John Cort at his home in Nahant, Massachussetts during the summer of 1979. This photo was likely taken by his son, Paul. (Used by permission)

John C. Cort was a retired labor journalist, Peace Corps regional director, Massachusetts service-corps director, and Model Cities program director when he became a socialist in 1975 and two years later began to write Christian Socialism.The writing went on for ten years, contributing mightily to some of the happiest years of his life. He had spent his entire forty-year career of labor journalism and social activism in the outer orbit of his subject, doubting all along that democratic Christian socialism was genuinely democratic or Christian. But he changed his mind. Christian Socialism was the product of a recent conversion and a commitment to evangelize.

Cort wished it had not taken him so long to learn that there was a long and rich tradition of Christian socialism. The book he wrote was the one he wished he could have read as a much younger man. He kept finding as he wrote that there was more to cover than his framework allowed, and he was keenly aware that his theologically conservative Catholicism filtered everything he wrote about socialism and Christian socialism. But he acknowledged this standpoint with characteristic honesty, and the things he got wrong did not come from trying to make his favorite Christian socialists come out best. Cort did not have a mind for theory; a great deal of socialist theory and Christian-socialist theology seemed pointlessly abstract to him. His subject was the real-world career of Christian socialism in France, England, German-speaking Europe, the United States, the Roman Catholic Church, and liberal Protestant ecumenism—a story he told winsomely.

Cort was born in 1913 in Woodmere, Long Island, the youngest of five boys. His father, Ambrose Cort, was a quintessential liberal and deist who believed in cultural progress, education, the League of Nations, and later, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He taught in a Brooklyn junior-high school by day, taught Latin and English in a night school to keep his family solidly middle class, and willingly attended the Episcopal Church with his wife, Lydia Cort, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music. John Cort grew up comfortably enough that he was blissfully unaware of the Depression until 1936. The poor sections of New York City that he glimpsed from a train window looked no worse to him in 1933 than in 1923. The poor were always there, remote and unknown. I heard Cort tell his story several times over the years; he knew it was unusual and interesting, plus the key to how he ended up. Eventually he wrote it up in his book Dreadful Conversions: The Making of a Catholic Socialist (Fordham, 2003), on which I draw.

Cort heard a great deal in his youth about being a responsible person and doing well in school. The Episcopal Church made very little impression on him, despite three years of schooling at the Choir School of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. Church was simply boring and nothing else. He won a scholarship to Taft, a prep school for rich kids in Watertown, Connecticut, which put him on track to get into Harvard, where he enrolled in 1931. At Harvard he studied the classical humanism of Irving Babbitt and tried to adopt it, but stewed over the question of whether humanism provides enough meaning to live by. Two things drew him into the Catholic Church. The first was an experience of romantic heartbreak that compelled him to realize he was not as rational as he’d thought. Then he read the four gospels straight through and was caught by the Gospel itself.

The picture of Jesus that the gospels convey broke through to Cort

The picture of Jesus that the gospels convey broke through to Cort—a convicting impression that stuck with him for the rest of his life. This picture trumped whatever it was that biblical scholars rattled on about. Jesus made an impression of divinity through his powerful words and deeds, the poor flocked to him, he claimed a unique relationship to God, he denounced sin and oppression, he was crucified for it, and God raised him from the dead. Cort said the gospels felt like good reporting to him. They tell a story crammed with realistic details, conveying a ring of truth. It amazed him that scholars thought they were grasping a deeper truth when they deconstructed the biblical text. On several occasions Cort asked me to explain the different kinds of biblical criticism to him and why he should care about them. It was always the same conversation because most biblical scholars did not describe what changed his life. The few that he trusted, notably Raymond Brown and Alan Richardson, seemed to get it.

In his college years Cort sang in the choir for pay at an Episcopal Church in Cambridge. These were the same kind of decorous middle-class and upper-middle-class churchgoers among whom he had been raised, but now he paid attention to the sermons and asked various clerical sermonizers what they believed. Most of them didn’t believe very much, telling Cort the Nicene Creed was symbolic and historically relative. Cort vowed not to stay in a church that undermined its own authority and the authority of the Gospel. He read two articles by Jesuit theologian J. Pohle on grace and predestination, seated in Harvard’s Widener Library. Pohle said the Catholic Church teaches that all are given sufficient grace to be saved and grace is thwarted only by the free resistance of the human will. Cort left Widener flush with gratitude that Catholicism believed in his freedom and God’s goodness. He walked two blocks to St. Paul’s Church to join the Catholic Church, but his father exploded at the news, threatening to terminate Cort’s studies at Harvard. He wouldn’t become a Catholic until he graduated in June 1935, still walled off from the catastrophe ravaging the poor, the entire working class, and much of the former middle class. 


