The history of America’s religious left, with its utopian and collectivist ideals, can be traced back to the Pilgrims, who came to the New World and attempted to build a “new man” who would create heaven on earth. Plymouth colony’s investors, fearing that the colonists’ private greed might consume profits, played into this tendency by imposing an edict requiring the Pilgrims to abolish private property and to pool all of their resources. Under this arrangement, from 1620-23 the Pilgrims at Plymouth lived a desperate existence. In his book Of Plymouth Plantation, the longtime Plymouth governor William Bradford emphasized that communism was the principal cause of the colony’s early deprivations:
“For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.”
When Bradford, at that point, changed course and allocated tracts of land to Plymouth’s families for their own private use, he found that this move quickly and dramatically changed the colony’s fortunes, “ma[king] all hands very industrious.” Concluded Bradford: “The experience … may well evince the vanity and conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times, that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make the happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God.”
Notwithstanding the lessons of the Pilgrims’s early days, additional waves of religious socialists migrated to North America in the centuries to come, likewise attempting to found their utopias on such cherished principles as communal living, shared possessions, and the abolition of all distinctions between rich and poor. Most of these early Christian socialist societies were monastic rather than evangelistic; their primary concern was with their own salvation rather than with the conversion or salvation of all humanity. They had no desire to create mass movements.
The influence of the American utopian socialists of the early nineteenth-century was blunted by the emergence of the U.S. as a global colossus in the twentieth century, a development supported by organized religion until the social upheavals and reevaluations of the 1960s reawakened that dormant tradition.
The growing influence of leftism and socialism in the contemporary church has taken place in lockstep with the “god is dead” movement of the mid-20th century. As the scholar John J. Ray puts it, “This seems to be very much associated with the fact that there seems to have developed in the Western world in recent decades the curious phenomenon of the post-religious church,” typified by flexible doctrines of universal salvation coupled with a vagueness about what tenets of faith must be considered seminal or authoritative.
A watershed moment in this trend was the publication in 1963 of Honest to God by Church of England bishop John Robinson. Denying the notion that God actually existed as any sort of entity independent of the human imagination, this book identified the Deity simply, and amorphously, as “the ground of our being.” “From that point on,” writes Ray, “the phenomenon of the essentially Atheist Anglican became increasingly widespread.”
Today it is commonplace for Christian churches to offer a facility for worship and fellowship while making few, if any, claims to authority in matters of morality or theological doctrine. But if these churches tread lightly in their demands for personal morality, they are bold in offering political advice. Thus they promote, from the pulpit, various blends of doctrinaire leftism – in such forms as environmentalism, feminism, gay liberation, class identity, social justice, and redistribution of wealth. Moreover, church leaders commonly encourage their flock to engage in activism that promotes these leftist ideals.
In pursuit of redistributive social justice, the religious left has transformed Christ’s call for private charity into a divine mandate authorizing government officials to take affluent people’s resources and give them, in turn, to other people who are deemed more needy. Consequently, the constituents of the religious left have long tended to embrace Marxist and socialist ideals, most notably liberation theology.
Among the most prominent of the organizations that comprise the religious left is the New York City-based National Council of Churches (NCC), which has remained faithful to the legacy of its predecessor, the Communist front-group known as the Federal Council of Churches, which the NCC absorbed in 1950. In the Fifties and Sixties, under cover of charity, the NCC provided financial succor to the Communist regimes in Yugoslavia and Poland, funneling money to both through its relief agency, the Church World Service. In the Seventies, the Council gave financial support to Soviet-sponsored incursions into Africa, aiding the terrorist rampages of Communist guerrillas in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, and Angola. And in the Eighties, the NCC made common cause with the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Yet another of the NCC’s faith-based initiatives, promoted passionately to this day, is its support for Communist Cuba.
Pax Christi USA (PCUSA) is also a leader of the religious left in America. Dedicated to creating “a world that reflects the Peace of Christ by exploring, articulating, and witnessing to the call of Christian nonviolence,” PCUSA seeks to “transform” those “structures” of American society – most notably capitalism – that allegedly spawn racism, militarism, economic injustice, and international strife. PCUSA demonstrated its socialist leanings when it endorsed the Earth Charter, a document (written in 2000) that blames capitalism for many of the world’s environmental, social, and economic woes.
The Christian evangelical group Sojourners has long denounced American “imperialism” while extolling Marxist revolutionary movements in the Third World. In the 1980s, for instance, the Sojourners community actively embraced liberation theology – rallying to the cause of Communist regimes that had seized power with the promise of bringing about revolutionary restructuring of society. Particularly attractive to the ministry’s religious activists was the Sandinista regime that had taken control of Nicaragua in a 1979 revolution.
Witness For Peace, a Christian antiwar group founded by Sojourners, contends, in a spirit consistent with that of its parent group, that regional free trade harms workers because it eliminates “collective ownership.”
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is yet another major constituent of the religious left. As early as the 1930s, this organization refused to publicly criticize the Soviet Union but openly asserted that the foremost threat to world stability was the United States. In the 1970s, John McAuliffe, who then headed AFSC’s Indochina program, initially characterized the news of Cambodian massacres under the Communist rule of Pol Pot as an American “misinformation campaign,” and he lauded the new Cambodian regime as “the example of an alternative model of development and social organization.” AFSC also distributed a printed defense of the Khmer Rouge well after the genocide in Cambodia had been exposed. When McAuliffe and AFSC finally recognized the barbarities of Pol Pot’s regime, they placed the blame squarely on the United States.
This section of Discover The Networks examines the pro-socialist worldviews, objectives, and activities of these and many other key organizations that comprise the religious left.