Bernie Sanders’ April 15, 2016, address to the Vatican, titled “The Urgency of a Moral Economy” arrives at a curious point for the left in the Anglo-American sphere. With Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK’s Labour Party and theastonishing success of Sanders’ own run for the Democratic Party nomination, there is something clearly afoot. Many have drawn connections from these events to the rise of continental European parties tied to left-wing socialmovements, such as Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos, which is a fair thing to do. In all of these cases, anger at systemic corruption and widening inequality, along with the discrediting of traditional parties of the center-left, have driven a political polarization accompanied by mass grassroots engagement.
However, there may be a key difference in that both Syriza and Podemos draw on intensely academic traditions of politics in ways that are less true of the movements behind Sanders and Corbyn. This is both in the literal sense that university professors make up a large number of the key figures in both parties and that their analysis of and tactics within the political systems they occupy is based on a constructed theory. In keeping with the roots of both the Labour Party and the various leftist currents of US politics that Sanders emerges from in trade unions and cooperative societies, they evince a less theoretical and more concrete vision of a just society, tied with a greater sense of moral imperative.
Sanders, in forthright opposition to politics of technocracy and “pragmatism,” states that “Our challenge is mostly a moral one, to redirect our efforts and vision to the common good.” When asked to define his spiritual beliefs, Sanders has stated that, “This is not Judaism, this is what Pope Francis is talking about, that we can’t just worship billionaires and the making of more and more money. Life is more than that.” He has expressed admiration for the current pope’s vision of economic justice on other occasions as well.
Similarly, belying the press vision of him as a swivel-eyed hard Marxist, Corbyn is thoughtful and nuanced on question of religious faith. In an interview with the Christian UK magazine Third Way, he stated, “I think the faith community offers and does a great deal for people. There doesn’t have to be wars about religion, there has to be honesty about religion.” In more explicit terms, his Christmas message in the Daily Mirror drew parallels between Christian and secular socialist conceptions of solidarity. He may not be practicing, but Corbyn is certainly familiar with the language of the Christian left, in particular, the non-conformist Methodist tradition that has often inspired theparty he leads.
Liberation theology as a concept is most closely associated with Latin American leftist movements of the type that Sanders has himself expressed support for at various points. However, a key visible supporter of his campaign has been political scholar Cornel West, who draws from a particular tradition of the Black Church in formulating his stance as a “non-Marxist socialist” (West is prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America).
One should be careful not overstate this point, of course, and this is not to say that the individuals involved would describe themselves as proponents of a social gospel or liberation theology as such. Corbyn considers his religious beliefs, like much about his life outside of politics, to be a “personal matter,” and Sanders is, of course, an avowedly secular Jew. But the idea of liberation theology is not confined by any means to Christian theology and its interaction with politics. The Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which literally translates as “repair of the world,” forms a core idea in progressive Jewish political engagement. The particular spiritual tradition that one is informed by matters less thanthe drive it gives.
In a world where anyone who dares to dream beyond the narrow confines of what is deemed currently acceptable is said to be “at war with reality,” the clarity of vision and inspiration from a theology of liberation and a gospel of social justice is perhaps more necessary than ever. And in a world which continually denies the possibility of higher human purpose beyond the fulfillment of individual desires, it gives the courage to define politics, once again, in moral terms.