Reading List: Catholicism and Communism

In case you haven’t heard, America Magazine recently published an article I wrote on the relationship between Catholicism and communism. Titled “The Catholic Case for Communism,” the article tries to engage some Catholic misconceptions about communism, specifically engaging an article Dorothy Day wrote for America back in 1933. I won’t rewrite it here, but what I had hoped to do was soften some of the “godless atheism” perspectives on communism and provide a more honest approach to the moral reasoning that leads people, including Catholics like me, to be communists or to work closely with them. In short, I wanted to show that it’s the necessary exploitation at the heart of capitalism and the question of changing the means of production to be truly democratic that primarily motivates communists, not a plot to destroy Christianity.

As you might suspect, the idea of a Jesuit magazine publishing an essay about communism decidedly did not soften the perspectives of the usual conservatives, who took the opportunity to lambast not only me, but America, a number of Jesuits, and in some particularly paranoid cases the entire Society of Jesus as communists themselves. This despite America editor Matt Malone, SJ, publishing an editorial making it clear that this is not the case. (Of course, it would make my career as a Catholic communist and doing organizing work a lot easier if it was!)

I won’t round up these conservative critiques, because frankly most of them don’t seem to have read the article or engaged it on its own terms, trotting out instead a host of parroted lines that you can guess yourself without giving them click-revenue. I should say here that I don’t mind people critically engaging the article, and it would be nice to get some good faith feedback in a longer format, but lazy anti-communism is a pretty successful ideology among the commentariat.

So far, only one critical engagement, by my friend ignatios, has struck me as worth reading, and I encourage you all to do so. It points out several places where my article risks eliding important distinctions among anti-capitalists and, most importantly, where my article fails to consider the conservative moralism that drew many Catholics and communists together, not least against the struggles of LGBT+ people. I agree that, as ignatios says, these are “questions that will need to be addressed if Christians are to play any significant positive role in struggles for the liberation of oppressed peoples.” And I hope that I and many other people can address them!

Despite the hornet’s nest of reactions and a torrent of tweets about my eternal destiny, I have also received a lot of support, in the form of emails, messages, and social media conversations. Some of that support naturally comes from communists (Christian and otherwise), but I’m happy to say a lot of it also comes from people who are not communists but recognize the value of the presence and history of the communist movement, or at the very least think there should be an open dialogue with communism.

Among that latter crowd, a lot of folks have also asked for more resources to think about Christianity and communism more thoroughly, and in that spirit I have put together a short, annotated list of only a few readings to that effect below under the following headings: biblical studies, theology, theory, and history. The list is not exhaustive—a mountain has been published on this relationship—but these are texts that have shaped my own understanding of the two communities, spiritually and politically speaking, that I spend most of my time with. They’re also relatively easy to find in a library or online. There’s a huge list of historical articles to be made cataloging Christian-Communist collaboration across the world, from Spain to China, the Philippines to East Germany, etc., but in the interest of brevity I tried to offer just two books in each category. All that to say, this is an idiosyncratic and frustratingly short list, but there’s a lot more to uncover!


Biblical Studies

Communism in the Bible by José Porfiro Miranda

“Communism” is a spooky word, and it makes sense why. Anticommunism has successfully waged a massive misinformation campaign, and communism itself has made mistakes that should be denounced without qualifications. Miranda understands these fears, and to confront them he writes a short, accessible book outlining how communism is not just compatible with Christianity, but even identical with it. Miranda wears his Marxism lightly here in a way that is sometimes bothersome for Marxists like me, but is rhetorically brilliant for those Christians who have trouble with “Marx” as a proper name. Throughout the text, Miranda reconstructs many imaginary arguments that you’ve certainly heard against communism, and he tries to pick them apart with humor and a clear knowledge of the Bible and Christian tradition. As an introductory book, it’s a great tool to get some bearings on what the relationship between Christianity and communism looks like, and how, if nothing else, Christians should have a pretty hard time being anticommunist given a real engagement with the Bible.

Marx and the Bible by José Porfiro Miranda

Where Communism in the Bible is a primer, Marxism and the Bible is a deep dive. It should be especially interesting for Catholics, since Miranda goes out of his way to engage all those encyclicals you’ll inevitably hear about when you start talking about Marxism. Bringing biblical scholarship together with the tools of Marxist political economy, Miranda shows how these interpretive traditions are mutually beneficial, even if not always the same. And Miranda’s strength, as always, is to combine these scholarly insights with day-to-day observations, making the research feel like something useful. As a bonus, for someone like me who has a hard time concentrating on the Bible when it’s outside of Mass, the text encourages the reader to go back and read the Bible for oneself.

