The Christian Left's Vision (Remember Woody Guthrie?)

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Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

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Since the election of 2004, the mainstream media have emphasized the role of the religious right in providing the margin of victory for President Bush. In exchange for its political support, conservative Christians expect the Bush administration to advance especially the selection of judges to their liking, meaning judges who oppose gay marriage and abortion. With this focus upon social issues, the religious right makes common cause with conservative Republicans whose economic programs do little for working-class Christians. This right-wing scenario, however, fails to accurately reflect the more complicated role played by religion in American politics. The legacy of Christian activism in the political arena is rich with examples of social justice ranging from the Great Awakening to the Social Gospel movement. This summer, as we celebrate what would be the 93rd birthday of Woody Guthrie, it is worth remembering the tradition of Christian socialism in this country epitomized in the life and music of the Oklahoman.

Guthrie’s perception of humanity and political ideas were grounded in an agrarian legacy of protest in Oklahoma, where a strong Socialist Party operated before the First World War, along with a Christian tradition that Jesus was the champion of the poor and meek, who would inherit the earth and drive the money changers out of the temple.

The Socialist Party under the leadership of Eugene Debs used the region’s populist tradition to foster a following in the American Southwest. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the class conflict between city and country was exacerbated by growing farm tenancy and absentee landlordism. Combining with militant industrial unions of timber workers and miners, the Socialist Party in the Southwest appealed to exploited workers and farmers. The threat posed by socialism to the established political and economic order in Oklahoma was neutralized during World War I. Mainstream politicians as well as vigilante groups used the Socialist Party’s opposition to the war as an excuse to suppress this leftist alternative.

The Socialist Party in the Southwest, however, did not champion a materialistic atheism. Instead, the socialist tradition in states such as Oklahoma embraced millennial Christianity in which the meek would inherit the earth. Thus, the Socialist Party did well in areas where such Pentecostal groups as the Church of Christ enjoyed popular support, representing a primitive Christianity of the oppressed with its roots in the Great Awakening.

While he never attended church on a regular basis, Guthrie was a product of this culture. He was baptized into the Church of Christ, while reading and quoting frequently from the Bible. When asked to name the people he most admired, Guthrie quickly replied, “Will Rogers and Jesus Christ.” Perceiving Jesus as a socialist outlaw, in songs such as “They Laid Jesus Christ in his Grave,” Guthrie described Jesus as a common working-class carpenter, who championed the rights of the common people and was betrayed by the rich and their selfish interests.

Guthrie placed little faith in organized religion, and, undoubtedly, he would not know what to make of today’s lucrative mega churches. Instead, he believed in the millennial return of the working-class carpenter, who would bring peace, equality, and justice to the world. The folksinger envisioned an earthly paradise in which, “Should the Master appear again on earth, that he would take a look at the churches, a look at the sinners, and associate himself at once with the sinners, as He did before.”

Guthrie failed to perceive his Christianity as inconsistent with his sympathy for the Communist Party. To the folk singer, communism was nothing more than the support for the common people preached by Jesus. In one of his voluminous journals, Guthrie wrote, “When there shall be no want among you, because you’ll own everything in common. When the Rich will give their goods into the poor. I believe in this way. I just can’t believe in any other way. This is the Christian way and it is already on a big part of the earth and it will come. To own everything in common. That’s what the Bible says Common means. All of us. This is pure old ‘commonism.”

Those on the Christian right, who would like to make their case for influencing social policy based upon a strong Christian tradition in this country, might do well to remember the words of Woody Guthrie and that the history of Christianity in the United States, going back to the colonial period challenge of the Great Awakening to the Anglican hierarchy, is a contested past. There is a rich history of Christian social justice which has little to do with such issues as gay marriage and abortion.

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Thomas Whiteside - 8/29/2007

I know im 2 years behind here but i am troubled by Frederick Thomas' asserstions that Woody was not a christian, purely on fatcual grounds.

I have read or heard, possibly hrough comments by pete Seeger, that while Guthrie was very much a socialist/influenced by socialism, and was even associated with various communist parties, however he never ever joined any communist party, as most parties only allowed entry to those who also left disconnected themselves from religion. He felt he could personally could not do this, and that religion was a person choice, and should not be dictated by politics.