Cort hooked a job writing for a Boston weekly in Brookline. In December 1935 Cort encountered a man selling the Catholic Worker newspaper outside a French Catholic church in Boston. He had never heard of the Catholic Worker (CW), which Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin had founded on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1933. The inaugural issue of the paper had declared that its purpose was to expound the ideas about social justice contained in the papal encyclicals. Cort read one of Maurin’s front-page free-verse poetic jingles. It was strange and a bit cheesy, but also intriguing. The last page contained a fundraising appeal from Day begging for donations to be shared with the homeless and hungry of New York City. By 1936 the Catholic Worker had a circulation of 150,000. It espoused a pacifist, communal, anarchist-leaning Catholicism devoted to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing a home for the homeless, and seeing Christ in the poor and vulnerable. It asserted defiantly that Communists were not the only ones who cared about the poor and oppressed. Cort joined the Boston affiliate of the CW, heard Day speak in Boston in April 1936, and quit his job, moving into the new CW house in New York, House of Hospitality on Mott Street in Little Italy.

Cort was drawn to Day’s saintly intensity and her familiar Episcopal-to-agnostic-to-Catholic conversion story. He liked that she wrote for socialist papers before she converted to Catholicism, and that her writing style closely resembled his—low key, filled with anecdotes about people and events, and sprinkled with biblical sayings. Before Cort arrived at House of Hospitality he wrote a characteristically opinionated letter to Day and Maurin declaring that they were wrong about pacifism; moreover, Maurin erred in saying there was nothing wrong with communism. That pegged Cort as a Harvard know-it-all before he arrived. Maurin loathed all institutions except the Catholic Church. He was a deeper-down anarchist than Day; unlike her, he did not care about American leftist movements. Maurin wrote in 1936 that strikes didn’t strike him. That was unbearably flippant to Day, who replied that strikers fight for the right to be treated as human beings instead of slaves.

John L. Lewis founded the Committee for Industrial Organization in 1935, which became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1938 after it broke away from the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Lewis fulfilled a longtime socialist and industrial-unionist dream by organizing millions of workers in the mass-production auto, steel, electrical, and rubber industries. The United States had never had a real labor movement in the European sense; it had a bunch of business unions that fended off its socialists seeking to build a labor party. For a while, in the 1930s, it seemed that the Depression might rewrite the script on what kind of labor movement was possible in the United States. Cort found his first calling in this situation.

Day said Cort came to the Catholic Worker to join the labor movement and found himself in a flophouse. Cort said that was not quite right; he became a labor journalist because Day pushed him into it. He wrote about union organizing, strikes, and strikebreaking for the Catholic Worker, entering a world unknown by his teachers at Taft and Harvard. He taught a course at the CW on the 1931 papal encyclical of Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, which updated the 1891 encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum novarum. Both encyclicals were harshly critical of capitalism and socialism, calling for a reconstructed social order based on the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, the right to private property, and the right to collective bargaining. Cort taught himself the encyclical tradition as he taught the course, barely keeping ahead of the class. He caught some flack from CW pacifists for siding too clearly with the CIO, but not from Day. Cort crafted a speech that he gave at Catholic parishes and CW events. He quoted select passages from Quadragesimo anno about the concentration of economic power under capitalism, asked the crowd to identify the source, and corrected them when they guessed it must be Karl Marx or the Communist Daily Worker.

He commended the balanced wisdom of the papal tradition. On one hand, it condemned the fundamental principle of capitalism that production is primarily for profit and not for the satisfaction of human needs; on the other, it did not claim that the wage system is essentially unjust or inevitably exploitative. But what good was Catholic social teaching if Catholics didn’t know what it was? That question drove him to teach Catholic unionists the social doctrines and history that he had to teach himself, and he gathered a CW group in 1937 to launch the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU), an educational association for Catholic members of unions. That mission to educate was the foundation of his entire career in labor journalism and activism, which Cort repeated in the 1970s after he became a socialist.

