“This feels a lot like church,” I thought. It was 2017, and I was seated with a hundred other people for a Brooklyn chapter meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Like many of those who have joined DSA recently, I came of age during the Occupy protests, was inspired by Bernie Sanders, and was galvanized into action with the election of Donald Trump.
Toward the end of the gathering, people—who were mostly under 35 with a handful over 60—passed around lyrics sheets so we could sing, “Solidarity Forever,” a popular trade union anthem. It was my first time experiencing collective singing outside of church, and it felt familiar, from the loudly exuberant singers to the masses of people awkwardly fumbling with a new tune. At the end, discussion groups were announced: DSA wanted people to gather in apartments to read foundational texts and histories of people around the world whom we were supposed to feel connected to as one global proletariat.
I’ve been in church all my life, growing up in a conservative Pentecostal church network in Malaysia, hopping around Thai immigrant churches in California, and now working at a multi-racial, progressive church in Brooklyn. I’ve spent countless hours studying the Bible—our foundational text—with others in people’s apartments, and learning historical stories of saints with whom we felt connected to as the collective body of Christ. Church made me feel connected to something much larger and older than myself. For the first time in that DSA meeting, I saw that what church did for me, radical politics might do for others.
American Christianity has often had a decidedly capitalist bent, but there is a long history between Christianity and socialist movements. Over the past three years, some American Christians have rediscovered this tradition and found themselves gravitating to socialism—in all its varieties, from democratic socialism to full-fledged communism. Since the inauguration of Trump, new podcasts, such as “Faith and Capital” and “The Magnificast,” and organizing networks, such as Institute for Christian Socialism, Christians for Socialism, and Friendly Fire Collective, have sprung up, dedicated to Christianity and anti-capitalism. This year, both America and Sojourners magazines have published articles such as “The Catholic Case for Communism” and the “The Biblical Values of AOC’s Democratic Socialism”—with AOC referring to Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who identifies as a democratic socialist.
Gary Dorrien, a professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, says, “The revival is a Christian flank of the current upsurge for democratic socialism, which is a belated reaction to 40 years of neoliberal globalization and letting the financial class and corporations do whatever they want.”
Dorrien has a forthcoming book on the American democratic socialist tradition. He points out that Christian democratic socialism is certainly not new; his most recent book on social democracy details how it originated in Britain during the late 1840s, anchored in a cooperative understanding of society. Unlike Marxists of their age, many British and American democratic socialists were equally committed to anti-imperialism, feminism, and anti-racism, and as a result, according to Dorrien, were often accused of fitting their socialist politics to their religious ethics. Their faith was primary, and their politics secondary.
According to Robert Bosco, associate professor of international studies at Centre College, the first modern American Christian socialist movement was the Christian labor movement, founded in 1872 by a Congregationalist minister, which published the first Christian socialist periodical. A hundred years later, John Cort, a Catholic journalist who worked with activist and author Dorothy Day, founded the Religion and Socialism Commission, a branch of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSA’s predecessor), which was committed to working within the Democratic Party. Its now-defunct quarterly newsletter featured articles by public intellectuals and theologians like Harvey Cox, Cornel West, and Dorothy Solle. Since then, the Commission—now the Religious Socialism Working Group—has experienced a revival of interest and now has an online blog, a podcast, and 600-plus people of various faiths, including me, on their mailing list.
I knew my own story of politicization, but I was curious about my fellow Christian peers today. In a time in which the religious right has been on the rise for the past several decades, what motivated them to become not just liberals, but leftist socialists? What parallels and differences—both good and bad—did they observe between socialist and Christian spaces?
DEAN DETTLOFF, 29, AND MATT BERNICO, 31, are Christian communist co-hosts of The Magnificast, a weekly podcast for “Christianity and leftist politics,” which averages a few thousand listens per episode. Bernico is a digital organizer for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and an independent academic researcher, while Dettloff is completing his Ph.D. at the Institute for Christian Studies and reporting for America Magazine. Bernico grew up as an evangelical within the Church of Nazarene; Dettloff was born and confirmed as a Catholic, but joined an evangelical youth group in his teens. For both of them, their evangelical experiences pushed them to take the Bible seriously and read it literally—which meant they ended up concluding that being a Christian meant caring about the poor and distrusting the state (which, after all, killed Jesus). They met on Reddit, where they found kindred folks who were also interested in radical expressions of the Christian faith. Dettloff now identifies as a communist Catholic, and Bernico as a communist Episcopalian.
