Convention Discussion: Religion in the Current Period

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General understandings

In the struggles of the day, the CPUSA always seeks the broadest possible unity of the working class and all its allies. This necessarily includes seeking unity of people of varying religious and philosophical outlooks.

Religious faith and religious institutions remain powerful influences in the United States today. They cannot be ignored in building an all-people's coalition for progress, not only on account of their numerical and ideological strength but also because of the positive contributions and insights that religious traditions can bring to progressive struggle.

Marxism is an open science and an open view of the world. We are convinced, of course, that Marxism provides essential understandings and insights that are of vital importance for all who struggle for a world of justice and peace. Among these are our vision of class and class struggle as an essential motor of social development and social progress, and of socialism, based on working-class political and economic power, as a necessary step forward to a new and better world. Though we hold firmly to these convictions, and to the essential role of the Communist Party in bringing these insights into the consciousness and action of our class and people, we do not imagine that either the theory of Marxism or our Party have a monopoly on the truths and understandings that will go into building a society of greater justice and equity. The various religious traditions espoused by our people can and do make important contributions to an all-around vision of a new world and a new society and to the avenues of struggles through which that goal can be attained. It is vital that our Party link itself with these progressive possibilities.

Our Party has, of course, long been clear about its support of freedom of conscience and of religion, both in the present and under socialism. And we welcome people of religious faith as members and leaders without discrimination. We believe, however, that it is time for the Party to move beyond simple tolerance to an active embrace of the progressive aspects of religious traditions and their incorporation in our vision both of present struggles and of a socialist and communist future.

Furthermore, religious institutions and communities are neither immune to nor isolated from class struggles. Faith communities often function as centers for indoctrinating and mobilizing people for either reactionary or progressive movements and goals. Over the past few decades, the role of religion in mobilizing reaction, in the form of the so-called "religious right," has been highly visible. Nonetheless, both in the present and in the history of our country (and elsewhere), religious belief and faith communities have been and are important motivators and springboards for progressive thought and action.

Communists need to be sensitive and respectful of the traditions of faith communities and learn of the riches they bring to the broader movement. To give but one example: the Scriptures revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims are permeated by stories of struggles of the oppressed. It has been justly said that Moses is the world's first documented union organizer. The prophets and Jesus unequivocally spoke for the poorer classes of their day against the ruling classes. Other religious traditions often speak in similar terms. As Marx and Engels themselves understood, precisely in the often-misread passage about religion as "the opiate of the people," religion has fundamentally expressed the aspirations of humanity for genuine freedom and a better life in this world.

All this does not negate or deny the differences between religious beliefs and various forms of materialist philosophy which may be held by members of our Party and by others. Our point here, however, is that just as religious believers and thinkers, in our Party and elsewhere, increasingly find truths and insights of fundamental value in Marxism, not only for their social outlook but also for the deepening of their understanding of faith, so may philosophical materialists who do not share religious faith find insights and understandings in religious traditions that will strengthen not only their understanding of society, but also, perhaps, their own philosophical outlook. This is not intended as a call to water down genuine differences of conviction but, in what we believe is the fundamental spirit of Marxism, to show an openness to enriching our understanding from the great variety of human experience and insight.

 

To take up once again a point made above: religious communities and institutions are not isolated from class struggle. Most of the people in those centers are in fact working class, and most of the remainder are from strata whose interests are clearly allied with those of our class. Nonetheless, as in most other institutions in capitalist society, religious institutions have often been dominated by representatives of the ruling class, and while the historic core message of most religious institutions is one which emphasizes social and economic justice, all too often those institutions have been used to reinforce existing unjust systems and the privileges of wealth. The working-class majority often fails to realize its potential power within these institutions and communities, as it too often does elsewhere. It must be a task of Communists who are active in faith communities to bring to people an awareness of the progressive values and potential inherent in their traditions and to lead them to turn that awareness into action that will challenge both the members and leaders of their religious communities and the larger society.

There is, then, a two-fold task of Communists in relation to people and communities of faith. It is, first, to be able to speak their language and to bring to bear the progressive insights which they can bring to the larger movement ; and, second, to struggle within those communities to realize the progressive core of their respective faith traditions, and to promote participation and leadership from among working class people and others whose goals are not simply to defend the status quo, but to contribute to the struggle for a more just world.   The larger movement benefits from the progressive contributions and inspiration that religious people can bring to the struggle, and communities of faith can become centers of mobilization for progress rather than reaction. Communists who are themselves people of faith are convinced that in doing this they are in fact penetrating to and acting upon the truest roots of their faiths and traditions.