Theology

“The Class Struggle and Christian Love” by Herbert McCabe, OP [link]

This essay by Herbert McCabe is enjoying something of a renaissance right now, and deservedly so. Though some of its historical references are now dated, the main points are still all-too-relevant, as McCabe makes the case for Christian involvement in the class struggle. McCabe does not so much endorse communism here as he refutes both a knee-jerk reaction against it by Christians and the militant atheism on the part of many communists. What we get is a clever and subtle argument that Christians should be at the heart of the class struggle, and if this is the case there are certain people they will meet and necessarily have to get involved with—namely, communists. Like Miranda, McCabe here doesn’t say everything I’d like him to say, but the essay is a great bridge for those who are curious about communism without intimidating the reader into signing up.

Indecent Theology by Marcella Althaus-Reid

Ignatios’ post linked above makes a better case for the importance of this book than I can here, but a few more notes are worthwhile. It’s a heady book, but one that interrogates liberation theology from inside, inquiring into how the preoccupation with class that led many theologians to work hand-in-hand with communists also led them to sideline, ignore, or oppose other liberation movements, not least those related to sex and gender. Many other works of liberation theology also fall into this category, including Black liberation theology, Womanist theology, Mujerista theology, Indigenous theology, etc., and I don’t mean to dismiss them. All of these liberative discourses are or should be important to those interested in the relationship between Christianity and communism, since both communities have historically problematic relationships with marginalized and oppressed people. For the sake of this far too brief list, however, let this be a signal that there’s a lot more work to be done even after the initial grasp of the importance of a communist vision to help Christians establish justice on earth.

Theory

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

It might seem strange to cite this text, but hear me out. In the beginning of the book, Freire says “This volume will probably arouse negative reactions in a number of readers… I am certain that Christians and Marxists, though they may disagree with me in part or in whole, will continue reading to the end.” What follows is a profound argument about a theory of education, but not only that. It is also a theory of revolution, of how revolutionary movements and people should comport themselves toward the oppressed in a position of dialogue. Footnotes and quotes span from papal encyclicals to pamphlets from Lenin and Mao, and the book performs the relationship in a way that encourages a lot more thinking than just about how to organize a classroom.

Fidel and Religion by Frei Betto and Fidel Castro

This book collects pages and pages of conversations between Brazilian priest Frei Betto, OP, and Fidel Castro. It’s an important look into the development of Fidel’s thinking about Christianity, how communism and Christianity can improve their relationship with one another, and what could be accomplished if Christians and communists weren’t mutually suspicious right away. Because the dialogue isn’t a work of scholarship, some of the details are worth investigating further. Fidel also underplays some of the tensions between Catholics and the government, and although he expresses regret sometimes for how things shook out he also neglects to mention some key moments in the early history of the revolutionary government. Nevertheless, it’s an incredible book that should prompt further study, and it’s an influential text for Christian communists throughout the world.

History

Christians in the Nicaraguan Revolution by Margaret Randall

The Sandinistas, a revolutionary group in Nicaragua, are often the poster-group for Christian revolutionaries, since the movement was so thickly populated by Christians (though not exclusively). In this book, Randall interviews a number of people related to the struggle after the success of the revolution in Nicaragua, including Ernesto Cardenal, one of my heroes, and many other Christians. It’s a candid look at the dialogue between Christianity and Marxism, and since Cardenal was recently rehabilitated by Pope Francis, it’s freshly relevant.

Hammer and Hoe by Robin D. G. Kelley

One of the most important ways to think about communism is to look at its plurality, diversity, and history. In Hammer and Hoe, Kelley reconstructs the communist movement in Alabama, specifically related to the experience of Black Americans. Though the entire book is not about Christianity, there is a lot of unique material about how Leninism and Christianity had to figure out a way to talk to one another on the ground in the context of organizing, and the book as a whole is a window into a much under-researched piece of communist and Christian history alike. The history of communism in the United States, especially, was uniquely important for me to learn, understanding that communism wasn’t just something people in other parts of the world had struggled to achieve, but was a movement that laid the seeds for so many other liberation movements in the country where I was born. Kelley is one of the best to introduce readers to that history.

