"Didn't You see that Spirit Descend?" -- Being Communist in the Bible Belt

I was working in Keystone, a large heavily-Black mine at the southernmost edge of West Virginia, near where it butts into Virginia and Kentucky.

As the wildcat strikes heated up and spread, as our communist organization started to play a more and more active role in them, and as we started carrying out open communist work, the management of my mine quickly identified me as a radical, and soon realized that they would have a hard time driving me out of the mine. They wanted to set me up for firing.

And so one of their moves was to have me work (on a big double-headed Fletcher roof-bolting machine) with Don, who was a preacher of the Jimmy Swaggart variety. Don, a Korean war vet, and his twin brother Ron alternated preaching at a church over in Virginia, in a very conservative area famous for its "sunset customs" (where Black people risked death if they stayed in the county past night fall). Don's religiosity was extreme and sincere. His whole waking life was a constant dialog with a part of his brain which (he believed) provided gifts from his God. So he would walk over to a broken machine, praying to himself "Dear God, give me the power to fix this," and he would walk away from the fixed machine praying "Thank you, God, for giving me the insight to fix this."

His own remarkable mechanical skills (and everything else in the universe) were, to Don, a gift from God that could be suspended at any moment.

I think they hoped we would kill each other.

Two man double-headed roof bolter

And this kind of belief had some terrible consequences. For example Don was lax in setting protective roof supports as we worked. He used to say to me "The days are numbered, verily, as are the hairs on your head." Meaning: that the day of our death was set by God, not by our own actions, and so it really didn't matter what precautions we took. Naturally, as a militant materialist, I thought that was crap, and was rather determined that we would have all the protection we could get from falling rock. And while I made materialist arguments for safety precautions, some  Christian workers in the mine would quote Bible at Don, "Tempt not God, thy maker."

In ways that the pigs running this mine could not have imagined, Don and I became tight. We argued about religion constantly -- hour by hour, lunch break by lunch break -- raging over morality, and how the people knew and accomplished things, and what was happening in the country and world. And he came to appreciate and respect (in a way that surprised him, naturally) the rigor and depth of our communist convictions, and was deeply surprised at our ability to be moral and consistent without a God (even while he also saw that OUR morality was different in so many ways from his.)

One day, Don was riding out of the coal camp where he lived and crossing the railroad tracks to get up to the main road. And his truck stalled on the tracks, just as the sound of an approaching train could be heard coming out of a nearby tunnel. Don and his ten year old son ran away from that truck, and about a hundred feet away turned to watch as the train hit their truck square -- crushing it. The locomotive's brakes screamed by in a vain attempt to stop.

The bumper on that truck flew off like a spear -- and struck Don's son in the head. He died on the spot, as Don looked on in disbelief. It was truly horrible.

This was hardly the first time that coal trains at that crossing had endangered people -- because there were no crossing lights or warning to keep people off the busy tracks. A meeting was held in the coal camp, to demand a crossing light, and a petition was taken up. There was a great deal of bitterness spoken about how little the authorities cared about people's lives.

Don stood up, with great emotion, to speak about the loss of his son. And then, to everyone's astonishment announced that he would not sign the petition. And said no one else should either. The reason, he said, was that the whole meaning of this incident and this death was being misunderstood by everyone. And that it had nothing to do with railroad companies or the disrespect shown to people living on the river bottom.

Don said that he believed that his son had died because God had wanted this boy's great goodness to be with Him in heaven. And his son had died to punish him, Don, because his love of this boy had come to rival and even eclipse his worship of God. And that there was a lesson here about the larger meaning and plan behind all events, even when they seemed so horrific and painful.

Now obviously, this coal camp protest of the people demanding a crossing light was no great historic moment or leap in the class struggle. It was one of a thousand protests breaking out at that time, and was (in its own way) part of the much larger events of the 1960s. But clearly this was a moment when a religious belief (and complex and deeply held fatalist philosophy rooted in Christianity) was a "shackle" on a righteous protest of the people, and represented a way of thinking that would obstruct even more class conscious struggles and ideas that might emerge.

