Religion can be a powerful engine for progressive social change. Many religious communities and individuals want to make their societies more just. We frequently witness their involvement in organizing and activism related to matters of racial justice, gender equality, poverty eradication, animal rights, climate change, and so forth. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and, occasionally, theologians have devoted a significant amount of attention to religious social activism and continue to do so.1
However, most of what we know—through either our anecdotal experience, the news, or the work of scholars—about religious organizing and activism relates to what religious communities and individuals do. Very rarely do we see any sustained focus on how these religious people come to the conclusion that their faith demands their intervention in the political sphere. Further, this gap—the missing focus on the how—explains why people unfamiliar with religious social activism take issue with the idea that religion can produce progressive social change. For example, religious activism is often dismissed by “conservatives” as the political instrumentalization of faith. Similarly, religious activists are often dismissed by “progressives” because they are perceived as odd and unreliable outliers. After all, religion is still considered by many as inherently against social progress.
A Revolutionary Faith attempts to fill this scholarly gap. I do so by paying attention to the process of articulation of religious beliefs and political concerns that takes place in religious organizing and activism—the how.2 Moreover, attention to this process of articulation is of critical importance to address quite apparent deadlocks in current debates regarding social justice issues in democratic societies, especially in the United States. A brief characterization of these debates may make this point even clearer.3
“Progressives” tend to favor the consolidation of a safety net and the expansion of rights—social, economic, cultural, and so on—for all, but particularly of those groups historically oppressed and marginalized: women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and so forth.4 This advocacy is often pursued with suspicion about the role of religion and religious people, if not with open hostility toward both. Religion and religious people are construed as an obstacle to social progress. Of course, such a construal is explained by the fact that religious people have indeed opposed progressive causes, both in personal histories and in the long history of Western democracy. However, this construal is also the reflection of certain biases against religion—both individual and historical—that are often unwarranted. Karl Marx, one of the seminal figures of the multiple currents of the progressive movement, considered religion the first obstacle to and the primary target of the cause of social progress.5 But, of course, one does not need to read Marx to know about and embrace this widespread conviction.
“Conservatives” see the expansion of the safety net and the correlative expansion of individual and communal entitlements as a threat. On the one hand, this expansion would represent a threat to people’s liberty and commitment to free markets—the Reagan-era idea that government expansion equals liberty contraction. On the other, this expansion of rights would constitute a threat to a traditional way of life that struggles to accept gender, racial, and sexual diversity. Furthermore, the conservative perception of a menace is fueled by the correlative perception that social changes are demanded with hostility toward a traditional way of living in which religion—mostly, White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism—has often been paramount. Certainly, this opinion is not completely wrong, as noted earlier. However, the entanglement of religion and political conservatism can be questionable, if not openly dangerous. The theological justifications of the accumulation of wealth and the correlative dismissiveness toward the plight of the poor are well known.6 Similarly, religious arguments—and, more critically, constitutional protections of religious freedom—have been, and are still, used to justify racial, gender, and sexual discrimination.7
Is there a way out of this conundrum? Can we think about social justice—that is, fair access to basic goods mediated by social institutions—in a way that both defends the expansion of rights and respects people’s religious integrity? As the experience of many religious individuals and communities shows, the answer to these questions is “yes.” How to arrive at this affirmative answer, how these religious people arrive at it, is much less obvious. This is the central topic of this book.
Now, to understand the process of articulation of religious faith and political action, we must take a step back. As noted, most of the literature devoted to faith-based progressive activism focuses on the fact that religious activism does exist, describes it, contextualizes it, and occasionally attempts to understand its motivations. However, little attention has been paid to the theological rationale developed by religious actors to explain their need to take an active political stance.8 And yet these theological arguments are crucial to understand such an intervention because, until just a few decades ago, the assumption—both sociologically and normatively—was that, in functional liberal democracies, religion was and must be a private matter. The assumption was that religion should remain confined to the home and the temples.9
For this reason, even today, some people see religious activism as a betrayal of genuine religious faith. Religion is supposed to be about prayer, worship, sacraments, and so forth. Hence, the idea that religious people can be political actors as religious people appears contradictory or suspicious to many. Of course, these suspicions directly depend on the kind of political intervention. The religious sanctioning of the political and cultural establishment is a long-standing practice of most religious traditions. Therefore, the apparent contradictions and suspicions that I am describing really come to the fore when religious actors challenge the political and cultural establishment. The suspicions and fears emerge when faith becomes revolutionary, when faith seeks progressive social change.
