Faith and the Left in the 21st Century



A few months ago, I found myself debating with some politically like-minded friends whether or not religion could be ‘compatible’ with socialism. 

The broad consensus went something like this: individual religious belief is fine, provided it’s confined to the private sphere, some of the great socialists of history were also people of deep faith, but ‘Organised Religion’ –– like, say, the Catholic Church –– is an oppressive tool of the bourgeoisie, whose spectre can never be allowed to haunt a secular, socialist utopia. And, of course, with the advancement of science and human progress, religion will ultimately wither away.

I started going to church (regularly, of my own volition) last year, following a nervous breakdown and the gentle persuasion of a devout Baptist friend that I had nothing to lose by giving God a shot. His waiting lists are, after all, shorter than those of the NHS or the local counselling service. I went to my university’s Catholic chaplaincy because it was around the corner from me, and because my parents were both raised Catholic. Inherited from their Irish and Polish fathers, they hung onto it as a cultural marker even after they both stopped believing in God, as a badge of immigrant identity that came with its own self-deprecating quips, in-jokes about large families and eccentric priests. As my mother says, ‘I’m an atheist, but I’m a Catholic atheist, not a Protestant atheist.’ I started going to church on those Sunday mornings when my body refused to do the decent thing and sleep in till noon, and after a few weeks I was going even when it wanted to. I was shuffling into a crowded pew, sharing the hymn-book with the stranger next to me, and staying for tea and coffee in the narthex after mass. The priests were asking how my thesis was going, and an elderly woman with a Zimmer frame was still promising to remember me in her prayers even though I’d forgotten her name twice. 

This isn’t going to be an apologia for the Catholic Church; as a bisexual woman with a fully-functioning uterus, there’s been a few times I’ve gone to church feeling like a turkey preening its feathers for a Christmas party. But when talking to mostly secular fellow socialists about religion, I’ve realised that on this particular issue, we cling to the same flawed liberal dichotomy of public vs private spheres that most of us would happily critique in other contexts. We do not recognise that, for most people, faith is unavoidably a communal aspect of one’s life. It’s the structure, the meaning, the community. It’s those grandparent anecdotes, the parish food bank collection, the prayer intention post-its on the wall. In Catholicism this is very literally expressed in the Eucharist, in the idea that sharing in the body of God binds us into one body, brings us into communion both with God and with all of humanity. But virtually every religion concerns itself with these fundamental questions of what we mean to one another, how to care for one another, for our communities and for our planet. How, then, can these questions not have political implications?

It is taken for granted that, in a liberal democracy, religion and politics are better off leaving one another alone. Indeed, the Enlightenment thinkers that provided so much of what we now think of as liberal political thought were writing in the aftermath of centuries of religious warfare in Europe – the total privatisation of religion, its separation from the public sphere (so the traditional narrative goes) seemed like the safest option. Marx broadly concurred with this profound mistrust of organised religion, and condemned ‘Christian socialism’ as ‘but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.’ No serious critique of the liberal model of secularisation has yet emerged from the Anglophone political left. Alistair Campbell’s famous ‘we don’t do God’ maxim has continued to set the tone of our approach to religion: a slightly squeamish sidestepping of the topic altogether.

I would argue this approach doesn’t work. My argument is largely informed by Christianity – specifically Catholicism – but this is simply because my own faith background is the only one for which I feel qualified to speak. I am aware that many who share that background will disagree with what I have to say, while others who do not may find it resonates with them. But my examples will be mainly drawn from various Christian denominations, so I apologise in advance for conflating, for simplicity’s sake, one particular religion with the question of religion as a whole.

I would argue that the political left needs to engage with religion. There are several reasons for this, but the most immediate and crucial of them is the simple fact that the political right is more than happy to engage with religion – enthusiastically, aggressively, and opportunistically.

In recent years, far-right movements across the world have increasingly turned to religion for the fig leaf of ‘traditional values’ it offers. It has taken only a few decades – roughly beginning in the Seventies – for the association of extreme conservatism and Christianity, especially in the United States, to become so deeply ingrained as to go almost unquestioned. But this development was by no means natural or inevitable; it has been interpreted as a reaction, at least in part, against the progress towards equality made by women, people of colour, and other minority groups over the latter decades of the twentieth century. Christian fundamentalism offered a convenient ideological package to bolster the reaction against perceived threats to the social position of white heterosexual men: the notion of the ‘traditional family’ could be re-imagined as a specifically Christian ideal, not merely a patriarchal one. The evangelical Christian bloc now maintains a stranglehold on American politics, particularly in relation to ‘culture war’ issues such as same-sex marriage and reproductive control. 

Faith plays a key role in these battlegrounds, whether we like it or not. The far-right understands the power of religion, how it can give someone a sense of structure, meaning, community – those things I found so positive in my church – and how they can manipulate those things into dogma and bigotry. It is not enough for us (and when I say ‘us,’ I am referring to both socialists and people of faith) to dismiss this as an extreme fringe movement. We need to develop an alternative approach, making the left a more welcoming place for believers. 

