Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Religion’s Impact on Politics

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In this episode of Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, Prof. Harvey considers the role of religion in various political movements with particular attention to the growth and impact of the Evangelical movement in the US today. Religion has often been at the center of political movements, with black churches during the civil rights movement and the Theology of Liberation in Latin America in the 1970s. Harvey explores these histories and considers the importance of theology in building and holding social movements together.  

Transcript has been edited for clarity

This is David Harvey and you're listening to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at Work.

You know, there's a story, which I encountered in many, many different places over the last 10 years or so, which says that when we look at the demographics of the United States and the future it looks very grim for Republicanism. It looks very rosy for Democrats. The argument is that the country is becoming more diverse. We'll very soon be a country where the minorities make up the majority and to the degree that the Republican Party relies upon basically a very white vote, this means that the natural majority here, electoral majority here in the United States is that of the Democrats because they've always catered to those [minority] populations. But, there’s something wrong with this story and I think we're in the process of seeing what is wrong with this story and let it unfold. I think the simplest way to think about what is wrong with the story is not to look at the United States but to look at the situation in Brazil.

Brazil is a rather conservative country in lots of ways and it's a very religious country historically the religion has been Catholicism but it's now become very much caught up with the evangelicals. About 20 years ago the evangelical population in Brazil was around I don't know seven or eight or maybe 10 percent. It's now around 40 percent. The Evangelical movement in Brazil has been fostered and financed and helped on its way by the evangelical interests in the United States. Now, there's an election coming up in Brazil. By the time this session will have reached the public, the election will be over or at least the first part of the election will be over. All the signs are that in spite of incredible unpopularity and incompetence and all the rest of it, that Bolsonaro may well come out of the election okay — which should be a bit of a surprise. Liberal media and this country finds it very hard to understand how and why that could be, but the answer is quite simply to see the evangelicals will vote in the solid block for Bolsonaro and they will vote against Lula and the return of the Workers’ party to political power. Now this situation I encountered firsthand when I was invited to Rio De Janeiro, maybe three years ago now, to participate in a political program which was focused on the Socialist party and the Socialist party candidate for mayor who was running to be a mayor of Rio de Janeiro. The idea was to hold seminars and symposiums and so on in order to try to bolster the left cause in general, and I was participating in that. But, all along I was basically told there's very little chance that we’re actually going to win this election because the leading candidate on the other side is evangelical and the evangelicals have the majority of the vote in the city. Now where does this evangelical thing come from and what is it about? I think we are about to see also the evangelical vote in the United States starting to dominate in some elections. In the forthcoming elections, I think it will be very strongly present and it may well even win against what should be some very strong odds against, it may win because as far as the evangelicals are concerned Trump is great and Trump deserves to win.

So the evangelical movement then … it's beginning to have a global presence and this raises then, something very important to me about what is the role of religious movements in politics? What's their relationship to capital accumulation and to what degree do we have to convert our attention and change our gaze in terms of who is the opposition? From a situation in which we are clearly against the sort of white nationalist groups or against the big business and big business interests and so on to recognize that what the real opponent has to be…is going to be the evangelical movement and the evangelical influence on politics.

Now this question of religion and politics…I'm very hesitant to talk about it but I have to talk about it. I'm going to talk about it entirely from the standpoint of my own experience within it. I'm not an expert. I haven't done a great historical reading and I’ve not done a great deal of thinking [on it]. I would never claim to be an expert but I had some experience and so out of that experience, I will relate some important facts.

When I came to this country in 1969, I came as a person who had no real interest in religion. I would not say I was an atheist because an atheist is too activist. I'd say I was agnostic. I just really wasn't really terribly interested in what was being said and therefore when I was coming to this country and I became politically engaged and I came at the end of the Anti-War movement but even more important in the closing years of what one might call the high point of the Civil Rights Movement. Now the first thing I had to do when I came to this country was to recognize that politics was very much more infected with religion here than it was in Britain. The Civil Rights Movement, which of course was startling in its intensity and also in its achievements in the 1960s was essentially anchored by the black churches. The church was very significant as a political force. I had to recognize this in Baltimore when I started to become active in politics in the city in 1970 or so, and that there were two sources of power in the city that were significant. One was the trade union movement and yeah, AFL CIO and the various unions — hospital workers union, garbage workers union all the rest of it. These unions were very, very significant and powerful and had a very strong effect. The other of course was the Civil Rights movement under the black churches where it's so effectively the strong organizational power.

