On Religion

May 7, 2005
On Religion


This article deals primarily with the phenomenon of the so-called “Christian Right”, its exploitation by the Bush Administration in furtherance of its imperialist objectives, and the struggle being undertaken by centrists and progressives in the Christian religious community against it and in favor of a more progressive social agenda.  It would be useful as well to analyze recent developments in other religious traditions, especially in the Jewish and Muslim religious communities, but those should come from comrades who are better informed on those developments than I am.

The role of religion is a big factor in the political arena these days. The ruling class has harnessed a sector of the Christian religious community to serve its interests.  This sector is well funded, well organized, and reaches millions through radio and television. It receives millions of tax dollars through Bush’s so-called “faith based initiatives”, and has been a centerpiece of the ultra right game plan for more than 20 years.  Many commentators give the credit for Bush’s election to religious (primarily Christian) right, and its ability, frankly, to confuse millions of religious people into voting against their own self interests.

We have become familiar in recent years, especially since 9/11, with a wide array of religious imagery and language (mostly Christian) being deployed in the service of supporting the policies of the Bush Administration.  Honest sentiments have been hijacked to express support for the Iraq war.  “God Bless America” bumper and window stickers abound, next to “Support our Troops”, “United We Stand”, and “Power of Pride”.  The flag features frequently in these images, but so does the cross.  The speeches of some of the most reactionary politicians of our time are littered with references to “freedom” and “liberty”, but also to “God”. 

In the run-up to the election last fall, leaders of the Christian Right urged unquestioning support for Bush and claimed that Bush was chosen by God:

It is the responsibility of every political conservative, every evangelical Christian, every pro-life Catholic, every traditional Jew… to get serious about re-electing President Bush.   – Jerry Falwell, The New York Times, July 16, 2004

I think George Bush is going to win in a walk.  I really believe I’m hearing from the Lord it’s going to be like a blowout election in 2004.  The Lord has just blessed him… It doesn’t make any difference what he does, good or bad.”  – Pat Robertson, AP/Fox News, January 2, 2004

It was Ronald Reagan who first began closing every Presidential address with “God Bless America”.  Soon, any politician who didn’t end his or speech that way was suspect.  The language of faith that was employed so powerfully in the name of justice by such leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King, became increasingly harnessed to the policies of reaction.    

Bush uses a pseudo-Christian ideology for two purposes: (1) to provide an ideological cloak for his unpopular agenda, and (2) to divide and confuse the working class.  He and the ultra-right ideologues that surround him are basically creating and imposing something akin to an official state religion.  It is a theology of war and imperialism.  It justifies the breaching of international law, it justifies torture, and it purports to put imperialist leaders beyond reproach of law on the theory that they are carrying out “God’s will”.  It’s a cynical policy and bad theology, but they are seeking to manipulate millions of people, mostly in this country, with it.

But there are millions of religious people who are not a part of the religious right, who are not led by the religious right spokespersons.  And there is an increasingly organized and growing left-center coalition of religious people and institutions who oppose the religious right and the policies of the ultra right in government.  These are people who stand for separation of church and state.  They resent the use of religion to advance the agenda of the ultra right.  Most support a woman’s right to choose whether to carry her pregnancy to term.  They reject bigotry and discrimination, militarism and the arrogance of imperialism.  Their faith leads them to think of morality more in terms of social and economic justice than with whom you sleep. This left-center coalition is not yet as well funded or organized as the right, but it’s growing.  It was a significant factor in the last election, and I believe it will be more significant in the future.  And a part of this left-center religious coalition is an articulate and self-conscious religious left, which is also growing. 

Indeed, the widely published remarks of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were publicly rebuked in an ad entitled “God is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat”, which appeared in several newspapers before the election, and signed by 118,463 people clergy and laity:

We believe that claims for divine appointment of the President, uncritical affirmation of his policies and assertions that all Christians must vote for his re-election constitute bad theology and dangerous religion… We believe all candidates should be examined by whether they enhance human life, human dignity, and human rights; whether they strengthen family life and protect children; whether they promote racial reconciliation and support gender equality; whether they serve peace and social justice; and whether they advance the common good rather than only individual, national and special interests… 

We believe that poverty – caring for the poor and vulnerable – is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families? Do their foreign policies include fair trade and debt cancellation for the poorest countries?…

We believe that war – and our call to be peacemakers – is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ policies pursue”wars of choice” or respect international law and cooperation in responding to real global threats?…

We believe that truth-telling is a religious issue. Do the candidates tell the truth in justifying war and in other foreign and domestic policies?…

We believe that our response to terrorism is a religious issue. Do the candidates adopt the dangerous language of righteous empire in the war on terrorism and confuse the roles of God, church, and nation? Do the candidates see evil only in our enemies but never in our own policies?…

The struggle over the direction in which millions of religious people will move is a part of the class struggle.  Its outcome will have a significant impact upon the success or failure of the broader peoples’ movement.  We should identify the progressive forces in this struggle, and find the ways to work with them.