He gave five years of full-time service to ACTU and wrote for its national weekly newspaper, the Labor Leader, for twenty years. Cort expressed the teaching of Quadragesimo anno that workers have a right to share in the control and decision-making of plants and industries through worker groups variously called industry councils, vocational groups, or guilds. He denied the accusation of liberals and Communists that this idea was best described as corporatism or fascism. Cort defended the CIO sit-down strikes of the late 1930s, denying that sit-downs violated the property rights of owners, though the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in 1939. He steered ACTU and the paper entirely toward the nexus of labor news and Catholic social teaching, which gradually took him outside the orbit of the CW. The Labor Leader did not expound in CW fashion on agrarianism, pacifism, anarchism, liturgy, and spirituality. Cort became wholly absorbed in Catholic union activism while Day drifted from it except for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW).

ACTU supported a dozen different strikes, mostly by the new CIO unions. Cort supported the efforts of United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther and CIO leader Philip Murray to drive Communists out of the CIO unions. He took pride in belonging to the Catholic wing of the anti-Stalinist Left. Cort did not apologize for opposing Communist influence in the CIO and he was averse to later scholarship that romanticized the Popular Fronts of 1935–1939 and 1941–1945. What really cut him, however, was the failure of the merged AFL-CIO in the late 1950s to root out corruption. It distressed him so much that he bailed out of labor activism; industrial democracy had failed. He joined the flagship of liberal Democratic Party anti-communism, Americans for Democratic Action, wagering that perhaps political democracy might be more effective.

Cort struggled for a dozen years with tuberculosis, believing his meager diet at the Catholic Worker was the cause of his illness. In 1943 he met a recent graduate of the College of New Rochelle, Helen Haye, at the New York ACTU headquarters. He courted her for three years in and out of various hospitals, married her in 1946, and their first child was born in 1947, followed by nine more. Cort said he was “totally Catholic” when it came to marriage and family, believing in “seek ye first the kingdom of God and all shall be added to you.” In 1973, however, he bowed to the insistence of his large family that he had to accept household chores like everyone else and stop citing the apostle Paul on his God-given paternal authority. His daughters persuaded him that their family had a division-of-labor problem caused by patriarchy, Christianity, American society, and him.

The expulsion of the Stalinist unions from the AFL-CIO ironically devitalized ACTU, depriving it of a galvanizing opponent. The Labor Leader ran its last issue in November 1959, though New York ACTU kept going into the 1970s. Cort served on the editorial staff of Commonweal from 1943 to 1959, forging friendships across its liberal Catholic readership. He worked successively as a business agent of the Boston Newspaper Guild, regional director of the Peace Corps in the Philippines, director of the Massachusetts Commonwealth Service Corps, and director of the Model Cities Program in Lynn, Massachusetts. In 1967 he moved his family to Roxbury, a predominantly African-American section of Boston, believing that white liberals like him needed to prove their commitment to racial integration, especially if they ran an anti-poverty agency as he did. In his last paycheck job he funded sixteen projects, including a Meals on Wheels program, a senior citizens’ center, a housing-rehab program, and three child-daycare centers. It was good work tied to political vicissitudes, and an unfriendly mayor pushed him out in 1973.


Cort was sixty years old when he stopped earning paychecks and vowed to figure out the meaning of his life

Cort was sixty years old when he stopped earning paychecks and vowed to figure out the meaning of his life. In January 1974 he attended a conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology sponsored by a new organization called People for Self-Management (PSM). There he met one of the leading theorists of worker ownership, Cornell political economist Jaroslav Vaněk, and was deeply impressed by keynote speaker Irving Bluestone, a UAW economist and vice president. Bluestone said workplaces needed to become more interesting, complex, democratic, and humane. Cort joined PSM and attended a meeting of another new organization, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC).

