St. Francis, pray for us

It's often entertaining to read champions of the religious left excoriating fellow travelers for their cultural powerlessness or their unwillingness to stand up to the religious right. Consider Giles Fraser and William Whyte, writing in The Guardian as if Oliver Cromwell were in charge again and the public executions will begin tomorrow morning:

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.

Giles and Whyte seem especially baffled that their fellow believers fail to articulate what they call Jesus' political manifesto:

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.

Giles and Whyte make fair points about a more vibrant social-justice Christianity of the past, as represented by "millions of Christians, from St Francis to Donald Soper, who have fought against injustice throughout the ages."

Francis would indeed be a fascinating model for today's religious left to adopt. Perhaps he could point toward a spiritual and political movement that draws its strength more from what it's for than what new names it can call conservative Christians.

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