Well, over the period in the 1980s, the labor movement was disempowered…was disempowered by de-industrialization…disempowered through offshoring, disempowered through technological change, and so in the end…by the time you get to the 1990s, there is only one organizational form which is at the center of maintenance of political power which is the churches. By the time you get to the 1990s, in Baltimore at least, it wasn't simply the Black Ministerial Alliance which had been so significant in the 1960s, but the inner city religious alliance which included Protestant churches have included Jewish communities and the like. If you wanted to get anything done in Baltimore in the 1980s you effectively had to negotiate through the churches and the politics of the churches were very, very clear and they were civil rights obviously but very fairly progressive but not necessarily progressive on social issues. The inner city church movement for example was not supportive of gay rights and the city council was not supportive of LGBTQ causes and only very late in the day did they start to recognize that they needed to take a progressive position on these matters. The religious side of this starts to become even more significant when we see exactly how politics and religion were matched together.

Now the other place in which I learned a great deal about the religious side of things was when I was in Central America and I spent a little time there in the 1970s at the time when the revolutionary movements in Latin America, and Central America were very, very strong. The FMLN in El Salvador, the Sandinistas of course…in Nicaragua. What then I learned was this tremendous power of the Catholic church in particular in relationship to these political movements and their political power attached to a certain angle of the Catholic church and particularly depended upon an option for the poor in which people were organizing and priests were organizing. Low-income communities and deprived communities were mobilizing in very clear ways to try to improve the social situation of their congregations. Now this was to me was a very remarkable thing that when you went to Nicaragua, for example, I spent a little time in Nicaragua and also in Costa Rica where the Nicaraguan Revolution was taking place, the Sandinista Revolution was taking place. In that process, I had the chance to meet and talk with some of the various people in the Catholic Church, particularly the priest called Ernesto Cardenal. Now, Ernesto Cardenal was a sort of a poet-theologian-priest. He set up a sort of communal organization on an island on Lake Nicaragua where people went to study and work with peasants and so on. It was a very, very…kind of Christian-based community philosophy and there was a lot of that going on in Central America at that time. Most of it was religiously inspired and the religion was of course the theology of liberation.

Now the theology of liberation was very, very strong in Latin America during these years and it was very strong actually, in general, and of course, the theology of liberation with activism as an option for the poor led to the formation of organized resistance to the systems of oppression on the land and systems of oppression in the cities which were remarkably present throughout the whole region. To me, this was a very significant thing. I would go to meetings in Baltimore which were sort of inspired by say, Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition movement. We'd always begin our movement with a prayer and I had to get used to the fact — that though I was not religious I was expected to hold hands with everybody else and engage in this prayer. In Latin America, again, a lot of the movement was, again, sort of inspired by religiosity and by religious organizations. The churches were a very significant part of this and the churches were very, very connected to political action. in Costa Rica, for example, I went to a commune where the priest and the local population had organized a rest center for the guerrilla fighters coming out of Nicaragua. They would sometimes come out wounded and needing care and they needed rest and that before going back into fight the fight in Nicaragua. In talking to the priest, I asked the kind of question, “Well you know this is a very organized thing here and you're obviously politically active. The population is with you.” The population was providing all of the services that needed to be provided … providing the food and healthcare and help and all that kind of thing and this is a very very progressive thing it was a Christian based Community as it were and the priest was at the head of it and I kind of said, “Well, you know, how do you get on with the hierarchy — the bishop and so on?” and in this case, the bishops were not terribly fond of what they were doing. He said something very interesting to me which I think was very prophetic. A very interesting thing was this — he said “Look, I don't need the bishops to do what I'm doing. I've got the support of the people. The people want to do this. I am very much with them. I try to come from guidance and we help and we work very well. I am more important to the bishops than the bishops are important to me because without me the bishops would not have the kind of popular base which they get from the kind of work that I'm doing here. So, when the bishops come down here and tell me to stop doing what I'm doing — I'm saying well if I stop doing what I'm doing you'll no longer have a base, a populist base. I’ve had that conversation a couple of times and they left me alone and said, ‘Oh well, basically you continue doing what you're doing.’”