The founder and leader of DSOC, Michael Harrington, was an old acquaintance of Cort’s from their Commonweal days. Harrington had grown up very Midwestern, middle class, and Catholic in St. Louis, Missouri. He moved to New York after graduating from Holy Cross College and the University of Chicago, joining the CW in 1952, where he ran the Catholic Worker for a while and became Day’s favorite Worker. It took Harrington two years to decide in succession that he did not believe in anarchism, pacifism, or God. He morphed into the sectarian world of New York Marxism, joining a group led by former Trotskyite Max Shachtman. He kept writing for Commonweal and in 1958 he followed the Shachtmanites into the Socialist Party, led by Norman Thomas. In the 1960s Harrington was the youthful star of the Socialist Party. He was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement and wrote a famous book in 1962 titled The Other America, contending that 50 million Americans were poor in their supposedly affluent society. In 1973 he led a progressive faction of the Socialist Party into DSOC, breaking with rightwing Socialists who loathed the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, and the liberal turn in the Democratic Party. DSOC was founded as an inclusive, open-ended, multi-tendency organization that united the Old Left with the 1960s New Left. It was more Old Left than New Left, but trying, and its Boston chapter was emphatically religion friendly. Cort attended a DSOC gathering at the Paulist Center, hearing speeches from Commonweal editor Peter Steinfels and Holy Cross College historian David O’Brien.

Very characteristically, Cort arose to ask the speakers the same question he had asked Norman Thomas at a Harvard venue forty years previously. If they believed in freedom as much as they claimed, how could they believe in state ownership of the means of production? Steinfels and O’Brien were no more persuasive than Thomas had been, but Cort had a worker-ownership answer in his head, and he immersed himself in DSOC literature and Harrington’s books. Two Harrington factors won him over: Harrington was unquestionably devoted to freedom and democracy, and he denied that socialism should be equated with nationalizing the economy. Harrington’s socialism was pragmatic, pluralistic, and more decentralized than not, committed to mixed forms of worker ownership and public ownership, mostly at the local level. These positions were much less exceptional than they seemed at the time to Cort. State socialism was a latecomer in the history of socialism everywhere except Germany. The earliest traditions of socialism were cooperative, communal, and decentralized.

Cort began to think that perhaps he had been a socialist ever since he joined the ACTU. He greatly admired Julius Bernstein, a revered veteran of the Old Left and director of the Jewish Labor Committee who was the ringleader of Boston DSOC. In September 1975 Cort told Bernstein he was ready to join. He wrote an article announcing his decision (“Why I Became a Socialist,” Commonweal, March 26, 1976), leading with a typically puckish Cort anecdote plucked from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. A French police official professed that he didn’t fear the socialists, anarchists, infidels, and revolutionaries. He understood them and kept watch over them. The people he feared were the Christian socialists: “They are dreadful people! The socialist who is a Christian is more to be dreaded than the socialist who is an atheist.” Cort enjoyed the suggestion that he became dangerous after many years of respectable work as a professional service director. One paragraph later, however, he played up that DSOC operated in the left wing of the Democratic Party, and that its roster of distinguished members included economist John Kenneth Galbraith, literary critic Irving Howe, and UAW icon Victor Reuther. 

Cort observed that DSOC proposed to nationalize part of the defense industry and some of the big banks. It also proposed that employee and public representatives should be placed on the boards of directors of all major industrial and financial corporations. If that was democratic socialism, he had been one for a long time: “Since conversion to Catholicism in 1933 I have always been rather conservative in theology and inclined to take seriously the opinions of the Popes as expressed in their encyclicals.” From the popes he absorbed that socialism is about nationalizing the economy and abolishing private property. But what if socialism is more complex and various than that—and always has been? Cort noted that even in select industries where nationalization is the socialist solution, it could mean different things. In 1894 French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès proposed that France’s mines should be nationalized and managed one-third by worker representatives, one-third by worker and peasant unions from other areas of the economy, and one-third by the standing government. That sounded to Cort like a good solution to the terrible problem of the coal industry. He stressed that producer and consumer cooperatives are forms of social ownership, and that West Germany had co-determined enterprises. He noted that John XXIII, in Mater et magistra (1961), improved on Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno. It was not merely a good idea to grant workers some share in their enterprises; Pope John said it was a “demand of justice.” Cort reveled in the inside story that German Jesuit Oswald von Nell-Breuning wrote the first drafts of both encyclicals.


In 1977 a group of religious socialists gathered at the DSOC convention in Chicago to organize a Religion and Socialism group and its publication, Religious Socialism. Cort ran the magazine for eleven years, handed it over to Jack Spooner and Curt Sanders for ten years, picked it up again in 1998, and in 2000 passed it to Andrew Hammer, Norm Faramelli, and Maxine Phillips. To read the magazine in its early years was to get very familiar with the Frankfurt Declaration, the 1951 platform statement of the Socialist International, since Cort quoted it constantly. The Frankfurt Declaration was social democratic and revisionist, equating democratic socialism with believing in universal rights of freedom and economic well-being, not a particular ownership scheme. He treated it with a decided reverence, prizing one Frankfurt statement above all others: “While the guiding principle of capitalism is private profit, the guiding principle of Socialism is the satisfaction of human needs.” That was an echo of Quadragesimo anno, to his delight. Cort could not have become a democratic socialist if its official international organization had retained Marxian language condemning private profit, even if, like the Catholic Church, the Socialist International also claimed that the satisfaction of essential human needs must be lifted above it.

