liberal Christians: is this their moment? Guardian editorial
The election of practising Catholic Joe Biden is just one reason for religious progressives to be hopeful
A liberal Catholic
The election to the White House of Joe Biden, a Democrat who is also a practising Catholic, is the best news liberal Christians have had for a long time. In a book published last month, the conservative Australian cardinal George Pell said Mr Trump was “a bit of a barbarian, but in some important ways he’s ‘our’ (Christian) barbarian”. The end of that cynically transactional relationship between Mr Trump’s White House and the religious right signals new possibilities. In his victory speech, Mr Biden quoted from Ecclesiastes, saying that for a divided America, “it was a time to heal”. When he has discussed his faith, the president-elect has tended to talk about altruism, decency and personal integrity, steering clear of provocative dividing lines.
Mr Biden has backed access to abortion and same-sex marriage. He will, as a result, be relentlessly targeted by conservative Catholic critics and evangelicals. The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, José Gomez, has convened a working group to address the “difficult and complex” situation of dealing with a liberal Catholic in the White House. But the Catholic vote was split evenly between Mr Biden and Mr Trump. And, crucially, Pope Francis is likely to have the new president’s back.
This relationship could constitute an important new axis of liberal influence in the west. After a recent phone call between the two, a statement from Mr Biden’s transition team said the president-elect “expressed his desire to work together on the basis of a shared belief in the dignity and equality of all humankind, on issues such as caring for the marginalised and the poor, addressing the crisis of climate change and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities”. This was to more or less tick off the list of priorities the pope has attempted to set, while under constant assault from religious conservatives. The disruption of the recent alliance between Christianity and rightwing populism carries significant implications not only for America, but for the battle against global poverty, the climate emergency and the migration crisis.
Fraternity as the new frontier
Mr Biden’s election is not the only hopeful sign for Christians who long for their leaders to look beyond the narrow preoccupation with reproductive rights and sexuality. Last year was marked by two significant theological documents, one from the eastern church and one from the west. Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, published during Lent, is a radical clarion call for Orthodox Christians to engage with deepening inequalities in developed societies, and to confront wealthy nations with their moral obligations to refugees. The tone is set by the opening words of the text: “Our spiritual lives … cannot fail to be social lives.” Endorsed by Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox church, the document recalls that “[the] early and Byzantine church had a bold voice on social justice”. This, it states, must be revived and renewed.
Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All), was written in the same spirit. Ideas of fraternity and friendship are developed as a necessary complement to the familiar political categories of liberty and equality. The argument is summed up in Let Us Dream, where the pope writes: “Without the ‘we’ of a people, of a family, of institutions, of a society that transcends the ‘I’ of individual interests, life … becomes a battle for supremacy between factions and interests.”
Intriguingly, variations on this theme have been explored in a string of recent publications, both secular and religious. In his valedictory work Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, the late chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, criticises the modern priority of “I” over “we”. Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s The Upswing and Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit both attempt to map out a civic territory that avoids the twin dangers of selfish individualism and illiberal populism.
In recent years, Christian leaders have too often been silent, complicit or cravenly proactive, as the Bible has been deployed as a weapon in conservative culture wars. The image of Trump marching through teargassed streets to brandish a bible outside a Washington church encapsulated a kind of capitulation. But in the new year, liberal Christians have grounds for cautious optimism. In the necessary project of carving out a new space for a less polarised, more fraternal public square, they have a vital role to play.