Last year Michael Sandel delivered his second Reith Lecture and looked at the relationship between morality and politics, more specifically the interaction between religiously inspired morality and politics. He argued, correctly in my view, that you cannot remove morality from political discourse and so it is far better to have it out in public.
On Friday of this week the spotlight is going to be firmly on the role of religion as Tony Blair supports the motion "Be it resolved religion is a force for good in the world" against Christopher Hitchens in a Munk Debate due to be held in Toronto. 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.
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.
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.