It puzzled him that very few of his religious socialist comrades held a similarly reverent feeling about the Frankfurt Declaration. Cort treasured the revisionist outcome in social democracy before he studied the history behind it. Christian Socialism barely mentioned the blowout between Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky within German Social Democracy that produced a revisionist tradition, but Cort realized he had to learn about it to understand some of his theologian subjects and himself. Much of the relevant history was highly theoretical and tangled. Harrington detailed a fair amount of it in his books, but he insisted that Marx was a radical democrat remarkably like Harrington, and he obscured how much he owed to British revisionist socialist Anthony Crosland. Harrington’s leadership responsibilities in DSOC and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) sometimes compelled him to fudge his position. He gave the appearance of claiming that capitalist markets should operate within socialist plans, but in fact his planning proposals were Social Democratic strategies operating within capitalist markets: solidarity-wage policies, co-determination, and worker investment funds.

In 1989 the International replaced Frankfurt with the Stockholm Declaration. It carried on for fifty-five paragraphs about economic rights and democratic-socialist values before it said anything about models of ownership. Then it advocated worker and public ownership “within the framework of a mixed economy.” Harrington was one of its coauthors, just before he died of cancer. Cort jubilantly embraced the Stockholm Declaration, exulting that it didn’t even mention Marxism. It featured trademark Harrington arguments—state ownership by itself does not guarantee economic efficiency or social justice, equality is the condition of the development of individual personality, and equality and personal freedom are indivisible.

In Cort’s last issue of Religious Socialism (Summer 2000), he bowed out with what he called “a public service,” reprinting the entire text of the Stockholm Declaration under the banner title “This Is Socialism,” which he juxtaposed to a passage from The Communist Manifesto under the title, “This Is Not Socialism—This Is Communism.” The latter passage was the Marx-Engels exhortation about overthrowing the capitalist class, centralizing all instruments of production in the hands of the state, and abolishing private property. Cort said he grieved that the latter type of thought continued to infiltrate DSA, perhaps “by a kind of secret seduction.” Elsewhere he celebrated that the Stockholm Declaration said nothing about abortion. Cort had a history of halting DSOC and DSA conventions on this subject, demanding to know on what basis they claimed expertise in moral theology. He knew he would lose the vote overwhelmingly, which didn’t stop him from making a ruckus.

Sister Mary Emil Penet, IHM, a social-ethics professor at Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told Cort after reading his article on “Why I Became a Socialist” that he should write a book on the history of Christian socialism. She jump-started the project by securing a position and library privileges for him at Weston. Cort dove into the work in 1977 and it became a wonderful obsession. He had written a lot but had never been a scholar. His book would not be as theoretically oriented as the works of major figures he wrote about. He was a journalist, he said, who wrote journalese. Yet Cort was deeply offended when Orbis Books hung a truth-in-advertising subtitle on his book, “An Informal History.” He smoldered for years at the subtitle, feeling slighted by it. Writing journalese, he would say, was no reason to insult him. Cort believed his biggest error in the book was his statement that Christian Social Democrats of Sweden had one thousand members, when in fact it had ten thousand members.

Actually, there were larger problems. A big one came on the first page, where Cort framed and defined socialism. Rightly he said that socialism and Marxism are widely various. Cort explained that the Marxist spectrum ranged from Lenin at the dictatorial end to Harrington and Rosa Luxemburg at the democratic end. Nearly everything about this frame was wrong. It erased the enormously significant phenomenon of ultra-left Marxism, erased the equally weighty tradition of rightwing Marxism, and misrepresented Luxemburg.

