On July 24th, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, two members of the Catholic Worker community in Des Moines, Iowa, held a press conference outside the Iowa Utilities Board. There, they read a statement explaining that they had been actively sabotaging the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), including damaging heavy machinery, pipeline valves, and more, since Donald Trump’s election in November, 2016. After reading the statement, in the presence of press and police, the two women used crowbars to remove letters from the Iowa Utilities Board sign that served as a backdrop, at which point they were arrested for criminal mischief. Though the two have not been charged for the actions they confessed, it was later revealed they had been hunted by the private security firm TigerSwan until they turned themselves in.
“Some may view these actions as violent, but be not mistaken,” said Montoya before her arrest. “We acted from our hearts and never threatened human life nor personal property. What we did do was fight a private corporation that has run rampantly across our country seizing land and polluting our nation’s water supply.” These tactics, and their justification, are unsurprising for anyone familiar with the history of the Catholic spirit of resistance in the United States. The Cantonsville Nine are perhaps the most famous example, a group of priests and laypersons who stole Viet Nam draft documents and set them alight with homemade napalm, but they are hardly an isolated case. Montoya, who is 27, and Reznicek, 35, are only the latest generation of that legacy.
Considering the politics of Reznicek and Montoya helps complicate narratives about the “religious left” as they have appeared since the election of Donald Trump last November, especially insofar as the “religious left” has been identified with the Democratic Party. The Democrats lost the general election to the least recognizably Christian candidate in the history of the United States, due in large part to a block of committed Christian voters. That situation came as a surprise for many who thought Donald Trump's concatenate of transgressions against traditional morals would have been a bridge too far for conservative Christians, who make up a significant demographic in Trump’s support base.
During the campaign season, Ruth Graham even suggested the Democrats could become “the party of God,” courting a growing niche of religious liberals whose faith looked a lot more like Hillary Clinton's Methodism than Donald Trump's newfound evangelicalism. Now that the prophecy has failed to materialize, a myriad of articles and op-eds looking for the “religious left,” which usually means a Democratic contingent (implicitly Christian) that might counteract a consistent Republican stronghold, has emerged in hopes of avoiding another apocalyptic moment next time around. As Matthew Sitman put it recently in Dissent Magazine, the Democrats are experiencing something of a crisis of faith.
If your political horizon ends at electoral politics in the United States, where two parties appear to be continuing their Manichean opposition for the foreseeable future, then a religious left that amounts to regular attendees of religious services voting for Democrats is just about all you could hope for. If we take a longer view, however, then what it means to be both “religious” and on the “left” creates serious problems for a reliable voting block attached to the Democratic Party. The DAPL provides a perfect case study.
As Clinton and Trump campaigned last year, a broad interfaith community joined the Standing Rock Sioux to oppose the construction of the DAPL, risking their freedom and even their lives. Trump naturally supported the construction of the pipeline, while the Clinton campaign issued a statement saying all parties involved needed to dialogue about it. Nowhere, however, did the statement suggest the pipeline should not be built, which was the goal of the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, including the interfaith coalition. The statement concluded saying, “it’s important that on the ground in North Dakota, everyone respects demonstrators’ rights to protest peacefully, and workers’ rights to do their jobs safely.”
It never occurred to the Clinton campaign that the demonstrators were not simply protesting, but were committed to not allowing work to be done at all. The parties were incommensurate, mutual respect was not possible--and that was the whole point.
The statement reflected the centrist approach that marked the Clinton campaign from beginning to end, one that, true to form in its commitment to political and economic liberalism and blinded by a defense of private property, was unable to fundamentally oppose or even understand the violation of Indigenous sovereignty at Standing Rock. Clinton's response fit comfortably with Nancy Pelosi's famous Town Hall exchange with Trevor Hill, where Pelosi said, “we're capitalists, that's just the way it is.” These kinds of statements are not taken to be public gaffes or missteps—Democrats are proud to make and stand by them, as though they exhibit a deep realpolitik and fidelity to American values.
This is, however, precisely why the Democrats are unwelcome at the table of the left, and why a “religious left,” both the community that has already existed and the one that, by grace, will come into being, is unwelcome at the table of the Democrats, if we take a hard and honest look at both groups.
Historically, the collection of discourses that falls under the heading of “leftism,” which includes traditions like anarchism, communism, and socialism, unifies in a categorical opposition to capitalism, which hinges on the valorization of private property. Religious traditions, too, often sideline the value of private property, affirming it only insofar as it is ultimately relative to common interests. While the Democrats have presented something like a left-leaning liberalism in American discourse, the terms for debate are not friendly to the political commitments formed in faith communities that question the centrality of things like private property, on which capitalism is built, let alone historically leftist politics in general.
With the swirl of discourse about the “religious left” in the air this year, we would do well to train our memories to think more readily of those whose faith and politics mutually informed one another such that they fell out of step with the two dominant capitalist parties in the United States. Individuals like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and others found ways of building a truly religious left that challenged the structures of exploitation and the defense of unjustly hoarded private property. It’s telling that all those individuals were targeted by the FBI, which has become something of a heroic institution among Democrats since the Trump administration fired former FBI director James Comey. Unsurprisingly, the FBI raided the Catholic Worker Berrigan House, where Reznicek and Montoya reside, on August 11.
While the destruction of private property is unsettling for liberals, Montoya and Reznicek were right to say in an interview with Democracy Now! that their actions came after the usual political channels were exhausted. Moreover, the two activists suggested the destruction of property is nonviolent. As Reznicek put it, “I think that the oil being taken out of the ground and the machinery that does it and the infrastructure which supports it, that this is violent.” If nothing else, the potential violence of damaging the progress of one unbuilt oil pipeline hardly compares to the violence of an infrastructure responsible for an increasingly uninhabitable climate for all people, and especially those already marginalized.
In the coming years, with the growth of parties like the Party for Socialism and Liberation, groups like the Democratic Socialists of America, and the stubborn witness of movements like the Catholic Worker, the interfaith community at Standing Rock, and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, a powerful religious left might indeed materialize. But it will do so precisely by opposing not just the Republicans, but all those who stand for the preservation of private property over and against the equitable redistribution of material wealth. And right now, that means the Democrats, too. They're capitalists, after all. That's just the way it is.
Dean Dettloff is an American journalist living in Toronto, where he is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies.
Slideshow photo courtesy of Tony Webster.