She was the choice for many, until he came along. We’re talking about Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Senator with the very progressive agenda. He wants to hike up the current federal minimum wage to create a more adequate living wage, expand affordable healthcare for all, and move energy systems towards sustainability. Agitating for racial justice for immigrants and people of colour in the United States, he says “people are angry and they have a right to be angry”. He also supports women’s rights, including reproductive rights (and this at a time when Planned Parenthood may face federal defunding) and gay rights. At the time of writing this column, Sanders was trailing Hillary Clinton as the nation’s number one choice for Democrat Presidential candidate.
Around the same time, another man is talking about love, not anger. Pope Francis, the current Pope of the Catholic Church and Bishop of Rome, has been known for his austerity, commitment to peace and interfaith dialogue, protecting the environment, and compassion for the poor. On his recent visit to America, he won hearts by refusing a meal with members of the Congress following his speech on Capitol Hill, and lunched with the homeless instead. But he also courted controversy among liberals by not condemning Kim Davis, an Apostolic Christian and Kentucky clerk, who had spent five days in jail for refusing to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in favour of gay marriage. That, along with his conservative stance on reproductive rights and women’s ordination, has inflicted much damage to his progressive image, leading many commentators to declare his failure as a revolutionary, a hero.
A search for heroes is mostly doomed. Religion, in any case, has always been uncomfortable with the question of women’s autonomy beyond lip service; and the Pope’s liberation theology has obvious limitations. A quick aside here: liberation theology, mostly associated with a social movement within the Catholic Church in Latin America, has developed in a variety of ways across the world. Often dubbed “liberal Christianity,” it interprets Christian doctrine through the lived experience of the marginalised. One variant was Black liberation theology, as it grew out of Black churches in the United States and was seen in Martin Luther King’s work. King’s theology was rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage and looked to the Bible for inspiration. Closer home, we had Mahatma Gandhi, who, being Hindu, looked to the Gita. Since both spoke of reforming rather than destroying religion, the charges against both have essentially been the same: not Left enough (nor indeed Right enough, as their assassinations byreligious extremists, ironically, prove.)
Critics also point out the cultural mainstreaming of multiple puritanisms under Gandhi. My own criticism is that his politics froze women into eternally self-sacrificing wives and daughters, instead of individuals capable of self-determination. But to the extent that all forms of political praxis have their own limitations, it is impossible to overlook how a text earlier used to justify race discrimination was interpreted by King as a treatise for race equality; and a text that could serve as a call to war and caste discrimination was interpreted by Gandhi as a roadmap for peace and the abolition of untouchability, uniting a colonised nation for satyagraha. Given their audiences, what they achieved — and what Pope Francis is attempting now, in one of the most orthodox bastions of religion — is perhaps revolutionary in its own right.
The world’s many realities may be too complex for any notion of ethical singularity. I have noted earlier that it is not faith but fundamentalism (of all religions, as I have said before and will say again) that is a threat to liberal democracy. The traditional Left and a section of liberals may consider religion a dirty word, but communities of faith outnumber atheists and must be included in the dialogue. We may disagree about the appropriate site for such interpretive work — and whether or not to allow it in Religious Studies departments, as in several American universities — but I am in no doubt at all that wise interpretations of religion, in keeping with the tenets of gender equality, respect for human rights, and justice for all, is the need of the hour worldwide.