In January of this year, more than ten thousand African-American ministers, lay leaders and activists from four Baptist conventions met in Nashville for an historic unity gathering.  Representing a community of more than 30 million people, the assembled representatives of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America declared that they would forge a common social justice agenda in which they will oppose school vouchers, prison privatization and the war in Iraq.  They called for increasing the minimum wage, and for increased aid to Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.

On March 8, the leaders of five mainline Protestant denominations representing more than 20 million followers in the United States called President Bush’s 2006 federal budget “unjust.”  The leaders of the Episcopal Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church, said that Bush’s budget did much for the rich, but little for the poor.  They concluded by stating, “We urge the members of our churches, of other churches and other faiths, and all whose conscience compels them to do justice to join us in opposing this budget.”

In the fall of 2004, a full page ad appeared in USA Today, signed by more than 200 Christian theologians and teachers, many from evangelical Protestant churches and institutions that are theologically conservative, but who are absolutely opposed to the ultra-right agenda.  Entitled, “Confessing Christ in a World of Violence”, the statement appearing in the ad warned sharply criticized the Religious Right:

Faithfully confessing Christ is the church’s task, and never more so than when its confession is co-opted by militarism and nationalism.

A “theology of war,” emanating from the highest circles of American government, is seeping into our churches as well.  The language of “righteous empire” is employed with growing frequency.  The roles of God, church, and nation are confused by talk of an American “mission” and “divine appointment” to “rid the world of evil.”…

We reject the false teaching that America is a “Christian nation,” representing only virtue, while its adversaries are nothing but vicious. We reject the belief that America has nothing to repent of, even as we reject that it represents most of the world’s evil…

We reject the false teaching that those who are not for the United States politically are against it or that those who fundamentally question American policies must be with the “evil-doers.” …

A new formation called Protestant Justice Action coordinates legislative advocacy on peace and justices issues among several protestant churches and organizations, including Baptists, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.  PJA consciously undertakes to struggle against the Religious Right, and articulates a program of economic justice and peace.  Among its “Ten Guiding Assumptions” is the following section:

Right-wing churches and para-church groups have increased their public witness, often in ways that seem at odds with the historic commitment of mainline churches to eliminate poverty, defend the environment, combat racism, and pursue alternatives to military violence… As part of our ecumenical witness to justice, we must work together to counter the efforts of those who seek to sabotage or silence the church’s social witness…

We have also seen the emergence of the Interfaith Alliance, a new center-left formation whose spokesperson is Walter Cronkite.  Many Americans grew up listening to Walter Cronkite deliver the news every night on CBS TV, but now in his retirement he is speaking out on matters of faith and politics. Cronkite is active in the Episcopal Church, and recently published an article in its national newspaper supporting Dennis Kucinich’s bill to create a Department of Peace.

In the 2004 election, the National Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice, now known as Interfaith Worker Justice, published and distributed materials on voter registration, organized training for registrars, published issue-oriented voter guides, and registered thousands of new voters.  IWJ works closely with the AFL-CIO, and also mobilizes support for striking workers across the country.

In the area of literature, a new book on religion and politics has just been published, and its author is appearing on talk shows around the country, calling for people in religious communities to become active in the struggle for social and economic justice.  The book is, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, by Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine.  House parties, similar to those organized by MoveOn before the election, are being convened by the hundreds around the country, to read and discuss the book. Wallis says, based upon the response he has been receiving,  that “the country is ready for a new discussion of faith and politics – one the Religious Right will not control.”  Here is a key excerpt from the book:

With the Republicans offering war overseas and corporate dominance at home, and the Democrats failing to offer any real alternatives, who will raise a prophetic voice for social and economic justice and for peace? Never has there been a clearer role for the churches and religious community. We can push both parties toward moral consistency and their best-stated values, over the unprincipled pragmatism and negative campaigning that both sides too often engaged in during the recent election.

The courage many church leaders showed in opposing the war in Iraq is an early sign of that prophetic role. So is the growing unity across the spectrum of the churches on the issue of poverty. The truth is that there are more churches committed to justice and peace than churches that belong to the Religious Right. It’s time the voice of those congregations be heard and their activism be mobilized to become the conscience of American politics in a time of crisis.

Among the “wedge” issues with which the ultra-right attempts to divide the working class are the questions of (1) rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people, including marriage or civil unions, access to benefits and healthcare, etc., and (2) the rights of women, including the availability of birth control, the right to choose an abortion, and for women to fully and equally participate in all aspects of economic and social life.  These issues have frequently been raised in religious guise, and in this effort, the Bush Administration has had the active collaboration of the leaders of the Religious Right, especially the Christian Right, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but many others as well.  They reach into cite scriptural references  from the Old Testament dating from the period of 580-700 B.C. in which the Early Hebrews forbade homosexual acts by members of their communities.  The same scriptures prohibit a wide range of sexual activity, forbid the eating of various kinds of foods, divide animals into “clean” and “unclean” categories, forbid the charging of interest on loans, recognize and govern the treatment of slaves by owners, etc.  Also among these ancient Hebrew laws, though, are provisions for the forgiveness of debts every seven years, releasing of people from prison and slavery, restoration of family farm land lost in bankruptcy, and other forms of economic restoration for the poor. 

