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"Religion and the left": a commentary.

While shaving every morning, my father used to sing Joe Hill's anti-clerical song about the "long-haired preachers" who When asked about something to eat They would answer in voices so sweet, "You will eat, bye and bye In that glorious land above the sky Way up high. Work and play, live on hay, You'll get pie in the sky, when you die." That's a lie.

But when I entered my teens, he sat me down for several months of Bible study in the conviction that no communist could afford to be ignorant of so important a cultural force as religious belief. He introduced me to thomas Paine's criticism of scripture in The Age of Reason, joined forces with a local minister in the anti-fascist Bay-Beach Felowship to combat anti-Semitism in our neighborhood in Brooklyn, and was on the hit list of the Christian Front.

These different kinds of relations to religion--conflict, rejection, appreciation, criticism, and alliance--remain as valid aspects of Marxists' approach to religion today although the content of each of them has changed.

The July/August issue of MONTHLY REVIEW is a step toward bringing Marxists up to date on these changes. Unfortunately, despite the ambitious title of "Religion and the LEft," that issue really was limited to left Christianity. LEft out completely were radical Judaism, Islamic socialism, Native American religious nationalism and environmentalism, the Buddhist role in the Vietnamese revolution, any analysis of religious conservatism from Khomeini to Falwell, pacifism, and religion under socialism. I will limit my comments to aspects of Marxism and Christianity.

Throughout most of its nearly 2,000 years, institutional Christianity has been in a sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes uneasy aliance with the ruling classes of Europe and North America and with their missions of conquest. Christian faith also provided the rationale for frequent revolusion against those oppressive societies expressed in monastic withdrawal, unconventional orders, and heretical rebellion. In times of pervasive crisis, as in the breakdown of feudalism and the birth of capitalism, Christianity also created by splits and expulsions in the Reformation and after; the Roman Catholic church, after a conservative counter-reformation, eventually shifted its loyalties to the new system of exploitation. And many bourgeois thinkers broke away more or less completely from all religion.

Today, we are witnessing the exciting beginnings of a similar transformation. With the crisis of capitalist civilization, Christians are loosening their allegiance to capitalism. This process is strongest in the capitalist periphery, especially Latin America, and begins among the lower ranks of the church and at the base, but also percolates upward in ameliorated form to an occasional bishop. There is a counter-reformation as well, the revival of born-again fundamentalism, the profusion of new religious groups, such as the Unification church, which are labeled "cults"; there are signs of increasing papal intervention to counter the socialist and feminist upsurge. But the Vatican is in a contradictory situation here: it cannot turn its back on the struggles of the oppressed without abandoning the field to Marxism, but if it supports the necessity of social action, it opens the way for Catholics to carry that support to its revolutionary conclusion. Most organized religion is still operating in the conservative-ameliorative mode, rendering and rendering and rendering unto Caesar.

Therefore, Marxists cannot adopt an undifferentiated attitude toward religion as such, or talk about a rapprochement with Christianity in general. On the immediate and medium-range time scales, we have implacable enemies, occasional cooperators, and strategic allies among Christians. And this is likely to be the case even after the overthrow of capitalism. Some religious groups will be foci of counter-revolution and rely on the most retrograde obscurantism and bigotry for their rationale. Others will hold themselves aloof from the social transformations and concentrate on the narrowest issues of individual virtue or piety. There will be critical supporters of the revolution (e.g., a Czech bishop once described the role of his church as a conscience of socialism). There will be revolutionary Christian groups as in Cuba who organize their own internationalist brigades for health and construction work; and there may be full Christian integration into the revolution at all levels, as in Nicaragua.

In this period of such great diversity, there are three pathways for the radicalizing believers: for many, personal liberation from religion is still the only available road to revolutionary politics. Others will build new institutional forms for radical Christianity such as the Methodist Federation for Social Action, or even new church organizations. We also see struggle to transform and radicalize existing churches (e.g., the Unitarian-Universalist self-designation as a peace church) and Catholic liberation theology. Marxists should be sympathetic toward all three pathways.

What is especially new and challenging is of course the emergence of revolutionary Christianity as a mass movement which promises to be our ally through the overthrow of capitalism and beyond. This strategic alliance is based on a common commitment to end exploitation. It does not require any philosophical synthesis of Marxism and Christianity.

Arthur McGovern (in Marxism: An American Christian Perspective, as reviewed by Joel Kovel in MR, June 1984) argues that Marxist atheism is incompatible with Christianity, but that fortunately Marxist materialism is not necessarily atheistic. Other authors in the July/August issue also take pains to show that Marxism is not necessarily hostile to religion, and emphasize the sympathetic appreciation by Marx of the role of religious illusion in a world that requires illusion to be bearable. But although an historical materialist approach recognizes religion as part of culture and can acknowledge the social truths behind the fantastic illusions, we continue to see them as illusion, and to interpret the marvelous Bible discussions at Solentiname, Nicaragua, not as the discovery of the true meaning of the gospel message but as an inspiring human creation of a new message. Furthermore, this interpretation is not a peripheral frill to Marxism that can be discarded so as not to offend: the way in which people create their consciousness out of old beliefs and new experience is a central issue for historical materialists.

Of course, religion has no monopoly on illusions. The history of the international revolutionary movement is filled with fantasies.

Furthermore, as illusions about this world, they are potentially more dangerous than fantasies about the hereafter or the fullness of time. Some have been illusions about what has already been accomplished; these become flesh as apologetics and lies. Others have been illusions about our own power to transform by pure effort; as a yardstick for measuring the real, they lead to disillusionment and cynicism. So, our rejection of religious illusion cannot come from a posture of omniscient objectivity.

But if an alliance between Marxists and left Christians does not require us to abandon our atheism or them to abandon God, it certainly must be free of red-baiting and God-baiting and of the crude stereotypes that thwart discussion or the polite silences that avoid it. To take our comrades seriously means to understand the questions that are important to them and be willing to discuss them. For us, it means that we recognize religious news as political news, including not only the "stands" that religious bodies adopt on particular issues, but also what seems to be "merely" theological questions. For instance, what is the political significance of Gutierrez' view of sin per se as underlying all the particular sins of oppression, exploitation, racism, greed, and so on?

Even more important than exchanging our already formed opinions is thinking together and sharing experiences about the challenges we both face in the revolutionary struggle: the transformation of consciousness as the fundamental step in organizing; assimilation of feminist theory, a battle far from won in both movements; the adaptation of both old world ideologies to American conditions; how to combine class and humanity-wide struggles; problems of tactics and of organization. (Cornel West cites the critique of scientism as a specifically Christian contribution. In fact, it figures high on the agenda of the radical science movement and Marxist agriculturists and health workers.)

The alliance means a willingness to accept each other's leadership in particular situations and to creat joint leadership as well, to encourage and join in each other's political initiatives, to expect disagreements and conflicts along the way, and not to lose sight of our common, long-term project of liberation.
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Title Annotation:letter
Author:Levins, Richard
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Dec 1, 1984
Words:1380
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