In the spring of 2018, the Trump administration initiated a policy of family separation at the US-Mexico border. Thousands of migrant children would be removed from their parents and locked in cages. As a progressive high-school junior, I was disturbed by the inhumane policy and moved to protest, attending a march over the Brooklyn Bridge. The protest was saturated with all kinds of socialists. I saw Rev Com’s bright yellow signs demanding system change. My dad, knowing I had some interest in left-wing politics, bought me a copy of Socialist Worker. Later, I learned that a friend went to the same protest with Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). But unlike many of the attendees, I wasn’t there with any socialist organization. I was participating with my congregation.
Growing up, my Humanistic Jewish congregation had an egalitarian ethos. We participated in AIDS marches and learned about the Jewish response to poverty. I was asked to think through how I could help build a better world, a value that we even have a phrase for: Tikkun Olam. Two quotations expressing the Jewish commitment to social justice rang throughout my childhood. Rabbi Tarfon’s declaration that “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” and Rabbi Hillel’s question, “If not now, when?” taught me that I had a duty to fight injustice.
Though I never read that issue of Socialist Worker, seeing socialists out in defense of the families tortured by Trump made me think about my political values, who represented them, and how to fight against capitalism’s brutal injustices. A month later, following Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s insurgent victory on a platform of abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), I got involved in a local socialist’s campaign for state senate and joined DSA. Socialism was a natural extension of my religious upbringing and the values it instilled in me.
Socialism Against Religion?
Conservative media pushes an entirely different narrative that heretical, godless socialists are coming for your religion. It’s no secret that the far left has our fair share of atheists. But no, socialists are not against religion.
Socialists are against exploitation and oppression. Religion, like many other ideological systems, has been used at times to justify oppressive hierarchies, while at other times it has promoted social and economic justice. The socialist movement itself has a similar history, our cause being exploited at times to justify terrible crimes even while it acted elsewhere as a crucial force for social equality. We are able to hold the contradictions.
It’s true, as conservatives like to point out, that Marx described religion as the “opiate of the masses,” an expression of his view of religion’s sedative character upon an otherwise revolutionary working class. When Marx wrote that and other criticisms of religion, the church played a specific role in European society, with Catholicism acting as feudalism’s ideological apparatus and Protestantism as capitalism’s driving spirit. In this context it was difficult to detach religion from the social structures that birthed it and that it in turn reaffirmed.
If anything, despite his personal distaste for religion, Marx’s materialism was a positive step away from the more vulgar anti-religious views of his Young Hegelian contemporaries, many of whom blamed religion for the social ills of their time. Unlike them, Marx recognized that “ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.” If religion served an oppressive role, it was because the social structure was oppressive. To end oppression, the social structure would have to be challenged, not just people’s ideas.
As capitalism developed and market economies separated from the state, so did religious institutions. In a world where multiple religions could coexist under the same state, separate from official hierarchies, religion largely lost its role as expressing the “ruling ideas” of the “ruling class,” as new ideologies like the quasi-religious commitment to markets took its place.
Today, in an increasingly marketized and alienated society, religion provides for many a rare and necessary source of community and security. Of course for some, religion continues to serve in defense of the worst revanchist hierarchies and bigotry. But it has also provided many with an emancipatory communal ideology pointed toward social equality, a role that socialists acknowledge and celebrate.
Socialism Is the Promised Land
Martin Luther King Jr’s brand of Christian democratic socialism contributed to perhaps the most powerful movement for social justice in the United States. As a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), he brought faith communities into the fight for racial and economic justice. The SCLC carried out mass voter registration among the South’s disenfranchised black population, organized for the March on Washington, and helped win the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
After civil rights were codified into law, the SCLC recognized that only through economic emancipation could the United States’ black population — and indeed the entire multiracial working class — be truly free. That’s why it launched the Poor People’s Campaign, demanding full employment, housing for the poor, and a universal basic income.
King’s speeches and writings made clear the direct relationship between his religious values and the struggle for social and economic justice. In his 1957 speech “Birth of a New Nation,” King eloquently wove together the story of Exodus (the first documented slave revolt), the struggle for Ghanaian independence, and the American civil rights movement. To King, all three examples demonstrated the “internal desire for freedom within the soul of every man.” If man was made in the image of God, then those who exploited others “[robbed them] of something of God’s image.”
King also noted that both Exodus and Ghana’s independence movement demonstrated that “the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed.” It could only be won through struggle, a lesson he hoped to instill in the United States’ freedom fighters. King concluded his speech with a promise that in our lifetime, “The day [will come] when all men will recognize the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.” To King, that brotherhood of man, the “promised land,” was a democratic socialist world free of war, racism, poverty, and exploitation of man by man.
King was just one of many who identified the deep connections between religion and socialism. Throughout Latin America, liberation theology, a form of Christian Marxism, has played an important role in emancipatory struggles, from the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua to the fight against Brazil’s military dictatorship. In South Korea, minjung (the people’s) theology similarly interwove the Bible’s anti-poverty and emancipatory themes with Korea’s labor and social movements against the post–Korean War dictatorship. Jesus himself was a rebel leader against Roman imperialism, reserved heaven for the poor, and identified “the love of money [as] the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).
This multi-holiday weekend, let’s reject the perversion of religion used to justify rule by the rich, gender oppression, attacks on reproductive freedoms and LGBTQ communities, denying kids full and comprehensive education, and apartheid. Instead, we should celebrate Jesus’s stand for the poor and the Hebrews’ escape from slavery, and heed King’s message that only through the social struggle of the oppressed and victory of democratic socialism can we realize the promise of God in each and every one of us.