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The Christian left is a range of Christian political and social movements that largely embrace social justice principles and uphold a social doctrine or social gospel. Given the inherent diversity in international political thought, the term Christian left can have different meanings and applications in different countries. While there is much overlap, the Christian left is distinct from liberal Christianity, meaning not all Christian leftists are liberal Christians and vice versa.
In the United States, the Christian left usually aligns with modern liberalism and progressivism, using the social gospel to achieve better social and economic equality.Christian anarchism, Christian communism, and Christian socialism are subsets of the socialist Christian left. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of the Communist Manifesto , both had Christian upbringings.
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As with any section within the left–right political spectrum, a label such as Christian left represents an approximation, including within it groups and persons holding many diverse viewpoints. The term left-wing might encompass a number of values, some of which may or may not be held by different Christian movements and individuals. As the unofficial title of a loose association of believers, it provides a clear distinction from the more commonly known Christian right, or religious right, and from its key leaders and political views.
The most common religious viewpoint that might be described as left-wing is social justice, or care for impoverished and oppressed minority groups. Supporters of this trend might encourage universal health care, welfare provisions, subsidized education, foreign aid, and affirmative action for improving the conditions of the disadvantaged. With values stemming from egalitarianism, adherents of the Christian left consider it part of their religious duty to take actions on behalf of the oppressed. Matthew 25:31–46, among other verses, is often cited to support this view. As nearly all major religions contain some kind of requirement to help others,adherents of various religions have cited social justice as a movement in line with their faith.
The term social justice was coined in the 1840s by Luigi Taparelli, an Italian Catholic scholar of the Society of Jesus, who was inspired by the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Matthew 6:5-6 ) as opposed to publicly mandated prayer, are mandated by the Gospel. The Bible contains accounts of Jesus repeatedly advocating for the poor and outcast over the wealthy, powerful, and religious. The Christian left maintains that such a stance is relevant and important. Adhering to the standard of "turning the other cheek", which they believe supersedes the Old Testament law of "an eye for an eye", the Christian left sometimes hearkens towards pacifism in opposition to policies advancing militarism.The Christian left holds that social justice, renunciation of power, humility, forgiveness, and private observation of prayer (as in
Some among the Christian left,as well as some non-religious socialists, find support for anarchism, communism, and socialism in the Gospels, for example Mikhail Gorbachev citing Jesus as "the first socialist". The Christian left is a broad category that includes Christian socialism, as well as Christians who would not identify themselves as socialists.
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For much of the early history of anti-establishment leftist movements, such as socialism and communism, which was highly anti-clerical in the 19th century, some established churches were led by clergy who saw revolution as a threat to their status and power. The church was sometimes seen as part of the establishment. Revolutions in the United States of America, France and Russia were in part directed against the established churches, or rather their leading clergy, and instituted a separation of church and state.
In the 19th century, some writers and activists developed the school of thought of Christian socialism, which infused socialist principles into Christian theology and praxis. Early socialist thinkers such as Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon based their theories of socialism upon Christian principles. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels reacted against these theories by formulating a secular theory of socialism in The Communist Manifesto .
Starting in the late 19th century and early 20th century,[ citation needed ] some began to take on the view that genuine Christianity had much in common with a leftist perspective. From St. Augustine of Hippo's City of God through St. Thomas More's Utopia , major Christian writers had expounded upon views that socialists found agreeable. Of major interest was the extremely strong thread of egalitarianism in the New Testament. Other common leftist concerns such as pacifism, social justice, racial equality, human rights, and the rejection of excessive wealth are also expressed strongly in the Bible. In the late 19th century, the Social Gospel movement arose (particularly among some Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists in North America and Britain,) which attempted to integrate progressive and socialist thought with Christianity to produce a faith-based social activism, promoted by movements such as Christian socialism. In the United States during this period, Episcopalians and Congregationalists generally tended to be the most liberal, both in theological interpretation and in their adherence to the Social Gospel. In Canada, a coalition of liberal Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians founded the United Church of Canada, one of the first true Christian left denominations. Later in the 20th century, liberation theology was championed by such writers as Gustavo Gutierrez and Matthew Fox.