What Makes Bernie a Socialist?

Some notes on a recent speech.

This month, Bernie Sanders delivered a speech attempting to cast his vision for “democratic socialism” and preempt Cold War suspicions. It comes four years after his last bid for the Democratic nomination, which was also marked by a speech essentially trying to accomplish the same goals. Though a number of Bernie’s faithful have hailed the 2019 speech as an inspiring and clarifying moment, it remains unclear to me what, exactly, makes Bernie a socialist, and the few places where he tries to explain raise further questions.

In His Own Words

Rather than giving a definition, Bernie tries to demonstrate what he means by “democratic socialism” by appealing to a range of figures, moral intuitions, and contemporary problems. First, he tells us democratic socialism is a path. In contrast to the “path of hatred and divisiveness,” Bernie says the path of democratic socialism is “a path of compassion, justice and love.” This is immediately followed by a reference to FDR, who, it seems, is representative of that path. In perhaps the clearest moment of the speech, Bernie says “we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion. This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.”

Reading charitably, Bernie isn’t arguing for a return to the New Deal, but he sees it as the inauguration of a viable reformist project. Exactly what the completion of the New Deal would be, what business remains unfinished, Bernie doesn’t say. Instead, he offers a few more pieces of a kind of moral frame in which that completion might take place. He says democratic socialism means that economic rights are human rights; he quotes Martin Luther King Jr. calling for “a better distribution of wealth”; he emphasizes the unity of the nation; and he condemns the material effects of wealth inequality.

This is a frame that gets people excited, and rhetoric should do that. It tells us very little, however, about what achieving these goals might entail. We get a proposed economic bill of rights, for example, but these, like all rights, are only as good as the material conditions in which they operate. Further, Bernie doesn’t offer us a vision of what a democratic society looks like, even while he rightly names some things that shouldn’t be part of it, like payday loans and access to higher education. Most conspicuously absent, however, is any language about who should own the means of production, which is the primary question of socialism. In 2015, Bernie at least said he did not “believe the government should own the means of production,” stopping short of saying “the workers” ought to, but now the language is gone entirely. In fact, “production” does not even appear in the speech.

That might seem like a weird litmus test, and I’ll say more in a minute. I don’t think you have to be a communist, though, to recognize that socialism has at least something to do with how production is owned and organized.

In any case, in addition to the cloudiness of what Bernie actually proposes, the strangest rhetorical move is his suggestion that “while President Trump and his fellow oligarchs attack us for our support of democratic socialism, they don’t really oppose all forms of socialism. They may hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches Trump and other billionaires.”

Bernie is right, of course, that the wealthy are all-too-ready to accept bailouts from taxpayers distributed via the government when it means they get to avoid bankruptcy and feel what it means to lose in the crisis-ridden competition of capitalism. But I have to admit I was honestly surprised to see the Bernie campaign sincerely adopting the meme that socialism is when the government does stuff or gives people money. What is implied here is that it’s reasonable to call any governmental distribution of taxes “socialist,” even if it’s in the wrong direction, a designation that wouldn’t make it through most first year political science classes, let alone most historically socialist thinkers, parties, or movements.

“Overnight,” Bernie goes on to say, “Wall Street became big government socialists and begged for the largest federal bailout in American history—some $700 billion from the Treasury and trillions in support from the Federal Reserve.” The most charitable reading I can give here (and I feel like I’m reaching) is that this is a poorly thought-out moment of playful and ironic rhetoric, but even if that’s the case it reinforces a deeply problematic and limiting understanding of what socialism is. The best case scenario is that this is a bad rhetorical choice from a speechwriter who spends more time watching C-SPAN than reading up about socialism.

“And that is the difference between Donald Trump and me,” Bernie summarizes. “He believes in corporate socialism for the rich and powerful. I believe in a democratic socialism that works for the working families of this country.” Wincing through the phrase “corporate socialism,” what Bernie means by his own “democratic socialism” is again never spelled out. We’re left to speculate. Is it giving the kinds of tax breaks we give to corporations to small businesses and individuals instead? Is it bailing out workers when they’re about to go bankrupt? Is it universal basic income? Is it a welfare state in which capitalism is allowed so long as it plays by the rules (rules that, history showed, are quickly and easily obliterated)? These seem like rhetorical questions given Bernie’s invocation of the New Deal, but, given the speech itself, who could say?

