Given the rise of pan-Islamism in the last twenty years or so, nourished by the running sore of the Palestinian struggle, Kashmir, Chechnya, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which support a fundamentalist narrative of Muslim victim hood, it is easy to forget that Christian fundamentalism is alive and well in many parts of the world. Christian fundamentalists are working both visibly and behind the scenes to erode the rights of women, sexual and religious minorities and to entrench Christian precepts in policy making and education. An International Women’s Week symposium on Women, Sexuality and Christian Fundamentalism took us on a whistle stop tour of Ireland, India, Latin America, Uganda and Britain, leaving us a little breathless and running to catch up with our thoughts. Stressing the virulence of fundamentalisms in all religions has been central to the politics of Women against Fundamentalism (WAF) as a way of torpedoing that racism that constructs only Islam as fundamentalist so it is no surprise that this symposium was organised by two WAF members, Nadje Al-Ali of SOAS and Nira Yuval Davis of University of East London.
Women’s reproductive rights and LGBT rights are the windmills which Christian knights must tilt against, if the soul of Christianity is to be saved; schools are the places which must be seized to save the souls of future generations. One of the narratives that has emerged in recent coverage of the split in Protestantism between “the West and the Rest” on issues such as the ordination of women priests and homosexuality, rests on convenient binaries with African and Asian churches emerging as the conservatives and the US and Europe as the liberals. If there was one consistent theme that emerged from the seminar, it was that these binaries simply do not capture the complexity of what is going on, on the ground. Contributions also focussed on the increasingly sophisticated methods of Christian fundamentalists and their ability to play the long game in order to warn feminists and LGBT activists to correspondingly up their own game.
We have long known that where abortion is concerned, those binaries are invalid because it is criminalised not only in Latin American countries, such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominican Republic, and Chile, as Carmen Sepulveda elaborated in Religion and Feminism “face to face”: Institutions and the Roll back of Reproductive Rights in Latin America but also in Ireland, Poland and Malta as Ann Rossiter pointed out in The Role of the Catholic Church in the London-Irish Abortion Underground Trail. What is less well-known is that Opus Dei, among other Catholic and evangelical groups, is active behind the scenes in all these places, spreading its tentacles among politicians and the medical profession. In Mexico City, where feminists forged alliances with progressive health workers to make abortion available, their efforts were scuppered by the Catholic Church which encouraged doctors to use the ‘conscientious objection’ clause. Up to 85 per cent of gynecologists in public hospitals declared themselves conscientious objectors. Opus Dei has also been active in Ireland trying to thwart even limited attempts to introduce abortion when a mother’s life is at risk. Of a population of 4.6m, approximately 4000 Irish women come to British clinics to carry out abortions at a cost of about £3000 each. This would have been higher but for the advent of low-cost flights. As Rossiter put it, ‘Ryanair will be remembered in the annals of reproductive rights history.’ In Latin America, where anti-abortion laws of varying restrictiveness are widespread with legal abortions available only in Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay and Mexico city, 4.2m unsafe abortions take place every year.
Even where abortion is freely available as it is in Britain, it has not stopped Christian fundamentalists from trying to erect barriers. Sukhwant Dhaliwal in her paper, The Christian People’s Alliance : Race, Regeneration and Reproductive Rights, describes the activities of Abort 67 which has connections with a Wokingham Evangelical Church, SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) and CPA (Christian People’s Alliance) in trying to prevent the opening of a BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) clinic in Stratford and then picketing it aggressively by ‘making use of foetal images and obstructing potential users of the centre’.
Even the apparently solid binary of a liberal Christian tradition in the West and conservative Christians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on the question of homosexuality dissolved under the gaze of Rahul Rao in his thought provoking talk The International Relations of Homophobia which outlined the efforts of US Christian conservatives to recruit prominent African religious leaders to a global campaign against homosexuality. In an upending of the traditional power relations between the North and South, Rao described how US ‘parishes unhappy with the increasingly liberal trends within their dioceses, have seceded from those dioceses placing themselves under the temporary oversight of other national branches (referred to as ‘provinces’ in the Anglican Communion)—most notably, the Anglican Churches of Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.’ In the fascinating tussle between liberals and conservatives in Uganda, homosexuality is posited by conservative Ugandans as a decadent Western import while homophobia is depicted as a Western import by liberals who dig up their pre-colonial history for instances of home-grown same-sex relations.
While social conservatism is the defining characteristic of all Christian fundamentalists, it is not safe to extrapolate that they will have a conservative stance on other issues – the anti-capital, pro-poor agenda of some groups confuses the left/right political divide and also points to their increasingly sophisticated tactics. The difficulty human rights activists face in pinning down the beast when it wears such progressive colours is that it feels almost churlish to denounce them on grounds of women’s and LGBT rights. According to Sepulveda, Lula came to power in Brazil in 2002 with the support of Brazilian evangelicals who number 30m out of a population of nearly 200m. There are parallels with Christian groups in Britain.
Dhaliwal’s in-depth research into the activities of the Christian People’s Alliance (CPA) in Newham, London, reveals how they positioned themselves on the side of the people against big money by opposing the demolition of Queens Market. CPA stand ‘with the marginalised and speak up for community and family-oriented values. Unlike the Newham Mayor, we would never bulldoze an invaluable diverse community asset like Queens market in favour of a bog-standard ruthless grasping WalMart Asda.’ CPA used the same rhetoric to oppose the establishment of a British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic in Stratford, accusing BPAS of ‘Becoming a large money spinning business. This centre is commercial opportunism to take advantage of Westfield Stratford City and the Olympics. BPAS have an interest in doing as many abortions as possible.’ Similarly Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP, claims to be a feminist but has made many attempts to wind back the clock on abortion rights and sex education. She too has been supported by fundamentalist organisations like Christian Concern for Our Nation (CCFON).
Other British MPs such as Stephen Timms, Caroline Spelman and Tim Farron, have been provided interns by CARE (Christian Action Research and Education) as part of a long term plan to create a new generation of committed Christian MPs noted Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green party, in her talk on Women and Christian Fundamentalism in the UK. CARE have taught sex education, mainly abstinence, to 45,000 school children in 130 schools in Britain. In the new academies and free schools programmes, 25 per cent of applications have come from religious groups, not all of whom are fundamentalists. The Plymouth Brethren who do not believe in technology and teach creationism, have put in 14 applications to set up free schools. Establishing schools is an age old missionary strategy which puts them in a prime position to lead on a conservative agenda, especially in the Third World, where the quality of education provided by them is superior to government schools.
Sepulveda believes that feminists need to be more clued up about the forces and alliances that lie behind policy networks in order to mount a more effective resistance. She speculated that it is possible that emergency contraception will come to be accepted faster by the Church than abortions because of discreet lobbying by big pharmaceutical companies.
Media coverage on the appointment of the new Pope has trivialised the question of women’s rights by speculating whether he will be a pope of the culture wars or a pope of the poor which is surely a false binary. In pointing out that Cristina Kirchner, the Argentinean president, promoted gay marriage in order to discredit Pope Francis because she was threatened by his following among the poor, Andrew Brown, a Guardian journalist, turns the Pope’s opposition to gay rights into a heroic act. We need to wrest back that ideological ground and argue that championing the rights of the vulnerable on the grounds of poverty, sexual rights or gender justice is of a piece and you cannot advance one agenda without advancing the other.