Religious Populism Today?

By Peter Laarman

The populism of the Right has plenty of religious friends. But what about the populism of the Left? Why is there no countervailing religious fervor on the side of revolution from below? 

My point of departure for posing this question was hearing Elizabeth Warren talk to Iowa voters in a spirited way about corruption, making sure her audience understood that she was talking about deep-seated moral rot and not just routine self-serving behavior on the part of the powerful. Shades of William Jennings Bryan's 1896 campaign, I thought, but without the evangelical tinge, let alone the explicitly Christian language, that Bryan brought to all of his speeches and most notably to his incandescent "Cross of Gold" speech in Chicago. 

I know why. Warren (and others on the political Left) don't and won't use explicitly religious language. That ship has sailed. Rather, the question that puzzles and vexes me is why so few U.S. faith leaders are stepping out and talking on their own about the astonishing degree of corruption and connivance that makes the lives of so many millions so miserable: that is, about the degradation of work, about the routine abuses and ripoffs perpetrated by Big Pharma and Big Tech (among others), about the total corporate capture of the machinery of government, and about the utter bankruptcy of the idea (propagated successfully by the Right for almost 50 years now) that the people will prosper when wealth flows upward rather than the other way around.

"Plantation capitalism" is the term that Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. uses to describe, with perfect accuracy, our economic arrangements. The New York Times has only now, in its "1619" series, caught up with Lawson's argument that the workings of our corporate state owe much to the "efficiencies" achieved by slave drivers in the 19th century. 

Both the prolonged labor crisis of the Gilded Age and the economic catastrophe of the 1930s that gave birth to industrial unionism featured a level of religious leadership that went way beyond the mere cheerleading variety. I recall that when I left a first-career job in the labor movement to train for the ministry, I was regaled with stories of how Liston Pope, a long-time dean of Yale Divinity School, had been deeply involved with the struggles of North Carolina textile workers in the 1930s, even converting his Ph.D. thesis on economics and religion into a widely-read book on the topic. By then, I had long appreciated the extent to which Social Gospel thinking among Protestants as well as the strong pro-worker ethic within American Catholicism were forged during the bitter labor struggles of the late 19th century. Forged during this same era, Reform Judaism from the very start combined a visionary view of social change with its rethinking of religious belief and practice. 

And although the impact of the white Social Gospel movement is now fairly well documented, Gary Dorrien’s recent work on the Black Social Gospel uncovers the critical role black church leaders played in challenging the racist core of the rule of wealth: a challenge incubated after the failure of Reconstruction, then greatly enhanced through the towering influence of W.E.B. Du Bois, and then carried forward in the mid-20th century through the witness of latter-day prophets like Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

And now? Yes, there’s the New Poor People's Campaign, and the growing ties between the Jewish Left and insurgent workers' movements in many cities, and efforts by Faith in Action (formerly the PICO national network) to link class exploitation and voter suppression to the legacy of slavery. 

All good, but none of it happening at significant scale or with significant intensity. Here I am talking about advancing a social critique that gets preached in pulpits and disseminated through small group study on a systematic basis. I am talking about marshaling denominational and ecumenical resources behind the nurturing of a truly countercultural religious force. Nothing of real note is going on at this level. It is as though most religious leaders don't quite understand that this moment really is "the final struggle" to take down not just The White Way of Thinking but also all of the deformities that this white way of thinking has left in its wake, our system of plantation capitalism most specifically. 

Humanity's survival depends on breaking the stranglehold of our form of toxic capitalism. Shouldn’t religious leaders be jumping at the chance to join in this fight? It’s at least a question worth asking.  

I know that the old populism was fraught with problems, nativism and anti-Semitism among them, and that a new populism can be equally susceptible to such garbage. We’ve seen what recycled right-wing populism has wrought, and it’s not pretty.  What’s more, we know that sophisticated believers these days can't simply declare that social justice is what God wills in the way that thunderers like Bryan could do without missing a beat. And then there is the perennial problem that plenty of the people in the pews just don’t want to hear a strong social justice message, which means that preaching jubilee can equal career suicide for clergy who don’t know how to navigate these shoals.

These are real problems. But instead of dwelling on the problems I’d like to see us focusing on the opportunity. I’d like to see more preachers recognize that talking about injustice doesn’t pollute sacred spaces with “politics” but rather renews such spaces by suffusing them in religious truth. After all, there is still plenty of power available by way of narrative theologizing because of the way in which texts taken to be sacred by Jews, Christians, and Muslims still hold up a revealing mirror to how corruption works: to how it worked in the 9th century BCE, how it worked in Jesus' time, how it worked in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and how it works today.

In particular, the sabbath-jubilee theme within the biblical testimony is as powerful as ever in linking undue power and wealth to the undue and ungodly capacity to exploit those who are weaker. Any honest engagement with our sacred traditions shows that God takes sides and that an economy governed by the ruthless rules of finance capitalism can never be mistaken for the basileia tou theou, the Reign of God. 

The resources for a powerful religious component in revolution from below are there. The message is there. What's missing is courageous messengers. And to quote an ancient rabble rouser, "[I]f the salt has lost its saltiness..."

Peter Laarman is a retired United Church of Christ minister based in Los Angeles. He remains active in projects addressing race, class, and religion. 

(Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner, "A Sermon from the High Pulpit." From the Tate Museum, under a Creative Commons license.)