Interesting don't you think?

cheers Thomas Whiteside , Australia

Frederick Thomas - 8/12/2005

Thank you for a well-reasoned and enjoyable post. Perhaps the HNN goal of engagement is actually working.

I still think that WG was a real communist, though possibly without knowing that as he sought material improvements for dust bowl refugees, the Ukranian Farm Collectivization (10 million dead,) the Yashov terror (6 million dead), etc were showing its true face in the USSR.

According to a recent Nation article, Woody said:

"I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life."

The sympathetic article further says:

"Woody arrived at his social conscience organically, over a period of years... Socialism made a lot of sense in the Great Depression.

"Capitalism had, after all, essentially collapsed (sic) and wasn't showing any significant signs of reviving in Pampa, Texas, where Woody spent his late adolescence.

"He became the living embodiment of everything a people's revolution is supposed to be about: that working people have dignity, intelligence and value above and beyond the market's demand for their labor."

These comments are from a very left-friendly source.

I have no doubt that WG was sincere-just the type of fool who was first to be butchered when the "worker's paradise" was implemented in the Soviet Union.

I thank you again for your comments.

John Chapman - 8/12/2005

Although your response and instruction is appreciated and is interesting in itself it doesn’t really address the simple issue I brought up: the fact that you decided to presume WG was "surely" no Christian based on facts that focus only on his being "a pretty good Socialist", which is your entitled opinion, but you left out, or forgot about in your final judgment, the rest of this multifaceted man who was an avid anti-facist and who served in the Merchant Marine and the US Army. He was honest, humorous and witty and he believed in social, political and spiritual justice. He was no slacker, or sissy, but a real American who stung with his opinions. The sum total of his life doesn’t add up to entitle him to be labeled as a communist either. The other point is it doesn’t really matter whether he was a Christian or not. "Surely Guthrie was no Christian, though he was a pretty good Socialist or Communist ("this land is your land..."). " Generally, I find your comments quite interesting on this site but this was the one "silly assertion" that made me react to your post. Implying "this land is your land" with something sinister like Russian style communism seems to reveal your prejudice against the man (due to maybe your personal philosophy) . WG, the Okie from Oklahoma, made it simply an expression of a deep love for one’s country. And even if WG had been a true communist, which I don’t believe, it wouldn’t have been because he didn’t love his country. In his Steinbeckian wisdom, he absorbed all things in his hard life especially where he experienced hatred and antagonism from resident Californians who had opposed the influx of outsiders. His identification with outsider status became part of his political and social positioning and near the end of his life, like most people, he was looking for his own peace - personal philosophies modify, change, so only God can know what he was before he died. I recommend reading, or re-reading, his semi-autobiographical novel of his Dust Bowl years, Bound for Glory.

Frederick Thomas - 8/11/2005

Mr. Chapman:

I was a big fan of Colin during his life, on the off chance you are any relation.

Your specific points:

"You have sat in judgment and decided Guthrie was no Christian. Define Christian?"

The most widely observed definition of a Christian is one who believes that Christ is the Son of God. WG did not, at least did not say so, though he often said that Christ was a common laborer, who like others was punished for his anti-establishment activities. Marx considered religion the opiate of the masses. It appears that WG followed KM, ergo a conclusion that WG was no Christian.

"However, according to any standard version of the Bible, Christ would be very specific in his criterion about what a Christian is."

Actually Christ was not specific, in any standard version of any bible, though you may think so. He was actually vague about it.

What he did do, according to the gospels, was to make his apostles "official," give them the power to forgive sins, etc., give them a prayer, and outline what constitutes virtuous behavior, beginning with "Do unto others..."

In terms of what constitutes a "Christian", Christ never even used the word.

"Today, Jesus, would probably be concerned about American Christian behavior - a flavor today that favors the death penalty, no wall between church and state, and a patriotism twisted into ugly prejudice against cultures not in step with ours."

This is one of the silliest assertions I have read on HNN. Give any example of American Christianity in any of its many manifestations promoting these concepts. One will do, but please do NOT return with some loaded racist anti-Christian hyperbole by the likes of Al Franken.

