Tuesday, July 05, 2005

WHERE IS THE CHRISTIAN LEFT?

By William Fisher

As prodigiously funded groups on the religious Right prepare to square off against the equally well-endowed but largely sectarian Left in a take-no-prisoners battle over President George W. Bush’s not-yet-nominated replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, there are signs that a new progressive religious movement may be emerging.

Determined to reclaim the issue of faith from the Christian right, the new Christian Alliance for Progress (CAP) describes itself as a grass-roots organization with plans for a national membership. CAP’s core principles include commitments to economic justice, environmental stewardship, equality for homosexuals, effective prevention -- but not criminalization -- of abortion, peaceful solutions to international disputes, and universal health care for all Americans.

"For years, we've been hearing the name of Christianity be used to speak about hatred, division, war and greed," said Patrick Mrotek, the health management consultant who founded the group. He added, “"We believe we can no longer stand by and watch the language of our faith used in that manner, and we think it is time to reclaim our faith."

Supported by private donations, the group began organizing four months ago and has attracted 3,000 to 4,000 members so far, according to Kathleen LeRoy, vice president of operations. She also said "dozens of people" have agreed to head chapters of the Christian Alliance for Progress across the country.

According to its statement of purpose, "The Christian Alliance for Progress, founded firmly on the teachings of the Gospel, will stand for pursuing economic justice; responsible environmental stewardship; equality for gays and lesbians; honoring the sanctity of childbearing decisions through effective prevention, not criminalization of abortion; seeking peace, not war; and achieving health care for all Americans."

Its liberal stance on abortion mirrors the softer approach recently taken by some Democrats, such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), that abortion, while not a good thing, is something that must be available but rare.

It also opens the possibility for progressive interfaith coalitions. Prof. Omid Safi, one of the co-founders of the Progressive Muslim Union (PMU), told IPS, “Their stances certainly mirror many of PMU’s, and I think groups like this should be working hand in hand.”

Safi is co-chair of the Study of Islam section at the American Academy of Religion, and a professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University. PMU was launched in 2004.

Last week, the Alliance delivered what it calls "The Jacksonville Declaration" – an open letter to leaders of the religious right. The declaration was read in front of the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. The pastor of that church, Jerry Vines, made headlines in 2002 when he described the Prophet Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile."

In the declaration, the group quotes a number of statements that members consider at odds with the spirit of tolerance and compassion in the Bible. For example, they cite a letter religious leader Bob Jones sent to President Bush after last year's election in which he said, "You owe liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ."

The declaration also quotes a statement made by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in March in which he said, "I hope the Supreme Court will finally read the Constitution and see there's no such thing, or no mention of separation of church and state in the Constitution."

Says the Declaration: “We must tell you now that you do not speak for us, or for our politics. We say ‘No’ to the ways you are using the name and language of Christianity to advance what we see as extremist political goals. We do not support your agenda to erode the separation of church and state, to blur the vital distinction between your interpretation of Christianity and our shared democratic institutions. Moreover, we do not accept what seems to be your understanding of Christian values. We reject a Christianity co-opted by any government and used as a tool to ostracize, to subjugate, or to condone bigotry, greed and injustice.”

The Alliance was founded by Jacksonville, Florida, businessman Patrick Mrotek. The Reverend Timothy F. Simpson, a Presbyterian minister, is the group’s director of religious affairs

Rev. Simpson says “the Christian right, in the persons of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson, has come to stand for bigotry, intolerance, and division”, and promises that his organization “will try to repair the damage done by the right’s insistence that the United States is a ‘Christian nation’ that ought to be governed according to their narrow interpretation of Scripture.”

“I understand that the truth can be spoken by Muslims, and the truth can be spoken by Jews. The truth can be spoken by atheists,” said Simpson, adding, “An atheist who stands for the interests of the neighbor, an atheist who stands for the interests of poor people at the margins, for the oppressed, is worth more than a hundred Christians who have made their bed with the fat cats, because that atheist is actually articulating the ends of the kingdom of God.”

CAP launched its Web site last month, and, with no advertising, has already attracted thousands of signatories to its “Jacksonville Declaration”. The group has also recruited community organizers in 20 cities across the country.

The new organization will also make common cause with other progressive Christian groups. Perhaps the best known of these is Soujourners, headed by Rev. Jim Wallis who, after working as an anti-poverty crusader and magazine editor for many years, made headlines in the 2004 presidential campaign by challenging the religious conservative monopoly. Wallis is the author of the best-selling book, "God's Politics".

Simpson said the group would attempt to emulate the religious right in at least one respect: organization. He said the CAP intends to “mobilize a field force of people who will respond to issues and make their voice heard from the perspective of the Christian left.”

But Simpson says he can call for more religion to influence politics while still advocating a clear separation between church and state.

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