And as much as I knew Don, and as much as we had argued over religion, this incident shocked me. And while trying not to belittle his grief, I had to struggle with him over this view, and tried to bring out how the truly great crimes against humanity around the world could be excused by arguing they were part of God's larger purpose.

Seeing a Flesh-and-Blood World Ruled by Spirits

A little later, a great strike swept over the state, as the federal judges started jailing local mine officials for breaking hundreds of anti-strike injunctions. Tens of thousands of us were on an illegal strike to demand the right to strike. And where I worked (like so many places) this was very controversial -- with groups of men determined to scab, and also determined to oppose a mood of defiance toward the law and the courts. And so one Sunday we gathered at our United Mine Workers' local hall, a square simple cinderblock building down the hill from the mine parking lot. Huge arguments broke out in the overflow crowd. Fists were thrown. And some very angry (and very drunk) brothers were ejected.  I had my moments too, of going nose to nose, since I was (by that point) one of the leading activists in McDowell County, and so was a rather notorious symbol of this strike within my local.


As we all left the meeting, the young buggy-driver on my section came over, stood behind me for a moment. He laid his hand on my shoulder and leaned by my ear to whisper: "How, after seeing all that, can you imagine there isn't a God?"

I was confused, not really understanding his point. And asked, "OK, how did you see all of that as a manifestation of God?"

Tommy replied, "Didn't you see the spirit of disunity descend on those men?"

And (as often happened) my secular brain was slow to wrap itself around this. Because to Tommy, this had been a supernatural event. We had gathered to make plans for this strike, and (in his mind) a spirit had come into the room, a spirit dedicated to disunity, and it had taken over the men and caused them to argue and fight.

There is a famous bible verse from Ephesians 6:12 that says:

"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in high places."

Tommy was bringing out a Christian view that is captured by that passage: That when we saw conflict among men, and violent acts, it is not really (as it seems to me!) acts of "flesh and blood," but it is (to him and others who believe like him) really manifestations of evil spiritual and supernatural forces who cause so much suffering. And to him, we live in a "age" dominated by "the rulers of darkness." He was arguing that this is how to see (and understand) the things around us, including the "wickedness in high places." These are, to him, spiritual problems, not the inventions of human beings.


I have to say, I think we have to see this system of beliefs as a real obstacle to "knowing the world to change the world" -- because for Tommy (just like for Don), the world around him was seen through a spiritual glass that made it impossible to understand real causality, or to identify the actually available means of influencing events.

It struck me then, perhaps for the first time, why religious miners demanded that our meetings open with a prayer. I had seen it just as "a custom" -- but for someone like Tommy it was literally a spiritual attempt to keep bad spiritual forces from dominating us, and to keep the decision of people in line with God's divine plans. And so preachers would often pray "Our heavenly Father we pray for unity among us today, and that Thy will be done...." and so on.

And (while we are talking), it was often a way of telling whether a meeting (a rally or a strike gathering) was led by communists or not... because where we had any influence or say, there were no prayers. And really, most miners didn't give a shit, and were quite happy to meet and decide without trying to drive out the Prince of Darkness first. But there was a section of people (I'd guess 20 percent) who really were in the grip of particularly intense idealist thinking, and were trained to apply that as a method to all kinds of events around them. And they were determined there should be prayer (in meetings, in school, at sports events...) and were disturbed if there wasn't -- cuz they thought evil would reign.

People sometimes call us communists "too ideological" -- but in passing I want to point out that there is something to learn about the intense ideological work that the Christian churches do among their faithful. They have group study. They encourage personal study. They have lectures (each Sunday morning, and often Wednesday nights). They have books, pamphlets, TV shows, movies, musical genres, even comic books -- telling conversion stories, giving "news" from a fundamentalist perspective and (yes) teaching doctrine in its own right. Tommy would sit during breaks engrossed in his Bible. I knew quite a few men who had learned to read in order to study the Bible, or learned to read BY studying the Bible. And by understanding that we can see the value and power of ideological work, and we can also appreciate the importance of creatively engaging in real ideological struggle among the people over all kinds of matters, including both Marxist theory, evolution and basic scientific atheism.

