DES MOINES, Iowa — “The word of God and communism are hand in hand,” said Diana Sowry, a school bus driver from Ashtabula County, Ohio. She was one of a group of clergy and lay people participating in a conference on religion sponsored by the Communist Party USA here April 15-16.

Sowry is a union activist and also active in her church, where she sings in the choir. She feels communists and others who are working to defeat the ultra-right and advance peace, social and economic justice, and socialism are “doing the work of the Word.”

The Rev. Scott Marks, from New Haven, Conn., said “people in the pews” cannot simply stick to “feel-good issues,” but must “be willing to go to the wall on the real issues.” Noting that attendance at soup kitchens is “piling up,” he said, “People full well know, no matter what happens in heaven, this morning I woke up hungry.”

Marks, son of a North Carolina sharecropper, is a Pentecostal minister who leads the Connecticut Center for a New Economy. For him this is doing “the real work” of Jesus. “It’s not pie in the sky when we die,” Marks told the World. “It’s how are we going to change things in the here and now.”

Conference sessions dealt with the history of religion and Marxism, the religious right, coalition building, and work in local churches and denominational and ecumenical groups.

In the session on work in local churches, the Rev. Gil Dawes, a retired volunteer pastor at Trinity Methodist Church here, emphasized that grassroots progressive religious activism has deep historical roots, and has to be re-energized today. “That’s where the right is way ahead of us,” he said.

Dawes, a second-generation Methodist minister, draws inspiration from the circuit-rider preachers who traveled through small towns and rural areas to teach a social gospel. He teaches Bible study classes with a materialist interpretation that lets ordinary people see how their problems are connected to larger political and economic forces.

“People are repressed about their own pain,” he said, “but when I choose a story that’s 3,000 years old, that’s far enough in the past. When I start to unravel that story, people break out of that repression.” They relate stories of farms lost and families shattered by hard times.

“People suffering will become leaders if they have a chance to put it together with other people,” Dawes said. This kind of Bible study helped turn one congregation from fundamentalist to one of the most progressive, he said.

In the session on Marx and religion, Paul Nelson, a Lutheran minister who teaches at a community college in Iowa, disputed the idea that Marx opposed all religion. What Marx denounced was an “illusory” form of religion that served as “ideological cover for the exercise of aristocratic economic and political power,” Nelson said. Like the reactionary state religion in 19th century Germany, today “we see religion twisted and turned and used to discipline people,” he said.

Right-wing Christian ideologues focus on the next world and individuals’ private relationships with Jesus, Nelson said. But progressive, “living” religion is based in human activity in “the world we know,” he argued. It sees the “kingdom of heaven” as something to strive for in the real world.

One participant, an industrial worker, spoke of how Americans are losing jobs and “deciding whether to pay for rent or food.” Noting “most people have some religion in their life,” he said clergy and lay people should address these “real world” issues and help bring progressive social change.

The discussion included plans for a workshop at the Communist Party’s national convention in Chicago, July 1-3. Many participants expressed interest in the formation of an ongoing party commission on religious work encompassing all faiths. Its activities could include initiating a national newsletter of social activism and left politics in religious communities, and a web site with tools for progressive religious activists.

Participants came from seven states ranging from New England to California. They included people who are active in interfaith social justice work and others interested in combining religious belief and communist activism. It was the first time in attendees’ memory that the Communist Party had initiated such a discussion.

The spirit of enthusiasm and comradeship was stoked by home-cooked meals and singing led by the Rev. David Carl Olson, minister of the Community Church of Boston and also a musical theater artist.


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.