The Hammer and Cross

Examining the fraught relationship between Christianity and Marxism.

Outside a Communist Party office in Venice. Jacques Lebleu / Flickr

With its rampant consumerism and exaltation of a savior figure, Christmas is anathema for many on the left. Naturally, these feelings of disenchantment among secular and scientifically minded leftists extend to Christianity and religion more broadly.

However, left politics and Christianity have interacted and intersected in non-conflictual ways in spite of intense ideological misgivings. While Marxism is known for its strident critiques of religion, Marx described “religious distress” as the “expression of real distress and protest against real distress.” Engels saw the emergence of Christianity as a groundswell of resistance, writing that “Christianity, like every great revolutionary movement, was made by the masses.”

Working-class Christians have seized on the progressive elements in Christianity to challenge hierarchies and inequalities within churches; to advocate for labor, land, and housing rights; and to agitate against militarism, racism, and poverty. Among Protestants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Social Gospel pointed the way toward not just individual but social salvation. The Catholic Worker movement continues to preach anti-militarism and service to the poor.

Some Christians — including Thomas J. Hagerty, a key figure in the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World — have incorporated socialist and communist (if not explicitly Marxist) ideas into their social analysis and political practice. In the South American context, Christianity and Marxism fused to form liberation theology, which cast the poor and oppressed as primary agents fighting economic exploitation and challenging dictatorship, repression, and US imperialism.

Christian officialdom bristled at such heterodoxy. In 1949, the office of Pope Pius XII issued a decree that forbid Catholics from participating in, supporting, or even reading the literature of communist organizations. When liberation theology gained prominence a few decades later — personified by figures like Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador — the Vatican inveighed against the left doctrine. Liberation theology, Pope John Paul II asserted in 1979, “does not tally with the Church’s catechism.”

Yet the fraught relationship between Christianity and Marxism can’t just be blamed on the acts of elite foes. Considering Marxism’s strong association with atheism, the longstanding left view that religion and churches are ruling-class instruments, and adherents’ sporadic acts of violence against one another, skeptics have had no shortage of evidence that the two traditions are fundamentally incompatible.

Some thinkers have tried to work through some of these tensions, arguing that there are grounds for a rapprochement. Andrew Collier’s book Christianity and Marxism: A Philosophical Contribution to Their Reconciliation is one such attempt.

Collier, who passed away in 2014, didn’t paper over the fault lines separating Christianity and Marxism. In one particularly important chapter in Christianity and Marxism — titled “What Christians and Marxists can learn from each other” — he points out a few: Marxism’s atheism, its historical materialism, and the question of nonviolence.

On the first, Collier argues that “Marx’s atheism has no effect on his scientific socialism, and no essential effect on socialist political practice.” And he insists that there’s significant overlap on other basic issues, including utopianism: “both Christianity with its doctrine of fallenness, and genuinely materialistic Marxism . . . warn against over-optimism about such possibilities in human society: there can be no perfect society.”

Both camps also share a common threat: “bourgeoisification.” As wealthier people have joined the Christian fold, a social distance from working-class adherents has opened. The effort to combat this trend, Collier writes,

ought to lead Christians to commitment to working class political movements wherever they exist. It should do so because their cause is just; but this commitment would also have a salutary effect of shattering the complacent assumptions of bourgeoisdom against the realities of working-class life.

Collier rails against the Christians who responded to the fall of the Eastern Bloc by “making their peace with the restored capitalists” rather than “working for a genuinely classless and just society such as the post-Stalinist regimes projected but failed to deliver.”

On the other side, Collier decries the “bourgeois aspirations” of the Soviet’s “privileged bureaucracy” and laments the inability of states that called themselves socialist to forge a “socialist civil society,” leaving “atomised individuals confronting a top-heavy state.” Here, Collier suggests, socialists can learn from Christians’ reflexive opposition to “totalitarian commercialism” and resistance to modish ideas.

He reasserts the importance of social control:

I do not mean primarily control by society over individuals or even over nature, but over social forces, powers generated by society, which have massive and often devastating effects both on nature and on people, but which cannot be controlled under capitalism.

To the extent that Marxism seeks the “emancipation of humankind from its alienated powers in the form of market forces,” Collier sees an ally in Christianity. Both doctrines have sought to limit the ability to “buy and sell everything” (“Jesus overthrew the moneychangers in the Temple, and Peter’s curse on Simon Magus ought to put many an American evangelist in fear of hell fire”).

They can also serve as allies in the philosophical realm, standing athwart both liberalism and postmodernism, and against the “atomism” and “fragmentation” promoted by market logic. Both Marxism and Christianity can explain and counter “the fragmentation, not only of society, but of the human person under capitalism.”

Collier’s attempts to reconcile Marxism and Christianity underscore not just the political possibilities of an alliance but the persistent gulf between the two. A meeting of the hammer and the cross — it may not be a far-fetched Christmas miracle, but rather a political necessity in the age of Trump.