Paul Nelson

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Paul A. Nelson is an Iowa activist. He teaches philosophy and world religions at Des Moines Area Community College in Boone, Iowa, and is an ordained Lutheran pastor.[1]

Communist Party religious conference

“The word of God and communism are hand in hand,” said Diana Sowry, a school bus driver from Ashtabula County, Ohio. She was one of a group of clergy and lay people participating in a conference on religion sponsored by the Communist Party USA in Des Moines Iowa April 15-16, 2005.

Sowry is a union activist and also active in her church, where she sings in the choir. She feels communists and others who are working to defeat the ultra-right and advance peace, social and economic justice, and socialism are “doing the work of the Word.”

In the session on work in local churches, the Rev. Gil Dawes, a retired volunteer pastor at Trinity Methodist Church in Des Moines, emphasized that grassroots progressive religious activism has deep historical roots, and has to be re-energized today. “That’s where the right is way ahead of us,” he said.

Dawes, a second-generation Methodist minister, draws inspiration from the circuit-rider preachers who traveled through small towns and rural areas to teach a social gospel. He teaches Bible study classes with a materialist interpretation that lets ordinary people see how their problems are connected to larger political and economic forces.

“People are repressed about their own pain,” he said, “but when I choose a story that’s 3,000 years old, that’s far enough in the past. When I start to unravel that story, people break out of that repression.” They relate stories of farms lost and families shattered by hard times.

“People suffering will become leaders if they have a chance to put it together with other people,” Dawes said. This kind of Bible study helped turn one congregation from fundamentalist to one of the most progressive, he said.

In the session on Marx and religion, Paul Nelson, a Lutheran minister who teaches at a community college in Iowa, disputed the idea that Marx opposed all religion. What Marx denounced was an “illusory” form of religion that served as “ideological cover for the exercise of aristocratic economic and political power,” Nelson said. Like the reactionary state religion in 19th century Germany, today “we see religion twisted and turned and used to discipline people,” he said.

Right-wing Christian ideologues focus on the next world and individuals’ private relationships with Jesus, Nelson said. But progressive, “living” religion is based in human activity in “the world we know,” he argued. It sees the “kingdom of heaven” as something to strive for in the real world. [2]

"Socialism in America"

Paul Nelson wrote in the Peoples World;

Polls from the recent presidential election showed that many working-class voters support Bush’s Christian right “values agenda.” Why?
From 1994 until 2002, I worked as a pastor at various Lutheran congregations in rural Iowa, and so have observed this trend firsthand. It’s debatable exactly how much the Christian right movement helped Bush’s re-election. But it has been extremely effective in its longer-term effort to convince working-class voters (many of whom attend church on a regular basis) that their enemy is a liberal/left agenda working to undermine moral values.
From my experience with church life in rural Iowa, I believe this kind of political discussion and involvement with working-class people — even in church halls — can indeed unmask the ideology of the right in all of its political/economic and religious/moral dimensions. This political work can also motivate working people — religious and non-religious — for the important tasks of organizing coalitions for fundamental political, economic and social change. This may seem like an overwhelming task, but it can and must be done for the advance of socialism in America. [3]

Liberation Theology

Paul Nelson an ordained Lutheran pastor in Ames, Iowa. was part of a delegation of 12 Iowa Lutherans traveled to Mexico fall 2005 for a weeklong program inspired by the Christian liberation theology movement in Central America. The program, sponsored by the Lutheran Center in Mexico City, caused many of us return to Iowa with our eyes newly opened to the possibilities for social change in America. Nelson wrote in the People's World; [4]

We now have human faces for the corporate globalization process that has consigned many to marginalization, economic insecurity and poverty. We visited the simple home of Maria. Her family is active in a local Christian “base community.” As we sat in her small, cramped concrete home in a squatter settlement in Mexico City called La Estacion, one of our delegation members, Sheri, was particularly moved by Maria’s involvement in the Christian movement for radical social change. We learned that Maria’s base community, like many of these communities throughout Latin America, functions like a typical Christian parish and worships on a weekly basis in addition to providing extensive material and emotional support for its members.
We learned that Maria’s Christian base community is also committed to working for a different, better world where women do not have to wonder how to feed their children. I think it was the strength and depth of Maria’s religious faith and commitment to struggle for social justice that moved Sheri. Sheri’s own faith has undergone a profound and deepening change. Since her time in Mexico, she has visited other Lutheran congregations and has given a presentation of her trip to her home congregation’s adult Sunday school class. Sheri voted for George Bush. Now she affirms that her Christian faith calls her to work for a different world for the poor and marginalized in Iowa.
In this trip, we learned about liberation theology, a global movement among Christians that sees the gospel as a message and a task for this world in which believers work for justice, peace and eradication of poverty and exploitation. While traditional Christian theology, including the variety articulated and practiced by George Bush’s Christian-right base, offers hope for the next world, liberation theology clearly calls for social justice this side of the grave. In Mexico, we caught a glimpse of what this kind of Christianity might look like.
For instance, while the Christian right in America calls for workers to wait for the next life for a better life, Christians who are part of the “liberation base communities” like the ones we met in Mexico advocate for social justice and workers’ rights today.
Yet, in spite of the reality of this corporate-dominated globalization process which daily creates more misery, despair and poverty, we also heard, in the same stories of these same people, hopefulness, empowerment and a vision for a better world. Several of our delegation members have returned to Iowa with new commitments to share in the struggles of the marginalized in Mexico (and other places as well) by working here in Iowa for a better, more just world.


  1. [ PW, Challenging the Christian right in rural America by: PAUL NELSON february 18 2005]
  2. Communists host meet on religion by: SUSAN WEBB april 29 2005
  3. [ PW, Challenging the Christian right in rural America by: PAUL NELSON february 18 2005]
  4. [PW theology: from Iowa to Mexico and back by: PAUL NELSON february 10 2006]