In the United States, my own church has recently become an unlikely partner of the evangelical lobby. Clerics like Cardinal Burke, the centre of the conservative faction undermining Pope Francis in the Vatican, have started parroting far-right lines on immigration and LGBT issues that make them useful idiots of the kind of evangelical leaders who still refer to the Roman Catholic Church as the ‘scarlet whore of Babylon.’ As the far-right becomes an increasingly globalised movement, the Christian fundamentalist groups that have held sway over elections in the USA for the last few decades are now seeking to expand their particular brand of bigotry to Europe. An investigation by OpenDemocracy published earlier this year revealed that over the last decade, more than fifty million dollars in ‘dark money’ has been poured into Europe from various Christian fundamentalist groups in the Americas, including the controversial televangelist Pat Robertson’s ‘American Centre for Law & Justice’ and the Brazilian quasi-fascist traditionalist Catholic cult, ‘Tradition, Family and Property.’ This money funds organisations and individuals that campaign against immigration, against civil rights for LGBT people, and against laws banning discrimination and hate speech, all in the name of ‘religious freedom.’

The ‘Eurabia’ conspiracy theory has become a key tool of the Christian far-right; by distorting the current refugee crisis into a ‘Muslim invasion of Europe,’ its leaders can tell white Europeans of Christian background that their ‘heritage’ and ‘civilisation’ are under attack from hostile external forces. The ‘defence of Christian Europe,’ so often invoked by leaders like Viktor Orbán, can be an attractive call to arms for those who see themselves disenfranchised by the modern world, particularly in Eastern European countries where the decades since the fall of communism have not yielded the prosperity that people were promised. Christianity becomes a rhetorical stand-in for the West and for whiteness – in spite of its Middle Eastern origins and the fact that three-quarters of all Christians live outside Europe. Far-right leaders, regardless of their personal affiliation or beliefs, embrace the language and imagery associated with Christianity with gusto – think of Italy’s Matteo Salvini, fond of waving a rosary around at rallies – to bolster the illusion that there is a religious justification for this unbridled hatred of migrants and minorities. 

An apolitical person of faith might be forgiven, in the current climate, for thinking they are best represented by those politicians who have manufactured the sense of grievance and the imagined communities that form the basis of any far-right movement. After all, there are few other voices heard in this debate. Even purely from the perspective of pragmatism, then, the left cannot allow the conversation to continue to be monopolised by the right. Commenting on the aforementioned openDemocracy investigation, Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, pointed out, ‘it took the Christian right 30 years to get where they are now in the White House. We knew a similar effort was happening in Europe, but this should be a wake-up call that this is happening even faster and on a grander scale than many experts could have ever imagined.’ 

But while there are pragmatic reasons for the left to abandon its squeamishness (or outright distaste) regarding religion, these are certainly not the only ones. Despite the ‘traditional values’ pantomime of many conservative political parties, the ideology of neoliberal capitalism is utterly antithetical to what most Christians, and people of other faith groups, believe. While some religious leaders may continue to obsess over issues of gender and sexuality, many of us realise that the principles at the heart of our faith – the dignity of the human being and the sanctity of creation – are being degraded and destroyed, day after day, by the economic system that prevails over much of the globe, a system whose fundamental mechanism is one of exploitation.

In a visit to Bolivia in the summer of 2015, Pope Francis warned that ‘once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.’ This was not, as conservative critics claim, the wholesale implantation of Marxist theory into Catholic theology. The speech directly quotes the work of the 4th century bishop St Basil of Caesarea, and indeed, it draws heavily on language and ideas we find throughout the texts of the Bible: the harshest denunciations of the prophets are reserved for those who oppress the poor and the vulnerable for personal gain, and those who profess to love God while failing to show it through love for their neighbours. Only last year at a conference in Rome on ‘Xenophobia, Racism and Populist Nationalism in the Context of Global Migration’ organised by the Vatican and the World Council of Churches, delegates unambiguously stated that ‘to refuse to receive and help those in need is contrary to the example and calling of Jesus Christ. Claiming to protect Christian values or communities by shutting out those who seek safe refuge from violence and suffering is unacceptable, undermines Christian witness in the world, and raises up national boundaries as idols.’

People of faith, then, recognise our duty to address socioeconomic injustice in this world – and equally, politically engaged people of the left fighting these same battles may be informed by a private faith or religious background. Indeed, it is strange to pretend otherwise; for most of us, our ideas are shaped by a variety of different influences, that are more often in dialogue than in conflict with one another. As Jim Larkin, the great Irish trade unionist who led the 1913 Dublin Lockout, once said in reference to his faith: ‘a man can pray to Jesus the Carpenter, and be a better socialist for it.’ In a recent article for the Church Times, Jeremy Corbyn acknowledged that ‘the Labour Party would not exist without the work of Christian socialists, whose worship was expressed in striving for a better, happier society rooted in the common good.’ While the historical links between the British labour movement and Methodism are well-known, the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch quips in his History of Christianity that the electoral success of the Labour Party in the 20th century ‘owe[d] more to the Mass than to Marx,’ thanks to the votes of working-class Catholics. These votes were important enough for Ramsay MacDonald to call for clarification from the church that Catholics were permitted to vote Labour in 1931, which Cardinal Bourne happily provided. 

