The poor, the Popular Front, and progressives of faith

BY:Forbes West| July 1, 2020
The poor, the Popular Front, and progressives of faith


In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.” —Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.—Karl Marx

Organized religion has traditionally served as both the carrot and the whip of the upper classes to control the lower classes in human history. From the imperial cults of ancient Rome, to the Roman Catholic Church’s domination of Europe during the Middle Ages, to the modern-day evangelicals in America connected to the conservative right and the GOP, the upper classes have always sought to twist humankind’s eternal existential questions for their own oppressive ends.

Every organized religion of any scale has always bent to the powerful. In fact, it could be argued in a very cynical fashion that every god, demi-god, and angel are less powerful than whatever ruler or group happens to be in charge at the moment. The powerful are so powerful that many times in history they could reinterpret, or effectively rewrite the holy words of gods, and suffer nothing for their grandiose blasphemy.

Organized religion as a tool could comfort and crush, at the whims of worldly masters. One doesn’t need to go deep into history to see religion manipulated to serve the rich: the pharaohs obliging the Egyptian people to worship them as gods; segregation laws passed on putative Biblical passages to keep whites and Blacks divided; the Salvation Army dispatched with their bands to drown out Industrial Workers of the World recruitment meetings; the Nazi SS with “Gott mit uns” stamped on every belt buckle they wore, a reminder that they were doing God’s work in Auschwitz.

When Marx talked about religion being the “opiate of the people,” there can be no argument over that statement from history’s standpoint. It was true in the 19th century, and it is true in 2020: it consoles the less fortunate besieged by physical, relationship, monetary, and existential issues. Religion remains of great support and kindness to many in their darkest hour—an hour, more times than not, brought by capitalism, inflicted upon them by the same society that purports to uphold the values of said religion. It is, again, a tool of the rich to block change. It would be pedantic to discuss the thousands of examples where religion and faith were trotted out to defeat even the most basic reforms in our democracy.

But that is organized religion at its most corrupt and temporally strongest, not the spiritual experience, the ineffable, the energy of everyday religion for ordinary people. Martin Luther King, Jr., was propelled by his Christian faith, Gandhi by his Hinduism. The thousands of poor marchers throughout the South who journeyed with Dr. King singing hymns brought down segregation and secured voting rights. The millions of poor protesters on the Indian subcontinent who followed Gandhi on his “Salt March” were motivated by their faith as well as class politics—and delivered a crushing blow to the almighty British Empire.

We have no business automatically writing off people of faith, especially those from the working class.

Such activists, “salt of the earth,” are not under the direct control of the manipulative machine into which most organized religions and denominations devolve no matter what their origins. They are human beings, working class, struggling with poverty, legalized cruelty, and the myriad horrors and indignities under capitalism. They are no agents of oppression, and we have no business automatically writing off people of faith, especially those from the working class.

Left, labor, socialist, and communist movements are right to stand up to the religious organizations that support any sort of discrimination, the missionaries that pass out bibles and tracts instead of food, the demagogues promoting pogroms instead of anti-poverty programs, and the out-and-out money-making cults. In fairness, there have been misconceptions about people of faith in the left and labor movement as a whole, as there have likewise been misconceptions by people of faith against the movement.

To be a communist and a Christian is no contradiction. For the most part, revered scriptures of all faiths prophesy a time of peace, love, and plenty for all. There is no litmus test concerning religious or non-religious views when joining the Communist Party USA. I myself was brought to the communist movement because of my personal Roman Catholic faith, not despite it, inspired by liberation theology, a highly influential force in the struggle for change in Latin America and elsewhere, like the farmworker movement in the United States.

The Popular Front strategy that the CPUSA has largely embraced aims at coalition building to establish a broad anti-fascist, anti-corporate front. This strategy means we need “all hands on deck” to put this entire ugly, inhumane system into an early grave before it brings humanity (and many other species) to extinction through pandemic, war, or climate change. Failing to seek out alliances with people of faith fighting for social justice is simply poor, self-defeating judgment.

Even better than to have religious social justice activists on our side is to have them in our party.

People on the left have always been suspicious of religion, and vice versa. But when we have such incredible organizations and activists demanding social justice from a religious standpoint, it’s far better to be working alongside them than to be alienated from each other for lack of engagement. Even better than to have them on our side is to have them in our party, which has always welcomed those of faith, without ever ignoring how religion can be manipulated against us to score cheap political points. At the same time, many dedicated left-wing activists, in the CPUSA and other formations, have been dedicated church and temple members.

Martin Luther King’s last campaign, the Poor People’s Campaign, has been resurrected by the Reverend William J. Barber II, a man of devotion and a true champion of the impoverished. He understands how Christianity is manipulated, as he said in an interview in a New Yorker article titled “William Barber Takes on Poverty and Race in the Age of Trump”: “Christians ‘say so much about areas where the Bible says very little’ — abortion, homosexuality — ‘and speak so little about the issues where the Bible says so much,’ like poverty, empathy, and justice.” In its own words,

The Poor People’s Campaign is a movement of tens of thousands of people across the country who are organizing to end the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and the war economy, ecological devastation, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.

It calls for a moral revival—but not of the sort that Ken Copeland, Joel Osteen, and the Christian Right would ask for. The Poor People’s Campaign activists are not the only ones out there that would be valuable allies. Other groups come to mind, such as:

Interfaith Worker Justice, a true “faith-labor” network of multiple grassroots organizations that support workers.

The Sojourners, progressive Christians looking to unite with others and committed to social justice and ending poverty in America by working with other churches.

Bend the Arc, “a movement of tens of thousands of progressive Jews all across the country. For years, we’ve worked to build a more just society. Now we’re rising up in solidarity with everyone threatened by the Trump agenda to fight for the soul of our nation.”

Muslims for Progressive Values: “We advocate for human rights, social justice and inclusion in the United States and around the world.”

Christians and others of faith should not see communists as opponents but allies to build the sort of just community they envision; and communists should welcome those of a religious background as we always have, and work on building the People’s Front to really end the sources of earthly misery that affects us all—whatever our views on the afterlife.

The opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the positions of the CPUSA.

Image: cool revolution, Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND 2.0).


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