The current situation

Christianity

The exploitation of religious faith for reactionary purposes has been a major factor in the past two decades. The so-called "religious right" (mostly Christian) has played a significant role in the ultra-right onslaught. At the same time, however, and partly in reaction to this assault, progressive religious forces, which have long been a part of the US political scene, have succeeded in strengthening themselves and played an ever greater role. With this last election season, these forces have come out in renewed strength and have seriously weakened the hold of the right even within communities where it once was almost unchallenged.

The most prominent of such communities is that of theologically conservative Protestantism, commonly called "evangelical." The eighties and nineties saw a systematic and coordinated politicization of this community, which is quite sizeable in our country, for right-wing purposes. While most people who consider themselves evangelicals still tend to vote Republican, in this past election the Democratic Party was able to make significant inroads in this group. Furthermore, a number of traditionally conservative leaders in the evangelical movement have called for greater attention to such progressive concerns as poverty and environmental degradation,  opposing the virtually exclusive emphasis on such "social issues" as abortion and gay rights which play into the hands of the right. Such a movement could well lead to a revival of the progressive social concern which was characteristic of US evangelicalism in its nineteenth century origins. Special credit in these developments must be given to the movement around Sojourners magazine, led by Jim Wallis, which has been providing a progressive voice within the evangelical community since the 1970s. Other progressive outlets and organizations are also rooted in the US evangelical tradition.

The leadership of the so-called "mainstream" Protestant churches continue to take generally liberal to progressive positions. It is a fact, however, that the membership of these churches is generally considerably to the right of the denominational leadership and most of the clergy. Nonetheless, this membership is, in our terms, mostly working class or of strata whose interests are allied with the working class, and the liberal and progressive traditions of these bodies can be an important positive factor in working within them for progressive goals. A variety of activist and progressive groups organized on both a denominational and interdenominational basis, such as the Methodist Federation for Social Action, the Episcopal Urban Caucus, and peace fellowships in most of the major denominations, have a long and continuing history of activism, with varying success in mobilizing broader forces in the churches beyond their immediate supporters.

Over the past decade, a number of Protestant denominations, in particular the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians, have been serious riven over questions involving homosexuality, giving rise to struggles that have at times dominated the attention of progressive forces within them. Although the struggle for gay rights is important and deserves full support, one unfortunate byproduct of this situation has been to divert progressive energies in these communities from other issues and struggles.

The situation in the Roman Catholic Church in this country is complex and often conflicted. This body has a long tradition of social doctrine, which despite anti-communism contains many progressive elements, and-in part because of the historically working-class membership of the US church-Catholics, including clergy and bishops, have not infrequently been strongly supportive of some labor struggles. The US bishops in the seventies authored a document on economic justice that was on the whole quite progressive, and they have taken positive stances on other issues, such as war and capital punishment. There is at present, both among the bishops and in the church as a whole, a major struggle being waged between those on the right who want to give priority to so-called "life issues," narrowly defined to focus on abortion and stem-cell research (but sometimes, rather incongrously, including the rejection of gay rights), and those who insist that a genuinely "pro-life" stance must include dealing with issues of poverty and economic justice, peace, and environmental preservation. Leading among the organized forces taking the latter position is a recently organized group called Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

The Catholic constituency has historically been a mainstay of the Democratic Party, but in recent decades Republicans have made considerable inroads by exploiting the issues of abortion and gay rights. In this last election, however, despite efforts of some bishops to insist that Catholic voters should place the issue of abortion above all other concerns, Catholics voted solidly (59%) for Obama.

Judaism

The organized Jewish community in our country has a long history of progressive positions and activism on many issues. Unfortunately, the question of Zionism, and, more specifically of support for the Israeli right wing, still looms large in the Jewish community. The first intifada led to much greater openness even on the part of mainstream Jewish bodies to some critical stances toward Israeli policy, but the past decade has seen some narrowing of this opening. Nonetheless, a variety of organizations, among them Jewish Voice for Peace and Not In My Name, continue to struggle vocally and vigorously within the Jewish community for recognition of Palestinian rights and against unquestioning support for Israeli policy. Among the Jewish denominations, the Jewish Renewal movement is noteworthy for its generally progressive social and political positions as well as for its willingness to support Palestinian and Israeli peace issues. "J Street" is a new and rapidly growing organization representing a broad center of American, primarily Jewish pro-Israel opinion.  Describing itself as "moderate" and both "pro-Israel" and "pro-peace", J Street is pressing for the rapid achievement of a two-state solution, and for dialogue with all the representatives of the Palestinian people.  It is a growing and significant counterforce against the right-wing Zionist lobby, and could play a major role in helping to move American policy in a direction that could lead to lasting peace in Israel/Palestine.