There is, then, an already existing tradition of dialogue between religious groups and the political left. It is time for us to ask ourselves what this tradition should look like in the twenty-first century. What does it mean, in our current age, for the left to ‘do’ religion? We cannot continue to muddle along with the uneasy kind of secularism that simply refuses to acknowledge what, for many people, is a big part of their lives. But neither will we get very far with a Blue Labour-style domestication of religion – particularly that great tea-and-cake arm of the state, the Church of England – that strips faith of its capacity for prophetic rallying against injustice. 

The answer could lie in what religious groups are already doing to address those injustices. The decade since the financial crisis has seen considerable growth in church-based social action, and a recent report by Demos found that churches are increasingly partnering with secular voluntary organisations, local authorities and other non-Christian faith groups to tackle issues such as food poverty and inadequate mental health services within their communities. These partnerships are beneficial not only for pooling resources, but for allowing a more holistic and community-based approach to the kind of long-term support vulnerable people often need under a Tory government. The devastation of austerity has directly led to faith groups stepping in to provide these vital services, such as care for the elderly, support for parents of young children, debt counselling, and of course, even providing basic food and toiletry supplies to families living in poverty. 

Whenever the Archbishop of Canterbury, or any other religious figure, criticises the Universal Credit system, or tax avoidance, or zero-hours contracts, there are immediately calls for them to ‘stick to religion’ and ‘keep their nose out of politics.’ But it is increasingly churches and faith groups that are having to keep afloat the wrecked human lives that politicians leave in their wake as they ride roughshod over our public services and welfare state. Faith groups should not need to provide these services, and they are no substitute for the kind of comprehensive social safety net that the last decade of ideologically-motivated austerity has been gradually stripping away. But the work faith groups are currently doing in their communities, to fill the gaps and pick up the pieces, makes them a key part of formulating long-term solutions to social issues, makes them building-blocks of the fairer society the Labour Party wants to build. They are on the front line of our communities, and have a voice to which the left must listen if it’s serious about understanding communities right now. As religious groups are committing themselves to, in the words of the aforementioned Vatican-WCC conference, ‘the transformation of unjust structures and systems… which create cultures and conditions which exclude others and deny the equal dignity and rights of all,’ should the left not recognise that this is also our mission? 

While the Labour Party already has a number of explicitly faith-based affiliated societies that are making vital contributions to policy and campaigning, a socialist strategy for reorganising society on the basis of inclusion, equality, and the pursuit of the common good must go directly to faith-based organisations on the front line of the battles against poverty and isolation. These groups should be included in discussions around finding lasting solutions to these problems, and their contributions – and the religious motivation for those contributions – acknowledged. A commitment to ultimately making church-based social action as redundant as possible does not preclude a commitment to welcoming and facilitating those efforts in the meantime. 

We must be wary of co-opting religious rhetoric as the far-right does – of building fences around a particular faith identity and weaponising it – by embracing all cultural and faith traditions, and their unique approaches to social justice and strengthening communities. For this, we need to explore ways civil authorities and secular organisations can help to facilitate inter-faith dialogue and cooperation, and how faith provides opportunities for bringing communities together. A good example here might be the Grand Iftar held every year on St Mark’s Road in my hometown of Bristol – first organised by the local Muslim community in 2017, it brings together people of all faiths and none to share food, meet their neighbours, and learn more about the importance of Ramadan in the Islamic faith. This event, the biggest of its kind in the UK, has inspired similar events in other cities across the world, and earned St Mark’s Road the Academy of Urbanism’s 2020 Great Street Award as ‘a perfect example of community-led urbanism’ that ‘creates cohesion across many cultural backgrounds.’ At a time where public space is increasingly privatised, and with market logic infecting so much of our thinking – around friendship, love, and senses of place – religion serves as a valuable antithesis to contemporary neoliberal culture. Religious charity and community is fundamentally about worship, but it is also about doing good for its own sake, and thus offers a mode of thinking that the left can coalesce around in the dark five years to come.   

Religion probably isn’t withering away anytime soon. According to the Pew Forum, the proportion of the human population that is religious (84%) today will have risen to 90% by 2050. Whether we like it or not, the world the left must build to meet the challenges of the 21st century will be a world with religion in it. Faith does not need to be a source of conflict, as those who would exploit it would like it to be. It is not in competition with any political ideology, either in the individual consciousness or in society as a whole. As a social question, religion is certainly not without its challenges, but it would be a grave mistake for the left to neglect its ability to bring people together, in communion, in dialogue, and give them the drive to bring comfort to the afflicted and justice to the oppressed. After all, that’s our job too.