The Religious Right takes these ancient rules out of their historical context.  They also take them selectively, choosing only those who fit their purposes at the moment.  The Christian Right doesn’t want to talk about cancellation of debts of the poor or the developing world, or the elimination of the modern capitalist banking system which has at its heart the charging of interest for the use of its capital.  They don’t want to talk about letting poor people out of prison, many of whom are there because of the desperate economic conditions in their communities.  And they certainly don’t want to talk about the New Testament references which clearly indicate that the early Christian Church for centuries practiced a form of communal ownership of property.

Most mainline Protestant denominations take the view that scriptures must be considered in their historical context, and that reason and science must also be considered in determining positions taken by their churches.   We no longer routinely stone people to death for adultery, for example.  We have abolished slavery.  Most of us no longer believe that the sun, moon and stars are rotate around the earth attached to some kind of transluscent shell.  Many illnesses are now known to be caused by viruses and other microorganisms, not by evil spirits who move into our bodies and possess our souls. 

Progressives in the religious movement argue that their religious faith, although based in a historical tradition, is something which continues to develop.  They also argue historical context, and identify that which is essential to the tradition versus rules or laws adopted for a specific time and place for the governance of a slave-owning, pre-feudal society.  Progressives argue that at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the story of the struggle of the Hebrew people for social and economic justice. The Bible is not a single book, rather it is a collection of books, prophesies and poetry written and edited by a host of largely unknown thinkers over several centuries.  It includes historic accounts of dynasties, legislation adopted by Hebrew society, and documents the military conquests of a people who believed they were divinely entitled to seize the land of others.  But it also tells the story of a people who were freed from slavery, who from time to time were concerned with creating a more just society in this life and on this earth, and whose understanding of who they were and what God wanted them to do underwent considerable transformation over the course of a thousand years of history.   And there are considerable contradictions among the books of the Bible.  With regard to homosexuality, for example, provisions in Leviticus forbade homosexual activity, but in the First Book of Samuel the intimate relationship between David (who would become King) and Jonathan is not condemned. 

Likewise, although references to women in the Old Testament and in the letters of Paul in the New Testament clearly reflect the second class status they endured in pre-feudal society, it is also clear from the Gospels that at the heart of the teachings of Jesus was a radical inclusiveness.  Gospel stories have Jesus welcoming into his immediate entourage a number of women, some of whom he praises, rebuking the criticisms by several of his male disciples.  He is depicted as approaching, speaking to, and including women who were considered “untouchables” in first century Palestine, including prostitutes and women from oppressed minorities and “unclean” ethnic groups.   He is openly critical of the divorce laws of his day, which treated women solely as the property of their husbands, and advocated that women should be able to divorce their husbands on the same basis as men. 

Religions and religious institutions are characterized by the same conservative and progressive, reactionary and radical, trends that can be found in the dialectics of social development as a whole.  Just as the history of human society is the history of class struggle, that class struggle plays itself out not just at the point of production, but also in the cultural arena of which religious life is a major part. 

Religious progressives recognize that their respective faith traditions have been used at various times to enforce obedience to kings and emperors, to justify exploitation and enslavement of whole nations, and to suppress freedom of thought and scientific inquiry.  But they can also lift up the great moments of national and human liberation, of the freeing of slaves, of throwing off the yokes of imperial powers, of breaking down artificial barriers between ethnic groups, and of striving for social and economic justice in human society. Those elements are found in many of the faith traditions, including those of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

Many of the mainline Christian denominations have adopted resolutions in support of equal rights for women, as well as equal rights for gays and lesbians, including equal access to employment and benefits extended to domestic partners.  Many churches now include among their clergy openly gay men and women living in same-sex relationships.  Many advertise that they are “welcoming” or “inclusive” congregations, and the bright colors of the rainbow announcing that to the world can be seen posted near the doors of an increasing number of American church buildings.  The Episcopal Church has recently consecrated an openly gay man as Bishop of New Hampshire.  There is still controversy, especially when it comes to gay rights.  But progress toward equality is being made.

Religious people, even those who would call themselves “evangelical Christians”, are not “red state people”, or otherwise irrevocably in the Bush camp.  Just as we have correctly stated that it is wrong to divide the American people into “red state” and “blue state” people, it would be wrong to think that the struggle against Bush is primarily a struggle of non-religious progressive people against conservative religious people. The majority of religious people, including many evangelicals and many who voted for Bush in 2004, do not endorse the overall agenda of the ultra-right.  A growing sector of the religious population is part of the broader people’s movement, and not just on the peace question, but on all questions.  The struggle against the religious right will be carried out in no small measure by the religious center and left.  As Marxists, we need to understand that struggle as part of the overall people’s movement.  And we need to find the ways, as with all parts of the broader people’s movement, to link the various struggles together, to strengthen the unity of peoples’ movement, and to ensure the success of this movement which is so critical to the future of our country and the world. 

Tim Yeager

Chicago, IL

March 18, 2005



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