Cort got Luxemburg wrong because he fixed too simply on democracy, and her warm words about it confused him. He graded varieties of Marxism entirely by the democracy factor. There were two main reasons for this fixation: people lumped democratic socialists with Communists, and Latin American liberation theologians recycled Marxian slogans about the sham of liberal democracy. Both things galled and motivated Cort. Luxemburg’s glowing commendation of something called democracy sounded like Harrington to Cort. She was a true believer in the full-bore utopian version of the Marxian dictatorship of the proletariat. But Marxian dictatorship, she said, had to be the work of the entire proletarian class. It was not something owned by a revolutionary elite. It had to flow out of the active participation and direct influence of the masses; otherwise it was another form of tyranny. Cort caught the utopian idealism in Luxemburg, but wrongly thought it made her an anti-Leninist.

Problems of this sort recur in Cort’s rendering of socialist theologians, registering what he knew, what he favored, and what he half understood. For example, his entire discussion of Karl Barth’s performance at the Tambach Conference of 1919 conflated the first and second editions of Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, misunderstanding that these were two very different books and the one that caused a sensation was the second one of 1921. Moreover, Barth had serious dialectical-theological reasons for distinguishing between Christian socialism and religious socialism, emphatically rejecting religious socialism, and saying he was a Christian and a socialist but not a Christian socialist. Cort didn’t even try to tease out the argument. He tagged Barth as a victim of Godwin’s disease, “destitute of common sense,” who was somehow a great theologian. Cort was too quick to brand as confused any theologian who confused him.

But I have passed many copies of Christian Socialism on to students for thirty years because it took a magnificent swipe at a sprawling story that no one else even tried to cover. Cort delivered the goods about how Christian socialism developed in England, Germany, and the United States. The book was crammed with the learning of his later life, radiating his deep moral integrity. It offered memorable, succinct, often funny, always perceptive characterizations of the major players from Moses to Gustavo Gutiérrez. It worked because Cort never strayed from writing the book he wanted to read. He was far more interested in people and anecdotes than in theories, and he wrote about socialist theologians and Christian socialist activists with a keen interest in how they heard the Gospel, what drove them, why they remained Christian, how much orthodoxy they retained, and how they related their faith to socialist politics.

Cort prized common sense. His favorite Christian socialists were long on common sense as he construed it. The figures who disappointed him usually took flight from it, whether out of excessive idealism, a utopian impulse, an annoying woolly-mindedness, a tendency to over-intellectualize, or an alienated numbness. Others disappointed him by interpreting Christian doctrines too loosely; it puzzled him that they had to contrive some new meaning out of the creeds. Cort was always lucid, cogent, reasoned, and opinionated. Everything he wrote had to pass the newspaper test of clarity and transparency. He told readers straight-out what he got from reading theologians, and his best sections vividly conveyed real-world contexts resembling struggles he had lived through.

Christian Socialism, long in coming, came out just before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union imploded. I asked Cort if he anticipated a second edition that registered how the Soviet Communist episode turned out. Perhaps the death of Soviet Communism would occasion a second chance for democratic socialism? Cort said he would welcome the opportunity to add a chapter if asked, but would not press for it, since the book stood well enough on its own. His feelings about the Communist disaster were sprinkled through the book; it was obvious what he would say if he added a chapter. Today there is a great global revulsion against forty years of letting the big banks and corporations do whatever they want. The second chance that we hoped for in 1990 has come. The slogan that defined two generations of neoliberal capitalism—“There Is No Alternative”—no longer works to intimidate young people. There had damned well better be an alternative to severe inequality and the destruction of the planet.

Democratic socialism has made a comeback as a name for the belief in economic rights and the desire for an alternative to neoliberalism and eco-catastrophe. Some of this rebellion is occurring within the Democratic Party and much of it is operating outside the Democratic Party. Cort would be unsettled by the fact that a resurgent DSA has vowed to break free of the Democratic Party. On both sides of this argument, however, there is a case to be made for the enduring relevance of religious socialism. Throughout the history of democratic socialism, Christian socialists have refused to say that capitalism is the cause of all social harm, and they have refused to subordinate their ethical convictions to an ideology. Christian socialists have Christian reasons to be socialist. Christian Socialism tells this story with genial grace, making a persuasive case for why it mattered then and now.


This essay has been adapted from the introduction to a new edition of Christian Socialism: An Informal History.

Christian Socialism: An Informal History
John C. Cort
Orbis Books, 440 pp., $45

Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include his first volume on the Black social-gospel tradition, The New Abolition, which won the Grawemeyer Award; and his second volume, Breaking White Supremacy, which won the American Library Association Award. This article is based on volume three, A Darkly Radiant Vision, to be published in 2023 by Yale University Press.

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