A Very Lefty Festival: No Wonder The Christmas Story Sounds So Progressive, There's Nothing For The Right
Why do the seasonal messages from all the world's Christian leaders sound like Guardian editorials? The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of our duty to the environment - no surprise there from a self-confessed "bearded lefty". But the Queen is neither of those and she too got in on the act, emphasising care for the poor and vulnerable. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, appealed to people to welcome immigrants. Even Pope Benedict XVI, sitting in all his finery, took a stroll down the well-worn progressive paths of poverty, injustice and war, focusing attention on the situation in Iraq and the Holy Land.
Traditional categories of right and left don't always work when applied to faith. Yet it's tough to think of a single rightwing message that originates in the Christmas story. The best try goes to the Republican presidential candidate and former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, who recently released a campaign advert in which he is pictured standing in front of a Christmas tree saying: "God bless and happy Christmas." In the context of the US, where saying anything other than "Happy Holidays" is read as cultural chauvinism, Huckabee's manner of salutation was loaded with political purpose.
It's all a part of a wider strategy, with Huckabee feeding off those who attack him, letting their outrage make his point that Christianity is under threat. It's not a message that has anything whatsoever to do with the Christmas story. Indeed, the fact that there is supposed to be a firewall between politics and religion in the US enables candidates like Huckabee conveniently to dodge the fact that the politics of Christmas are so little like his own. How else could he profess Christmas and simultaneously take part in a bidding war with other Republican candidates as to who is toughest on immigration?
An unmarried couple, homeless Jewish refugees, find refuge in a cowshed. That night a child is born amid predictions that he will bring peace and goodwill to the whole world. From the beginning it is clear he has a particular commitment to issues of poverty and social justice. Imperial soldiers seek his destruction, fearing he threatens the status quo. The child is forced to seek asylum in Egypt.
Given the repertoire of imagery that religious people have available to them in order to describe God - the fearsome warrior, the magnificent monarch, the mysterious other - the fact that the core image of the Christian faith is one that emphasises hope, all-too-human vulnerability and a mother's gentle love offers no hook for a politics of violence, fear, nationalism or greed.
The Christian festival beloved of the right is Easter; more specifically, the retributive and often bloodthirsty philosophy of punishment inherent in some misunderstandings of the cross. Here is the justification for capital punishment and the centuries-old Christian superiority complex alike. But there is no room at the inn for all that stuff at Christmas.
Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2007 The Guardian