To a significant degree, the Christian left developed out of the experiences of clergy who went to do pastoral work among the working class, often beginning without any social philosophy but simply a pastoral and evangelistic concern for workers. This was particularly true among the Methodists and Anglo-Catholics in England, Father Adolph Kolping in Germany and Joseph Cardijn in Belgium.
Some Christian groups were closely associated with the peace movements against the Vietnam War as well as the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Religious leaders in many countries have also been on the forefront of criticizing any cuts to social welfare programs. In addition, many prominent civil rights activists were religious figures.
In the United States, members of the Christian Left come from a spectrum of denominations: Peace churches, elements of the Protestant mainline churches, Catholicism, and some evangelicals.
Martin Luther King Jr. was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesman and leader in the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. Inspired by his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi, he led targeted, nonviolent resistance against Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination. In 1957, King and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group was created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the service of civil rights reform. The group was inspired by the crusades of evangelist Billy Graham, who befriended King, as well as the national organizing of the group In Friendship, founded by King allies Stanley Levison and Ella Baker. King led the SCLC until his death.
As a Christian minister, King's main influence was Jesus Christ and the Christian gospels, which he would almost always quote in his religious meetings, speeches at church, and in public discourses. King's faith was strongly based in Jesus' commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself, loving God above all, and loving your enemies, praying for them and blessing them. His nonviolent thought was also based in the injunction to turn the other cheek in the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus' teaching of putting the sword back into its place (Matthew 26:52). In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, King urged action consistent with what he describes as Jesus' "extremist" love, and also quoted numerous other Christian pacifist authors, which was very usual for him. In another sermon, he stated:
Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don't plan to run for any political office. I don't plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I'm doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.
From a young age, 39th U.S. president Jimmy Carter showed a deep commitment to Christianity. In 1942, Carter became a deacon and teaches Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. At a private inauguration worship service, the preacher was Nelson Price, the pastor of Roswell Street Baptist Church of Marietta, Georgia. During his 1966 and 1970 Georgia gubernatorial campaigns, as well as his 1976 presidential campaign, Carter appealed largely to conservative Christian and rural voters. As president, Carter prayed several times a day, and professed that Jesus was the driving force in his life. Carter had been greatly influenced by a sermon he had heard as a young man. It asked, "If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" In 2000, Carter severed his membership with the Southern Baptist Convention, saying the group's doctrines did not align with his Christian beliefs, while still a member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In 2007, together with former President Clinton, he founded the New Baptist Covenant organization for social justice.
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The Christian left generally approaches homosexuality differently from some other Christian political groups. This approach can be driven by focusing on issues differently despite holding similar religious views, or by holding different religious ideas. Those in the Christian left who have similar ideas as other Christian political groups but a different focus may view Christian teachings on certain issues, such as the Bible's prohibitions against killing or criticisms of concentrations of wealth, as far more politically important than Christian teachings on social issues emphasized by the religious right, such as opposition to homosexuality. Others in the Christian left have not only a different focus on issues from other Christian political groups, but different religious ideas as well.
For example, some members of the Christian left may consider discrimination and bigotry against homosexuals to be immoral, but they differ on their views towards homosexual sex. Some believe homosexual sex to be immoral but unimportant compared with issues relating to social justice, or even matters of sexual morality involving heterosexual sex. Others assert that some homosexual practices are compatible with the Christian life. Such members believe common biblical arguments used to condemn homosexuality are misinterpreted, and that biblical prohibitions of homosexual practices are actually against a specific type of homosexual sex act, i.e. pederasty, the sodomizing of young boys by older men. Thus, they hold biblical prohibitions to be irrelevant when considering modern same-sex relationships.