They decided to start a podcast together in 2017 as an “excuse to hang out together.” The launch of their podcast happened to coincide shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Based on the emails they receive and their social media followers, they speculate that most of their listeners are progressive Christians who have been activated by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns, who want to understand the socialist landscape, and who are “sorting out what it means to be Christian in 2016” and after.
Many Christian DSA members whom I interviewed did point to the election of Trump in 2016 as a significant turning point. The Rev. Lindsey Joyce, a United Methodist minister who pastors United Church of Rogers Park in Chicago, said, “Like a lot of liberal white people, Trump’s election broke something in me. It shattered this vision of all the ‘progress’ our country had made and my husband and I felt we needed to do something, but we weren’t sure what.”
Joyce, 32, and her husband turned to DSA because it seemed to be “the only group offering a vision other than utter despair or paltry electoral bullshit.” Joyce grew up in Evanston, a “liberal, wealthy suburb,” where doing good meant “being an individually good person” and “trying not to hurt or offend people” as an ally. This liberal narrative did not help her make sense of Trump, nor did it make sense of the pain and suffering in her pews and her city, Chicago, which has been run for decades by the liberal Democratic party. What drew her to DSA was its emphasis on collective solidarity with those who were most oppressed, which was a far cry from the individualistic ally-ship model of her upbringing.
“Socialism gave me a politics that finally provided clarity around faith and a Christian vocation. It wasn’t about my individualistic faith or spiritual gifts,” she said. “The Christian vocation is a communal vocation of solidarity. Jesus was always on the side of the oppressed, and so we should be also.”
Citing a famous passage in the Bible on how the church is like a body made up of different parts, she added, “The gospel is about living like we are one body. That’s where the liberal Christian project failed me because that was optional. We understood [the body of Christ] to be about being nice to one another in a group. What socialist Christianity tells me is you are a body—without each other you will die. We will not be free without each other.”
Joyce also points to DSA’s rent-control campaigns as something that has been very powerful for her congregation. As her congregation is located in a gentrifying neighborhood, she constantly sees people in her office who ask for prayer for their housing situation due to high rents. She believes in prayer, she says, but prayer must move people to action.
“To be able to say to people, I will absolutely pray for you, and also, let’s go meet with the tenants’ union, let’s fight for rent control so we can alleviate this stress in your life … I think it’s given a material dimension to my faith and my community and I desperately needed,” she said. “I think socialism has saved my faith, in a way.”
While most of the people I interviewed came to their socialist politics as Christians, not everyone did. For Jad Baaklini, 33, it was the other way around; socialism brought him back to Christianity. He recently immigrated to Seattle, but he grew up in Lebanon. During university, he walked away from the Maronite Christianity of his youth, throwing himself into anarchist-socialist political movements. Years later, he eventually returned to his faith, and he partly credits his “anarcho-socialist leanings” for helping him truly see Christianity and the radical politics of Jesus for the first time.
Now an Episcopalian, he believes that the church has much to contribute to leftist spaces. When churches work well, he says that “people who fundamentally disagree must deal with each other, Sunday after Sunday, doing the same liturgy, singing the same hymns, praying the same prayers, taking the same bread and wine—and in this way, doing the work of ‘imaging’ a new society.” When churches do this, they create deeply “safe spaces for interpersonal transformation” and demonstrate that “withdrawal, call-outs, boycotts, and protests” are not the only tools in the social justice repertoire. For Baaklini, the church, with all its flaws, has the potential to live out the ideal of “solidarity” amid differences in a way that leftists dream about.
David Beltrán, 28, would agree. An organizer-in-training at SEIU, he was born in Colombia and grew up in Miami, where he now lives. For most of his teenage years, he attended a charismatic, evangelical megachurch in Miami. While he now disagrees with much of what that megachurch preached, he readily acknowledges that it was quite diverse in terms of race, income, and immigration status—unlike many socialist spaces in the U.S., which, from my experience and that of my interviewees, tend to be predominantly white and cis male.