Islam

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions, both in the USA and around the world.    The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) estimates that there are approximately seven (7) million Muslims in the US, and more than 2,000 mosques.  According to the U.S. State Department, by 2010 America's Muslim population is expected to surpass the Jewish population, making Islam our country's second-largest faith after Christianity.  While most Muslims are immigrants, more than 20% are U.S. born, and approximately one quarter are African-Americans.   There are two Muslim members of Congress - Democrats Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana.  And the daughter of a retired Ford worker recently became the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan legislature.  Also a Democrat, she was elected with 90% of the vote in a district with a few Arab or Muslim residents, but large African-American and Hispanic communities.

Lawyer and community activist Rashida Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants who never attended high school, becomes the first Muslim woman ever to serve in the Michigan Legislature. She said she wouldn't have run but for the repeated urging of her Jewish boss and predecessor, outgoing Democratic state Rep. Steve Tobocman.

"In my heart, I was more of a social worker than anything," said Tlaib, 32. She said her top priorities will be immigrant rights and pollution, a major issue to her constituents who are surrounded by oil refineries and factories.

The eldest of 14 children of a retired Ford Motor Co. worker and his wife, she was the first in her family to earn a high school diploma. She went on to finish college and law school while helping raise 13 siblings.  Her mother was born in Beit Ur El Foka, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Her father was born in Beit Hanina, a Jerusalem suburb.

— Kalamazoo News (November 6, 2008)

Muslims in the USA are subject to a great deal of misunderstanding and discrimination.  Although hate crimes against Muslims have declined slightly in the past two years, documented civil rights violations have increased, and Islamophobia is still a tool of division in the hands of the Right.  There are, however, positive developments.  There is a considerable level of interfaith activity with Christians and Jews, and the election of Muslims at various levels of government give successful examples of overcoming racism and Islamophobia. 

Among progressive trends in the Muslim community is the organization "Muslims for Progressive Values", which just held its third national conference, and includes among its principles:

We affirm that justice and compassion should be the guiding principles for all aspects of human conduct. We repudiate militarism and violence, whether on an individual, organizational, or national level; and we support efforts for universal health care, universal public education, the protection of our environment, and the eradication of poverty around the world.

The Interfaith Youth Core is a new youth organization that was founded, and is directed, by Eboo Patel, and Indian-American Muslim.  It is based in Chicago.  IFYC seeks to promote good relations among youth of different religious traditions, through respect, religious pluralism, and a common struggle for social and economic change.  Among its "Guiding Ideas" is the following:

One hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois warned that the problem of the 20th century would be what he called "the problem of the color line." The 21st century might well be dominated by a different line, no less divisive and no less violent: the faith line. The faith line does not divide people of divergent faith traditions, or religious people from secular people. Instead, this line divides religious totalitarians from religious pluralists.

On one side of the line, religious totalitarians believe that their way of life is the only legitimate way; they convert, kill and condemn those who are different. On this side of the line stand all those religious extremists, from the KKK to the radical remnants of the Kach party in Israel, who are willing to act against others who do not fit into their restricted worldview. On the other side of the line are religious pluralists like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who believe that peaceful coexistence is possible with the willingness to invest the effort to get to know each other and come together around common goals.

Buddhism

Estimates vary widely about the number of Buddhists in the U.S., from 1 to 5 million, depending upon how "Buddhist" is defined.  Within Buddhist communities a trend has emerged sometimes referred to as "Engaged Buddhism", which attempts to apply Buddhist values to larger social problems, including war and environmental concerns.  The Buddhist Peace Fellowship, founded in 1976 in the USA, is perhaps the best known group within this category. 

