Jonestown tragedy had liberal roots
By Michael M. Bates
November 18 marked the anniversary of the deaths of 913 people, including 276 children, in the Guyanan jungle. Most of them died by their own hand, voluntarily drinking a cyanide-laced grape punch (not Kool Aid, contrary to the idiomatic expression). The ones who wouldn't kill themselves were shot. Babies had the lethal concoction forced into their mouths with syringes.
Orchestrating the 1978 holocaust was "Reverend" Jim Jones, founder of the People's Temple. His church had been based in San Francisco until allegations of brutality, financial irregularities, and mistreatment of children became widely publicized. In 1977 he set up shop in South America.
Jones is sometimes described as a religious fanatic, as a man who used faith to do monstrous things. The truth is his faith wasn't, as many presume, in Christianity. He believed in Marx more than in Christ.
Jones baptized people "in the holy name of socialism" and called himself the Socialist Worker God. His church's newspaper featured a picture of him shaking hands in Cuba with Black Panther Huey Newton. Jones wanted his followers to learn Russian. He'd left instructions for assets to be sent to the Soviet Union.
Moving his group to Guyana was an escape from the suffocating capitalism he despised. At the end, he exhorted his congregation to commit "an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."
Mayor George Moscone appointed him to the city's housing authority. Willie Brown, who later served as Speaker of the California Assembly, in 1976 introduced the white Jones as a combination Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein and Chairman Mao.
That same year Senator Walter Mondale, later elected vice president, invited Jones to meet with him on his campaign plane. The People's Temple chief also had a personal meeting with Jimmy Carter's wife, Rosalynn.
Jones referenced that in 1977 when he wrote to the First Lady and recommended the U.S. government give Cuba medical supplies. He mentioned his "deep appreciation for the privilege of dining privately with you prior to the election." She replied by saying she'd enjoyed the experience and hoped the U.S. would adopt his suggestion on Cuba.
Wrote Walter Mondale: "Knowing of your congregation's deep involvement in the major social and constitutional issues of our country is a great inspiration to me."
Alaska Senator Mike Gravel thought the People's Temple "was almost too good to be true." California Congressman Don Edwards expressed the wish that "there were more like the people of the People's Temple Christian Church."
Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey said that Jones' work "is testimony to the positive and truly Christian approach to dealing with the myriad problems confronting our society today."
I doubt if any of the people quoted here knew Jones very well. They were probably aware that he claimed he was opposed to racism and he helped the poor.
What they knew even better, though, was that he delivered votes. Democratic votes. They should have known much more about him before they supplied glowing endorsements.
Ministers such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are regularly identified as part of the Religious Right, portrayed as an auxiliary of the Republican Party. Their occasionally outrageous proclamations are cited as evidence of the dangers of mixing politics and religion.
Yet we rarely hear about this other "Reverend" and the extraordinary praise and attention he received from top Democrats. He led hundreds of followers to an ugly and unnecessary death. The anniversary of the Jonestown carnage is a suitable time to remember.
This Michael M. Bates column appeared in the November 16, 2006 Reporter Newspapers.