Debating the Fossil Evidence Our Work Uncovered

The struggles we had over these kinds of ideas were rather sharp.


There would often be lively debates where i worked, before we went into the drift mouth, over many things --- but often over religion. And (I have to say) many workers just LOVED to hear me take on the preachers, because the discussions were so outrageous, and because many people had often never HEARD anyone take on the religious mythologies straight on (the way some of us communists did). Obviously the "sinners" and "hellers" were taking on religion in their own way -- by ignoring it or defying it. But that was different.

So we would stand around, and someone would shout, what about Noah's flood? And the preacher would explain that the coal seam we worked in was evidence of that flood. And I would say, Nah, you will never see the bones of a cow or a man in the fossils or in the coal -- because this coal was laid down hundreds of millions of years before humans (or any modern vertebrate animal) walked on the earth.

One preacher got very heated, once, INSISTING that the coal had been laid down while humans walked the earth, and while all the animals we now see existed. And so I made him a bet: I said if he or anyone could find a fossil that was recognizable as an animal or a plant from today, I would join his church for life.

The preacher was very sincerely excited by this because he assumed that this would be a piece of cake. So there were for several weeks an organized effort by the most religious guys working there to find fossils as they worked -- anything that was clearly a cat, or a bird, or a dog, any modern animal or even a modern plant. And of course they couldn't, even though people brought out various fragments and we would all lean over to see if it was clearly an imprint or fossil of something modern.

After a while the preacher was getting frustrated, and a bit demoralized by this. And suddenly one day he called off the search. When I asked about that he said "Wisdom with man is foolishness with God" (a verse from the Bible).

What he meant was that he had been seduced by me onto OUR post-Enlightenment world of experiment, evidence and proof, and that once he and the other religious believers had been trying to prove their faith on THOSE grounds, they were sunk (as I knew all along) because that evidence would not be found. So he was announcing a shift of framework: He would no longer argue that the fossils MUST uphold the Book of Genesis in the Bible, but that it didn't matter what our little investigation showed -- since we could tell what was true by reading Genesis.

It was not lost on others watching this, that the preachers had lost this round, and that the Bible had not held up to scrutiny.

Bob Avakian, the main leader of our communist organization (the RCP), retells an incident I once shared with him:

"I remember a funny story that one comrade told later -- this was a person who'd done a lot of theoretical study and understood a lot of different scientific questions very well. So he was able to argue very strongly about why evolution was a fact and take on all this fundamentalist religious nonsense. One time, everybody had cleared out of the shower room except this comrade, and then just as he was getting ready to leave, one of the miners came back, looked around to make sure nobody was there, and then said to this comrade: 'I'm only gonna say this once. I think this religion stuff's a bunch of bullshit too.' And then he walked out. So this gives you a sense of both the atmosphere and some of the ideological work and struggle that our comrades were carrying out within it."[From Ike to Mao and Beyond, p. 294)

Showing My Horns

At one point, as the strikes became very powerful and waves of anti-communist red baiting broke out in the media, there was a campaign in our county aimed at the two communists there, my wife Gina and me. And one spearhead of it focused on denouncing us as atheists.


And one night, driving home from work, I heard this same preacher on the local radio denouncing me... saying that I was undermining God, and that it cast a suspicious light on what was behind the larger disturbances that were happening (and I'm sure he meant the 60s generally, not just wave the massive illegal strike rippling across the coalfields).

So when I went to work the next day, I took with me a bright red baseball cap I had, that had two orange horns coming out either side. And I had it next to me as i changed for work.

And when this preacher came in, I put on my devil hat and went to confront him. It just so happened, that I was otherwise naked at that moment, so it was a pretty startling for him to see me walking towards him, with horns coming out of my head, and shouting, "Hey, Jimmy, I heard you calling me an agent of Satan on the radio last night....!"

I didn't get much further into it, because everyone around, dozens of guys dressing in that bathhouse for work, just started howling with laughter, at the round-eyed, spooked, speechless look on Jimmy's face, and me standing there butt-nekked, ready to challenge his bullshit.

We each just turned around and finished getting dressed, and nothing more was said between us about this. But I think he was more careful about making charges in his radio sermons after that.