In this book I focus on one of the key contemporary theological and social movements whose challenge and rearticulation of the relationship between religion and politics has left a global and lasting influence: liberation theology. In the following pages, I will systematically address definitional, methodological, and fundamental questions about how I understand liberation theology, what I take its main innovations to be, and why these innovations matter. As I discuss in this book, the key contribution of liberation theologians—particularly of Gustavo Gutiérrez—was to reach a new articulation, a new balance between faith and politics, the sacred and the profane, without reducing politics to faith or faith to politics.
Rather than conceiving Christian social justice solely in terms of inward moral goodness and kindness toward the neighbor, obedient acceptance of our location in a providentially given social order, and charitable assistance to the poor, liberation theologians propose a paradigm shift.10 Liberation theologians advocate for an understanding of Christian discipleship that must also be expressed outwardly via a critical assessment of the present social order and its role in the very existence and perpetuation of social injustice, as well as through the commitment to reform or eradicate the social structures responsible for the unjust suffering of millions around the globe. In doing so, liberation theology radically transformed the Christian tradition.11 Liberation theologians urged people to insert themselves in the political struggles for justice as Christians. Instead of seeing this as the politicization of faith, liberation theology provided the theological resources to reinterpret the political as the ineluctable arena for the expression of people’s Christian commitment to justice, especially for the poor and marginalized.
As noted earlier, this was accomplished without reducing politics to faith or faith to politics. Such balance took immense theological, political, and ecclesiastical savviness, and is—so I will argue—the lasting mark of liberation theology. And that is precisely what this book studies: why this balance was necessary (Chapter 1), what were the theological moves required to achieve it (Chapter 2), and how that balance was embodied and persists in the faith-based activism of people shaped by liberation theology (>Chapter 3).
The first task (the why) requires close attention to the social and ecclesial context—global and Latin American—in which liberation theology emerged. Building on these historical developments, Chapter 1 also draws contrasts between Gutiérrez’s work and how others have sought to interpret the relationship between faith and politics. Close attention to these differences shows the strengths and radical nature of the innovations of liberation theology.
The second task (the what) demands that we step back to unpack Gutiérrez’s nonexplicit hermeneutics of the Christian tradition. This is needed to further explain whether his new articulation of faith and politics works as a genuine Christian response to the problem of the political engagement of the Christian believer. Thus, Chapter 2 sketches a theory of interpretation of religious experience and religious innovation—in dialogue with Paul Ricoeur and David Tracy—that explains the necessary conditions to produce change within a tradition and the conditions that make such innovations still recognizable as genuinely belonging to the tradition.
The third task (the how) requires that we move from the world of theological reflection to that of lived religion. Accordingly, Chapter 3 turns to ethnographic material—including interviews conducted with key members of the liberation theology movement in Perú—giving color and texture to the more theoretical sections of the book. Here we witness, in their own words and narratives, the impact of Gutiérrez’s new articulation of faith and politics, and the lasting legacy of liberation theology in Perú.
But A Revolutionary Faith is not only a scholarly contribution to liberation theology studies. The book’s constructive goal is to start elucidating the necessary conditions to develop a theory of social justice that incorporates, rather than brackets, the liberating intuitions of religion (Chapter 4). And for this task, the new articulation of faith and politics developed by liberation theologians offers crucial insights. However, these are insights, indeed. As several scholars have noted,12 liberation theologians have not yet provided a systematic approach to the question of social justice, nor have they offered concrete criteria to adjudicate between conflicting political claims. When it comes to these questions, liberation theologians have mostly provided negative accounts or rhetorical and spiritually rich calls to action. Or, if their conception of justice was embodied in their political action, such embodiment of their understanding of social justice was rarely systematized in their scholarly work.
