Supporting socialism, religion is not contradictory


Opinion Column: The Champagne Socialist


“Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment.” Was that Karl Marx or Pope Francis?

If you guessed the latter, you’d be correct. That was a quote from the Pope’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week. And if you haven’t been reading the news, Pope Francis’s speeches and encyclicals are chock full of morally charged anti-capitalism.

The pontiff has declared that, “Jesus affirms that you cannot serve two masters, God and wealth,” and that, “poverty is at the very heart of the Gospel ... if we remove poverty from the Gospel no one would be able to understand anything about the message of Jesus.” I haven’t read such valorization of the earth’s wretched since my Trotskyist days. As the first Latin American and “Third World” pope in history, Francis has relentlessly criticized our reigning system of global, unfettered capitalism or the “dung of the devil” as he calls it. His encyclical Laudato si’ said, “(w)e know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels — especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay ... ” Frankie’s talking like he’s Bill McKibben! And he’s made enemies from all sorts of corners because of it. Celebrity U.S. conservative shockjock and professional bigot Rush Limbaugh has bloviated about Francis’ brand of “pure Marxism.” Meanwhile, G.O.P. presidential candidate Jeb Bush has dismissed the pope’s environmentalism and concern for anthropogenic climate change, saying that Francis is not a scientist. Never mind that the pope was a trained chemist (and nightclub bouncer) before he joined the Catholic Church decades ago.

Yet, let’s be honest my left-wing fellow travelers, Limbaugh and other conservatives, are onto something when they denounce Pope Francis as some sort of socialist Trojan horse. Though woefully lacking in a commitment to gender and sexual equality, Francis has shifted the Church’s emphasis on those issues, if not doctrine. On questions of class, incarceration, immigration and interfaith pluralism however, he is a clear ally to the Left and we should come to meet him and his adherents on issues important to us. Moreover though, we need to find some religion. For too long, left-wingers of faith like myself have felt alienated from a mostly secular, if not stridently anti-clerical Left. Indeed, under officially atheist states like those of the former Soviet Union and other Communist countries, we’ve been harassed, persecuted and even murdered. Conceited and with a curious attachment to “modernity,” leftists have turned their nose up at belief. This is also a serious tactical error seeing how the masses they so love are, well, believers. From the slums of any global South megalopolis like Mumbai, Cairo, São Paulo to the ghettos, reservations and prisons here in the U.S., most of world’s poor and oppressed are religious. If God finds bad company in the graduate school seminars and Bob Avakian-esque cults that far too many North Atlantic lefties hide away in, He’s on the lips of thousands of farmworkers out in California today or the proletarians and slaves of yesteryear.

And who could forget the legacies of religiously inspired U.S. radicals like the abolitionist movement with Frederick Douglass, the Grimké sisters and William Lloyd Garrison? My personal favorite however, is a white man named John Brown who performed a botched 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. His Pennsylvania barn being a stop on the Underground Railroad, he once declared in front of an Ohio church, “Here, before God and in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” With a statement like that, who needs Richard Dawkins's or Christopher Hitchens's brand of “liberation”?

After the U.S. civil war in industrializing Chicago, Andrew Cameron, a Scottish immigrant, helped found the National Labor Union, progenitor of the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. For many U.S. radicals like Cameron, Christianity offered a radical antidote for the trails and pain of industrial capitalism, believing that, “The Gospel of Christ sustains us in our every demand.” Pentecostal preachers would get white and black sharecroppers into a spiritual frenzy before meetings of the radical Southern Tenant Farmers Union, foreshadowing the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. And then there’s Dorothy Day, a Jazz Age, Greenwich Village bohemian and “harlot” who had an abortion and an illegitimate child once. She was founder and editor of The Catholic Worker and constantly got in trouble with New York archdiocese’s head Cardinal Spellman, a man that called the Vietnam War a “war for civilization.” Despite her radicalism, Pope Francis spoke her name along with fellow pacifist Thomas Merton, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.

By honoring and being a part of this history, by marrying their politics with the very grain of Creation, leftists need to recognize that being a socialist and a person of faith is no contradiction. For indeed, what could be more subversive than declaring that some Palestinian refugee, born in a manger, surrounded by feces and animals, is the Son of God?

José Sanchez is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in history with a minor in political science. His column, “The Champagne Socialist,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.


José Sanchez

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