A related strain of thought is the (Catholic and progressive evangelical) consistent life ethic, which sees opposition to capital punishment, militarism, euthanasia, abortion and the global unequal distribution of wealth as being related. It is an idea with certain concepts shared by Abrahamic religions as well as Buddhists, Hindus, and members of other religions. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago developed the idea for the consistent life ethic in 1983.Sojourners is particularly associated with this strand of thought.
Liberation theology is a theological tradition that emerged in the developing world, primarily in Latin America.Since the 1960s, Catholic thinkers have integrated left-wing thought and Catholicism, giving rise to Liberation theology. It arose at a time when Catholic thinkers who opposed the despotic leaders in Southern and Central America allied themselves with the communist opposition. However, it developed independently of and roughly simultaneously with Black theology in the U.S. and should not be confused with it. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decided that while liberation theology is partially compatible with Catholic social teaching, certain Marxist elements of it, such as the doctrine of perpetual class struggle, are against Church teachings.
A number of movements of the past had similarities to today's Christian left:
Left-wing politics describes the range of political ideologies that support and seek to achieve social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy. Left-wing politics typically involve a concern for those in society whom its adherents perceive as disadvantaged relative to others as well as a belief that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished. Left-wing politics are also associated with popular or state control of major political and economic institutions. According to emeritus professor of economics Barry Clark, left-wing supporters "claim that human development flourishes when individuals engage in cooperative, mutually respectful relations that can thrive only when excessive differences in status, power, and wealth are eliminated."
Liberation theology is a Christian theological approach emphasizing the liberation of the oppressed. In certain contexts, it engages socio-economic analyses, with "social concern for the poor and political liberation for oppressed peoples". In other contexts, it addresses other forms of inequality, such as race or caste.
The Christian right, or the religious right, are Christian political factions characterized by their strong support of socially conservative and traditionalist policies. Christian conservatives seek to influence politics and public policy with their interpretation of the teachings of Christianity.
Christian socialism is a religious and political philosophy that blends Christianity and socialism, endorsing left-wing politics and socialist economics on the basis of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. Many Christian socialists believe capitalism to be idolatrous and rooted in the sin of greed. Christian socialists identify the cause of social inequality to be the greed that they associate with capitalism. Christian socialism became a major movement in the United Kingdom beginning in the 19th century. The Christian Socialist Movement, known as Christians on the Left since 2013, is one formal group, as well as a faction of the Labour Party.
Christian communism is a theological view that the teachings of Jesus compel Christians to support religious communism. Although there is no universal agreement on the exact dates when communistic ideas and practices in Christianity began, many Christian communists argue that evidence from the Bible suggests that the first Christians, including the Apostles in the New Testament, established their own small communist society in the years following Jesus' death and resurrection. Many advocates of Christian communism and other communists, including Karl Kautsky, argue that it was taught by Jesus and practised by the apostles themselves. This is generally confirmed by historians.
The Social Gospel is a social movement within Protestantism that aims to apply Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, lack of unionization, poor schools, and the dangers of war. It was most prominent in the early-20th-century United States and Canada. Theologically, the Social Gospelers sought to put into practice the Lord's Prayer : "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". They typically were postmillennialist; that is, they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort. The Social Gospel was more popular among clergy than laity. Its leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing of the progressive movement, and most were theologically liberal, although a few were also conservative when it came to their views on social issues. Important leaders included Richard T. Ely, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch.
Progressive Christianity represents a post-modern theological approach, and is not necessarily synonymous with progressive politics. It developed out of the liberal Christianity of the modern era, which was rooted in the Enlightenment's thinking. Progressive Christianity is a "post-liberal movement" within Christianity that "seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism and a reclaiming of the truth beyond the verifiable historicity and factuality of the passages in the Bible by affirming the truths within the stories that may not have actually happened."