Cut Here: Schism and a Radical Church

These were the years when the religious right was just getting organized as a militant force, and we were among the first to run into it. And at a certain point one of the larger and more extreme churches in my town decided to run out the communists (inspired I suspect by by people connected with the local coal companies and police, and larger reactionary political forces). And a campaign of attacks started coming down -- one of our cars were destroyed, our house was spray painted, our friends were threatened, and things were generally building up in a way that might have ended with a shooting or arson.

And in the middle of this, there erupted a huge fight within that church. I didn't know the details at the time, but soon learned all about it. For one thing, a section of that church split off, explicitly because they opposed the mounting anti-communist attacks. It was led by a slim young man named Kenny, a miner where I worked, who had been quite a "heller" in his teens, and who had a dotted line tattooed across his belly that said "cut here." Kenny had become a deeply mystical man. He would rent a motel room in Welch, and there would fast and pray for days, seeking connection to God and visions. He pulled about forty people out of the church and started his own congregation in a dobulewide trailer up Gary Holler (the heart of the U.S. Steel mines).

On a theological tip: Kenny started developing a doctrine for this new church (together with others). He stressed that Jesus had been a carpenter, and had come among the poor. That salvation would come from from a "Kingdom of God on Earth" not from some magical event of trumpets and rapture. That the measure of saintliness was the relations among the "body of Christ" (in other words, that godliness resided in how people treated each other). And this church abandoned the tacky polyester suits and ties, and conservative long dresses and long hair on women that characterized the most conservative churches, and started dressing in the jeans. tee-shirts and casual clothes of our generation. And it is interesting to notice that these views (developing quite spontaneously from evolving beliefs of Kenny and his flock) were parallel to the kinds of theology that often emerged often (over many centuries) when people have formed a Christianity that was focused on "social justice": they stressed the humanity of Jesus and his lower class origins, and moved away from the most mystical and magical expectations.

Kenny and I would often lie on his lawn, and debate these things, as I tried to argue that once you question the divinity of Jesus, you should also question the very existence of God. But he remained a preacher of his pro-communist little church, and never moved closer to our materialist views.

But he did tell me how the split had happened in the larger church. It has happened when my co-worker Don and Ron (the twin holy-rollers of the Pentacostalist Jimmy Swaggert camp) had asked to come preach (as often happens in these church circuits). And when they got to the podium they had launched a huge attack on the reactionary campaign this church was waging. I later learned that Don had spoken quite boldly (given the times and the kinds of red-baiting going on) about working with me, and knowing my wife, and learning what our views were. And without, for a second (!), retreating from his own very extreme and conservative views, he tore into (and he could be scorching!) how ignorant and wrong it was to launch a campaign against people active in the cause of working people.

And by the time he was done, folks like Kenny in that congregation who were uneasy about all this, were emboldened to walk out. And the folks left behind were never able to escalate their attacks on us any further.

Don later said to Gina, "You know we form a bond underground, when we hold our lives in each other's hands. You really get to know somebody." I have never thought that working people were only characterized by "nothing to lose" -- there is also a common experience that people have together, in work and life, that give people an important if embryonic sense of "we."

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    Very good. Both Don and Kenny shaped the 'Structure, Meaning and Community" in their lives--one dysfunctional in waging class struggle and helping the working class survive difficulties, the other not. And you had a hand in the shift of one to the other. When I came home from Mississippi in 1966, my Dad had a stack of George Wallace bumper stickers and literature on the kitchen table. We got into an argument that lasted decades, and my Marxism never helped much. But it did help when I acknowledged his Catholicism, but called him out on a different brand, seeing racism as a sin and source of disunity among the faithful. From there, we made progress.

  • Guest - chegitz guevara

    That is, simply, one of the most amazing stories I've read.

  • Guest - brooklyngoilinnewpaltz

    Mike, Thank you again for sharing these stories from West Virginia. Needless to say I hope/wish you are writing a book on your experiences. Altho I have mixed feelings about Morgan Spurlock's work I am very curious about his new show on West V. coalminers on FX.

  • Guest - Linda D.

