Religion and the left

James Farmelant farmelantj at
Wed Jun 3 07:07:18 PDT 1998

I think that just about everybody here takes it for granted that secular leftists should be willing to work with religious believers on issues of peace or social justice. In fact the history of the American left indicates that such cooperation has long been the norm. If anything the left has too unwilling to voice criticisms of organized religions in the US. This is no doubt due to the perception that the US remains the most religious of any of the industrialized nations. Therefore, there is a fear of giving offence to religious believers who might otherwise be political allies. The religiosity that is characteristic of much of the American population is no doubt as has been suggested a reaction to the alienating aspects of American life. Yet it is also in many respects a real barrier to social change in the US. Michael Harrington once suggested in his book *The Politics at God's Funeral* that one reason why social democracy had greater success in Western Europe than in the US is that Western Europe is by and large much more secular than the US. Public opinion surveys in Western Europe find a much bigger chunk of the population there who profess to be atheists or agnostics than is the case here. As Harrington suggested people who think that they have only one life to live will probably (other things being equal) be more likely to fight for national health care than people who look forward to an afterlife. I think that the 'young' Marx's assertion that the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism still holds true today.

No doubt some people here will cite the examples of the liberation theologians in Latin America or the worker-priests in Europe to show that the churches can play a politically progressive role. And indeed these are good examples but a closer examination would show that in these instances the churches did not break with the status quo until there had been a strong challenge from the (secular) left.

Jim Farmelant

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