of a sort. And surely there are others who, like Pike, were trying to tear away at the standards and conventions of American middle–class life well before the ’60s revolt took full flower. Politicized ferment in Protestant theological circles, like so much else about American Protestants, is a comparatively unexamined subject.
We are now at the beginning of a new wave of academic writing about the 1960s, produced by people who never saw a shut down campus, or heard policemen called pigs, or watched highly touted cultural figures express uninhibited admiration for Communist dictators and unrelenting scorn for their own elected politicians. It is a virtual certainty that many authors of these histories, like Rossinow himself, will evince some nostalgia for the decade, some regret that the New Left eventually cracked up without winning substantial political power. What they may not recognize is that, in ways both subtle and obvious, the ’60s radicals won. If not in electoral politics then in countless other realms, the ’60s left altered American mores, language, education, law, and social policy. The nation’s sense of itself was altered and diminished.
It is regrettable that of all the strands that fed ’60s radicalism, the sort of open, somewhat guileless, questioning attitudes described by Rossinow seem to have left the smallest imprint of all.
Scott McConnell is a writer living in New York City.