It seems almost impossible that left wing folk singer Pete Seeger was still alive, dying this week, merely age 94. He was old enough to have actively campaigned with Henry Wallace in his notorious third party 1948 presidential campaign, with the former Vice President condemning President Truman’s resistance to Soviet aggression. Even more remarkably, he was old enough in 1939 to have sung in favor of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which divided Poland and began World War II.
Seeger had been a Communist and Stalinist, which he later eventually disavowed, sheepishly admitting Stalin’s crimes. He even in his final years wrote an anti-Stalin song citing “Joe, cruel Joe.”
As a Communist, Seeger had of course been an atheist. He did join a Unitarian church, his mother having been Unitarian, and his needing access to the sanctuary for music rehearsals, he readily admitted in a Beliefnet interview six years ago. In the same interview he professed belief in a pantheistic deity “because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.” He added: “I think God is literally everything, because I don’t believe that something can come out of nothing.”
Although he liked to sing spirituals and sometimes incorporated scripture into song lyrics, Seeger said he often thumbed through the Bible “if only to shake my head in disgust,” citing Old Testament commands about animal sacrifice. It sounds as though Seeger never really heard the basics of orthodox Christianity although he related to social justice themes of the biblical narrative when singing for labor or civil rights. Hopefully he found peace with his Maker before meeting Him.
A liberal Protestant theologian, in Huffington Post, appreciatively recalled that Seeger “taught us to sing while we resisted war and advocated for racial and gender justice.” She lamented he had been “blacklisted for refusing to yield to the fear-mongering House Un-American Activities committee” without admitting that Seeger had in fact been guilty of far more than the committee had surmised. A more comprehensive remembrance by a theologian would have explored how to assess an iconic artist who steadfastly aligned with great evil but at least somewhat repented in later years. She also might have examined how Seeger’s atheism and perhaps his later pantheism possibly blinded him to massive, genocidal crimes even as he sang for human brotherhood. It is hard after all to make clear moral distinctions if God is in fact “everything” instead of the Creator and Judge whom Christians and Jews worship.
Seeger did sing against the oppressions of rightist dictators like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet without apparently understanding that such authoritarian tyrants lacked the cosmic ambitions of messianic totalitarians like Stalin and Hitler. Authoritarians jailed and killed their political opponents. Totalitarians demanded total worship of themselves and/or their ideology. Authoritarians typically leave religion alone unless directly challenged. Totalitarians reject all serious religion as a rival to their own meta narrative. The transcendent claims of Christianity are especially threatening to all totalitarians. Seeger’s apparent form of pantheism much less so. Notably, Seeger’s social justice hymns often echoed Jewish prophets and Christ’s apostles, never pantheistic mystics.
Coinciding with Seeger’s death were new revelations about the late totalitarian dictator of Libya, Muammar Qaddafi. Among countless other crimes, he apparently kept hundreds of sex slaves, both boys and girls, during 40 years of terror. Qaddafi also liked to freeze the bodies of his victims as preserved trophies. His ideology, summarized in his “Green Book,” combined the worst of Marxism and Islamism to justify his surreal police and torture state. Not content to murder his own people, Kaddafi hosted terrorist training camps in Libyan desert for years, including Irish nationalists, European Communists and Islamists, all of them aligned against Qaddafi’s Western foes. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat had wanted to invade Libya and extinguish what Sadat called the “mad dog.” The Carter Administration dissuaded Sadat, who later was assassinated by Islamists whom Qaddafi likely supported. Qaddafi reputedly nursed a plot against President Reagan, who ordered a military strike on Qaddafi after Libyan involvement in a Berlin bombing that killed U.S. military personnel. Later of course Qaddafi’s regime was implicated in the downing of a U.S. passenger jet over Lockerbie, Scotland.
It would have been nice if Seeger had once sung against the crimes of and on behalf of the many victims of Qaddafi, who was just one of many totalitarian monsters who marred the last century. Instead, he sang against Ronald Reagan (“This old man should go back home…”), whose signature accomplishment was the ultimate defeat of Soviet totalitarianism, for which Qaddafi was often an obliging proxy.
Seeger’s leftist hymnody was stirring and talented if often sorely misguided. Neither his atheism nor his pantheism helped correct his skewed version of social justice. When he was right, as on civil rights for American blacks, he looked to inspiration from black preachers and Christian spirituals. Hopefully the words of one of those uplifting, grace-filled spirituals greeted him on the other shore.