Secular and religious progressives can work together

Why secular and religious progressives should work together on the causes they agree on.

People tend to think of Christian politics as conservative. They identify defining issues as abortion and gay marriage but there is a long tradition of fighting for social justice and progressive causes, from slavery to Pope Leo’s 19th century defence of unions, to the civil rights movement, and now asylum seekers.

Of course Christians have been found on both or many sides of these issues, which is hardly surprising given the size of the constituency and the complexity of the issues. But media coverage today tends to focus on the religious right, whether suspicion of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Catholic inspiration or the influence of the Australian Christian Lobby. In the US, where the divide between progressive and conservative wings of the church is much sharper, the religious right and the Tea Party dominate discussion, partly because they have far more money and partly because of their influence on secular politics, which seems ever-more firmly entrenched.

But, according to a new report by the respected Brookings Institution, which also has lessons for Australia, the tide is about to turn. The most important factor is demographic, says the report Faith in Equality: Economic Justice and the Future of Religious Progressives – only 49 per cent of religious conservatives are under 49, compared with 66 per cent of progressives. “What’s clear is that the religious right is not the wave of the future,” the report says.

Of course, it’s not clear to what extent religion in any guise is the wave of the future, in the US or Australia. It is certainly not going to disappear but it is going to be increasingly diverse, and must survive secularist attempts to remove its voice in the political arena.

In the US, according to the Brookings Institute, young adults identify religion with the Republican Party, intolerance and homophobia, and distance themselves. In Australia, the churches are often criticised for demanding special political privileges, such as legal exemptions from discrimination laws, and for blocking gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research, while the clergy sexual abuse crisis has greatly vitiated their moral authority.

All these perceptions are superficial and flawed, not least because Christians cover the gamut of opinions, but the churches have not worked hard enough to rebut them. As a result, even though religious progressives are at the forefront of many battles for social justice, secular progressives are still suspicious of them.

Thanks to the May federal budget, that may be changing. The budget has led to widespread concerns among the Australian public about rising inequality, the loss of the fair go as a guiding principle and the breakdown of the social contract.

Agreement on issues of economic justice may inspire the sort of link between religious and secular progressives that both sides have hitherto been wary of. Both will have to be flexible and accept that an alliance on social welfare or the environment need not imply agreement on abortion or gay marriage.

The Brookings report says growing concerns about fairness and equality, the rising influence of Pope Francis and the capacity of religious progressives to build bridges between religious and secular groups will combine to improve the status of religious progressives.

It says religious progressives are too diverse to have the same cohesive force as conservatives but will remain essential to movements working for the poor, the marginalised and even the middle class who are increasingly economically squeezed at a time of rising inequality.

Pope Francis’ emphasis on social justice, demanding the Catholic Church be “a poor church for the poor” has put its social mission at the heart of religious debate, and regalvanised the church in the West (it never lost that emphasis in most of the Third World).

The single greatest asset of the faith-based movement for economic justice is the work religious people do every day in serving the poor.

What progressives on both sides of the religious divide share is a commitment to the common good, equality and welfare support that they believe the Coalition Government is trying to jettison. They see this as an issue of justice, not charity, and reject the apparent attempt of Treasurer Joe Hockey to drive a wedge between ordinary Australians and welfare recipients by saying the former work more than a month each year to support the latter.

It would be a mistake, however, to identify religious conservatives entirely with political conservatives. In fact they often share many progressive concerns. Few organisations are more conservative than the Salvation Army, yet few do more to help those in need, and few are more highly regarded by ordinary Australians. Ministers of all denominations are used to a knock on the door from the desperate, and to providing some sort of help.

The Brookings Institute says: “The single greatest asset of the faith-based movement for economic justice is the work religious people do every day in serving the poor.”

Loose coalitions of secular and religious progressives are already working together, notably on asylum seeker and environmental concerns. Watch this space.

Barney Zwartz, a former religion editor of The Age, is now a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article originally appeared at The Sydney Morning Herald.