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CHICAGO — We open with a prayer. Then an eclectic array of academics, pastors, activists, social workers and blue-collar churchgoers exchange season’s greetings, thank God for bringing us together, and ask them to look after a sick family member. Today’s reading is a tough one: Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature by John Bellamy Foster. Soon enough, discussion begins. There are knowing sighs at Marx condemning the conservative Christian idea that the world is a gift from God to interminably exploit. There’s also pushback: Should we readily agree with an avowed atheist who called religion a drug?
Then there’s another prayer, this time for the then-upcoming Chicago mayoral election — everyone hopes God is on Brandon Johnson’s side — and a statement of hope about the environment. And that wraps this meeting of the ecology reading group of the Institute for Christian Socialism — a name the political Right would locate somewhere between oxymoron and heresy.
The Institute for Christian Socialism (ICS), founded in the late 2010s by scholars and activists, is one of a growing number of left Christian organizations to emerge or be revived over the past decade, from radical Black churches to LGBTQ-affirming congregations. Stridently opposed to the right-wing approach to the Gospels, Christian leftists and socialists profess a radical faith centered on our duties to the least among us.
Conventional wisdom suggests all forms of socialism share a bedrock commitment to atheistic materialism, following Marx’s infamous description of religion as the “opiate of the masses.” Less remembered is that, in context, Marx suggests religion is something like medicinal: it’s “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” Many socialists agree with Marx’s dialectical take here, that one of religion’s major draws is how it makes sense of an unjust world. But to Christian socialists, religion isn’t merely consolation; it’s a profound call to action and good works.
The roots of Christian socialism are in scripture itself. While conservative Christians view humanity as radically fallen — thus requiring the steady hand of tradition and authority to curb evil — Christian socialists turn that theology into an injunction against the corrupting influence of political and economic power. For Christian socialists, the equality of souls under God obligates us to care for the marginalized and vulnerable while guarding against domination. When Jesus declared that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, or insisted that God stands with the “wretched of the earth” — the title of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial masterpiece — he laid the groundwork for Christian socialism.
Economic anthropologist Karl Polyani traces the roots of early “utopian” socialism to 17th-century Quakers, whose reading of scripture foregrounded equality and collective self-help. In the 19th and 20th centuries, forms of “ethical” Christian socialism and liberation theology flourished in Europe and Latin America. In the United States, Christian socialism has shaped the Left from the Civil War to Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party, from the civil rights movement to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The most influential U.S. Christian socialist, Martin Luther King Jr., combined his demands for racial equality and economic democracy with biblical moral authority — most notably in the mass anti-poverty crusade he was building when he was assassinated.
King’s legacy continues through intellectuals and activists like Angela Cowser and Cornel West, along with scores of communities and congregations, like Traci Blackmon’s United Church of Christ in Cleveland, preaching the social gospel.
Today’s DSA — the country’s largest socialist organization — includes a working group on religion and socialism. The Institute for Christian Socialism has numerous U.S. and Canadian “base societies,” which host groups focused on the Gospels’socialist message. The flagship ICS publication, Bias Magazine—like the Catholic left magazine Commonweal—provides a platform for Christian socialist discourse. In 2017, the Revs. Liz Theoharis and William J. Barber rebirthed King’s Poor People’s Campaign for the new millennium, organizing demonstrations in 40 states and Washington, D.C. There is even a new religious socialism podcast, Heart of a Heartless World.
For many liberals, Christianity’s image has been cemented as a fundamentally revanchist force. This June, for example, Donald Trump — who explicitly embraces white Christian nationalism — promised to enact an immigration ban “to keep foreign, Christian-hating communists, Marxists and socialists out of America” if re-elected. But left and socialist Christianity is finding enthusiastic participants among progressive believers who have long sought a home.
Just as there is no singular socialist movement, there is no singular “Christian socialism.” But its history proves that political religiosity has never been the sole province of conservatives. As the Right promotes new fusions of church and state, Christian socialism provides a much-needed corrective, reminding us that it’s the poor and the meek who inherit the earth.
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Matt McManus is a Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Political Right and Equality and The Emergence of Postmodernity amongst other books. Matt contributes to Jacobin and Current Affairs magazines.