Christian Communism: Meet the hosts of ‘The Magnificast’ podcast
A man walks by a small shrine with a picture of Jesus Christ next to a local office of the Italian Communist party Rifondazione Comunista in Venice, Italy. | Domenico Stinellis / AP

People’s World (PW) was recently introduced to a remarkable phenomenon out there in Cyberland that we’d like to share with our readers. The Magnificast is a weekly podcast about Christianity and leftist politics. Each episode focuses on the under-explored territory of Christianity and the left that they didn’t teach you in Sunday School.

According to co-hosts Matt Bernico and Dean Dettloff, “the big idea is to contribute to the dialogue between Christians and leftists, and hopefully motivate some Christians to transform their desire for justice into political action.” PW posed a few questions about the program, and Matt and Dean kindly responded.

PW: Let’s get acquainted. Who are you guys, and how did you meet?

Matt is a professor of media studies and communication at Greenville University in Greenville, Ill. He’s also a podcast producer. Dean is a Catholic Ph.D. student at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto and writes as a journalist. We first met on the internet, on some forums related to progressive Christianity, and later we worked on some research together. We’ve shared a similar trajectory in terms of exploring our own Christian upbringing and the left, and we decided to start this podcast as an excuse to hang out and keep thinking all that through.

The hosts of “The Magnificast,” Matt Bernico and Dean Dettloff. | Photos courtesy of Bernico and Dettloff

PW: Would it be fair to say that you embrace what’s been called “liberation theology?” Or how might you qualify that?

In a way, yes, we embrace certain forms of liberation theology. When liberation theology talks about what it calls a “preferential option for the poor,” and tells us to look for where people are marginalized in all societies, we resonate with that. We really admire people like Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, Frei Betto, Leonardo Boff, James Cone, Dorothee Soelle—all those folks. We’re also interested in the ways theology works itself out in other revolutionary situations: For example, the “theology of struggle” as it has emerged from the Christians for National Liberation in the Philippines, and the “Three-Self Movement” in the People’s Republic of China, both of which are branches of Christian theology that come out of revolutionary situations but are different from liberation theology in important ways.

If theology is moving people to act toward liberation, we usually find it pretty compelling. Liberation theology, as a historical movement, is great and definitely worth our attention, but we try to make it a point to look for the theologies that emerge from struggle globally. We’re also not trained theologians, so in some ways, it might be more accurate to say we’re Christian Communists interested in liberation theology, instead of liberation theologians interested in communism. We’ve learned a lot from liberation theology, though, and we want to keep learning from it and other radical theologies.

PW: Given your backgrounds, I see that The Magnificast largely centers around Christianity. Are you interested in what’s happening in other faith communities and traditions? Or in interfaith dialogue?

We’re certainly interested in what’s happening in other faith communities, but we haven’t engaged traditions outside of Christianity on The Magnificast. Maybe that’s something we should change.

That being said, there are folks of many different faiths that inspire our work and our politics. Malcolm X, for example, is a really important challenge for white Christians especially. There’s a long tradition of Jewish radicalism that informs a lot of the historical work we’re interested in, too, and there are some incredible acts of resistance in Muslim and Indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada. Some of the most important Christian figures for us were or are also heavily invested in interfaith dialogue, like Christian-Muslim dialogue in the Philippines, so these things go together historically. It’s also important for white Christians to take the time to learn from other communities, including Christians of color, not in order to convert everyone to a certain form of Christianity but to understand how our own communities are propping up systems of oppression as a hegemonic religious identity.

PW: Is there an activist component to your podcasts, or do you keep it entirely within the realm of the conversational?

Yes, there is an activist component. We have many episodes where we interview activists themselves and get their perspective on a particular topic, or boost their signal, or encourage people to support what they’re doing.

For example, we’ve done episodes with Erin Green, an LGBTQ activist at Brave Commons about LGBTQ students at Christian schools, Hannah Bowman, a Christian activist working for prison abolition, Jim Hodgson on his work as an election observer in Venezuela, and LGBTQ exclusion and inclusion within Christianity with Blaire Bohlen.

We also talk a bit about our friends in the Friendly Fire Collective, an eclectic group of people of faith made up of Communists and anarchists mostly in Philadelphia. They’ve put on some retreats and done some organizing against ICE, for example, and we did episodes asking them about what those actions looked like and how their community is developing.

There were also a few episodes we did on a group called Christians for Socialism, which started in Chile during Salvador Allende’s presidency and then got exported around the world after the coup. That led us to work with some other people to try to get Christians for Socialism going again. It’s gone up and down in terms of consistency and practice, but it’s something we’re still working on and value.

PW: What have been a few of the highlights of your now approaching twelve dozen podcasts?

It’s hard to choose, but some stand out. Jim Hodgson, a member of the United Church of Canada, talked to us about his work as an election observer in Venezuela after Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself a counter-president in February. Being able to hear from Jim about his experience on the ground was illuminating, and it was good to be able to share that with a wider audience. Jim works with Christians in the region, so it also felt like a small way to amplify their struggle for other progressive Christians in countries that are putting Venezuela under sanctions and discouraging dialogue.

Another highlight is some of the in-depth conversations we’ve been able to have on the show concerning violence and exactly how Christians ought to approach the difficulty of being peacemakers in a violent world. That’s a hard conversation to broach with Christians, so finding our own way through it has been helpful for us and for a lot of our listeners.