Well, the theology of liberation was so strong in Central America that it sparked all kinds of attacks upon religious figures. Archbishop Romero in El Salvador got assassinated in his church and there were four American nuns who were murdered in El Salvador. The other thing that I learned while there was…and I had an opportunity to talk to one of the members of the junta that came into power in Nicaragua after the revolution had succeeded, Sergio Ramirez, a poet, and a literary figure who was [a member] of the junta and he said a couple of interesting and again, memorable things to me. He said, “You know it's interesting… many people here like to talk about globalization and they're thinking about ‘Oh my goodness, how do we organize against globalization?’ Well,” he said, “if you want a ready-made organization which is global in structure and which is capable of confronting globalization — you would go to the Jesuits.” He said nearly all of the people who were working in a lot of this revolutionary movement in Nicaragua came from a Jesuit background. “We, all of us, got our ideas about justice and so on in the Jesuit seminaries. That educational base gave an ideological base and a Christian base. if you like, to what it was we were doing.” That was, if you like, the situation in the 1970s.

Now, this became very much of a problem for the Catholic Church itself when Romero was assassinated. You would have expected the pope to have condemned it immediately but the pope basically said nothing. The big question was well, why not? It was partly because the pope was actually aging and not in very good shape and the theologian who was basically running the ideas section of the Vatican was Ratzinger. Now, Ratzinger was very, very conservative. He later became Pope Benedict and was terribly reactionary and right-wing. Benedict was very, very angry about all of this politicization going on throughout the Americas and the result of that was that he started to actually tell Jesuits. He called the Jesuits to Rome and basically forced them to recant and recount and get out of doing all of the sort of work they were doing so the Jesuit base was eroded. He also, at the same time, took over those people who are articulate in terms of voicing the option of the poor and the philosophy of theology of liberation … He took all of those and started to silence them. Cardinal Boff from Brazil was a very, very prominent person. He was basically sworn to silence for something like 20 years. Now, what this meant was that the theology of liberation, which had been very, very significant in Latin American politics all along, was basically curtailed by Ratzinger. There was a Jesuit who was a Democratic representative in Congress. Robert Drinan was his name, Father Drinan and then he was forced to leave and everybody was forced to leave what happened was that Ernesto Cardenal now who became culture minister in the Sandinista government was ordered to abandon his position. He refused and therefore he was subject to disciplinary action. What really happened was Ratzinger, right-wing Catholic, put an end to the field of the philosophy of the theology of liberation.

Now, look what this meant…it's interesting when you look at the Zapatista uprising in Mexico. There are lots of stories about indigenous communities using their indigenous cultural forms and configurations connecting with a sort of comandante who came from a sort of educated political background. Later on, research suggests, that the foundations for what these Zapatistas were doing were largely laid by priests who were caught up in the option for the poor and caught up with theology of liberation and that therefore this Zapatista movement and the Sandinista movement were all of them to some degree caught up in the theology of liberation. In Brazil, this landless peasant movement, the MST — which is one of the most powerful organizations to this day in political organizations in Brazil — was founded by Catholics and by Catholic priests. It has its origins, again this whole kind of arena. But then what happened as I've suggested was the Vatican thanks to Ratzinger decided to discipline all this and to stop it.… As they stopped it, so it created a vacuum…a vacuum as to who was going to speak for the people on the ground. In come the evangelicals…so in some ways the evangelical hegemony which is now threatening the dominance of the Catholic Church in Latin America…that hegemony is being challenged by the rising hegemony of the evangelical movements. Now, so we've got a situation in Latin America where suddenly the church wakes up after the disastrous reign of Benedict and Ratzinger as pope. Who do they appoint? A pope from Latin America.