For this reason, I will draw instead from one of the most powerful—and, as I will show, congenial with liberation theology—contemporary theories of social justice: that of John Rawls. My goal is to show that a systematic approach to the problem of social justice is crucial both to pursue the cause of progressive social change and to clarify scholarly gaps in liberation theology. Conversely, the work of liberation theologians will allow me to expand Rawls’s theory, producing a more inclusive account of social justice, an account this book sketches in its closing chapter.
The key step in the production of this inclusive account of social justice is to show that theological and political ideas can converge—find critical correlation, as Tracy argues. Such a convergence takes place when the guiding thread that connects theological and political ideas is the cause of social justice, especially when it focuses on the poor and marginalized. Indeed, faith and politics can come together to establish strategic and substantial alliances for the common good, particularly when it comes to the needs of the most vulnerable among our fellow humans, nonhuman animals, and the environment. When this happens, even if it is rather briefly and contingent on specific projects, we witness the radical transformation of a tradition, a tradition that has developed a whole new relationship with the world. The world, which was considered for so long a place of sin and temptation, has now become the place in which we all can find the path of redemption. The world, this world, is no longer a trap, but a place in which redemption starts taking place. Other religions are no longer antagonist paths of salvation but true sources of wisdom that can come together to take care of creation. The nonbeliever is no longer a foe but a potential ally in the effort to lessen want, protect the most vulnerable, and work for social justice. This is a true revolution. What follows is a study of how this happened.
1. Without trying to be exhaustive, these are some of the key recent, and relatively recent, works dealing with the matter: Phillip Berryman, The Religious Roots of Rebellion: Christians in Central American Revolutions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984); Christian Smith, The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans, 3rd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998); Omar M. McRoberts, Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Catherine E. Wilson, The Politics of Latino Faith: Religion, Identity, and Urban Community (New York: New York University Press, 2008); Martha C. Nussbaum, Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (New York: Basic Books, 2008); Steven H. Shiffrin, The Religious Left and Church-State Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); Kevin Lewis O’Neill, City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Gary J. Dorrien, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018); Gary J. Dorrien, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015); Matthew Bowman, Christian: The Politics of a Word in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018); Lilian Calles Barger, The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Karen J. Johnson, One in Christ: Chicago Catholics and the Quest for Interracial Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Felipe Hinojosa, Apostles of Change: Latino Radical Politics, Church Occupations, and the Fight to Save the Barrio (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021).
2. In this book, I use the concept of articulation in its standard meaning in English. So, notions like “expressing oneself coherently” or “producing clear ideas about something” meet the mark and suffice to understand my use of the concept. However, behind articulation is also a more complex philosophical stance present in the work of Charles Taylor and Hans Joas that I fundamentally share. In this sense, articulation is the attempt to produce a coherent narrative of oneself, or one’s community, or tradition. Such a process is especially complex because it requires finding balance between ideal and real selves, aspirations and flaws, what we do not know about ourselves, and what we may never be able to articulate. Since this book is focused on liberation theology’s development of a new faith-based political identity, keeping in mind this more complex philosophical understanding of articulation seems pertinent. On these issues, see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989); Hans Joas, The Genesis of Values (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
3. In the context of the United States, we can see some of the issues described in my characterization of the progressive-conservative debates in the disputed narratives about the meaning of Christian. On this issue, see Bowman, Christian, whose epilogue summarizes these tensions very well. For a long-term and transnational account of these tensions, with particular attention to the process of secularization, see José Casanova, “Public Religions Revisited,” in Religion: Beyond a Concept, ed. Hent de Vries (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
4. I will use the categories progressive and conservative as ideal types, without dealing with highly controversial debates about the plurality within each group. Noting that these are not absolutely accurate depictions of each self-defined progressive or conservative, I do hold that this basic typology is representative of a vast sample of people in each group.
5. Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1978), 53.
6. For the classic iteration of this argument, see Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings, trans. P. R. Baehr and Gordon C. Wells (New York: Penguin Books, 2002). See also Harvey Cox, The Market as God (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); Elizabeth L. Hinson-Hasty, The Problem of Wealth: A Christian Response to a Culture of Affluence (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017).
7. See Martha C. Nussbaum, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, Inalienable Rights Series (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010).
8. Of the works cited earlier, Wilson, The Politics of Latino Faith, and Barger, The World Come of Age, come closest to the theological rationale I focus on. Unlike most sociological pieces on religious activism, Wilson notably pursues the path of trying to understand the theological framework behind the activism of the Latinx faith-based organizations that she studies. However, her study is rather schematic (only parts of Chapter 3) and overstresses contrasts between Latin American and Latinx liberationists regarding capitalism and popular religion. Barger’s case is different since she has written a comprehensive and capacious “intellectual history” of liberation theology. I will discuss her book in Chapter 1. For a critical review of Barger’s book, with which I strongly agree, see J. Matthew Ashley, “To Change the World: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology,” Commonweal, January 31, 2019, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/change-world.
9. The turning point in this area of scholarship was Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World, although the work of the British sociologist David Martin had already questioned this assumption by distinguishing patterns of secularization and noting that in many regions of the world the privatization-decline of religion hypothesis does not hold. See David Martin, A General Theory of Secularization (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1978).
10. The focus of my book will be on Christian liberation theology and on Gustavo Gutiérrez’s oeuvre. Liberation theology has developed non-Christian streams and covers the work of many different theologians. My emphasis, however, follows practical and methodological concerns. Practically, the Christian stream of liberation theology is the most influential and the one on which most scholarship has been produced. Methodologically, despite the many common themes among the different currents of liberation theology, the differences matter, especially when it comes to the balance-without-reduction that I propose.
11. It may be argued that figures like Bartolomé de las Casas anticipated the contributions of liberation theology, an argument that could deemphasize the radical change I attribute to liberation theology. Even though it is true that Las Casas was a man ahead of his time, there are important differences between Las Casas’s project and that of Gutierrez and his colleagues. Las Casas does not fundamentally challenge the colonial system or the existence of fixed social locations. Indeed, Las Casas criticizes how the colonial system has brutalized the native inhabitants of the Americas. He sees the preaching of the gospel as an excuse for an extractive project and asks for a moratorium until new ways of sharing the gospel can be sorted out. But he does not question the legitimacy of preaching the gospel through a colonial project; he only rejects its current form. Similarly, Las Casas deeply cares about the situation of indigenous people in the Americas, but he accepts the standard medieval cosmology of fixed social locations: some people are placed in the world to be wealthy and powerful, and some are poor and vulnerable. His call is for the powerful and wealthy to be compassionate toward the poor, emulating the kindness of Christ. He is not arguing for the upending of the medieval hierarchical system. Therefore, the difference of approach with liberation theologians is substantial. And naturally so. There are five hundred years between them. Gustavo Gutiérrez acknowledges these differences in his study of Las Casas; see Las Casas in Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993). For this reason, my argument in Chapter 1 of La subversión de la esperanza (Lima: PUCP, IBC, CEP, 2015) is that Las Casas is better paired with philosophies of radical compassion for the other, like that of Emmanuel Levinas, instead of with liberation theologians. Radical compassion for the poor and marginalized is at the core of Las Casas’s thinking, not systemic, structural change, even if he probably was the most radical critic of colonial rule and extractivism in his time.
12. The most systematic account of the issue is Ismael García, “The Concept of Justice in Latin American Theology of Liberation” (PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 1982). Stephen J. Pope, “Proper and Improper Partiality and the Preferential Option for the Poor,” Theological Studies 54 (1993): 242–271, has also underscored key issues relating to the position of Gutiérrez and others regarding social justice.