    Thanks Mike. I would strongly suggest that this post be read in conjunction with <a href="/http://mikeely.wordpress.com/2008/06/01/debate-among-atheists-1-how-to-understand-faith-and-the-black-church/" rel="nofollow">"Debate Among Atheists #1 </a>&amp; <a href="/http://mikeely.wordpress.com/2008/06/01/debate-among-communist-atheists-2-how-to-understand-faith/" rel="nofollow">#2, Faith and the Black Church</a>."

    Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but Mike's experience and "story" relate very much to those other posts, especially if you are coming from the point of view of:

    <blockquote>"I have never thought that working people were only characterized by “nothing to lose” — there is also a common experience that people have together, in work and life, that give people an important if embryonic sense of “we.”</blockquote>

  • Guest - Linda D.

    Wanted to add a little more. The contradictions amongst the people around religion are profound. Even Don, after losing his son, and his religious rationalizations around that horrendous experience are striking, to say the least. In contrast to Don, my dearest friend's (who is both a "devout" atheist and practicing Buddhist--as philosophy and not religion-- for 40 years), her older daughter died (under suspicious circumstances)8 years ago. How she handled and "explained" her loss was needless to say entirely different than Don's explanations.

    Personally "I came to atheism" (Amen, or ah-women) when I was 9. But most of my personal experience or contact has been in and around Black churches, mostly Baptist. (In my experience I have mostly viewed the Black church as a social phenomenon rather than a religious one.) But here's another thing I'd like to throw into the mix. In all parts of Mexico there is of course the established, lavish and ornate, and downright spooky Catholic church, while most of their flock consists of the poorest of the poor. But within that, if you go to a Catholic church in an indigenous pueblo, you will often see a mix of both Catholicism and polytheism, folk religion, etc. with indigenous religious rites, icons, etc. receiving as much prominence as the Virgin of Guadalupe. In fact, where I live in Mexico, the majority of indigenous churches' Christ figures are Black. And where I live, the indigenous people here, mainly Purépecha, take great pride in the fact that los conquistadores (both old and new) were never able to conquer them completely and that they have maintained much of their own culture, rituals and beliefs. It gets even more contradictory, since two of the revered martyrs in the Purépecha life and death battle against total enslavement were two priests, Quiroga and Morelos--who were both assassinated and martyred.

    Guess my point is--like in the coalfields, religion and or religious zealots amongst the people is contradictory and multi-layered.

  • Guest - nickglais

    I found this post really interesting has it shows the complex and not reductionist relationship between people on the question of Religion and Politics.

    I am from South Wales where Religion was also been influencial in the Coal Mines. Many leaders of the Communist Party were preachers in their youth like Annie Powell of the Rhondda.

    T.E Nicholas also came from the Religious Revialist movement to the "Social Gospel" and then founding member of the Communist Party.

    We need to understand the contradictions in both Religion and in the Bourgeois Atheism of a Dawkins or a Sam Harris to chart a road to Socialism.

    Thanks for the post Mike

  • Guest - Chuck Morse

    Apologies for making this off-topic comment, but I thought that readers might be interested in following the happenings at the Service Employees International Union convention that is presently taking place in the Puerto Rico. There are pitched battles between various factions within SEIU and the results promise to have significant implications for the labor movement. Labor Notes Magazine has particularly good coverage, in my view. It is here http://www.labornotes.org/seiuconvention

  • Guest - Nando

    off topic threads can be started in <a href="/http://z11.invisionfree.com/Kasama_Threads/" rel="nofollow">"kasama threads"</a>
    That way they are less likely to get lost and ignored (i.e. people can answer without worrying about hyjacking a larger thread).

  • Guest - Alastair Reith

    Fantastic post Mike. It really shows how much more complex the whole question of religion is than a lot of Marxists make out, and how we need to take a position towards it that reflects that. Keep these sort of posts coming!

  • Guest - Ali La Pointe

    That was a very moving and interesting article. It really reflects the deep set religious beliefs that cripple the majority of the world as they try to make sense of painful realities, let alone act to transform them.

    Very well written, thanks

  • I want to urge others to help me maintain a flow of posts daily on our three interrelated sites: Kasama, Kasama Threads and South Asia Revolution sites...