We’ve also been able to ask hard questions about Christianity. We did an episode with Amaryah Armstrong for example about some Christian ways of thinking that helped build white supremacy, and another one with Marika Rose on how struggling with Christianity means finding a way to own the really reactionary stuff and not pretend it’s all liberation discourse all the time.

Apart from great guests and deep conversations, we’ve also learned a lot about the history of the interplay between the left and Christians. Some of our favorite historical episodes were on Christians in the Three-Self Movement in China, the history of Christianity in the DPRK, and revolutionary Christians in Nicaragua.

Another highlight is hearing feedback from listeners. We’ve had emails from people who felt totally alone in their political and spiritual convictions, and they’ve felt supported by the conversations on the show. We’ve heard from Communists who grew up Christian and felt the need to leave the faith, but now feel like they can either find a place within it or connect with some part of themselves that was important to them. Those are really big moments because it means you’re not just talking into the void.

PW: What kind of audience response do you get? Have you been forced to retract or even rethink anything you’ve done on the show in light of criticism?

Being Christian Communists on the internet definitely does direct some negative attention to the podcast. We get cranky trolls from time to time, but other than that we’ve found the community formed around our show to be pretty helpful and good faith interlocutors. For example, in our earlier episodes, we weren’t as intentional as we should have been about including voices from women and non-binary people, or people of color. This is something that our audience was perceptive about and they rightly urged us to work on that. There’s always room for improvement, but we’ve become more intentional about including and amplifying other voices in our conversations, though we still have a really long way to go.

We did an episode on Assyrians that was prompted by our friend Meia, an Assyrian who helped us see that many Christians and others who are forced to leave their homes following imperialist wars, or who are genuinely persecuted as minorities in their regions, get alienated by anti-religious language or totally forgotten by people on the left. That’s something we never would have considered if it weren’t for Meia’s intervention, and our audience seems to be engaging those issues more too.

There have only been a few times when we’ve had to retract or rethink something. The most notable moment was when we were too critical of Catholic Workers. Luckily, we had some listeners who are involved in the Catholic Worker and they graciously helped us rethink some of our positions. It worked out for the best because they came on our show to talk about it!

PW: So far between you, I’ve heard a complete overlap of views. Do you find yourselves differing on any issues of substance or approach?

For better or worse, we do tend to overlap pretty closely. Sometimes we have differences based on how we come at a certain topic, and we’re both part of different Christian traditions, but for the most part, all the substantive stuff is the same. Dean is a Catholic, and Matt is a Protestant. In some places, this would cause huge disagreements, but because we’re both committed to material struggles and analyses these differences tend not to define our relationship.

PW: What do you see happening with Magnificast? Is there a book in your future? A mini-series? A documentary or a major Hollywood film? And who would play you?

We’ve tried to write a couple of books, but we’re too busy to get them done. We have a lot of ideas for projects that stem from our work on The Magnificast, but making media as Christians and Communists is kind of a tough sell for a lot of people. We have plans for other podcast projects. We don’t know whom to cast in our future biopic since it would just be us sitting in front of microphones and telling bad jokes, but if we could get Boots Riley to direct it he can cast whomever he wants.

PW: And now, speaking for the Religion Commission of the Communist Party USA, what more could be done, by us or by any people in the larger faith community, to extend the influence of your kind of thinking about religion?

In our historical research, we’ve found that it’s really important for Communists to pay attention to the resonances they might have with Christians and other people of faith. Part of that means coming to terms with how Communism has alienated people in the past, too. Tim Buck, who led the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) for years, once said that sometimes by being anti-religious, the party was following the path of least resistance, because they wouldn’t get arrested for complaining about pastors or metaphysics like they would when they got people worked up about capital. He said that diverted people away from talking about what’s really important (a good Leninist principle). That’s good self-reflection, we think.

It would also help to have things like the Religion Commission dig through the history of the CPUSA or the CPC and find where people of faith showed up in the Communist movement themselves, as Robin D. G. Kelley has done in his work on Black Communists in Alabama. There are often more interesting characters and communities than people think! Producing resources that make these stories accessible, or creating resources that can help people of faith understand the mechanics of class struggle and other struggles, would be immensely helpful and something the Religion Commission might be uniquely skilled to do. That’s something we try to do on the podcast a bit. It makes Communism seem less scary if a Christian hears a story about a pastor who was in a party or where the Christian tradition anticipates or agrees with Marxism.

Communists should also go out of their way to help people of faith when they’re doing good organizing work. Even though Christians aren’t always anti-capitalists, they’ve been doing some amazing work around deportations and immigration, and in our experience when people organize together there are a lot more opportunities for breaking down some of those historical barriers. We have a friend in the Communist Party of Canada, Dan, who works with the Games Workers Union. He says he wants to work really hard so that people remember him as “the Communist you know,” a nice person who is willing to put in the effort to help make a better world. A lot of Christians could definitely use more exposure to Communists, and Dan’s phrase is a good motto.

It’s especially important now, though, that Communists work to create solidarity between people of different faiths and no faith, and to dismantle oppressive ideologies, including Christian ones. White Christians are one of the most dangerous constituencies in our societies, electorally and otherwise, and Communists have tools to help organize against that hegemony.

Christianity didn’t save several historically Black churches from being burned down or shot up in the last few years, for example. That doesn’t mean saying all Christians or Christianities are bad. But it does mean working together to build a popular movement that can distinguish the struggles that happen within faith communities, and push the contradictions so that more liberating currents can be born.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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