Bernie wants to make a point about the distribution of wealth, and it’s a good point to make—rich people don’t dislike distributing wealth, they just want it distributed to them—but this isn’t the same thing as calling bailouts in a moment of market crisis “corporate socialism.” If Bernie’s socialism means widening the middle class while leaving all the exploitation of capitalist production patterns in place, it would certainly be better than a meaner exploitation, but a kinder exploitation is still exploitation. At the risk of belaboring the point, it’s important to make this clear. Socialism is not the government subsidizing people or business. Socialism is a fundamental transformation of the relationships of production in a society away from privately owned wealth and toward collectively owned, worker-controlled wealth. There are many ideas about how to do that, what it means, etc., but these are not platitudes. What democratic socialism historically names, again plural as it may be, is not so much a disagreement about what socialism is but a tradition of thinking primarily about strategy, using electoral and legal methods to produce greater and greater reforms, and organization, created against the foil of one-party communist states.

Given Bernie’s speech itself, I have to admit that I simply don’t understand what Bernie Sanders thinks democratic socialism is. It’s an alternative moral framework. It’s a different worldview. It’s upset about certain living conditions and a national moral hypocrisy. But nowhere does it seem to have any connection to socialist politics. I hope I’m not overblowing this, but it seems to me there is nothing in this speech that couldn’t be said by any other liberal candidate apart from some rhetorical flairs; if you read the speech and replace “democratic socialism” with “democratic capitalism,” a lot of the text would translate to a few other significant candidates in the Democratic primaries. “Democratic socialism” feels more like a brand than a horizon or historical context for political action.

A US Tradition of Democratic Socialism

So it’s not clear, to me anyway, how Sanders is a democratic socialist based on his own attempts to relate it to other motivations or values. But perhaps even more confusing is who he does and doesn’t cite as antecedents, strangely ignoring the history of democratic socialism in the United States itself. I should admit here that I’m a communist, but I still remain impressed by the heroic struggles of democratic socialism in the US, which is what makes it so odd to see them written out of Bernie’s public clarifications.

FDR, no favorite among the socialists of his day, gets the lion’s share of positive references. The only socialist Bernie quotes is Martin Luther King Jr., and MLK’s socialism, while interesting and often overlooked, remains woefully underdeveloped. It’s a good thing to remind liberals from time to time, but you couldn’t build a program out of it. Though I don’t expect Bernie to be quoting Lenin or Castro, with all his references to FDR, how could Bernie overlook a single mention of, say, Eugene Debs? Bernie’s affinity for Debs is well-known; why not point to the most electorally successful and charismatic face of democratic socialism in US history rather than the paltry shadow of FDR’s New Deal? Or further, why not point to the mass movement of card-carrying socialists that made the New Deal a necessary compromise amid all the talk about “we” and “us?”

Moreover, to want to follow through, as Bernie says, on the “unfinished business of the New Deal” is already an abdication of the real history of democratic socialism. When the New Deal was officially passed, it wasn’t just the Communist Party of the USA that complained it was too soft. Norman Thomas, Debs’ more moderate successor as leader of the Socialist Party of America, rightly said the New Deal laid the foundations for a new era of capitalism. If nothing else, endorsing the New Deal as a laudatory opening that should be brought to fruition seems like wiping a muddy pair of boots over the legacy of Debs and the most important and vibrant period of socialism so far in US history.

It’s important to interrogate these rhetorical moves, not only because socialism is an identifiable, if plural, tradition of political thought and action (one that historically does not include the New Deal), but also because failing to do so severely limits our political imagination. Perhaps Bernie is trying to connect his campaign to something more immediately recognizable to the US voting public—but if he’s being honest, he’s not carrying on or promoting the legacy of democratic socialism, the kind that got people like Debs and others incarcerated. He’s part of a long line of left-liberal capitalists.