Beltrán has observed that many of the working-class people that he meets as an organizer, such as Hispanic female childcare workers in California, naturally bring up—without prompting—their faith in Jesus as an explanation for how they can get through the challenges of their job. He says, “A lot of working-class people already have a certain comfort [with Christianity] and can speak that language in a way they can’t speak critical theory and Marxist analysis. The black church is the best example of how folks have taken Christianity and used it as a tool to liberate people. Christianity is a great vehicle through which we can do multiracial, working-class organizing.”
Beltrán certainly did not grow up in a household that was comfortable with communism or Marxism. He says that after revolutionary communist guerillas killed his great-grandfather during Colombia’s civil war in the 1960s, his parents instilled in him and his siblings a strong conservatism and virulent anti-communism. In college, he came out as both gay and LGBT-affirming, breaking with conservative Christianity. He went on to intern with Sojourners, a progressive Christian organization in Washington, D.C. “I wanted to become a good progressive Christian,” he said.
The Pulse nightclub shooting and Trump’s election—all in 2016—shattered his belief in “gradual incremental change.” He started researching to understand why people voted for Trump, and concluded that the main culprit was capitalism, particularly the ways in which white working class has been left behind and “race had been weaponized by the bourgeoisie to divide the working class.”
In 2018, he moved back to Miami as a full-fledged socialist and began organizing through his local DSA chapter. Like Joyce, Beltran draws upon individualistic versus communal themes in explaining his movement away from liberal politics and towards radical politics. “Neoliberalism—a construct that justifies capitalism—is contradictory to a full understanding of the gospel,” he said, defining “neoliberalism” as the individualistic idea that “we are not each other’s keepers, and that the only lens to examine societal problems is through the individual.”
As an organizer now, Beltrán looks back on his time spent in his evangelical youth group, knocking on doors to share the gospel and following up with people one-on-one, as training for what he does now. “Instead of telling people about Jesus, I tell them about socialism,” he said. “Political education is for me what Bible study was in my youth group.”
It can be easy for leftist pastors to preach about socialism as if it is “ordained by God,” but Joyce is careful not to do so, even though she does preach against capitalism and is open about why she is a socialist. Many of her congregants come from Christian fundamentalist backgrounds and are “recovering from absolute certainty,” she says, so simply declaring a particular economic and political system as God’s will would not work well.
Not all socialist systems are the same—DSA is unique in that it espouses democratic socialism, which sees democratic decision-making as vital to all spheres of society, including the economy. Taking a cue from DSA, Joyce’s church has implemented a consensus-model of decision-making where no one, including her, has the ability to make a unilateral decision. The non-hierarchical structure has been especially healing, she notes, for people carrying trauma from all-knowing, condemnatory pastors.
The trauma of violence committed out of ideological certainty runs through the histories of both Christianity and socialism. It is a common thread with which Dettloff and Bernico are quite familiar. “Being a Christian trains you to take on the complicated history of communism,” Dettloff says. “If I can make peace with the fact that the worst abuses in history have actually been committed by people who are devoted to Jesus Christ, then surely, I can try to figure out how to sort out the messy history of [the] Soviet Union, Cuba, or the People’s Republic of China.”
A FEW MONTHS AGO, I WAS in Queens with 26,000 other people to hear Senator Bernie Sanders speak at a rally. Towards the end of his speech, Sanders delivered a set of rousing questions, which got the entire crowd standing on their feet, cheering and clapping:
Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself? … Are you willing to fight for young people drowning in student debt even if you are not? Are you willing to fight to ensure that every American has healthcare as a human right, even if you have good healthcare?
It felt, to my Pentecostal-raised ears, like an altar call, the kind in which the pastor gets on stage and rallies the crowd to give up their lives up to God and for something greater than themselves. During the altar calls of my youth, the band would play while people raised their hands, crying and surrendering themselves as if in a blissful trance, sometimes holding each other while intimately praying together. Sanders’ rally brought me back to what those moments in church felt like: As if I was letting go and losing myself in a larger sea of being.
At the heart of Christianity and socialism is a question about what kind of people we will become: Will we live as isolated individuals, or as part of an interdependent whole? It is a political question—and a religious one as well.
Sarah Ngu (they/she) is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY, who has written for Vox, Vice, Jacobin, Sojourners, and Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahngu.