Faith: The Journal of the International League of Religious Socialists

Winter 2003 Edition (HTML Version)

Previous Editions
Meet Our New President: Pär-Axel Sahlberg MP
Fe y Política: Religious Socialists in Spain
The Geneva Accord: Moving to the End of the Road
‘God’s Will’: Fundamentalism vs. Women’s Rights in the USA

Meet Our New President: Pär Axel Sahlberg MP

In August the ILRS elected Pär-Axel Sahlberg as its new president. Pär-Axel is a member of the Swedish parliament and vice-president of our Swedish organisation (Broderskap), as well as a minister in the Methodist Church. He was also a member of the parliamentary commission involved in changing the Swedish constitution in order to abolish the 'state church' position of the Swedish Lutheran Church. The following interview was conducted by Johan van Workum.

What do you see as the role of religious socialists today?

Our role is to give justice a voice. We should be the salt in the kitchen of politics. No seeking of power, but adding value-guided energy to political life. What does ‘justice’ mean when you are in a political responsible position? How do we see ourselves as politically involved human beings? What image do we have of humanity, of the world? Do we want to keep threads of community in a strongly individualising society?

It seems as if religion is on its way back in the secularised Western societies. Also through immigration, religion is visible again, especially with Moslems. This also makes it easier for Christians and Jews, easier than it was ten, or even twenty years ago, to say that you are a believer.

I should like that we make clear in the national politics of our countries, that our world is bigger than only our own nations. That the solidarity which we practice nationally in our parties, is also made visible throughout the world. This has consequences for the integration of migrants, for the policy on asylum seekers, for promoting the political involvement of poor people and migrants. In Sweden, through our religious socialist organisation Broderskap, we pushed the Social Democratic party in our direction. We have a bridge-building role towards Moslems now.

In the ILRS, our member organisations in different countries find themselves in different circumstances. That leads them to different tasks. Most groups are directly involved in politics, while others are mainly think-tanks. I would like to make more room in the ILRS for the point of view of our new member groups from South Africa and the Dominican Republic. During our congress in August 2003 in Lucerne, Switzerland, the Commission for Religious Affairs of the ANC, the party who now governs South Africa, became an official member of the ILRS. as well as the Catholic-inspired Frente Nacional de Cultos from the Dominican Republic. Through these new members we hope to build a bridge to Latin America and Africa. Due to the moral authority of Mandela, The ANC still has a special position in Africa.

We are living in a very interesting time for religious socialist work. The world has changed after 11 September, and there are new religious tensions in our own societies. For example in Sweden, as Christian Social Democrats we find it maybe easier to communicate with Moslems.”

But has not religious socialism had its time? You heard in the Lucerne congress a lot of old red ideals and old fashioned Christian social engagement. Can you as ILRS president use this today?

Maybe some of the voices during this past Congress sounded more from the seventies of the last century than from the 21st century. But you see the same discussions within the Social Democratic parties themselves. I respect those voices, although I know that we can not get stuck with them. Our new member organisations from South Africa and the Dominican Republic are very actively involved in their country and in the politics of the government. You see the same with our organisations in Sweden and England, where 36 Labour members of parliament, including cabinet ministers and the prime minister are members of their Christian Socialist Movement, as well as the new Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

So you see quite different circumstances in which the ILRS member organisations are working. Some are well-linked to the big social democratic parties, while other smaller groups play a critical role on the left, for instance the German-speaking groups. But what is the same is the critical voice of justice.

Should religious socialists, with their way of criticising society, not look for connection with the anti-globalisation movement?

Socialists can not be against globalisation.

So you feel better at the side of neo-liberals and young flash capitalists?

That is an over-simplification. It is much more complicated than that. The question is not whether you globalise, but how you globalise. As socialists we are in favour of an international and democratic order based on solidarity. With this aspiration we have to look for ways to implement social responsibility in the economic system.

The ILRS is still dominated by Christians. Should this not be changed? How can ILRS open itself up more to people of other faiths?