I don’t want to completely dismiss Bernie as a fool or a meaningless flash in the pan. He’s neither. Socialist fans of Bernie have tried to split the difference here by saying this is only one step along the way to socialism, and if we view Bernie as purely instrumental to the socialist cause rather than as its representative that might be true. No doubt, a Bernie Sanders presidency would do more for the working class than any of the other serious electoral options, and as Rosa Luxemburg said there’s no reason a revolutionary can’t support reforms as long as they’re directed toward a revolutionary end, and as long as socialism doesn’t stop at the ballot. Likewise, it’s absolutely true that even Bernie’s idiosyncratic use of “socialism” has reinvigorated actual socialist movements. Bernie, in spite of his own shortcomings, has made it easier and more appealing to be a socialist in the United States and even elsewhere.

But if we let Bernie’s vision of democratic socialism define the terms for what “socialism” identifies, without stepping in to clarify what’s really at stake or to call our attention back to the history of both capitalism and socialism, it threatens to severely reduce the political field of vision for newly minted socialists. In real ways, it poses significant challenges (not unlike those posed by the New Deal!) for those of us who wish to live in a society that is truly democratically controlled by the people, one where capitalists are not simply punished, restrained, or nicer, but abolished as a class—a society that wasn’t historically limited to the goals of Marxist-Leninists.

In any case, that’s not the kind of society that Bernie seems to be looking for, and, heartbreaking as it might be, there’s no harm in saying so. If nothing else, if Bernie is really committed to the struggle of the working class, building a class consciousness that won’t settle for a kinder exploitation will push him further, too. This would be to bring the unfinished business of Bernie’s own campaign slogan to fruition—“Not me, Us.”

May Day and the "Christian Left"

I’m happy to report I have an article out at Commonweal on the labor ministry of Fr. Thomas J. Hagerty, a rogue Catholic priest who left his diocese to become an itinerant preacher for the Socialist Party of America, before leaving to help found the Industrial Workers of the World. I've been fascinated by his story for a long time, which is full of mystery and intrigue, and I'm glad I got to share a little bit of it on the high holy day of socialism.

The article follows the conclusion of a course I developed and taught this past semester at the Institute for Christian Studies on Christianity and anti-capitalism in the US and Canada. It starts with a theological look at May Day and concludes with more recent developments. As I’ve continued to process the material, two themes keep emerging for me. First, the labor movement is anything but secular, populated as it was—and still is—in the US and Canada with all kinds of characters, from heterodox and heretical socialist pastors to the encyclical-inspired politics of the Catholic Worker. Second, with all the talk about a “Christian Left” floating around, history suggests an understanding of the “Christian Left” (if it’s meaningful to talk about at all) is better adapted from a close look at the makeup of progressive movements rather than the pronouncements of pollsters, pundits, and politicians.

Hagerty’s story demonstrates both of these themes. As I explain in the Commonweal article, he was at the heart of some of the most significant labor struggles in the history of the United States. He had already become a self-described Marxist in seminary before the turn of the century—a significant rarity given the anti-Marxism of the institutional Church—and newspaper articles from the early 20th century regularly report his speeches were charismatic, well-reasoned, and enough to make suspicious listeners at least think twice. As a prominent union advocate, a rousing rhetor for the SPA, and a founding member of the IWW, Hagerty did more for the labor movement in three years than most of us will do in our entire lives. Put simply, you can’t tell the history of the labor movement in the United States without talking about this strange revolutionary reverend.

But Hagerty also rejected the idea, popular among other Catholics and Christians, that what Christians should be doing is creating their own, specifically Christian variants of institutions for struggle, like Catholic labor unions or parties. Instead, Hagerty lived out a radical solidarity that put him shoulder to shoulder with labor leaders and workers, Catholic and otherwise. The success of many early 20th century socialist projects depended on rejecting both an ideological refusal of faith as a condition of membership and on rejecting the identification of a faith tradition as the official language of the movement.

Hagerty’s approach as a Catholic priest and a socialist was not to craft the perfect moral vocabulary through which to filter his politics, but to get his hands dirty in the proletarian struggle, and to mobilize his own unique Christian formation for the sake of liberating workers. Hagerty was never embarrassed about his faith—indeed, it was an asset to getting Catholics involved in class struggle, who made up a particularly oppressed part of the working class—but his faith became more like a leaven in the socialist dough. If we want to understand the “Christian Left,” we have to look closely at where Christians show up in movements on the Left, not for a separate constituency somehow left behind today by electoral politics.

