Among many other developments, the Donald Trump presidency has prompted a resurgence of Christian leftism in the United States. Groups like the Poor People’s Campaign and the Red Letter Christians have taken to the streets, crowding into state houses and getting arrested, harkening all along to the civil rights movement. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary on a Democratic Socialists of America platform, her first act was to publish an article in the Catholic America magazine linking her left politics to her Christian faith. Long overshadowed by the politically powerful Christian right, the Christian left does have a political tradition of its own. One of its more radical iterations was based in liberation theology—a branch of Christian thought committed to serving the poor by challenging structures of oppression.
In her new book, The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology, Lilian Calles Barger traces the history of liberationist thought back to its ascendance in the 1960s and 70s, situating it atop the prior movements and thinkers who paved the way. An independent historian, speaker, and podcast host based in New Mexico, Barger’s previous books include Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body and Chasing Sophia: Reclaiming the Lost Wisdom of Jesus. Eric C. Miller spoke with Barger about the project over the phone.
R&P: In a nutshell, what is liberation theology?
LCB: Liberation theology is a radical theological and social movement that emerged in the late 1960s and 70s. It is a product of the political radicalization of that era. Its key ideas have a much longer history which I have attempted to trace.
R&P: You situate liberation theology as part of a shift from transcendence to immanence within theology writ large. What do you mean by that?
LCB: The tension between transcendence and immanence has been at work in theology for a very long time. At certain points, God has been imagined as a distant, otherworldly figure, while at others, God has been very much an interventionist in human affairs. With the social gospel in the early twentieth century, theologians began to swing decisively in the latter direction, emphasizing a God at work in the everyday of every day. By the 1960s and 70s, liberationists were situating God, not simply among human beings on earth, but specifically among the poor and the oppressed, to advocate on their behalf. God was not only close at hand, but God was found among oppressed people in their struggle against oppression. This was a shift in the character of God from one who had equal universal regard to one who was partial to black people, the poor, and women.
R&P: How significant were Latin American theologians in effecting this shift?
LCB: They were critical. Liberation theology was an intellectual movement of the Americas, and Latin Americans played an enormous role. In part, this was because Catholicism was so prominent in those nations, and it was very hierarchical. The religious leadership had been very much removed from the people who had developed their own folk Catholicism. So these theologians were working with people in revolutionary situations—they were seeing the poverty, they were seeing the struggle—and they recognized that the theology they learned in Europe and the United States was too esoteric, too hierarchical, and too aloof to grapple with the situations they faced. They began to think about the differences between how theologians think about God and how people in shantytowns think about God. They were trying to capture the popular understanding of God and amplify that voice and give it legitimacy as theology.
Liberationists were active in base ecclesial communities [which were lay-led collectives formed for political education] and para-church groups where ordinary people read or heard biblical stories. The people would then express what those passages meant to them in their situation of oppression. One example is the well-known story of the Good Samaritan that becomes a story of oppression by elites and an example of solidarity between the Samaritan and the victim of violence. It is no longer a story of charity but of solidarity. Contact with the grassroots allowed liberation theologians to see the Bible through a different lens and to critique readings that assumed elite objectivity. The text was always political and its interpretation depended on who read it.
R&P: What about black thinkers in the United States?
LCB: There were many of them, but I focus in particular on James Cone. He was trained in modern theology at Garrett Theological Seminary, wrote a dissertation on Karl Barth, and emerged from a very European theological mold. When he graduated, the civil rights movement was ongoing, Black Power was emerging, and he came to think that his theological education could not speak to the black radicals who were rejecting African American churches. He also struggled with how to respond to criticism from Malcolm X, especially the claim that Christianity was a white man’s religion that would always keep black people in bondage. Cone recognized that black people were being oppressed, not only by political systems, but also by religion itself. He joined black pastors and other religious leaders who were calling for a black theology not dependent on white theological categories—one that would speak to and for black people in their freedom struggle. In his work, he tried to develop a fitting response to these problems. The product of this effort—in addition to a serious existential crisis for Cone— was a theology of Black Power.
R&P: What about feminists? In what ways was liberation theology liberating to women?
