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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The 'Christian Socialist' Clergymen Praising the Occupy Protests are more Socialist than Christian. What about Saving Souls?

ByTim Stanley

The Occupy movement has attracted the support of religious figures on both sides of the Atlantic. We might welcome the fact that priests and pastors are engaging with the debate over how to build a more humane and equitable economy. But there is a danger that these men and women are lending the legitimacy of their faith to an illegitimate cause. And the rhetoric of some of these latter-day Christian socialists is starting to sound more socialist than Christian.

The British Left was surprised but supportive when Canon Giles Fraser quit his position at St Paul’s Cathedral in protest at its handling of the Occupy crowd squatting on its door. Fraser’s rebellion was a rather confusing one: he didn’t think that the occupation should stay, he just opposed the use of force to move it on. Nevertheless, the anarchists in the street welcomed what looked like a revival of radical Christian witness. The eloquent Canon Fraser said: “I think that, in a sense what the camp does is that it challenges the church with the problem of the Incarnation – that you have God, who is grand and almighty, [who] gets born in a stable, in a tent. You know, St Paul was a tent maker. I mean, if you looked around and you tried to recreate where Jesus would be born – for me, I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp.”

But Fraser’s benediction of the occupation should be qualified by the fact that he is a very odd Christian. For a start, judging by one of his Thought for the Day broadcasts, he doesn’t seem to believe in life after death. The hope of “life eternal” is really Christianity 101: it’s the hope that defeats suffering and keeps us all from dying in despair. What does Fraser say to his parishioners on their deathbeds, one wonders? Obviously not, “We’ll meet again”. Working on the basis that if there’s only one life you may as well live it to the max, Fraser also endorses gay marriage. He promotes his views through The Guardian, The Socialist Worker and Radio 4. Not that he does any of this for the money! He doesn’t need to: until recently, Canon Fraser lived in a 17th-century grace and favour house.

Across the Atlantic, it’s the same story. In Boston, the global Occupiers have erected a “sacred space” similar to those windowless “chapels” found in airports. To quote one journalist: “A day's schedule finds people balancing their chakras, a "compassion meditation" and a discussion of a biblical passage in Luke. Inside, a Buddha statue sits near a picture of Jesus, while a hand-lettered sign in the corner points toward Mecca.” Meanwhile, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released a document last week that appeared to endorse Occupy Wall Street. At least that was the interpretation of radical Washington DC cleric Fr Thomas Reese. Fr Reese said that the document also called for the “redistribution of wealth and the regulation of the world economy by international agencies.”

At first glance, this looks like a Papal blessing for the movement. But, in fact, the Council for Justice and Peace has no religious authority at all. If it did call for the “redistribution of wealth” then it would be contradicting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which regards property as an inviolable human right (and also inveighs against inflationary spending). So why did Fr Reese say what he said? It might have something to do with his record as a “liberal” priest. Reese is in favour of the ordination of women and has lamented his church’s “obsession with opposing the legalization of gay marriage.” He reasoned in one opinion piece, “in an apartment building filled with unmarried couples in New York City, the gays who get married may inspire the heterosexuals to do the same thing.” Because, of course, that’s how life works.

Reese and Fraser are both good men who care about the material condition of their flock. But they do not share that old-fashioned Christian obsession with saving other people’s souls. Rather, the humanistic focus of their ministry is so strong that they risk becoming social workers in a dog collar. They prioritise fighting poverty over evangelisation; food stamps over sacraments. They come from a fine tradition that has helped many people find their way to the soup queue, but their sympathy for the occupations should not be mistaken for a Biblical endorsement. Let us not forget that the New York occupation has witnessed criminal damage, violence, rape and a charming incident in which someone defecated on a police car. I wonder what Jesus would have to say about that.

Dr. Tim Stanley is a historian of the United States at Oxford University. He is working on a biography of Pat Buchanan. His personal website is and you can follow him on Twitter @timothy_stanley.

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