Both of these lessons seem clouded today. The ongoing presumption that class struggle means secular struggle, which appears on the side of certain would-be revolutionaries and reactionaries alike, is frankly historically untenable. It relies not on attention to the shape of political movements, nor on a “materialist” analysis that takes its cues from the goings-on of reality, nor even on a good understanding of the history of actual Christians and workers, but on ideological narratives that unnecessarily pit Christianity and the Left against one another.

As for the “Christian Left,” Hagerty’s story problematizes the notion that such a phrase most meaningfully identifies a version of liberal, progressive Christianity that hangs on every interview with Pete Buttigieg. The point is illustrated best by a line from Hagerty I quoted in my article: “Dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box never did achieve emancipation for the working class, and in my opinion it never will.” It’s a sentiment that isn’t lost to the radical early days of the IWW. Plenty of Christians today share that opinion, and the reduction of the “Christian Left” to a liberal voting bloc erases an important tradition of radicalism that is still alive today.

Hagerty’s story offers a lot to the imagination, which is what made him so compelling to study and write about. Most importantly, however, he is hardly alone as a Christian who felt he needed to throw himself headlong into the struggle for justice.

Today, on May Day, as I say at Commonweal, I’ll say a little prayer to Fr. Hagerty. I’ll also remember people like Rev. George Washington Woodbey, who was born a slave and served as the only Black delegate to the SPA conventions in 1904 and 1908, preaching from the pulpit and being in and out of jail for agitating in-between. I’ll recall Joe Wallace, a Catholic poet and a member of the Communist Party of Canada whose poems explored the relationship between his faith in the universal church and the global revolution. I’ll consider Grace Hutchins and Anna Rochester, two Christian lesbians who joined the Communist Party USA, part of the Social Gospel they don’t seem to teach very often in seminaries today. And, naturally, I’ll think about the May Day martyrs themselves, like Rev. Samuel Fielden, a Methodist who gave the last speech before the bomb went off in Haymarket.

For Christians, May Day is an opportunity to school ourselves in the biographies of a communion of labor saints who leave behind multiple strategies, tools, and productive mistakes. It is also an opportunity to follow in their legacy, to show up at a march or an event at a union hall, and get to work. At bottom, regardless of scholarly studies or talk show interviews with politicians, the “Christian Left” is what we make it.

Image result for thomas j hagerty

Blindspots on the "Christian Left" Beat

Getting Beyond the Democratic Party at Prayer

Religion journalists are starved for attention. I don’t say that as a put-down. This might just be proximity bias, but few other beats seem to me to have to constantly convince editors and readers that they matter as much as the religion beat. The efforts are important. People should be paying attention to religion journalists, not least because stories about faith often contain many more stories—about race, class, sexuality, solidarity, hatred—that make up the texture of society.

In lieu of that being obvious, however, a pervasive strategy for religion journalists since 2016 has been to connect religion reporting directly to political reporting.

Among the angles here, the one I follow most is the narrative around the “Christian Left.” (NB: I don’t mean to conflate the “Religious Left” and the “Christian Left,” a problem Harmeet Kamboj points out, but to intentionally pull out the Christian part of that story.) In response to the predictable proliferation of articles on the “Christian Right” before and after Trump’s election, religion journalists looked for an analogous constituency on “the Left,” usually a synonym for the base of the Democratic Party—and what they found led to both an over-identification of the Christian Left with the Democrats as well as a confusion over what the “Christian Left” means.

During the 2016 primaries, for example, given the sheer cynicism of the Christian Right, Ruth Graham suggested in a cover story at Slate that the Democrats could become the new “Party of God,” with Christians recognizing themselves more in the old-fashioned liberal Methodism of Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump’s evangelical status as a “baby Christian.” Since then, debate over the “Religious Left” made a few waves among the commentariat, with some, like Daniel Cox at 538, arguing it doesn’t really matter and others, like Jack Jenkins, replying if you know what you’re looking for it’s hard to deny its importance.

The journalistic jury is still out, but the object of debate is tacitly agreed on: the Christian Left boils down to Christians who like Democrats and Democrats who like Christians. Symptomatic of the desperation of religion journalism, the impulse to prove “there’s always a religion angle” sometimes translates into obsessively highlighting even the vaguest reference to God by Democrats. But pointing out every time someone mentions God, or every time a group of pastors listens to a Democrat, isn’t really telling us anything meaningful, and it shapes a certain expectation about what it would mean to talk about the Christian Left that excludes a lot.