Interfaith Organizations

Worthy of particular note on the US religious scene are a number of interfaith organizations working for progressive goals. The Fellowship of Reconciliation has a history stretching back to World War I, and it supports and helps coordinate the activity of a number of peace organizations within various denominations and religious bodies. The Sojourners movement, mentioned above, has broadened from its evangelical roots to include supporters across the Christian spectrum and even beyond into other faith communities. The recently formed Network of Spiritual Progressives, founded by Jewish Renewal leader Michael Lerner, takes on a variety of issues and appears to have an appeal and openness to many religious traditions. Another new organization is the Progressive Christian Center of the South, based in Dallas, which seeks "to raise awareness about systemic injustice; and to engage in grass-roots justice efforts, especially in communities across the South."  Interfaith Worker Justice, with headquarters in Chicago and active local chapters across the country, is engaged in building pro-labor activism not only in churches but also in synagogues and in the Muslim community.  

There is also a growing understanding about the nature of capitalism, and how it is incompatible with the core values of many religions.  Michael Moore's latest film, "Capitalism: A Love Story", makes this point as well.  Moore, himself a Roman Catholic, sent an email addressed to religious Americans in October, stating,

I have come to believe that there is no getting around the fact that capitalism is opposite everything that Jesus (and Moses and Mohammed and Buddha) taught.

Conclusion

Our Party has a history of working with religious activists and communities of faith.  Many of our members are people who are active in religious communities, or have connections with faith-based groups.  Gus Hall was a baptized Lutheran who, although he was not religious as an adult, supported close working relationships with religious communities, and spoke highly of the role played by U.S. churches in the progressive movement.  The Rev. Arnold Johnson, a Methodist minister, joined the Communist Party while he was in jail during the Harlan County, Kentucky coal miners' strike, and he went on to be an outstanding leader of the Party.  Paul Robeson never lost touch with his roots in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.  His work combined an appreciation of scientific socialism with the spiritual dimensions of the Black Church.  Robeson's funeral was held at the AME Church where his brother was the pastor.  Among his pallbearers was Gil Green, a longtime leader of the CPUSA.  Because of his public role, he was not in a position to publicly acknowledge his Party membership.  But Robeson was a leader and Party supporter, and both a Communist and a Christian for all of his adult life, and in the best senses of both.

It has been the intention and the result of the Religion Commission that we are religiously diverse and racially diverse.  We are a part of the mix of what the Party needs to be. 

Religious activists, both in and outside of the Party, have played significant roles in the peace, civil rights and labor movements.   Meetings of movement groups, including Party meetings, are often held in churches which are at the center of community life.  There have been Passover seders hosted by Party members in Party buildings, which celebrate the liberating tradition of Exodus.  Religious leaders, including many clergy, have supported the right of the Communist Party to be on the ballot in several states, and have served as Presidential electors for the Party.   Many of the leaders of the American-Soviet Friendship Society were clergy.  And Party members have been active in several movements that have been led by people of faith, especially in the civil rights movement, where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference played the leading role under the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Our involvement with people of faith in the struggle for a better world is not new.  But the times call for greater unity, and moving into new forms of struggle.

The newly-constituted Religion Commission of our Party aims to move our work  with people and communities of faith to a higher level. We need to insure that the Commission includes comrades with connections to faith communities that is as broad as possible.  While the leadership core of the Commission will naturally consist of Party members, we also seek to build a broader community of Party and non-Party people interested in working together on these issues.  We hope to organize regional conferences and local working groups involving both Party and non-Party religious activists to build a greater working unity around issues of social and economic justice.  

As religious people continue to grapple with the crises of capitalism, we know that the Party has much to offer the progressive individuals and organizations within faith communities, in both theory and practical experience. We must not be shy about showing ourselves ready to introduce the "Communist plus" to progressive people of all backgrounds and philosophical convictions.  At the same time we must be open to, and learn from, the insights and experiences of faith communities. 

We must take a conscious and welcoming approach to recruiting people of faith into our Party.  To that end we are working on a pamphlet which will introduce our Party and its program to progressive religious people, and invite them to join. The strong progressive traditions within many faith communities in the US offer a promising basis for mobilizing not just individuals but substantial communities and institutions of faith in support of social and economic justice. Therefore the Commission should also serve as a means of assisting the work of religious comrades within their respective religious bodies and organizations. We want to share experiences, ideas and resources, and help to coordinate our efforts, with the goal of strengthening the unity of the overall movement and the effectiveness of progressive religious organizations within it. 

Finally, it is our hope that the work of the Religion Commission will help to improve and build upon the relations our Party has with religious and community organizations active in the broader progressive movement.  Through a better understanding of others' traditions we can find more areas of common ground, and a broader basis upon which to build a better future for our common humanity.   Building relationships is essential to working together effectively, and trust is the key.