Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Pope Francis & Naomi Klein: Celebrity Brand or Postsecular Tipping Point?

24 Jun 2015

This has been a heady and breathless week for anyone interested in finding a ‘politics of hope’. Last Thursday, the Vatican launched Pope Francis’ much anticipated encyclical on climate change simply entitled Laudate Si (Praise be). It calls for swift action to save the planet from environmental ruin by linking climate change to poverty. It is a vision for the common good that can be owned by believers and nonbelievers alike, which Francis hopes, will shift our political culture away from short-termism and a ‘throwaway’ economy that produces waste and a disregard for human and non-human life.  It has produced an extraordinary global response and galvanised the debate ahead of vital inter-governmental talks on climate change controls in Paris at the end of the year.

On Saturday I took part in the anti-austerity marches in the centre of London with an estimated quarter of a million other citizens. It was a positive event, high on angry hope rather than nihilistic violence. That very morning I also read Giles Fraser’s brilliantly perceptive and humorous review of Laudate Si in which he dubbed Francis ‘Naomi Klein in a cassock’. Lo and behold, Fraser’s prophetic utterance comes true, and now the media is full of glowing endorsements from Naomi Klein for the Pope’s messages on climate change. Not only that, but she has accepted an invitation from the Vatican to take part in a conference entitled ‘People and Planet First: The Imperative to Change Course’.

So what do I think is going on here?

First there is the message.

I believe there is a content congruence to these three events. At the heart of Laudate Si is a call to restore a sense of interconnectedness and interdependency. The huge issues posed by climate change are not political but moral ones. Pope Francs suggests we persistently make the wrong choices. Instead of respecting the norms of scarcity and balance and choosing to live a simpler (and more fulfilling life), we refuse to accept any limits to our right to choose and consume.

This reflects a wider moral malaise. Laudate Si is not an anti-capitalist treaty, but rather, is a clear indictment of our current choice of capitalism. Neo-liberal economics, with its default positions of de-regulation and limitless growth philosophy, seems incapable of adapting itself to making rational choices about the future sustainability of markets and resources. It represents a ‘blind faith’ in the power of the markets to self-correct and balance out, over time, the distortions caused by a lack of proper competition or human governance. It is the ‘Invisible Hand’ theory but without the ‘Moral Sentiments’. And Naomi Klein fully supports this analysis. Reflecting on the Pope’s intervention she says: ‘It is the logic of domination and endless greed that has created a broken economy and that is breaking the planet. The way out of both crises is another economic model that lives within nature’s limits’

The anti-austerity march in London had a similar message. This time the wrong choices are caused by a political ideology that transfers risk and responsibility for ‘blind-faith’ economics on the most vulnerable of society; children, the disabled and those whose minimum wage salaries and zero-hours contracts mean they still need to access foodbanks to provide food for their children. Thus foodbanks are sanctioned and growing within a society that has more than enough wealth to provide adequate food, education, housing and healthcare as the foundations for a meaningful life. This represents a series of poor (as in ‘irrational’) choices that will generate disastrous social and economic results further down the line. This is precisely the warning to the UK government by the IMF over its proposed further 12 billion pounds of welfare cuts, who have proved that higher levels of inequality slow down growth and productivity. Again for me, this isn’t a blanket condemnation of the need to reduce debt to manageable levels and make well-considered and strategic cuts. But when ‘austerity’ flies in the face of common decency and sound economics then one is entitled to ask ‘Why?’ and ‘In whose name is this being done?’ The plea from the anti-austerity march went well beyond the injustices of ideological austerity. Speech after speech from poverty and disabled groups, mental health charities and sanctioned mothers was ‘We all belong – we have a right to exist and participate – treat us like fellow human beings and citizens rather than branding us as outcasts and pariahs!’

And then there is the medium.

I want to start the Popekleine or better, the Frankieklein franchise! Of course, we are all used to the strategy of fusing two fairly average products into an alleged superbrand. Think Brangelina. Think Wozzilroy (remember them?) Think Kimye (Ok, no one really says that!).

There is always a danger that this unusual pairing for Pope Francis and Naomi Klein may go the same way. Who would, even a year ago, have imagined that a secular feminist and equalities campaigner, and a celibate male priest in his late 70s, would unite to shake global capitalism to its foundations? It cannot last surely?

Or this coming together of Frankieklein actually a tipping point – not an environmental one this time, but an intellectual one, where the old and sterile zero-sum debates from the last century about the importance of dividing the sacred from the secular are being decisively rejected?

This is skilful and exciting stuff. This is not an uncritical merging of the Catholic Church and the Climate Change movement. As Klein herself points out, ‘There are huge differences that remain over issues like marriage equality, reproductive rights and freedom, to name just a few’. But there is a clear willingness by both parties to nevertheless emphasise what it is they agree on rather than what disunites them. It is an exciting example a new postsecular global ethics where scientific arguments, secular activism and deep philosophical and religious wisdom are being brought together in compelling resonance.  It is a deeply pragmatic and ethical contribution to the common good where two charismatic global thinkers have recognised the added value each brings to their perspective on a complex and existence-threatening phenomenon.

Expect to see Frankieklein coming to a red carpet event near you soon. You heard it here first!

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation.

Professor Chris Baker will deliver his inaugural public lecture at the University of Chester on the 22 September, titled ‘Globalised Religion in an Era of Uncertainty: What Prospects for a New Global ethic of Progressive Change?’ All welcome.

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