Tunnel Vision

While reporting on the religion angle of Democrats is important, the reduction of “the Left” to the Democratic Party has given religion journalists an unfortunate tunnel vision that left some of the most interesting stories of the last few years either to specialized outlets or uncovered entirely. And more importantly, that omission has led to certain overzealous pronouncements that erase the more radical elements of the Christian Left, for example in Jenkins’ suggestion that Corey Booker “could be a candidate for the ‘religious left.’”

Take the story of the Friendly Fire Collective in Philadelphia, for instance. Emerging from a group of radical Quakers, though inclusive of many other spiritual communities, Friendly Fire has put itself to work both intellectually and in direct action, describing itself as “a network of individuals, cells, and communities committed to being doulas of the apocalypse, loving a new world into being.” Through its blog and newsletter, it transmits excerpts from a wide range of leftist theologians, political theorists, and histories in an accessible way, operating as something like a devotional for revolutionary people of faith. A recent post, for example, weaves together biblical passages and insights from French philosopher Michel Foucault, concluding “We must kill this God, this cop within. We must allow empathy, love for our neighbor, to crucify piety within us. If we are to believe in a God, may this God look like Christ: a comrade in the struggle, willing to enter our messes in solidarity.”

Put simply, this isn’t Corey Booker’s theology.

Beyond translating and disseminating radical literature, however, Friendly Fire has actively intervened in local Philadelphia politics. In early 2018, the group organized a deeply spiritual spring retreat that concluded with a march to a local May Day rally, led by a banner that read “ALL COPS ARE APOSTATES.” They followed up that summer by being significant organizers in the Occupy ICE encampments in the city, where members were arrested. In a theological reflection from the event, one FF member vividly and painfully recalls the scene (tw: police violence):

Bike cops began pushing forward. Officers kicked us as they stepped over to arrest us. I had a rosary in my hands. I was praying to Mary, the Mother of Liberation, as officers forced my hands behind my back. I heard them screaming, “She has a rosary! She has a rosary!” I felt them rip it from my hands. They broke it, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it in front of me. I continued to pray as they dragged me through the street, as they hit my head on the van again and again, as they drove the van with me hanging out, my legs still on the sidewalk. I thought of the thousands of immigrants whose rosaries were taken from them as they crossed the border. I thought of the children who cry every night begging for their parents. I thought of Christ being violently arrested and beaten. And I considered myself blessed to share in his wounds.

Though Friendly Fire recorded its own versions of these events, they received no media attention at all from career journalists on the religion beat. And that’s not for lack of trying. FF members reached out to journalists, but to no avail. (Full disclosure: I also tried to pass this information along to other journalists I know who cover this as a regular beat, and my comrade Matt Bernico and I interviewed Friendly Fire members on The Magnificast, once on the retreat and once on Occupy ICE.)

It’s a strange omission. Whether or not a journalist agrees with the rhetoric or tactics of Friendly Fire, surely “Philadelphia Christians say All Cops Are Apostates on May Day” or “Radical Christians Arrested on the Front Lines Against ICE” are pretty juicy headlines. As far as I know, the group has only been covered once, in a story by John Noble on Christians and the 2018 Prison Strike at Sojourners.

Friendly Fire is a glaring example given their regular public documentation and willingness to talk, but it’s not an isolated example. If journalists interested in the Christian Left felt the need to cover more radical movements, the reliable Catholic Worker remained a fertile source for stories.

In 2017, for example, two members of the Catholic Worker in Des Moines, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, turned themselves in after sabotaging the DAPL and running from private investigators. The story was picked up by Mike O’Loughlin at America Magazine and was mentioned, albeit briefly, at the National Catholic Reporter. But the story showed up primarily not from people whose niche is covering religion, but rather in some progressive outlets (Democracy Now!, The Intercept) and the Des Moines Register (including a story about an FBI raid on the associated Catholic Worker community).

That’s not an isolated story, either. The Des Moines Catholic Worker has had an ongoing campaign against drones, which member Frank Cordaro regularly reports on through email. The Catholic Worker in general has been talking amongst itself about how to move beyond its whiteness, an incredibly interesting and important conversation, reflected in actions by Catholic Worker members like Erica Sherwood and Joe Kruse joining Black Lives Matter activists to shut down intersections and a light rail station in Minneapolis. And just recently, the “Four Necessity Valve Turners,” a group of “Catholic Workers and farmers,” were arrested and jailed for turning off Enbridge pipelines. These stories were mostly circulated in local news, and occasionally got exposure through NCR and a handful of people on social media, but they never gained steam and didn’t seem to even appear on the radar of career religion journalists.

