Sound familiar? But progressive Christians in the UK are trying to learn from the mistakes of their American counterparts:
Don’t hand religion to the right
The secular left must stop sniping and realise it has Christian allies
Giles Fraser and William Whyte
Friday March 18, 2005
For decades, the political class on this side of the Atlantic has prided itself on the absence of religious culture wars. The obsession with abortion, gay marriage and obscenity, the alliance between the secular and religious right – these are peculiarly American pathologies. It couldn’t happen here. After all, we’re just not religious enough.
Except it does seem to be happening here. In making abortion an election issue, Michael Howard has prompted the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, pointedly to warn against assuming “that Catholics would be more in support of the Labour party”. Elsewhere, the Christian right targets the BBC, and the Church of England is being colonised by homophobic evangelicals with broad smiles and loads of PR savvy. No wonder the cogs are whirring at Conservative central office on how best to exploit the voting power of religion.
In contrast, the left continues to push religion away. They “don’t do God”, in Alastair Campbell’s famous phrase. Even those politicians of the left who “do God” privately have to be effectively outed, as Ruth Kelly was over her membership of Opus Dei. It never used to be like this. There has long been an affinity between the church and the left. The Liberal party was sustained by the so-called nonconformist conscience and the Labour party famously derived more from Methodism than Marx – Keir Hardie once describing socialism as “the embodiment of Christianity in our industrial system”. Later both CND and the anti-apartheid movement were inspired by Christian socialism.
Even comparatively recently things were looking up for the religious left. Tony Blair is a member of the Christian socialist movement and in Rowan Williams the Church of England has a self-confessed “bearded lefty” at the top. Yet instead of a renaissance there has been a decline. The Archbishop of Canterbury is now a virtual prisoner of the religious right. And Labour Christians seem silent and impotent. How did we get to here?
In the first place, the religious left has found itself constantly challenged by the secular left. Whilst the religious right and neo-conservatives have worked together, progressives have split and split again. Blair is too embarrassed to talk the language of faith because he knows it would alienate his allies. Some object to religion on principle. Others insist that a Christian response is inevitably intolerant, exclusive, even racist. So left secularists welcomed Jubilee 2000 but ignored the fact that the Jubilee is a biblical concept.
But progressive Christians also seem incapable of confronting the religious right on its own terms. Jesus offered a political manifesto that emphasised non-violence, social justice and the redistribution of wealth – yet all this is drowned out by those who use the text to justify a narrow, authoritarian and morally judgmental form of social respectability. The irony is that the religious right and the secular left have effectively joined forces to promote the idea that the Bible is reactionary. For the secular left, the more the Bible can be described in this way, the easier it is to rubbish. Thus the religious right is free to claim a monopoly on Christianity. And the Christian left, hounded from both sides, finds itself shouted into silence.
Does this matter? Well, yes. Religion isn’t going away; if anything, it is making a comeback. Nearly three-quarters of the population declared themselves Christian in the 2001 census. The old belief that religion would wither and die has beenexposed as simplistic. In this environment, the secular left needs to suspend worn-out hostilities and realise that many people of faith are fellow travellers in the fight for social justice. Otherwise, the coalition of Christian and secular conservatives will grow stronger. That will further damage the church, turning it into an intolerant sect. But it will also undermine progressive politics.
All of which requires a new courage from the Christian left. They need to toughen up, get organised and invoke the spirit of millions of Christians, from St Francis to Donald Soper, who have fought against injustice throughout the ages. Twenty years ago, Faith in the City was a prophetic call to Britain: condemning the selfishness of Thatcherism and the greed of 1980s Britain. The current campaign, Make Poverty History, is a similarly significant moment.
But the present situation also demands a reassessment by the secular left of the religious left. Because only the religious left is capable of challenging the religious right with the language of faith. The secular left, in short, needs to stop sniping and start making new friends. In America, the Christian right and the neocons have grown strong by working together. Now so must we.
· Dr Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney; Dr William Whyte is Fellow in History at St John’s College, Oxford