LCB: The first generation of feminist theologians came out of the women’s movement. Many had been involved in the radical wing of the women’s movement, and they had been driven to that work by religious motivations. They organized, joined consciousness-raising groups, and realized that women’s liberation was not just about politics—it was about church. As in other fields, women began to enter seminaries and divinity schools in greater number and as a result contributed to a theological revolution.
Feminist theologians worked to respond to the sexism that was embedded in theology, and that had been drawn upon to oppress women in various ways. As they were doing this, they observed that Latin American theologians and black theologians were doing the same sort of thing in reference to their own groups. That created grounds for solidarity, but the feminists argued that, while Latin American theologians were focused primarily on class, and black theologians were focused primarily on race, none of these male liberationists had much to say about women. So they took that burden upon themselves—to be theologians crafting a theology for women’s liberation. They were not merely women doing theology or offering a feminine reading of the Bible, but rather a new approach to reading the biblical texts that uncovered the hidden misogyny in theology.
R&P: Did the intersectional nature of this coalition create challenges?
LCB: This is one of the sad parts of the story. All of these groups—feminists, Latin Americans, and black theologians—were making parallel arguments, but they struggled to unite into a cohesive body that could instigate a social revolution. In 1975, they all came to the Theology of the Americas conference in Detroit, and joined together to discuss the commonalities of their various movements. But they found that, when you proceed from different premises—that race is the primary problem, or class, or gender—it’s very difficult to build a coalition. There were some fierce clashes, which is unfortunate. Ultimately, while each group was willing to acknowledge the concerns of the others, each insisted on prioritizing its own concerns. The possibility of a coalition splintered over this, and the subsequent history of liberation theology is a very splintered history.
We still see that today—there are different groups of oppressed people who are basing their work on some core element of their identity. Though this unifies each group separately, it also alienates each from potential allies.
R&P: How did liberation theology contribute to the secularization and politicization of religious belief on the right?
LCB: Prior to the 1970s, the conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist varieties of American Christianity were very focused on the idea that society could be healed by appealing to the hearts and minds of individuals. The primary concern was eternal salvation. Their politics was individualist, and they did not believe in advocating the type of social reform that had been endorsed by the social gospel. To their minds, individual believers had a moral obligation to help the poor, for instance, but the state did not. Social justice as a political matter was relegated to the Christian left.
But once the liberation theologians had emphasized that theirs was a political vision, bent on radically changing the structure of society via a public Christianity that refused to remain a matter of private life, conservatives began to respond. Leaders like Carl Henry and Jerry Falwell really changed their positions from the 1960s to the 1970s. They went from emphasizing the soul-saving mission of Christianity to declaring that Christians needed to be an active presence in society, to elect Christian leaders, to advocate for laws based on Christian ethics, etc. That move—from an individual emphasis to a public policy emphasis—required a theological change within conservative circles. From then on, both the Christian left and right would be very active in pursuing alternative social visions and supporting them with theological reasoning. That’s why I call it a secularization of religion, moving to a concern for the here and now, which always means the political. This was a moment when Christianity broadened out from the church and the home and became a political force on both sides of the spectrum. For religious conservatives who had a high regard for scripture, that required a new theological justification, not just a political one.
R&P: Where is liberation theology today? Does it have a future?
LCB: By the 1990s, it seemed like liberation theology had disappeared. It became sequestered in the academy where it was more or less irrelevant. When I first started studying this material ten years ago, I had people say to me, “Liberation theology is dead.” It was written off as an artifact of the radical 60s and 70s that nobody cares about anymore.
But then in 2008 we had the situation with Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which brought black liberation theology back into discussion, and a few years after that, Pope Francis was elected, which essentially revitalized the Catholic posture toward social issues. In 2015, the pope invited founding liberationist Gustavo Gutiérrez to the Vatican, which signaled an inclusive attitude toward a theology that had been vehemently rejected in the past.
More recently, the election of Donald Trump has galvanized the Christian left, creating a situation in which liberation theology may be relevant once again. Christianity is not monolithic. Many Christians are concerned about social inequality of all sorts—as it affects African Americans, women, poor people, and others—and will respond to a situation in which inequalities are worsening. When things fall apart, the urgency of these causes becomes much more real. So a movement that was considered dead two decades ago now has much more resonance.