March 17, 2006

Emerging Christian Left To Challenge The Right

By Rene Ciria-Cruz,
New America Media

When Rev. Eric Elnes early last year returned to Arizona from a 3-month sabbatical in Northern Ethiopia and India, he found his congregation in turmoil.

Members were in great anxiety over their identity as Christians, as the news media credited the stunning conservative triumph in the Nov. 2004 presidential elections to the mobilizing power of the Christian Right.

“Many in my congregation feared that because they’re Christians people will presume they’re anti-gay or for the war in Iraq,” says the senior pastor of the Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ.

“They were worried about where fundamentalist extremism was taking our faith, that Christianity has become the radioactive ‘C’ word.” Elnes learned from other pastors that the distress was widespread and wracking other congregations.

So, last Feb. 4 and 5, Elnes joined 50 activists at the Progressive Christian Leadership Summit here, to draw up strategies for a theological and political confrontation with the Christian Right, by re-popularizing “core Christian values” such as “compassion, justice and love of God, neighbor and self.”

Drawing inspiration from Christian leaders who stood on the frontlines of the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, the summit also mapped out an action plan to promote causes such as universal health care, help for the poor and opposition to terrorism, torture, military adventurism and racism.

The gathering at the Church of the Holy Innocents and the Pacific School of Religion at University of California in Berkeley drew activists from 21 faith-based groups, from Protestants for the Common Good and Social Justice Network of Nevada to Clergy and Laity Concerned About Iraq.

Kety Esquivel, a young Lati-na co-executive director of CrossLeft, one of the conveners, explains their driving spirit: “We want Heaven on Earth, not war and suffering. Christ has always been about justice and love for the poor. Christianity is about inclusion, not exclusion through narrow political agendas or wedge issues.”

But why has it taken them so long to respond to Christian conservatives who have been amassing political clout for more than two decades?

Elnes admits he underestimated their influence, presuming that “the culture would correct itself.” He no longer believes that. Esquivel thinks that the deeply held belief that people are entitled to their own political views also restrained those who disagreed with the conservatives.

To organizers like Chris Korzen, however, the Nov. 2004 Republican election victory capped the “snowballing misappropriation of the Christian message—concern for the least among us got lost in the moral values agenda.” Korzen is the executive director of Catholic Democracy Institute and a graduate of the Weston Jesuit School Theology in Cambridge, Mass.

Activists had been meeting informally since March last year. The summit formally approved coordinated nationwide activities. Three “doable” actions set for this year are a high-profile event called Crosswalk America (a 2,500 mile trek-outreach from Phoenix, Ariz. to Washington, DC); setting up operations on 100 campuses through “Unity Walks”; involvement in the coming midterm elections.

The idea for Crosswalk America, a 20-week hike from April to Sept., came to Elnes as he dealt with his congrega-tion’s anguish. He drafted a reiteration of “the ideals of Christianity,” joking to friends that he wanted to walk across America to talk about these ideals—“the path of Jesus”— with people he meets.

“But I couldn’t get rid of the idea. I took a meditative 20-mile walk and still couldn’t erase it. I was ready for another 10 miles,” Elnes recalls.

Crosswalk is planned as an ecumenical event open Catholics and Protestant denominations alike. Rebecca Glenn, who is leading it with Elnes, says the goal is to spark dialogues at various stops and to celebrate “the affirmation of our belief that the Christian way of life is based on love and concern for one another, not on what separates us.”

Campus-based “Unity Walks” will signal the start of concerted network-building in colleges. These interfaith marches are modeled after a successful procession on Sept. 11 last year in Washington, DC to mark the terrorist attacks.

Kyle Pool organized that procession with the help of more than a hundred volunteers. Some 2,000 walkers from 10 different religions and Christian denominations went along Embassy Row and from mos-ques to synagogues, temples and churches to the Gandhi memorial in “silent worship.”

“It was a non-political demonstration by people who didn’t want to be driven apart by the actions of extremists,” recalls Pool, who says a bigger walk is expected this year, with interest in recreating the event coming from as far as Pakistan. “It represents a backlash against the so-called clash of civilizations,” Pool adds.

Korzen prefers not to discuss the group’s electoral plans, but a Christian Democracy Institute job announcement specifies expertise in creating mail and fund-raising databases.

Esquivel suggests targeting key midterm races and vetting candidates “on the basis of social justice issues.” Their electoral strategy will be a work in progress, she cautions, as she and her colleagues are mindful of separation-of-church-and-state concerns.

Summit activists are painfully aware that the Christian Coalition political action group has a reported $16-million purse. While they currently rely on donors to finance their activities, organizers aim to tap institutional support from their various churches.

“We don’t see ourselves attached to a particular party,” Esquivel says about becoming a power bloc in the Democratic Party, just as the Christian Right has become in the Republican Party.

These attempts to revive left activism among Christians bring up knotty questions about the relationship between faith and politics. While the activists want unity among Christians on the one hand, their focus on social justice issues divides them from right-wing fundamentalists and literalists.

Still, these efforts appear to be part of an emerging trend. An Evangelical coalition recently declared adherence to environmentalism. The Vatican and several mainline Protestant churches have separately offered a strong defense of Darwin’s theory of evolution, criticizing “intelligent design” as unscientific.

Elnes sees “classic signs of a movement developing.” He recalls an Episcopalian leader telling him: “Eric, I’ve been a change agent in my congregation for 30 years, but I never took personal risks. Now it’s different. It’s time to put our necks on the block if necessary.”

Rene P. Ciria-Cruz is an editor at New America Media. Another version of this story appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.

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