Michael Moore's anti-capitalist crusade
Right-wing critics of controversial filmmaker Michael Moore call him many things: a socialist, a hypocrite, unpatriotic - and they even make unkind remarks about his weight.
But, with his new anti-capitalist film showing on US movie screens last week, Moore has unveiled an unexpected trump card against conservatives who so vociferously attack him: Christianity. Moore is a practising Catholic and has put religion at the core of Capitalism: A Love Story. Alongside the political arguments about inequality, Wall Street corruption and the failures of George Bush, Moore argues that capitalism is also fundamentally unchristian.
In the film he interviews several Catholic priests, who explain their belief that capitalism and the free market, by emphasising greed and the self over community, go against the Bible’s basic tenets.
One priest, Dick Preston, tells Moore: “Capitalism is evil, immoral and contrary to the teachings of Jesus.” Moore also describes his own Catholic upbringing and includes a skit where free-market slogans are dubbed inappropriately—and hilariously—over scenes from a movie of Jesus’s life.
The tactic appears to have unnerved many on America’s right wing, who are used to attacking Moore as a symbol of left-wing secularism. On a recent TV appearance on cable channel Fox News, Moore was interviewed by rightwing host Sean Hannity. Moore surprised Hannity by identifying himself primarily as a Christian, not a socialist. He then turned the tables and asked Hannity when he himself had last been to church and what the subject of the sermon had been. The exchange left Hannity unable to answer and was an instant hit across the liberal blogosphere.
But many argue that the astonishment at Moore’s gospel radicalism is misplaced. Though recent US political history seems to have been dominated by the rise of evangelical conservatism and its powerful grip on the Republican party, there is a parallel tradition of left-wing priests in America, especially with Catholics. “Catholics have always had a strong tradition in labour and union issues in America. There is not much in laissez-faire capitalism that is actually backed up by Catholic teaching,” said Professor David O’Brien, a faith and culture expert at the University of Dayton, Ohio.
Cardinal James Gibbons was a famous advocate of union rights in the early 20th century. Daniel and Philip Berrigan were brothers and radical priests who opposed the Vietnam war. The black civil rights movement was led by clergy, most famously by Dr Martin Luther King.
Certainly the Rev Peter Dougherty appears to be in that tradition. Dougherty, who conducted the marriage service for Moore’s sister, has known the Moore family for a long time and was happy to appear in the documentary. He lives in Michigan and has seen the devastation of local industry and unemployment that often seems to provide the motivation for Moore.
Dougherty told the Observer he had no qualms about launching a religious attack on capitalism. “There have always been people who questioned basing a society on greed. That is what capitalism is. It is based on the greed motive, a radical evil. Moore’s use of religious arguments in Capitalism: A Love Story also taps into wider issues happening at the fiery place where US politics and Christianity meet.
Though the past few decades appear to have been dominated by religious arguments over abortion and other social issues, those culture wars seem to have died down a little.
Among some evangelicals a strong environmental movement has grown up, seeing ecology and green issues in the light of religious arguments about conserving God’s creation. Some churches and religious figures have taken a liberal stance on gay marriage. During Barack Obama’s inauguration, openly gay bishop Gene Robinson gave a speech. The man who gave the invocation at the inauguration was Pastor Rick Warren, a leading evangelical. Though politically conservative, he has taken a leading role on issues of poverty, the environment and inequality.
But close watchers of Moore should perhaps not have been surprised by his inclusion of Christianity in his latest movie. In fact, he has long been open about his religious beliefs and his admiration for the liberal tradition of political activism in Catholicism. He has said that as a child he considered going to a seminary to study to become a priest because he had been so impressed by the nuns who taught him at school. Dougherty, who loves Moore’s films, even thinks the Oscar-winning film-maker may have missed his true vocation. “Michael is a great preacher,” he said. - guardian.co.uk