Liberal Christianity, also known as Liberal Theology and historically as Christian Modernism, is a movement that interprets Christian teaching by taking into consideration modern knowledge, science and ethics. It emphasizes the importance of reason and experience over doctrinal authority. Liberal Christians view their theology as an alternative to both atheistic rationalism and theologies based on traditional interpretations of external authority, such as the Bible or sacred tradition.
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) was an American theologian and Baptist pastor who taught at the Rochester Theological Seminary. Rauschenbusch was a key figure in the Social Gospel and single tax movements that flourished in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was also the maternal grandfather of the influential philosopher Richard Rorty and the great-grandfather of Paul Raushenbush.
The Student Christian Movement of Canada is a youth-led ecumenical network of student collectives based in spirituality, issues of social, economic justice, environmental justice, and building autonomous local communities on campuses across the country. It is part of the World Student Christian Federation. The SCM Canada works with other Christian groups, for example, in 2017 supporting the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Religious socialism is a type of socialism based on religious values. Members of several major religions have found that their beliefs about human society fit with socialist principles and ideas. As a result, religious socialist movements have developed within these religions. Those movements include Buddhist socialism, Christian socialism, Islamic socialism, and Jewish socialism. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica Online, socialism is a "social and economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. According to the socialist view, individuals do not live or work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another. Furthermore, everything that people produce is in some sense a social product, and everyone who contributes to the production of a good is entitled to a share in it. Society as a whole, therefore, should own or at least control property for the benefit of all its members. [...] Early Christian communities also practiced the sharing of goods and labour, a simple form of socialism subsequently followed in certain forms of monasticism. Several monastic orders continue these practices today".
William Dwight Porter Bliss (1856–1926) was an American Episcopal priest and one of the most famous and influential Christian socialists at the turn of 20th century. As a devout churchman, organizer, public speaker and an editor of numerous publications for over 40 years, Bliss became a central figure for the entire Christian socialist movement.
The relationship between Christianity and politics is a historically complex subject and a frequent source of disagreement throughout the history of Christianity, as well as in modern politics between the Christian right and Christian left. There have been a wide variety of ways in which thinkers have conceived of the relationship between Christianity and politics, with many arguing that Christianity directly supports a particular political ideology or philosophy. Along these lines, various thinkers have argued for Christian communism, Christian socialism, Christian nationalism, Christian anarchism, Christian libertarianism, or Christian democracy. Others believe that Christians should have little interest or participation in politics or government.
19th-century German philosopher Karl Marx, the founder and primary theorist of Marxism, viewed religion as "the soul of soulless conditions" or the "opium of the people". According to Karl Marx, religion in this world of exploitation is an expression of distress and at the same time it is also a protest against the real distress. In other words, religion continues to survive because of oppressive social conditions. When this oppressive and exploitative condition is destroyed, religion will become unnecessary. At the same time, Marx saw religion as a form of protest by the working classes against their poor economic conditions and their alienation. Denys Turner, a scholar of Marx and historical theology, classified Marx's views as adhering to Post-Theism, a philosophical position that regards worshipping deities as an eventually obsolete, but temporarily necessary, stage in humanity's historical spiritual development.
Liberation theology in Canada has had a significant history in the later 20th and early 21st centuries.
Religious communism is a form of communism that incorporates religious principles. Scholars have used the term to describe a variety of social or religious movements throughout history that have favored the common ownership of property.
A robust tradition of Christian socialism in Utah developed and flourished in the first part of the twentieth century, playing an important part in the development and expression of radicalism in Utah. Part of a larger, nationwide movement in many American Protestant churches, the Christian socialist movement was particularly strong in Utah, where dedicated Christian socialist ministers were fierce advocates for the miners laboring in the Mountain states.
The political influence of Evangelicalism in Latin America is a phenomenon that has resulted in increased political influence and activism by the Evangelical Christian community in the region. Marginal at first, different news reports and political analysts have pointed the important weight that such community has and its impact in electoral politics, even helping in the electoral victories of conservative candidates.