Now take the significance of this…a pope from Latin America… and for a very simple reason… because in Latin America it was going evangelical big time, big way and they were desperate to try to maintain their base. It's like that priest who said to me, “The bishops need me more than I need the bishops.”They didn't understand that and basically, the bishops disciplined all of their base and the base went away and they lost their power at the base and they now have to face the fact that the evangelicals are as important, if not more important, in some parts of Latin America than that segment of the Catholic church which is inspired by the theology was inspired by the theology of liberation which is now effectively dead and gone.

This situation then, says look, the demographics — and we could do this worldwide but we also could do it very much inside the United States — yes, the demographics suggest that the Democrats ought to be hegemonic but they are not hegemonic because evangelical thinking is becoming hegemonic in the United States. Now, actually the biggest religious movement in the United States, it turns out, is not the evangelicals but it’s the agnostics like me and the agnostics and the atheists but we're disorganized. We have no church that we're going to…we’re not caught up in things. When I was in the Anti-War movement in Baltimore in the early 1970s at the center of it, were the Quakers. So, religion becomes very important and it's very important in terms of how the religion is organized and what the organizing principle is. Now, we have seen social movement after social movement emerge around the world but there's no organizing force at the center of it. Trade unions are not able to do it in most parts of the world. They still exist quite powerfully in some but in most parts of the world but the trade union movement and socialist movement is not very strong and in much of the world also the Evangelical movement is taking over.

But there is a need— and this is the important argument I want to make — there's a need to have within a political movement some notion of meaning…some notion of the meaning of existence, of life, and all the rest of it that makes for the importance of some sort of religious doctrine central to what politics can be about. I find it fascinating that when I found…very surprised… when I was in China to be in Nanjing and be told oh, they've rebuilt the Buddhist Chapel. Suddenly you realize that actually there was a revival of religion going on in China which is not Muslim, not Christian, not Falun Gong, and all the rest of it. It's actually Buddhism because Buddhism is the religion which is least actively political and it's most easily absorbed within the orbit of a Communist party and what the Communist party is about. So, the Communist party is actually helping re-establish Buddhism and Confucianism as part and parcel of its kind of background… it doesn’t say…it doesn't come out and say, oh we are all part of that but it tolerates that in ways it does not tolerate active Christian, active Muslim…religious movements. So, the role of religion then has been in my experience very, very significant politically and we have to take it seriously. Even though I'm not particularly religious, I respect very much what the religious people have done and what they can do — particularly theology of liberation. I think that it's not accidental that the leadership of the Poor People's movement in this country, in the United States is based in Reverend William Barber. The religious basis is very strong so I am very convinced that while demographics in this country are moving in ways that will support the Democratic program …. what we're seeing instead … is that the evangelical movement is becoming if you like, something else about what that demographic is believing in. The believing in the evangelical movement is becoming a very significant force in this country at this time and it has to be combated directly if we're going to actually…instead of us assuming that somehow rather the demographic movement is going to come in the Democrats’ favor and ultimately towards socialism.

No, we've got to deal with the evangelical movement and its embrace of white nationalism and white supremacy and all of those kinds of things. So the evangelical movement is now becoming a significant part of the problem and if this current election goes to Republicans, which I fear that is going to happen, it's going to be largely because of the evangelical influence.

If Lula does not get elected in Brazil, and Bolsonaro gets reelected in Brazil, it’s going to be because of the evangelical influence and therefore that then says this is a political task which has to be acknowledged, understood, and then worked for and worked against. Here, I think it's very important to say this is not being anti-religion. Religion has an important, extremely important role. In the same way that there are two wings of the Catholic church, at least, one of which was taken up with a theology of liberation. The other was Opus Dei … was extremely conservative and reactionary and pro-capitalist and pro-hierarchy and in that exactly the same way so evangelical non-conformist movements can be divided between say the continuation of the civil rights struggle through religious channels against the evangelicals and and so there are struggles going on in these areas which are becoming crucial politically to how things are going to work out as we move into this crazy next few years where we're likely to see politics upended in various ways. I see it being upended in this way both by the evangelicals that I’m talking about at this time but as I was talking about last time the fusion — increasing fusion of state and capital and to the point where authoritarian autocracy becomes if you like, the natural form of government which is going to come out of that fusion.

Thank you for joining me today. You've been listening to David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles a Democracy at Work production.

Transcript by Brendan Tait

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