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Tuesday, March 29, 2005


Preaching Politics

Unlike the United States, in Britain there is little history of religion overtly entering politics. Well, at least in the era of the universal franchise and the popular vote; every year we celebrate the day when a group of Catholic conspirators, including Guido Fawkes, failed to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In celebration we burn his effigy on a bonfire while letting off fireworks. And then there were the burnings and the hangings of alternately Catholics and Protestants, alongside general persecution. Oh, and burning witches, and so on, and so on. But despite the bloody history of religion being inextricably tied to politics in Britain, this is all in the distant past. In the modern age of political democracy, religion has been largely absent from the scene. Well, apart from in Northern Ireland, and in the bishops of the Church of England (CoE) sitting in the House of Lords, and in the Queen being Defender of the Faith (CoE). But take it from me, religion is not a party political issue. Okay.

Until, that is, the past few weeks. Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative Party, was asked for his position on abortion by the magazine Cosmopolitan (not Vogue as I previously wrote). He intimated that he was uncomfortable with the idea* and that he would look into limiting the time period in which women could obtain abortions. Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy (leader of the third party, the Liberal Democrats) both gave quite slippery answers in response to the same question. This is not the entry of religion into politics. A position on the morality of abortion can be taken by people of all faiths or none – I take, as an atheist, the view (my position is much more complex than this, but for a full articulation we would need a good few thousand words and a proper period for scholarship and thought distillation) that women should retain control over their own bodies.

Religion – in the organised sense, rather than a matter for individual consciences – made the move into British politics a few days later. The most senior Catholic clergyman in the country, the Archbishop of Westminster, appeared to instruct his flock to vote for the Tories on the strength of an undetermined position on abortion. It is this entry of religion into politics that worries me; where the leader of a church, a man who speaks to his congregation on behalf of God, instructs his people to vote for one political party or another.

This is not to say that political leaders have never appealed to religious voters before, in, for example, taking negative stances on homosexuality (such as Section 28, which Michael Howard recently apologised for) or in positive attitudes towards faith schools. But this instruction to a congregation is in a completely different category.

Where politics and religion intersected in our political democracy in the past they largely did unsaid, and thus it was left to the conscience, or to the electoral strategy, of individual voters to decide which politicians and parties most closely aligned with their faith. And, indeed, this is something even us atheists face as we approach the general election, which candidates most closely fit our own ideologies and values, and which parties have the best chance of using our vote to change the political landscape in this way. But in the Archbishop of Westminster’s instruction we have faith boiled down to a single issue, and an instruction which, in the theology of the Catholic Church is coming from a representative of the representative of God on Earth, to vote for a particular political party.

What worries me more than the actual stance taken is this gross simplification of religion. The Catholic Church is not a one issue pressure group, but in presenting it as such the Archbishop is not only playing a sordid political game but is also doing his own church a disservice. How can we respect a church where the entire divinely organised hierarchy is made up of men and whose principle issue is the control of women’s bodies. The Catholic Church also has stances of poverty, war, racism and the like, but given the amount of play they give these we wouldn’t know it, and given the instruction that the clergy give their flock – for another example see the efforts made to prevent John Kerry from receiving communion for his stance on abortion – we would think that the Catholic Church existed as simply a pseudonym for the Pro-Life Alliance.

I wonder why this is. I wonder why the Church sets its priorities so, and does not instruct its flock to vote according to party policies on poverty reduction, or on racism, or on the prevention of war.

Incidentally, before this reads like another Howard-bashing column, Tony Blair is an evangelical Christian who has supported, in Parliament, the right of state schools (that have received a relatively small donation from a Christian businessman) to teach Creationism. In the past week, he has also addressed a group of Christians suggesting that faith and politics should mix more closely. I wait to see what this means. If it is simply divine cover for the enforcement of hierarchy and inequality, then I will be disappointed. If, on the other hand, it is a rebirth of a plurality of religiously-inspired political philosophies; including radical egalitarian movements such as the Levellers and the Diggers, and the pacifist Quakers, then I might tend to view this culture change more kindly. After all, I must always remember, that Tony Benn, the politician who has influenced me more than any other, is himself a committed non-conformist Christian.

*A columnist in a newspaper commented on his words, which were (and I paraphrase); “I am uncomfortable with abortion on demand”, to which she asked; “What does he want, abortion at random?”

[this post is also published at moodspins]

A quibble: it's not strictly accurate that religion didn't matter politically after universal suffrage (as for mass suffrage, late nineteenth-century politics were overtly religious). Non-conformism was an explicit basis of the Labour party at least until 1945 - the Welfare State as the new Jerusalem, for example - and it wasn't really until Thatcher that the links between the C of E and the Tory party were thoroughly severed.
Yes, you are right, of course, and I have been reading of the debt that British socialism owes to non-conformist Christianity, from the Levellers and Diggers through the Methodists and on.

Of course, the religion of a person cannot help but shape that person's politics, and I have been pretty clumsy in this post. I was trying to draw a parallel between recent events in Britain and the single-issue heirarchical religiousity that we seem to see in America; churches that make very loud noises when it comes to issues of personal morality, such as sexualiy, yet seem to abandon their stated responsibilities when it comes to instructing their flock to vote one way or another on issues of collective morality, such as poverty, equality and peace.

However, I take your point, and I will have to repeat this comment over at the moodspins site, apologising for my largely ahistorical naivety. I'll probably post a very different interpretation of British politics and religion after reading around the issues raised by Tony Benn and the like.

Incidentally, thanks to David Heasman for correcting a further error in this peice. It was Cosmopolitan magazine that Howard was interviewed by, not Vogue.
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