I hope that this is going to happen and that our member organisations find practical solutions for including people of other faiths. During our last Congress we had two Moslem delegates, from South Africa and Sweden. Our Swedish organisation is formally still a Christian organisation, but they are working on broadening their reach, and individual Moslems can become members of Broderskap. Our Dutch ILRS organisation Trefpunt also has Moslems as members, as well as a Buddhist and some atheistic Humanists. Our British organisation has tens of Jewish and Moslem members, and the American organisation has for a long time had people of different faiths in its leadership. And the Secretary General of the ILRS is Jewish.

During the Congress in Switzerland the Roman Catholic Dean of Lucerne raised the question that ‘God’ or ‘Christian values’ should be mentioned in the new Constitution of the European Union. What is your opinion?

I am not in favour of that. This new Constitution is for àll European citizens, of all faiths. That was the conclusion of Broderskap in Sweden, and also the Dutch group came to this conclusion. They also said that is it more or less blasphemous to try to pull God into your politics. The text of the Constitution must be inclusive and should not exclude any group of the population.

The borders of the European Union now reach to the borders of Eastern Orthodoxy and of Islam, but for me these are not the final borders of Europe. We should also take in Turkey as soon as this is possible, and the Orthodox countries as well. We have to break the antagonism between Christians and Moslems.

You are a theologian and you worked as a minister in the Methodist church of Sweden. How did it come that you changed to be a politician?

In the town where I worked as a minister – Kungsbacka, I still live there – families in difficult circumstances attracted my attention. I wished to do more for them than just pastoral work. I asked a friend: what would be the quickest way to become a member of the Commission for Social Affairs of the local authority? He said: start with becoming a member of the Social Democratic Party. So I became a member of this party, 25 years ago. And at the same time I also joined Broderskap, the association of religious socialists in Sweden which is closely related to the Social Democratic Party. However, perhaps it was bad advice, because I am still not a member of the Commission of Social Affairs in my dwelling-place!

Didn’t you get strange looks from your fellow faithful, when they discovered that their minister was also a socialist!?

As a minister I always had to take care not to use the church for political goals. Christian Democrats seem to have less problems with that. ‘Christian Democrat’ is in practice not necessarily a politically loaded notion. But ‘Christian Social Democrat’ is!

And sometimes I have felt a little misused too. I remember that an assistant of the office of the Prime Minister once phoned me to quickly deliver a Bible quotation which would fit in a speech. I refused him. They were a little astonished by that, but I am not in favour of isolating quotes for political use.

How about the other way around: how do the people in your party look to active believers as their political friends? A little compassionate? Or do you see, as in countries like the Netherlands, a fresh interest in religion and its social and political implications?

I recognise this movement toward a new interest in faith. In Sweden our religious socialist organisation has 30 out of 143 Social Democratic members of parliament, three Cabinet members, and also our prime minister Göran Persson. Also both presidents of the main trade unions – the union for blue collar and white collar workers – are members. So many prominent people – we never had that before. There is, I think, a relationship to the change in the Swedish constitution of some years ago. The position of the Lutheran church as state church was abolished then. This constitutional change was accompanied by much discussion about the role of religion and churches in a secularising society.

Are you still active as a Methodist minister?
Officially I am still a minister and sometimes I do still services. But I don’t have a formal pulpit anymore.

Fe y Política: Religious Socialists in Spain

On the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the Spanish religious socialist organisation Cristianos en el PSOE, ILRS Secretary General Andrew Hammer reports on this new and energetic member of the ILRS family.

Our member organisation in Spain was founded ten years ago in the Basque Country or Euskadi, and until recently was known by its Basque name Norabideak, or Directions. I am pleased to report that it is a well-organised, impressive group of activists centred mostly in Bilbao but which has grown rapidly throughout the rest of the country in recent years, with groups in Madrid, Zaragoza, Valencia, Barcelona, and other Spanish and Basque cities. Having had a chance to start earlier than the groups in the rest of Spain, the organisation in the Basque Country is fortunate to be directly connected with the PSE-EE (Partido Socialista de Euskadi - Euskadiko Ezkerra / Basque Socialist Party), the regional affiliate of the PSOE, and has an excellent relationship with the party. The Secretary of the organisation, Angel Martinez, works out of the party office, which provides for a daily practical connection to the party as well.

During my visit the benefit of such a relationship became clear, as I was able to join in a press conference with the Secretary of the Basque Socialist Party to discuss our Hand to Hand project in the context of the conflict in the Basque Country, as well as have meetings with party leader Patxi Lopez and the Bishop of Bilbao to discuss the general role and work of the ILRS.

Under the able leadership of theologian Carlos Garcia de Andoín, the 'Grupo Cristianos' has published books on the issue of faith and politics, and are using public presentations of their most recent publication, Tender Puentes (Building Bridges) to help them promote the group in other cities in Spain. Through these public events in now more than 23 cities, they have been able to reach out to over 4000 people, including party leaders, members of the Catholic church and the Conference of Bishops, as well as publicise the group's efforts significantly in the Spanish media.

This coming year is a very important one for the organisation; in the summer they will convene a meeting of the various groups that have been developed throughout Spain, and formally constitute themselves as a federal organisation beyond the Basque Country. They are now seeking formal recognition from the Federal Executive of the PSOE (the social democratic party of the entire Spanish state), in order to become an official sector group within the federal party.

This method of organising undertaken by our Spanish comrades is exactly the type of model the ILRS recommends to those new groups who come to us with an interest in starting a religious socialist group in their countries. As they organise people of faith inside their party, they are also helping the party to build bridges with communities of faith and faith institutions outside of the party. This method not only benefits the religious socialist group itself, but also the party as a whole, particularly in societies where the relationship between the religious institutions may have historically had a role in opposition to socialist politics

We are fortunate to have such an active group in Spain, one that is speaking out on exactly the kind of issues that are central to the work of the ILRS. Their identification with our shared issues and concerns gives us all a reason to welcome them, and look forward to their further involvement in the affairs of our organisation.

The Geneva Accord: Moving to the End of the Road

The ILRS has long been involved in the Middle East Peace Process. Recently our President, P.A. Sahlberg, was present at the negotiations held in Geneva and Istanbul on the document now known as the Geneva Accord.

Drafted by experienced activists (and in the case of Israel, officials and MKs from the Labour Party and Meretz) who do not represent their respective governments, it is nonetheless a legitimate attempt to bring the parties in the conflict back to the table and restart the peace process. It has gained the attention and support of many Jewish and Arab peace activists throughout the world. In the spirit of hope, we present the text of this document below.

Download the entire Draft Permanent Status Agreement.


• The Palestinians will concede the right of return. Some refugees will remain in the countries where they now live, others will be absorbed by the PA, some will be absorbed by other countries and some will receive financial compensation. A limited number will be allowed to settle in Israel, but this will not be defined as realization of the right of return.

• The Palestinians will recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

• Israel will withdraw to the 1967 borders, except for certain territorial exchanges, as decribed below.

• Jerusalem will be divided, with Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem becoming part of the Palestinian state. Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, as well as the West Bank suburbs of Givat Ze'ev, Ma'aleh Adumim and the historic part of Gush Etzion - but not Efrat - will be part of Israel.

• The Temple Mount will be Palestinian, but an international force will ensure freedom of access for visitors of all faiths. However, Jewish prayer will not be permitted on the mount, nor will archaeological digs. The Western Wall will remain under Jewish sovereignty and the "Holy Basin" will be under international supervision.

• The settlements of Ariel, Efrat and Har Homa will be part of the Palestinian state. In addition, Israel will transfer parts of the Negev adjacent to Gaza, but not including Halutza, to the Palestinians in exchange for the parts of the West Bank it will receive.

• The Palestinians will pledge to prevent terror and incitement and disarm all militias. Their state will be demilitarized, and border crossings will be supervised by an international, but not Israeli, force.

• The agreement will replace all UN resolutions and previous agreements.

‘God’s Will’: Fundamentalism versus the Rights of Women in the USA

Suzanne Pharr
Suzanne Pharr is founder of the Arkansas Women's Project. This article was originally presented as part of the forum on fundamentalism at the World Social Forum.