A Wealth of Stories

Friendly Fire and the Catholic Worker are only two examples. If journalists thought to look for a religion angle on political activity that was further left, they would find a wealth of stories that have yet to be reported on. Who is interviewing members of the DSA Religion and Socialism Commission? Who is asking members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation what they think about church (I know members who go, if you’re looking)? Who is interested in Christians for the Abolition of Prisons? Who is inquiring about why the Communist Party of the USA says something about Christians every once in a while? Who followed up with antifa after Charlottseville to find out what they thought about the clergy they defended? Who is getting in touch with radical Christians from earlier decades—not just the usual suspects like those who hung out with the Berrigans, but also folks like Gil Dawes, the pastor who invited Angela Davis to speak about a strike at his church in 1980—to find out where they are now?

All this reflects, I think, a basic journalistic bias against a version of the Left that doesn’t fit neatly into the prepackaged talking points of the Democratic Party and those that orbit it. These would all be stories of Christians who would be significantly to the left of Democrats, and Democrats wouldn’t like them all that much either.

That’s not to say this is an intentional bias. Maybe sometimes it is, maybe sometimes it isn’t. It does take a lot of time and work to understand the terrain of the radical Left, and I hope to provide some resources to make that clearer in this newsletter. But whatever the case, the situation is severely limiting our perspective on what the Christian Left is. Even if journalism merely reflected the world it reports on, coverage of the Christian Left would be woefully inadequate. Journalism isn’t just a reflection, however; stories create narratives that impact and shape the world, expand or contract our imagination concerning what’s possible. Right now, the narrative about the Christian Left, again by intention or not, is often a story about the Democratic Party at prayer, a narrative that creates a certain idea about what the Left is or could be, and what Christians are and could be.

Though it’s obvious from my social media presence that I’m not too excited about Democrats, I’m not trying to suggest here that everyone is missing the real Christian Left. I’m saying the Christian Left is more than what it’s usually reduced to by the media class, and that reduction, as Hollis Phelps persuasively argues, is misleading us about where the most meaningful stories about the Christian Left might be found. Of course, this mirrors a problem for reporting on politics generally, but the unique position of religion journalism, which is already constantly fighting for a place in the media landscape and attentive to stories outside the typical news cycle, has good reason to fill out what gets missed in all that reporting—it just needs to find the right missing things.

There are important exceptions. Reporting on how Christians have engaged refugees, for example, is thankfully plentiful, and some career journalists, like Kaya Oakes, have a reputation for looking for under-reported religion news, most recently in a great article on Catholic activism. The exceptions, however, usually prove the rule; Oakes concludes her article, for instance, noting the new face of Catholic activists eludes major outlets. Reporting on Christians and refugees rarely connects the dots to the troubling reality that the Democrats, too, not just the Republicans, have had a hand in creating the social turmoil abroad that has displaced so many people in the first place, suggesting to have solidarity with refugees is to be at odds with both parties.

Let’s Say More in 2019

In terms of the self-interest of people on the religion beat, there’s a lot of opportunity for scoops, exclusives, and getting ahead of the news cycle for folks who put in the time. As a part-time journalist, knowing a thing or two about these themes has helped me find interesting stories, and editors for the most part understand their value, like in America Magazine, where I was able to talk to Rachelle Friesen of Christian Peacemaker Teams about how and why she got involved in an antifascist group in Toronto, or at Sojourners, where I got to profile Kathleen Schultz, IHM, former National Secretary of Christians for Socialism. There are so many stories like this that a few journalists could never cover them all, and there won’t be a shortage of them, either. There’s a lot to be said—and a lot that risks going unsaid—in 2019.

As primary season comes into full swing, there will be plenty of stories about the faith of Democratic candidates. There should be (though preferably without identifying them with the “Christian Left” itself).

But journalists on the religion beat owe it to their readers to also cover Christians who will continue to organize not for domesticated versions of capitalism, white supremacy, heterosexism, etc., but a world without these structures altogether.

These Christians are easy to find.

Just look for handcuffs and busted rosaries.

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