"As the original "communist" (another word that needs to be redefined so all understand it also in a positive way) Jesus might find your version unacceptable."

Inadvertently, you stumbled onto something interesting here, but unfortunately went nowhere with it.

Many Christian communities incorporate economic cooperation into their belief systems, notably Amish, Anabaptists, Mennonites, etc but NONE practice communism or communal ownership dictated by a bureau.

The only historical analogy to what you assert here is the Dolcinean heresy of N Italy in the 14th century, in which Fra Dolcino rounded up as many n'er-do-wells as he could find, told them they could kill as many well-to-dos as they could find, and steal all of their property, which they did until the authorities caught up with them, and burnt them.

Dolcino himself, known for his harem of former nuns he had seduced, and the length of his schwanz, was kept alive long enough to see it removed. By the end, even Dolcino made no pretense of being Christian.

During the past century, "Communists" by their own nomenclature, murdered 103 million of their own citizens, workers etc. ("Murder by Government", appendix) in the name of communism.

Two of these dead were the Cambodian teen-aged sisters of a close friend, who were dispatched with pick axes for refusing the advances of a commissar. At the time, my friend was a little too young to be of interest to the "vanguard of the proletariat". That's the real face of "communism."

If I may be so bold, you may have a hard time convincing many that the term "communism" needs now to be sanitized. Excoriated is more likely.

Thank you for your comments.

John Chapman - 8/10/2005

Mr. Thomas,

"Surely Guthrie was no Christian, though he was a pretty good Socialist or Communist ("this land is your land..."). "

You have sat in judgment and decided Guthrie was no Christian. Define Christian? Or rather, what definition of Christian identity in America are you talking about here? It differs all over the world where people absorb lessons in their own churches and transform those lessons into their politics. Your definition will "surely" be different than others. However, according to any standard version of the Bible, Christ would be very specific in his criterion about what a Christian is. Today, Jesus, would probably be concerned about American Christian behavior - a flavor today that favors the death penalty, no wall between church and state, and a patriotism twisted into ugly prejudice against cultures not in step with ours. As the original "communist" (another word that needs to be redefined so all understand it also in a positive way) Jesus might find your version unacceptable.

christopher noel pitts - 8/8/2005

Since Guthrie heralds from my neck of the woods, I thought I'd briefly comment on this article.
In Oklahoma, there is a church on every corner and a large constituency of registered Democrats that elect Republican officials based upon their stance on "moral issues." We support war, our troops, and spreading democracy like a disease around the face of the earth. We love oil and business, but we are relatively low income and find it difficult to pay those increasing gas prices or continue education through or past high school. Our political commentators tell us that tax cuts are good and regulation against business is bad. Our church leaders (save a few Methodist branches) condemn homosexuality, Islam, and often, the rights of women in all areas sans the home. We will never elect a female president, nor will we learn to respect or at least understand non-whites and non-Christians. Remember the whole "Compassionate Conservative" idea that sprang from the elections? Well not here.

We want people in power that we can relate to, yet we campaign for wealthy draft-dodgers who work on a ranch for fun, not a living. We value militaristic presidents but turn on them when our children die. I long for the values of Woody Guthrie, though they need not be intrinsically linked with Christianity. The values can be represented therein, but we can easily leave Jesus out, but not in a Red State. Jesus, the ultimate hippie, wanted a land of equality and forgiveness, yet we value the rich and invade nations that do not support us. So here's for Jesus, the first Communist.

Frederick Thomas - 8/8/2005

Mr. Briley:

Thank you for your contribution, but I have issues with it.

Surely Guthrie was no Christian, though he was a pretty good Socialist or Communist ("this land is your land...").

Thank you for mentioning that he never attended church, but I could also point out that his characterization of Christ as merely another powerless laborer denies the divinity of Christ, without which Christianity does not exist. One gets the impression that anyone but Woody as diety would be unacceptable to him.

You also mention but do not draw any conclusions about communally oriented religious movements, which could have given your thesis a little support, but then Amishman Helmut Schlapp is less sexy than show-biz personality Woody Guthrie Inc.

Choosing non-Christian Woody as the central figure, and ignoring the important truly communal and cooperative Christian movements mean that your thesis fails to convince. Too bad, it was not a bad idea.