For almost 25 years, I have been part of the movement to end violence against women and children. Despite all of our efforts in the US, developing several thousand anti-violence programs, giving thousands of speeches, creating help hotlines, leading countless media campaigns, working with every community group that would open its door to us, and spending millions of dollars — thousands of women and girls still experience rape, battering, and incest every day.  We have to ask, 'How can this violence continue to be so relentless in a country which presents itself as the greatest democracy in the world?'

One answer to that question is the presence of religious fundamentalism in the US.  It has been one of the main oppositional forces against the liberation and independence of women.  I believe that it permits violence against women.

Religious fundamentalists are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc., and they exist in many countries. These are some common characteristics:

- They believe in the literal interpretation of their holy texts;

- They think their agenda or politics is God’s will;

- They oppose modernity — they might be characterized as looking at the world through a rear-view mirror, where the past is superior to the present;

- They generally have an intolerance for other religious beliefs;

- They see the subordination of women as central to maintaining their belief -— it is ordained by God that women must submit to man’s will.

It is this last belief, shared by fundamentalists and many others, that is the basis for patriarchy and, I believe, violence against women.  It is a central power relationship that leads to other forms of dominance as well:  the belief that some groups have the God-given right to dominate and control others.  Such a core belief, ultimately enforced through violence, has led to the justification of slavery, economic domination, and US domination over other countries.  

Christian Fundamentalism in the US

Early in the 20th century, Christian fundamentalists approached family and salvation on a personal rather than political level. Then, perhaps in response to modernity and ongoing liberation movements, the born-again Christian movement grew in the 1970s and became politicised.

It became the largest growing sector of Christianity, and developed into a huge voting bloc that was organised through churches, where people were given activist education and provided voting pamphlets to guide them at the polls.  The goal was to elect people who would follow God’s 'conservative will'.

Beginning with the election of Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian, every President has acknowledged the power of politically organised fundamentalists.  With the election of George W. Bush, all aspects of the US right, including fundamentalists, were united and institutionalised in his administration. 

Then, the events of 9-11 merged democracy/patriotism/capitalism/religious fundamentalism into one entity called 'This Christian Nation.'  It is not by chance that Bush characterises everything in this so-called war against terrorism as 'good against evil.'  He is the ordained-by-God spokesman for the right.

The impact of religious fundamentalism on women 

- There has been a direct attack on reproductive rights, including elimination of funding for poor domestic women and for women’s health clinics around the world.  There have been clinic protests, bombings, anthrax threats, and doctors who perform abortions have been murdered.
- There have been major efforts to eliminate sex education and the availability of information about contraception, abortion, homosexuality, HIV/AIDS; abstinence is considered to be the answer to prevent teenage pregnancy; there are to be no needle exchanges or distributions of condoms.

- Women and children, the major recipients of social services, have suffered because taxes that support social programs have been drastically cut, and welfare has been all but eliminated.

- Fundamentalist women and academics have organised attacks to discredit feminists, our analysis and research.

- In an ongoing effort to maintain strict and restrictive gender roles, there have been two decades of attacks against the gay and lesbian community – with attempts to demonise and criminalize those who engage in or support sexual relationships 'other' than heterosexual marriage.

The fundamentalists understand this basic, critical point:  if we are free to own and control our own bodies, our sexuality, and our family relationships, then one central oppression — hierarchical patriarchy — falls apart, and along with it, other forms of dominance are weakened.

How can we create changes?  

As fundamentalists understand that women are central to patriarchy and its hierarchy in order to maintain dominance and control, we must learn that women are central to liberation for all of us.  The paradigm of dominance is at the heart of all we oppose in our political efforts — and liberation and equality are the centre of the world we want to create.

Human rights, based on equality and economic justice, provide the basic structure of the world we want to build.  And we want the broadest definition of human rights: One that includes the right to food, clothing and shelter which are supported by education, safe employment with a living wage, a healthy environment, safety, and healthcare for everyone.  This broadest definition is a core of the feminist principle. 

We must embrace this principle in our pursuit of new democratic societies where there is equality and economic justice for everyone.  We raise our voice against fundamentalism; we raise our voice for equality and justice.

This site was created and designed by Andrew Hammer
©2006 ILRS