Seven Signs You May Be a Religious Socialist

By Fran Quigley

Do you have friends or family who share your religious beliefs and your values, yet retreat from the term “socialist”? This article by a Religious Socialism contributor, citing several other Religious Socialism activists, is designed to be shared with doubters. They may discover they are on our team after all.

One: You See U.S. Socialism on the Rise

In the entire history of the United States, the prospects for socialism have never been better than they are today. A majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 now say they prefer socialism over capitalism. A majority of U.S. women aged 18 to 54 would rather live in a socialist country. You noticed that this support helped Bernie Sanders win more votes in 2020 than any socialist presidential candidate ever has, and led many other candidates to promise to pursue socialist policies.

Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), founded by former Catholic Worker Michael Harrington, has swelled from 5,000 members in 2015 to over 70,000 now. The DSA’s ranks include elected officials like U.S. Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. The Religion and Socialism Working Group, founded by devout Roman Catholic John Cort back in 1974, thrives. A volunteer team from diverse faith backgrounds publishes weekly articles and produces monthly podcasts featuring religious socialists, now supplemented with a series of webinars.

Democratic socialists aim for long-term, systemic change. (More on this in Sign Six!) Seventh-generation reform efforts are important. But there are people suffering in our communities today, and elections coming up where we will choose who will respond to that suffering. So, you appreciate that DSA was founded on a commitment to being “the left wing of the possible.”  For now, at least, that means working within the Democrat party and not creating a third party that would struggle for impact in our U.S. electoral system.

Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and other socialists running and winning as Democrats prove the approach is working. You know the Democrat party desperately needs this progressive push. Without it, candidates looking to raise campaign dollars are tempted to adopt the agendas of the deep-pocketed pharma, insurance, fossil fuel and banking industries.  

Two: You Know Our U.S. System is Broken

Our greed-soaked capitalist system is not just hurting Americans: it is killing Americans. That has never been more obvious than in this time of pandemic, when corporations in desperate profit-seeking mode are forcing low-wage workers to expose themselves and their families to COVID infection. To those of us who have seen up-close the suffering and death caused by profiteering health insurance and pharmaceutical corporations, this comes as no surprise.    

The U.S. is one of the wealthiest nations in human history, yet with far higher poverty rates than similar countries. You see that disparity when health insurance company CEO’s make as much as $83 million per year while tens of millions of Americans go without healthcare. You see it when the richest Americans own multiple homes, some worth as much as a quarter-billion dollars, while half a million Americans are homeless.  Three American men own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the nation’s population combined. At the same time, one of every six children in America—12 million overall--live below the poverty line.

Every faith tradition condemns this state of affairs. So does socialism. These faith traditions and socialism prescribe the same, straightforward remedy: all humans have the human right to the necessities of life, and we have an obligation to fulfill that right.

Note the word “right.” The capitalist U.S. system has survived its conflict with religious principles in significant part by pretending to care about the suffering of the poor. Yet we reject the recognition of enforceable rights that would alleviate that suffering.

How is that tricky balancing act performed? By promising the U.S. public that the fortunate few will extend their charity to meet all the needs of the poor. That way, massive concentrations of wealth are not so outrageous. 

You are well aware that this promise is a lie, demonstrated by the millions of American children going hungry while plutocrats luxuriate poolside at their third homes. But the false narrative persists, likely because it is so comforting to all of us who are not poor.

In her book Sweet Charity?, the sociologist Janet Poppendieck concludes that the American attention to charity relieves the pressure for more fundamental solutions. Charity, she writes, acts as a “moral safety valve.” It turns out that charity is not very effective at alleviating injustice, but it is quite good at relieving our sense of outrage about it.

The replacement for our broken capitalist system—including Medicare for All, guaranteed basic income, a medicines system that bypasses price-gouging—won’t be perfect. But you know it will be better. Its core function will be to provide services to all, not profits to a few. And it will be democratic, meaning that its ultimate accountability will be to we the people, not those poolside wealthy shareholders.

Three: Your Faith Tradition Demands Better

In recent published conversations with socialists across all major U.S. faith traditions, they agreed to a person that hit-and-miss private charity is no substitute for a public system that treats basic needs as human rights.

