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

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.