    If other people submit substantive posts regularly -- i can focus a lot more on writing a particular mix of theoretical and historical things that need to be done. I have not had a chance to finish my own response to the RCP's official critique of the 9 Letters -- mainly from the demands of consolidating the Kasama Project organizationally, and the daily demands of this blog.

    So an example of new transparency: If you want "these sorts of posts coming" -- then you need to personally be creating more posts for our growing community here.

    Major posts can be submitted to our moderator team -- by posting them <a href="/http://z11.invisionfree.com/Kasama_Threads/index.php?showforum=2" rel="nofollow">here on Kasama threads</a>. write at the top: "Please consider this for posting on Kasama" -- and include the full text, with suggesstions for our Kasmaa headline and links to possible pictures.

  • Guest - entdinglichung

    "Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven." (Lenin in, <a href="/http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/dec/03.htm" rel="nofollow">Socialism and Religion</a>)

    "Why should we debate amongst ourselves whether the soul is mortal or immortal, when we both know that hunger is mortal?" (Camilo Torres)

  • Guest - entdinglichung

    an interesting book which touches the topic: Jim Bissett: Agrarian socialism in America : Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma countryside, 1904-1920. University of Oklahoma Press 1999

  • Guest - Steve Otto

    Kansas is smack in the middle of a Bible Belt and these people stick to dogmatic religions like glue. I can't figure out how to separate them from their beliefs so they probably won't change or choose atheism. They might be willing to shed their cemented relations with the capitalist system that fleeces them to a point where they appear to be just plain stupid.
    We do have some religious groups that oppose all the wars and imperialism we are involved with, and most of them will never give up their religion. That is just something we have to live with. I'm a Maoist and we are few and far between in this part of the country. It's hard enough to convince people the religious right that such Darlings as our House Rep. Todd Tiahrt, who can't be very religious because he sells his votes to the highest bidder and uses tax payed perks such as trips to Europe for him and his family, really don't work for them or their beliefs. But if they can ever see through these people they may move away from the politics of the religious right.
    This was an interesting article.

  • Guest - land

    This is a great article. I reread it because I was talking to someone about the unions in Nepal.
    I was telling someone about Jed's experience where someone asked him "Are the unions in the US Maoist? And Jed replied laughing "not exactly. That's not how our unions work in America. They only bargain for wages."

    The person I was talking to was curious what Kasama thought about unions. He thought it was a good way to make ties with people - and there is truth to that. I thought about the contradictions around that and I thought about the miners articles by Mike Ely. At the end of this article Don says "you know we form a bond underground, when we hold our lives in each other's hands. You really get to know somebody.." And Mike replied "I have never thought that working people were only characterized by "nothing to lose" - there is also a common experience that people have together, in work and life, that give people an important sense of "we".

    First this article has alot of dimensions. And the dimensions are people. What they will do in different situations - particularly around religion but not only that. And the person I was talking to around unions was really talking about how do we get the "we" together.

    And this article is centered in some ways around the debate that Kasama promotes. We post alot of articles with different views and we don't promote this view or that view. But we do have collective themes. We're internationalists and we want readers to support revolutionary movements in a partisan and critical way. And we promote both.

    In this article the communists were openly not religious. But I felt that the miners who were religious loved these debates around religion. And it went further than debates because these miners who were religious - and there were different ways this religion expressed itself - also got the "we". They defended the communists against red-baiting and different threats that were very real because they thought it was ignorant and wrong to go after people who were in the cause of working people. So there were alot of things mixed up here.

    Great article.

  • Guest - land

    The above post is the article "Didn't You See the Spirit Descend?" - Being Communist in the Bible Belt


  • Guest - radicalprogress

    As an ex-Pentecostal, I do think that religious people will be more numerous in any revolutionary movement in the US than atheists. Liberation Theologies have been written that advance a radical politics that is grounded in classic Christian faith. Most left organizations have done very little to reach this audience, outside of DSA or the SPUSA.

    Do the numbers, Christians outnumber Atheists several times over. We cannot build a revolution without putting Christians in leadership.

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