Cesar Chavez in American Religious Politics: Mapping the New Global Spiritual Line
Abstract

This essay is a précis of some of the main arguments of my book in progress on Chavez. Like the essay, the larger research project re-examines primary sources mostly, but excavates also the numerous biographies and media sources dedicated to him. This research adduces that, despite the canonical teachings on Chavez to the contrary, the late social crusader was an organic intellectual who developed deft tactics and strategies for affecting social change. Key among them was his public role as prophet of a national faith, or a distinctly North American religious politics—an identity he consciously modeled after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., though he adjusted the prophetic form to meet his specific contexts. Hence, he looked to Gandhi's teachings on non-violence, or ahimsa. He also drew from his own Catholic background—especially traditions of social justice and worker's rights. However, his was not an exclusively Catholic movement. Like the religion of the nation state, it was broadly ecumenical but adhered mostly to a classically liberal Judeo-Catholic hybrid. My thesis is that his public faith was an adept expression of his political work. In making this argument I take issue with many of the teachings on Chavez—particularly the notion that he was a simple and ignorant man. I eschew the academic mandate to engage in gratuitous criticism of him in order to gain academic capital; I do, however, address the main critiques of him. Certainly he was not perfect, and I encourage more focused critical scholarship on this complicated man, his movement, and his moment in space and time. However, the focus of this project is his religious strategies for political change. This in mind, the conclusion waxes more broadly on the confluence of religion and politics in our own space and times. Responding to the adept insights of W.E.B Du Bois on the problem of the twentieth century color line, I propose that the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of what I call the spiritual line.