Magazine article Monthly Review

Liberation Theology in the Bible Belt

Magazine article Monthly Review

Liberation Theology in the Bible Belt

Article excerpt

For thirteen years, a local United Methodist congregation in Camanche, Iowa, has maintained solidarity with local, national, and international struggles for liberation. -- Time and again the congregation spoke out and demonstrated against the war in Vietnam; -- members of the congregation picketed locally in support of Native Americans at Wounded Knee; -- the pastor, with congregational support, went to Wisconsin in solidarity with members of the Menominee Tribe who had seized a Roman Catholic novitiate; -- members picketed local department stores for the boycott of Farah slacks; -- the congregation as a whole channeled strong financial support to the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe; -- the 1979 Communist Party State Convention was held in the church fellowship hall; -- the congregation supported a local wildcat strike, and later a year-long strike through weekly picketing, donations, and public advocacy; -- in conjunction with the strike it hosted Angela Davis at the church when she came in support of the union; -- the pastor was beaten by the police, arrested on charges of riot and interfering with the police, put on trial, and later acquitted of all charges by the jury, all the while whole-heartedly supported by the local congregation.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list, but is indicative of the range and depth of concerns commonly responded to by this congregation. As a result of such stands, the group was sometimes jokingly referred to by its friends as "St. Mark's with a 'k'." Its enemies usually called it "that Commie Church."

To most people, the description above is almost unheard of for a church in this country. It is perhaps conceivable in some well-endowed, large West Coast church, or in a campus ministry at a university in a metropolitan area. But the church in question acted out of very different circumstances. It was a group of 170 members, located in a small town of 5,000 in the heart of the Bible Belt. It is part of a larger industrialized area along the Mississippi River, known for its reactionary traditionalism.

The existence of such a progressive Christian community in that setting was not an aberration, nor a fluke. It came about as a result of deliberate planning, hard work over many years, and sustained effort in the face of relentless opposition.

The history of the area in which the church is located has not always been conservative or reactionary. Iowa was part of the abolitionist movement during the period preceding the Civil War. One of the trunk lines of the underground railroad was the Mississippi River, with the Clinton area being one of its stations. The Methodist church itself had split over the question of slavery 15 years before the Civil War, and did not reunite as a denomination until 1939, nearly 100 years later. The local congregation in Camanche began meeting in 1839, with visits from a roving circuit rider. However, there is no indication what position, if any, the congregation may have taken regarding the issue of slavery.

By the turn of the century the area was divided over a number of issues, including that of slavery. The Reconstruction era following the Civil War gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan not only in the South but also among this northern river population. Its target for intimidation was not just the few black residents, but an immigrant population of Catholic background, and the growing movement for unions. On one side this struggle was a socialism that spawned two local newspapers (the Clinton County Socialist, and the Merry War) and elected members to the city council. On the other side of the struggle, along with the KKK, was the American Protective Association, born in Clinton, Iowa, and spreading from there across the nation. Coming out of a reactionary business sector, the organization compiled the blacklists used by Attorney General Palmer to round up, detain, and in many cases deport an estimated 10,000 activists. …

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