Religion, feminism and the left

Excluding religious people from left-wing politics is an unviable prospect.

Art by Ellie Stephenson

Ernesto Cardenal, my favourite poet and a Nicaraguan revolutionary priest, writes in “Mystical Vision of the Letters FSLN”:

“For a year now from many Managua streets 
instead of those letters on the hill we see others: 
and I many times also recall the child’s words with joy. 
It was a Sunday at noon with an overcast sky. 
And there are days when one asks for a sign. 
Very intimate solitudes. Like
when Theresa of Lisieux upon her deathbed
would feel doubts about whether God existed.
Then from the car I looked at the large letters on the hill
and from within God spoke to me:
“Behold what I did for you, 
for your people that is. 
Behold those letters, and never doubt me, have faith
man of so little faith
You jerk.”

The poem refers to the Sandinista revolutionaries’ placement of the letters FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) on a Managua hillside after unseating dictator Anastasio Samoza. Cardenal, whose poetry frequently blends his faith and his revolutionary politics, frames the Sandinista victory as a spiritual experience; he sees the revolution as a revelation of God’s love. Cardenal accepts and admits to doubt in God. He does not present the divine as oppressive or predeterministic, so much as a force on the side of the people. The ‘mystical vision’ of the letters on the hill connects both political and spiritual yearnings for liberation. 

On March 2nd, I stood on Platform 25 at Central Station, holding back tears. Cardenal had died, aged 95. Why was I so sad about the death of this man, who was old before I was born, who lived in a different hemisphere and lived through times I can hardly imagine?

Cardenal helped me navigate a contradiction that many young, left-wing religious people face: How can religious faith coexist with the strong desire to radically change the world, including the corrupt hierarchies and the conservative teachings of many religions. At some point, when you get feminist enough, when you realise you’re queer, when you become an avid science student, the two beliefs become hard to reconcile. I vividly remember sitting in Mass in 2017, fury rising as the priest turned his Fathers’ Day homily into a lecture about the ills of equal marriage. 

You might ask, then, why don’t you just stop believing? A fair question; it seems so simple. Why would anyone believe in something they view as so deeply problematic? 

This question misses the point. Religion is not just a matter of belief: it’s intricately connected with your culture, your family, your sense of self and your worldview. Escaping religion — while possible and very fair, of course — isn’t necessarily just rejecting deities or religious stories. It can also feel like rejecting rituals that you’ve grown up with, the beliefs of your grandparents, the religious stories that you have always loved. Beyond that, secular progressivism can feel spiritually devoid. Religion is an escape from a frenzied, consumerist world. The calm you feel in a quiet religious space, the meditative experience of saying prayers (I still say the rosary when I can’t sleep), the sense of community provided by shared meals — these are important experiences and ones that are hard to leave behind. It’s unreasonable to demand people abandon these beliefs and traditions; there must be a way for our politics and our faith to not just coexist, but be symbiotic. 

For me, my Grandpa has always demonstrated this balancing act. He is a devout Catholic and a devout unionist. He is consummately dedicated to his community, and always has been: a defender of workers’ rights; a citizen member of the Wollongong Hospital Board; a routine visitor of the elderly; a staunch protector of local heritage and the environment. This ethos is entirely consistent with his religious belief, the embodiment of Jesus’ commandment that “you must love one another” (John 13:34). Care for one’s comrades and one’s community is a powerful expression of this love; this is also the argument made by Cardenal. 

Importantly, left-wing religious movements rarely receive much attention. They are often actively suppressed by religious hierarchies whose power and politics they threaten. Because they are often motivated by state oppression, they are usually marginalised within their own societies, too. Radical expressions of religion are a threat to both conservative religious organisations and conservative societies. 

Looking to the Catholic tradition of liberation theology gives me hope and reassurance. Liberation theologians emerged in Latin America, where imperialist American forces, sadistic right-wing dictators and rampant poverty could not help but radicalise priests and other religious thinkers. They were met, too, with resistance from the Church, often being excommunicated or disrobed for their association with Communism. Nonetheless, they compellingly connected socialism and Christianity, thereby fuelling revolutionary politics and activism. They argued that throughout the Bible, there exists a preferential option for the poor, where God, Jesus and various prophets routinely stand against greed, against poverty and with the most vulnerable members of society. 

Liberation theology transcends insipid calls for peace (i.e. social order), calling for the radical application of religious teaching against capitalist accumulation and the oppressive state. The revolutionary Colombian priest Camilo Torres Restrepo wrote about amor eficaz (effective love), the idea that Christian love for one’s neighbour should not be a matter of empty words nor insufficient charity, but rather meaningfully emancipatory. He wrote: “Revolution not only is permitted, but is obligatory for Christians who see in it the only way to achieve the broad outcome: love for all.”

Dorothy Day is another figure who encapsulates the blending of left-wing and religious thought. Having rejected and then re-embraced religion, she illustrates the complex relationships many of us have with doubt and faith. She was a suffragette, faced incarceration, and survived an illegal abortion. She founded the Catholic Worker Movement during the Great Depression, organising ‘hospitality houses’ which distributed free essentials to households according to their needs. The organisation passionately campaigned against war and in support of unions. Day wrote beautifully and prolifically about left-wing causes and ideas.

The fact remains, sadly, that these kinds of movements are the exception, not the rule. The Church is overwhelmingly a conservative institution containing a myriad of abuses and crimes lurking in its history. Many people are undeniably excluded within Catholicism and it has frequently been a reactionary global force, from working with fascists to opposing the provision of contraception. It is also impossible to ignore the role of the Church in justifying and enacting colonialism. Similar criticisms can be made of other religious traditions. 

But this is why fighting to change these religions is so important: excluding religious people from left-wing politics is an unviable prospect. Religion can, however, be adapted and moulded in progressive ways; we can reframe religious teachings to be radical. 

I recently saw in the excellent Geez magazine a suggestion that the Lord’s Prayer could be rephrased, from “forgive us our trespasses” to “forgive us our debts” to represent a shifted approach to property rights and economic wealth. Given Jesus is a figure who vehemently opposed profiteering, boldly stood in solidarity with sex workers and lepers, subversively mocked Roman military parades on Palm Sunday, and who told rich people they wouldn’t get into heaven, I’d argue this is what he would expect. 

My favourite podcast, The Magnificast, said on a recent episode: “If Christianity does anything, it definitely teaches you how to imagine things that aren’t visible. Hoping for things that you can’t see… If we want this world to be different, then we’re going to have to organise for it”. Doing so is now more important than ever.

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