Cornel West on Why the Left Needs Jesus

The famous professor has found himself out of step with cancel culture and the search for political purity among progressives.

The professor Cornel West is featured with colorful graphic imagery.
Shahar Azran / WireImage ; Scott Olson / Getty ; The Atlantic

Cornel West is not particularly interested in being nice. He recently left Harvard—after his second tour as a professor there—and he made sure to post his resignation letter on Twitter: The school’s “narcissistic academic professionalism,” “anti-Palestinian prejudices,” and what he saw as indifference toward his mother’s recent death constituted “an intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of deep depths.” Last week, the CNN commentator Bakari Sellers told Jewish Insider that West toys with anti-Semitism in the same way that former President Donald Trump deploys racist tropes. “That’s a cowardly lie of a desperate opportunist,” West told me.

And yet, when he’s not rumbling with one of his enemies, West is eager to find common cause with people he disagrees with—including, occasionally, political pariahs. He proudly recounted to me his days of debating with Meir Kahane, the Jewish nationalist who was convicted of domestic terrorism, and he has unapologetically spoken beside Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who frequently espouses anti-Semitic views. West takes issue with those on the left who believe that white people are hopeless, or that people who violate progressive orthodoxy should be canceled. “White brothers and sisters, brown, red, or yellow—they are capable of transformation,” he said. “Salvation is not in our hands anyway.” If West does not feel completely at home on the left because he is a Christian, neither does he feel completely at home in the church, which, in his view, has failed to stand up for working people. Perhaps the famous academic is only truly comfortable in the role of outcast.

I spoke with West about whether the left needs Jesus and much more. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Emma Green: Your first big book was Prophesy Deliverance! You called for a radical reimagination of America, grounded in Black Christian thought. Do you see any evidence that now, 40 years later, Black Christian socialist thought has more cultural or political influence than it did when you were writing that book?

Cornel West: In many ways it has much less. That book was published in 1982. The legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King Jr. was much stronger at that time. What I’ve always tried to put forward is the best of a tradition of Black people—people who, in the face of 400 years of chronic hatred, have dished out love warriors; in the face of 400 years of fear, have dished out freedom fighters; and in the face of 400 years of trauma, have produced wounded healers and joy spreaders. That’s a very rich spiritual and moral tradition. We live now in a moment of profound spiritual and moral decay. In 2021, the tradition that I was talking about is a much feebler tradition. The market has taken over.

Green: Over time, the Democratic Party has become less grounded in theological conviction. There are now more religiously unaffiliated Democrats than there are Democrats who are part of any other religious group. What explains that, in your view—the left moving away from faith?

West: In responding to Reagan, the Democratic Party tried to triangulate. They tried to steal the thunder from the Republican Party. They cut back on corporate taxes. They allowed for the deregulation of corporations. They celebrated the unleashing of the market forces. They also cut back on social support for the poor. Their base became the professional-managerial class. And the managerial class is less religious than working-class people. It is less religious than poor people. It’s highly educated, right? But you can be miseducated just like you can be educated.

Green: But on the actual left—among the Democratic Socialists of America, say—how many of those people do you think are deeply religious or motivated by theological concepts of justice?

West: It’s a good question. It’s partly generational. The DSA goes back to 1982. At that time, it was much more tied to the trade-union movement. These days, most of the real fire in DSA is the younger generation, especially since AOC’s entrée onto the public stage. My hunch is that those younger brothers and sisters and comrades are deeply spiritual, but many of them have distanced themselves from the churches and the mosques and the synagogues.

Green: Why is that?

West: Because they failed. Mainstream Christianity is a colossal failure in terms of standing up for poor people. You get prophetic Christians, Catholic Workers, certain nuns. You get Black churches concerned about prisons. But for the most part, mainstream Christianity has been concerned with what American culture has been concerned with, which is success. And success has never been the same as spiritual greatness.

Green: So do you think the left needs God? Do the young Democratic Socialists of America need Jesus?

West: As a Christian, I think everybody could gain much by having a relationship with Jesus. But I think the left can teach Christians like myself very much in terms of their willingness to speak in a courageous way to the “least of these,” to echo the 25th chapter of Matthew: the poor, the orphan, the widow, the exploited. They’ve done a much better job than most churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. The marketization of Christianity and Judaism and Buddhism and Islam is something to be resisted in the name of the prophetic element of those religions. But that prophetic dimension is weak. It’s pushed to the fringes. And so you end up with those prophetic elements aligning themselves with deeply secular forces.

Green: It sounds like you think Jesus might feel more at home at a DSA meeting than in a lot of American churches today.

West: Oh, there’s no doubt about that in terms of the depth and scope of their love for poor people. But at the same time, Jesus did found his church. I think Jesus is looking for all of those who will deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow him.

Green: Some theologians would say, “Okay, maybe many of the things DSA members believe are similar to those of Dorothy Day. But that small detail of whether they actually believe themselves to be following Jesus and accept his salvific power is a really important small detail.”

West: It certainly is. I don’t want to downplay that. There’s no doubt about that. In the end, Jesus wants to be embraced. His power, his love, and the grace of God mediated through his own work and witness is important. But those who would accent doctrine and dogma and have very little love in their hearts and very little courage to fight for the poor—Jesus would be the first to say, as does Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, that’s sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. That’s empty. It’s vacuous.

Green: In our political culture, accumulating power necessarily involves a trade on principles. Democrats, for example, are now the most frequent users of dark money, allowing very rich people to hide their identities and funnel cash to candidates. Is that an impossible tension for the left to reconcile?

West: The Democratic Party can have access to a lot of big money at the top. But if its priorities are not on poor, working people, then it just ends up reproducing the same forms of poverty, social misery, and subordination of working people to capital. The Democratic Party has not used its power to empower poor people. When Obama had a chance to bail out Wall Street or homeowners, what did he do? He doesn’t send even one person to jail, given all of the crimes of insider trading, market manipulation, predatory lending, and fraudulent activity. But 58 percent of Black homeowners lost their houses. That’s downward mobility. That’s redistribution of wealth from the below to the top, reinforced by the Democratic Party.

Green: It seems to me that on the left, especially among many white people, there’s this secular Calvinist moment happening—a dawning realization that we’re stained with sin before we’re born and we have no power to change our sinfulness. You see this in racism self-help books like White Fragility. The trouble is that this notion of sin isn’t accompanied by a framework of salvation or atonement or redemption. It’s Calvinism without the Jesus part. What do you make of this struggle on the left?

West: I think the jump is not from sin to salvation. There’s a mediating stage of conversion and transformation. I’m with Augustine here, that we are forever in an endless battle of trying to become better Christians. Even as we convert, sin is still persisting. But we are making progress because the grace available to us is a gift that empowers us to try to make better choices. If somebody says, “You can’t love white folks these days,” then how are you going to love Arabs? How are you going to love the Palestinians? They have a low priority in a way that’s precisely the kind of witness we need. Anytime people tell you not to love others—don’t love gays, don’t love lesbians, so forth—that’s precisely, for Christians, a sign of the need to embrace.

Green: What exactly does that look like in a moment when the culture is very much preoccupied with the way that whiteness can be toxic?

West: First you point out to your white brothers and sisters the rich history of white people fighting against white supremacy, from Myles Horton to Anne Braden to Vito Marcantonio to Tom Hayden to John Brown. The list goes on and on. They went against hatred; they went against greed; they went against fear in order to go a better way. If they can do it, then you can. White brothers and sisters, brown, red, or yellow—they are capable of transformation. Salvation is not in our hands anyway. Ours is in the trying; the rest isn’t our business. That’s T. S. Eliot. He’s right about that.

Green: Do you feel out of step with the way that many people on the left think about this question of the redeemability of white people? Most progressives don’t reach for Augustine to think about the nature of sin.

West: That’s true. And my dear brothers and sisters on the left have their own perspectives on this thing. We come together in terms of analysis and, oftentimes, practice. But I do have a Christian root that is profoundly grounded in this sense of, as W. H. Auden put it, “How do I learn how to love my crooked neighbor with my crooked heart?”

When I was in Charlottesville, looking at these sick white brothers in neo-Nazi parties and the Klan spitting and cussing and carrying on, I could see the hounds of hell raging on the battlefield of their souls. But I also know that there’s greed in me. There’s hatred in me. People say, “Oh, you’re so qualitatively different than those gangsters.” I say, “No, I’ve got gangster in me. I was a gangster before I met Jesus. Now I’m a redeemed sinner with gangster proclivities.” It is a very different way of looking at things than many of my secular comrades.

Green: One characteristic of what I’ll call this secular Calvinism is a strong sense of associational stain. Certain people are persona non grata, and we cannot associate with them. And moreover, we have to shame anyone who does associate with them. Throughout your career, you’ve bucked that. You’ve spoken beside Louis Farrakhan, even though, as you know, he has said things that are blatantly anti-Semitic. And to name someone completely different, you have appeared many times beside Robby George, the conservative Princeton professor who is staunchly anti-abortion and doesn't believe in same-sex marriage.

Is there a line? Is there ever an instance when this notion of associational stain is appropriate?

West: Whatever deep disagreements I have with my dear brother Minister Louis Farrakhan or with my dear brother Robby George, my love is deeper. When the biblical text says one should allow nothing to get in the way of one’s love for God and neighbor, we have to take that seriously. I’m not saying everybody has to follow that. That’s my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Many Christians would say I’m wrong. There’s a whole host of Christians who would send me straight to hell. I thank God that they’re not in control of things.

Green: I want to ask specifically about Robby George because, as you know, his views are very conservative, especially when it comes to human sexuality and the nature of human personhood. Those views would be deeply anathema to many on the left. Have you gotten pushback and rejection for being willing to stand beside him and call him your friend?

West: Oh, absolutely. Very much so. I just tell them quite explicitly that love is never reducible to politics, and brotherhood is never reducible to agreement on public policy.

I think Robby is wrong on a number of issues. We’ve talked about it in public and private. But that doesn’t mean he's got some kind of taint—that you can’t be in the same room with him, you can’t have a conversation with him, you can’t argue with him. That’s true not just about Robby. That is true for anybody who I have deep disagreements with.

Green: You haven’t always taken a tack of gracious engagement with difference. Just to give an example, you recently supported Nina Turner in the special congressional election in Cleveland. Her opponents put up billboards with her quote about Joe Biden, where she said that supporting Biden is like telling people, “‘You have a bowl of shit in front of you. And all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing.’ It’s still shit.” You called Barack Obama a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface.” What is the point of engaging graciously and civilly with Robby George, but then trashing Joe Biden or Barack Obama?

West: Well, I’ve trashed Trump a zillion times, too, as a neo-fascist gangster. I’ve trashed a whole lot of Republicans. But you see, strong language is not the only focus when it comes to taking a stand. I imagine that when Jesus was running out the money changers, his language was not polite. But it wasn’t the language that was the focus. It was his love of poor people.

When sister Nina Turner talks about Biden, and how voting for him is a thing of S-H-I-T, what she has in mind is that Biden was an architect of mass incarceration and the new Jim Crow. All those lives being lost is much worse than her language of S-H-I-T. The same would be true in terms of his ties to Wall Street. You know how many lives were lost because Obama and Biden opted for Wall Street rather than homeowners? So to call somebody a Black mascot of Wall Street really is very weak given the level of social misery that resulted.

People come to me and say [uses a high-pitched voice], “Oh, you called Obama the Black mascot of Wall Street! That’s the worst thing possible!” No, what’s worse is promoting a policy on the back of working people. So you’re right. When we have a disagreement, we’ve got to be very honest. And sometimes when you’re honest, lo and behold, the language can become hyperbolic.