Christian Socialists retain faith in Brown, despite criticisms
While much instant reaction to Gordon Brownís agenda-setting speech at the 2006 Labour Party Conference in Manchester this afternoon has been sceptical, the head of the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) has told Ekklesia that he was ìcheered and inspiredî by it overall. [See also: CSM head says Blair should have heeded churches on Iraq war]
Critics have called the chancellorís presentation a ëhustings rally callí, thin on detail and heavy on the rhetorical flourishes he believes are needed to wed middle England and disgruntled Labour activists into a force to defeat David Cameron after Tony Blair goes as PM.
But Dr Andrew Bradstock, CSM director, welcomed the ìvision of a better societyî and its ìChristian groundingî ñ referring to Mr Brownís appeal to the ìsoulî of politics, to community action and to his Presbyterian roots.
He welcomed the now-chancellorís stated belief that parliament should have the final say on matters of national and international importance like war and peace.
Dr Bradstock opposed the Iraq war himself, even as a Labour parliamentary candidate, but admitted that the Christian Socialists have remained collectively silent about the conflict since expressing ìgrave reservationsî in 2003.
He said he thought many individual CSM members would welcome Mr Brownís implied ëhigher testí for war. And he admitted that in spite of Brownís high ideals, there was little movement on controversial issues such as the replacement of Trident nuclear weapons, identity cards, or health and education reforms ñ where opponents say Labour has lost its core values and instincts.
Given its general adherence to the party line, and its willingness to take money off Nestle, in spite of a church and development agency boycott of the company over the alleged impact of its products on poor families in the global South, CSMís critics will suggest that the Movement has little opportunity to exercise its prophetic Christian muscles or vocal chords.
But Dr Bradstock disagrees. Acknowledging the ëpost-Christendomí critique of Ekklesia director Jonathan Bartley, who argued in a recent book that political parties are not the best route for Christian radicalism, Bradstock said that the choice was still between having principles without power, and dealing with the messy ground needed to move a progressive agenda ahead.
According to Dr Bradstock, Gordon Brownís wholesale endorsement of ëBlairismí was to be expected, given his founding role in ëthe projectí. But on global issues, the environment, personal empowerment and social fairness he noted a radical edge ñ and the influence of ìa Christian approach in a broader political contextî.
In relation to global debt, conspicuously absent from this speech, Gordon Brown had previously said that the pressure of extra-parliamentary campaigners could help ëwiden the optionsí he had from a seat at the table of the powerful.
The director of the Christian Socialist Movement agreed that this emphasis was not present in todayís speech, but he told Ekklesia that he thought it was still ìfundamentalî to Mr Brownís overall approach.
Progressive Christians operating outside the party system remain worried about the cooption of Christian language by political leaders of whatever hue, and argue that more is achieved by working for ground-up change and modelling alternatives within churches and communities.
They point to ex-Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten, who since leaving parliament after a sex scandal has said that the scope for genuine manoeuvre was very limited, and hindered him from effectively arguing a more far-reaching case for change ñ for example, the gradual abolition of prisons within the penal system.
Others in pressure groups say that there is room for involvement within and without ëthe systemí, with strategic cooperation among those in different locations ñ but like those of a ëpost-Christendomí persuasion, they wonder what positive difference the ìChristianî label makes when it gets affiliated to a political party.
Post-Christendom activists talk of an opportunity for faith communities to disavow attempts to control society from above or to buttress particular social systems ñ and to become, instead, vibrant sources of alternative values, ideas and practices.
CSMís Andrew Bradstock sees both sides of the argument, but believes Christians have a very positive role within Labour, in spite of the compromises.
[Also on Ekklesia: CSM head says Blair should have heeded churches on Iraq war 25/09/06; Cabinet minister urges more open debate on Trident replacement 25/09/06; Brown stresses Christian roots, a brake on war, and political loyalty 25/09/06; British Prime Minister seeks divine solace in Manchester 24/09/06; Tony Blair's use of the 'G' word - by Jonathan Bartley; The 'which Blair?' project Simon Barrow asks what the PM has faith in anymore; Six point alternative to war ; Gordon Brown's Africa debt action inspired by church; Gordon Brown calls for a day to celebrate Britishness; Chancellor leaves on africa mission to assault poverty; Brown pledges an end to global education poverty; Brown disappoints churches with backing for nuclear weapons; Christians begin march against Trident replacement; Brownís billions highlight rich-poor dilemma; Brown poverty plan will cut aid, says WDM; Bush's church urges pull-out of US troops from Iraq 24/09/06; Thousands march against war at Labour conference in Manchester 23 Sep 2006; Christian Socialists defend NestlÈ sponsorship]