American Muslims like Lamise Shawahin described Islam’s wealth redistribution system of zakat. She explained that Islam’s prohibitions against hoarding, and requirement that natural resources be equally available to all make her faith deeply socialist. DSA activists Rabbi Michael Feinberg and David Green explained how the Jewish tradition of tzedakah creates rights for those who struggle for healthcare and housing. Jairav Desai showed how the Buddhist concept of interdependence translates into a mutual obligation of care.

And multiple Christian socialists have insisted that Jesus’ teachings mean, as St. Gregory said, “When we furnish the destitute with any necessity we render them what is theirs, not bestow on them what is ours. We pay the debt of justice rather than perform the works of mercy.”

The signs of the unemployed who marched during the Great Depression read, “Damn your charity—we want justice.” Your faith tradition makes the same demand, with every bit as much passion. The response to that demand is socialism.

Four: You Realize that Socialism is Faith in Action

Eugene Debs, the five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate and labor leader, famously said, “Socialism is Christianity in action.” The philosopher Richard Rorty concluded that the term “Christian Socialism” is a redundancy. That conclusion could just as readily apply to Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. 

In Christianity, for example, socialism is precisely as old as the faith itself. “All the believers were together and had everything in common,” we are told in the Acts of the Apostles. “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” Those earliest Christians were also deeply familiar with the Hebrew Bible’s many mandates to redistribute wealth. That scripture reflected the law of the Hebrew communities, carried out in the Sabbath and Jubilee years of debt forgiveness and free access to harvests.

Philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart is a Christian socialist and DSA member. Hart wrote in the Catholic magazine Commonweal earlier this year, “I honestly cannot imagine how anyone who takes the teachings of Christ seriously, and who is willing to listen to those teachings with a good will and an open mind, can fail to see that in the late modern world something like such socialism is the only possible way of embodying Christian love in concrete political practices.”

Journalist and DSA activist Colleen Shaddox is even more blunt about it. “If you hate that I’m a socialist and that I want everyone to have their basic needs met, then you need to hate that I’m a Catholic, too,” she says. “Because they are of a piece.”

 Five: You Recognize that Socialism is not Soviet-Style Communism

Associating democratic socialism with Iron Curtain communism is like associating democracy with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The USSR’s name belied the fact that it was a murderous, corrupt regime that largely did the opposite of democratic socialism: it enriched a few and disenfranchised many. When we think of democratic socialism, we should think of Sweden, not East Germany. We should look to Bolivia, not Venezuela. Polls show that young Americans, who were never subject to Cold War rhetoric, already understand that socialism is peaceful and democratic.

That is even more true for religious socialism, which has a long tradition dating back to long before Karl Marx ever put pen to paper. That tradition included a 19th century Anglican clergy-led socialist movement in England, preceded by a French movement so Catholic-connected that priests were known to drink toasts to “Jesus of Nazareth, the father of socialism.”  In the U.S., Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch, Episcopalian Vida Dutton Scudder, and a multitude of African American clergy and civil rights leaders like Benjamin Mays and A. Philip Randolph were among several generations of religious socialists.  

They agreed with Marx’s ground-breaking analysis of the way economic structures dominate all aspects of societies. They agreed with his description of the devastating impact capitalism wreaks on working people. But they parted ways when it came to Marx’s antipathy to religion. And they rejected Marx’s predicted path to political change. For religious socialists, the instrument of reform is the ballot box, not the bullet.

That approach works. Consider the many nations comparable to the U.S. where socialist advocacy within the democratic process has vastly improved lives. These countries, particularly in western and northern Europe, have universal healthcare, progressive taxation, and comprehensive social services that assure safe housing and a minimum income. Compared to the U.S., life there is far closer to the kingdom of God on earth.  

But we can catch up. You know that socialism is far from un-American. You know the U.S. has already embraced socialism by removing from the for-profit system most of our public safety and transit services, infrastructure like roads, water, and sewage systems, and our primary and secondary schools, along with our libraries and parks. Our subsidies for private home purchases and public works programs are often massive, including the federal highway project led by a Republican president (Eisenhower) where we spent over $100 billion of government dollars and seized more acres of private property than are in the entire state of Delaware.

