KOMARAGIRI: Leftist politics, religious devotion not mutually exclusive

Column: Bleeding Heart

Our country can redeem the heritage of a religious Left, an ideal lost to the rise of regressive conservatism — and I believe the answer rests in the mountains of northern Italy. 

In Ignazio Silone’s 1936 anti-fascist novel, “Bread and Wine,” an exiled communist by the name of Pietro Spina disguises himself as a priest in the mountains of Abruzzo. Through the exhausting work of building a worker movement alongside the peasants of the mountains, Pietro breaks away from the party, recognizing among the competing dangers of fascism and a rising Soviet brand of communism that there had to be another way. 

What would come out of this book is a reappraisal of socialist values at a time when the great powers of the world were on the brink of war. 

Spina’s story mirrors Silone's life in a lot of ways: Silone was a founding member of the Italian Communist Party along with Antonio Gramsci, and was in exile in Switzerland at the time of the book’s publication. He was raised in Abruzzo and had witnessed firsthand the suffering of those seeking salvation through god. 

Silone recognized that the foundation for socialism, the empathy that surrounds Leftist ideals, can be nurtured through the social web that religion provides. He was able to distill Christian virtue to the most basic tenets, loving thy neighbor and helping the poor. 

As Silone would write: “What remains then is a Christianity without myths, reduced to its moral essence.” 

This essence would inspire some of the most radical movements for economic and racial justice in American history. The long tradition of America’s religious Left manifests itself time and again through the work of many historical liberators: A.J. Muste’s labor/anti-war struggle, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People's Campaign, to name a few. 

These righteous moral crusades were able to capture the fraternity that comes from religion and channel them into Leftist projects that served the most destitute among us. 

It is no secret that in our country, the conservative movement has had a monopoly on religion. Following the Great Depression, the mistrust of capitalism had monied elites in a state of panic. The potential for a populist economic upswell grounded in deep support for a larger welfare state led to the rise of a spiritual mobilization organization.

A congregationalist pastor named James W. Fifield Jr. preached a new gospel that would marry a sense of devotion to god with libertarian-conservative ideals. The propaganda and pedagogy developed by this group would poison our political rhetoric for years to come, convincing the rich that their wealth was a virtue, rather than a gross act of exploitation. 

The last 30 years have uncovered a profound shift in our religious landscape, with the share of liberals not identifying with any religion up 30%. Democratic leaders have acknowledged that nonreligious voters are a significant part of their constituency, and some studies have pointed to politics as the reason many people feel it necessary to walk away from religion. 

As the Grand Old Party (GOP) capitalized on a rabid evangelical base, Republican platforms started to emphasize issues related to LGBTQ+ marriage, abortion and school prayer. Just recently, United States Attorney General William Barr decried what he called an attack on religion by militant secularism. He attributed many societal ills, including drug use, to a lack of religious morality. 

These arguments are not new, and they represent a conversion of religion from an ideal of love and support for those suffering in our society to an oppressive set of edicts that disenfranchise broad swaths of American people. What Barr and, I am sure, many of his colleagues understand, is that they are engaging in a masterful act of sophistry. 

They ignore that the true compassionate practice of Christianity, or any other religion that does not condemn a woman’s right to choose or an individual’s decision in who to love. They ignore the connection between capitalism’s brutal drive for profit and addiction. I have great faith that this can change. 

Last Wednesday marked the 160th anniversary of abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. He believed that slavery was the greatest sin unto god and that humanity existed within every person. 

While that raid and planned slave rebellion failed, I cannot help but think it was a holy act. What Brown did was a radical act of love, inspired by an interpretation of religion rooted in sacrifice, the same ideal Silone would write about many years later in “Bread and Wine.” 

We have to be able to reclaim the understanding that religion can be an inspirational hope for a unified class of oppressed people. 

Brown did this, and while his execution was by no means godly, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “He will make the gallows holy as the cross.” 

Veenay Komaragiri is a Rutgers Business School senior majoring in business analytics and information  technology. His column, “Bleeding Heart,” typically runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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