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Emerging Christian left girds to challenge the right.

When the Rev. Eric Elnes early last year returned to Arizona from a three-month sabbatical in Ethiopia and India, he found his congregation in turmoil.

Members were in great anxiety over their identity as Christians, as the news media credited the stunning conservative triumph in the November 2004 presidential elections to the mobilizing power of the Christian right.

"Many in my congregation feared that because they're Christians people will presume they're antigay or for the war in Iraq," said the senior pastor of the Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ.

"They were worried about where fundamentalist extremism was taking our faith, that Christianity has become the radioactive 'C' word."

Elnes heard a parishioner defensively preface her affirmation of faith with "I'm tired of being a Christian, but ..." repeatedly. He learned from other pastors that the distress was widespread and wracking other congregations.

So on Feb. 4 and 5, Elnes joined 50 activists at the Progressive Christian Leadership Summit in San Francisco to draw up strategies for a theological and political confrontation with the religious right by repopularizing "core Christian values" such as "compassion, justice and love of God, neighbor and self."

Drawing inspiration from Christian leaders who stood on the frontlines of the civil rights movement in the '60s, the summit also mapped an action plan promoting causes such as universal health care, help for the poor, and opposition to terrorism, torture, military adventurism and racism.

Represented at the gathering at San Francisco's Church of the Holy Innocents and the Pacific School of Religion at University of California in Berkeley were 21 faith-based groups. They included Protestants for the Common Good, Social Justice Network of Nevada, and Clergy and Laity Concerned About Iraq.

Kety Esquivel, a young Latina co-executive director of CrossLeft, one of the conveners, explained the driving spirit of the summit: "We want Heaven on Earth, not war and suffering. Christ has always been about justice and love for the poor. Christianity is about inclusion, not exclusion through narrow political agendas or wedge issues."

Why has it taken them so long to respond to Christian conservatives who have been amassing political clout for more than two decades?

Elnes admitted he underestimated their influence, presuming that "the culture would correct itself." He said he no longer believes that. Esquivel said she thinks that the deeply held belief that people are entitled to their own political views also restrained those who disagreed with the conservatives.

To organizers like Chris Korzen, however, the 2004 Republican election victory capped the "snowballing misappropriation of the Christian message --concern for the least among us got lost in the moral values agenda." Korzen is the executive director of Catholic Democracy Institute at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.

Activists had been meeting informally since March last year. The summit formalized the start of coordinated nationwide activities. Three "doable" actions were set for this year--a high-profile event called Crosswalk America (a 2,500 mile trek-outreach from Phoenix to Washington); setting up operations on 100 campuses through "Unity Walks"; involvement in the coming midterm elections.

The idea for Crosswalk America, a 20-week hike from April to September, came to Elnes as he dealt with his congregation's anguish. He drafted a reiteration of "the ideals of Christianity," joking to friends that he wanted to walk across America to talk about these ideals--"the path of Jesus"--with people he meets.

"But I couldn't get rid of the idea. I took a meditative 20-mile walk and still couldn't erase it. I was ready for another 10 miles," Elnes recalled. Others got excited about the walk, including his friends from "No Longer Silent," a group of pastors that has been active for eight years.

Crosswalk is planned as an ecumenical event that would attract Catholics and Protestant denominations alike. Rebecca Glenn, who is leading it with Elnes, said the goal is to spark dialogue at various stops and to celebrate "the affirmation of our belief that the Christian way of life is based on love and concern for one another, not on what separates us."

Campus-based "Unity Walks" will signal the start of concerted network-building in colleges. These interfaith marches are modeled after a successful procession on Sept. 11 last year in Washington to mark the terrorist attacks.

Kyle Pool organized that procession with the help of more than 100 volunteers. Some 2,000 walkers from 10 different religions and Christian denominations went along Embassy Row and from mosques to synagogues, temples and churches to the Gandhi memorial in "silent worship."

"It was a nonpolitical demonstration by people who didn't want to be driven apart by the actions of extremists," recalled Pool, who said a bigger walk is expected this year, with interest in recreating the event coming from as far as Pakistan.

Campus Unity Walks will carry the same message: Love thy neighbor, know thy neighbor. "A Unity Walk represents a backlash against the so-called clash of civilizations," explained Pool.

Wading into the electoral process is the trickiest of their goals, as knotty questions regarding the proper relationship between faith and politics could prove divisive.

"We don't envision ourselves attached to a particular party," Esquivel said when asked if they intend to become a pillar of the Democratic Party as the Christian right has become in the Republican Party.

Esquivel suggests targeting key midterm races and vetting candidates "on the basis of social justice issues." Their electoral involvement will be a work in progress, she cautioned, as she and her colleagues are mindful of the separation of church and state.

Summit activists are painfully aware that the Christian Coalition political action group has a reported $16-million purse. While they currently rely on donors to finance their activities, organizers aim to tap institutional support from their various churches.

Elnes said he sees the summit as part of an emerging trend: An evangelical coalition recently declared adherence to environmentalism. The Vatican and several mainline Protestant churches have separately offered a strong defense of Darwin's theory of evolution, criticizing "intelligent design" as unscientific.

Elnes said he sees "classic signs of a movement developing." He recalled an Episcopalian leader telling him: "Eric, I've been a change agent in my congregation for 30 years, but I never took personal risks. Now it's different. It's time to put our necks on the block if necessary."


New America Media

San Francisco

[Rene P. Ciria-Cruz is an editor at New America Media.]
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Title Annotation:NATION
Author:Ciria-Cruz, Rene P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 17, 2006
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