And we would already be quite a bit more socialist if we had followed through with Franklin Roosevelt’s plan for a post-World War II Economic Bill of Rights. As FDR knew, if we stop wasting our money on gargantuan military spending and relentless tax breaks for the wealthy, we can patch up our existing-but-tattered safety net of programs like Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP (Food Stamps), and housing and child care support.

A socialist commitment to meeting core human needs does not mean Americans cannot own personal property or a home, of course. And there would still be for-profit markets in nonessential items and luxury goods.

Different socialists have different views on what the details should look like—just see the many variations among Scandinavian and South American democratic socialist nations. But, beyond the differences, there is a core commitment, as the DSA explains:  “Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few.”  

Six: You Know it is Time for Systemic Change

Colleen Shaddox recalls how she came to consider herself a socialist. Her son had joined DSA and urged her to do the same. It was time, he said, for her to put a name on what she had always believed and what her faith principles called for. “I thought about it, and realized he was right,” she says.

My own experience was similar. By calling myself a socialist, I have not changed any of my political or social beliefs. I have long supported universal social programs for basic needs, progressive taxation, deep cuts in military spending, guaranteed income, and ending the for-profit distortions of our healthcare system. If you believe the same, and your beliefs arise from your faith, you may already be a religious socialist.

So why not just be a liberal Democrat, and avoid the term socialist? The best answer is because liberal Democrats are too often content to rotate the tires on a car that has spent decades in the junkyard. (Socialist Methodist minister and Berkeley, California mayor J. Stitt Wilson put it less charitably over a century ago: The Democrat Party, he said, was a “weasel that sucks the meat out of every reform egg which the people bring forth.”)

Today, many Democrats ignore the success of single-payer programs in other nations and instead push for a “public option” healthcare program that retains for-profit health insurance. And they regularly trot out sets of proposed regulations, hoping to rein in the abuses of capitalist pharmaceutical companies or for-profit schools. 

But you know your history. You know that, when we leave profiteering industries in place, they will eventually use their money and influence to dismantle well-meaning reforms. For example, Democrats cheered when they passed the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, considered to be the most sweeping banking regulatory legislation since the 1930’s. The response from the financial industry’s chief lobbyist? “Halftime,” he shrugged.

Sure enough, an industry left in place with abundant wealth and a deep profit motivation to resist reform has deployed tens of millions of dollars in lobbying, lawyering, and campaign donations to block many of the law’s most impactful intentions. We have seen the same neutering of well-intended regulations to control pharma and fossil fuel corporations.  

You see that we need a full reboot. We need to address healthcare, housing, policing, wages, and social security not with isolated projects for incremental reforms, but with a system overhaul. These changes are inseparable ingredients in the recipe for a better life for all Americans. The name of that recipe is socialism.

A more poetic description of that better life we aim for is “the beloved community.” That is how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who often privately identified as socialist,  described it. Dr. King found his inspiration for that vision in scripture, of course, but he borrowed the specific beloved community term from socialist Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch. When we call our vision for the future socialism, we give it both focus and breadth.

Seven: You See that Religion Helps Socialism

George Washington Woodbey was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1854. He grew up to become a Baptist minister and, like most African Americans of his era, was loyal to the Republican party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Then, after careful study and listening to the speeches of Eugene V. Debs, Woodbey switched his allegiance to the Socialist Party.

He was an immediate force. Woodbey moved to California and began delivering speeches about socialism to packed rented halls, churches, and even to throngs of people gathered around his street-corner soapbox. Woodbey soon became known as “The Great Negro Socialist Orator,” was appointed pastor of a large church in San Diego, and published a well-received pamphlet, The Bible and Socialism.

Woodbey’s faith-based advocacy is part of a long socialist legacy, and the message he and his colleagues delivered still resonates. Even though there has been a decline in U.S. attendance at organized religious services, Americans are far more religious than adults in similar nations. More than seven in 10 Americans still say religion is important to them.  

Those religions feature holy scriptures that deliver distinctly socialist messages, messages that reject the greed-based ethics that dominate our nation today. When it comes to making change happen, those moral messages can be powerful. Reverend Woodbey realized that.  

“Socialists cannot win without reaching the millions of working people who belong to various churches of the country,” he wrote in the newspaper Christian Socialist in 1915.

Reverend Woodbey was right in 1915, and he is right today. Let us know if you want to be a part of the team working to make change happen.


Photo by Liz MC, CCA 2.0