"Religion," declared Karl Marx in 1843, "is the sigh of the afflicted creature, the soul of the heartless world....[I]t is the opium of the people." Ever since his day, ideologues on both ends of the political and religious spectrums have likewise dismissed the ability of Christianity to say much to the economic struggles of ordinary people.
The only biblical word to the poor articulated by prominent Gilded Age pastors such as Henry Ward Beecher was one of condemnation. "No man in this land suffers from poverty," he pronounced, "...unless it be his sin." Not surprisingly, many working people rejected the institution represented by wealthy ministers like Beecher. One anonymous worker informed a Massachusetts sociologist in 1870 that "the church has, as an organized body, no sympathy with the masses. It is sort of a fashionable club where the rich are entertained and amused, and where most of the ministers are muzzled by their masters and dare not preach the gospel of the carpenter of Nazareth."
Yet there is another side to the historical record. While some have offered up Christ's message as a numbing narcotic, for a century and a half people of faith have been integrally involved in the efforts of working people to organize against the concentrations of wealth that Beecher lauded and Marx despised. Labor activists have repeatedly drawn from the deep wells of biblical imagery to lead the struggle for economic justice. They have been able to do so because a great mass of U.S. workers have held religious convictions that were not easily stripped away or transmuted into mindless obeisance to the power of the wealthy.