Monday, June 22, 2009

Does religion have a role to play in British politics?

In 2007, when addressing the 50th anniversary convention of his own denomination, the United Church of Christ, the then Senator Barack Obama, argued that the religious right had “hijacked” faith and divided his country by exploiting issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer. More interestingly he then went onto praise the people of faith who were using their influence to try to unite Americans against problems like poverty, AIDS, the lack of universal health care, Darfur and the effects of climate change.

In the UK we tend to discourage our politicians from talking about faith, we famously ‘don’t do God.’ Why? I believe that it has long been the case that too many people - particularly those who take a left of centre approach to politics - make the mistake of failing to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives. With debate raging about the rise of the far-right and the failure of the body politic I wonder if it isn't time for those who espouse the "progressive" agenda to debate just how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy. Too often politicians try and avoid any discussion about religious values altogether - fearful of offending anyone and claiming that politics and religion should never mix.

Yet surely the reality of all political engagement is that we have to meet people where they are - even if we do not agree with or even approve of where they are. If so called ‘progressive’ politicians are to communicate their hopes and values in a way that is relevant to the lives of others, then they cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.

In my view secularists are wrong when they ask – more often insist – that believers leave their religion at the door before entering into the arena of public debate. The majority of great reformers in British history – from Wilberforce to Keir Hardie - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. I recognise that democratic engagement will and should make demands of religious believers. It will demand that those who are religiously motivated act to turn their concerns into universal, rather than faith-specific, values. Democratic engagement will also demand that the values espoused by people of faith be subject to argument and debate.

What is needed is a sense of proportion and a willingness – on the part of both believers and non-believers - to engage in public debate openly and fair-mindedly. Many people in Britain today are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion and politics.

This then is the challenge for those who describe themselves as progressive politicians. They too must become more "fair minded" more willing to engage with people of faith so that they might recognise some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of modern Britain.


James.R.Skinner said...

It is a difficult subject, but i personally think there is a lack of religion in politics and society.
Without reigion, i believe our society has crumbled significantly, and authors such as Allan Bloom (author of "the American Mind") would agree with me. Bring it back into politics, and stop being so afraid to address it behind the walls of parliament.

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

The UK does not 'do' religion in politics.

I figure obvious signs of strong faith disturbs many people in the UK these days.

For a long time there was a sort of underlying awareness of what religious conflict and intolerance can do. The reformation and the subsequent problems it caused left it. Eventually things settled.

Then in recent memory the IRA waged a campaign of terorism. They were strongly Identified with Roman Catholicism. Then in what looked like a reaction there was a counter movement that was identified with Northern Irish Protestantism.

For most of us it looked like crazy killing that probably didn’t really achieve anything that might not have been got by ordinary political process. As we all clearly see with the Scotish and Welsh Parliaments.

Also the problems in Northern Ireland don’t seem to have entirely gone away.

I figure these problems as much as anything else made it unfashionable to make overt religious displays, except in a very general sense.

Meanwhile, we have all been told all faiths are equally valid. Being aware of that is something that is important in getting a job, or promotion, or pay rises in the UK. Including for Teachers.

Next came the matter of Islamisism and it’s associated Terrorists. They clearly identify themselves with the religion Islam, They use religion to justify the evil they do, plus we hear every now and again when their preachers talk Jihad. The UK has a significant Islamic minority.

So the UK has experienced another wave of, what are clearly seen by the public, as religiously inspired terrorism and indiscriminate murder.

It has been repeatedly said that the terrorists were often pious model citizens, Their relatives could not believe they would do such a thing. Teaching Assistants, Doctors even!

To put it bluntly and in it’s harshest light, small wonder that the public perception in the UK is beginning to look at evidence of strong religious belief, even in the respectable, in the same light as early signs of rabies in dogs.

The US has escaped much of this thanks to the wisdom of the founding fathers separating church and state.