Monday, 11 March 2013

Keeping religion out of politics

It's commonly claimed that religion should be kept strictly private. There's a long tradition of that view stretching in this country at least back to Thomas à Becket whom Henry II famously called "a low-born cleric" or a "turbulent priest", because he would not put the King's interests above divine ordinance, leading to his assassination in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. In more recent times it was echoed by the Thatcher government when Robert Runcie prayed both for British and Argentine casualties after the Falklands' conflict and then put his name to the 1985 Faith in the City report (a government "source" rubbishing it before publication as Marxist propaganda). It was particularly puzzling and galling that former Scot's Guard and Military Cross winner, favoured Tory choice for the archbishopric, should be so turbulent as to suggest that the individualistic policies of the government might have contributed to poverty in the cities of Britain. And of course Rowan Williams got up the nose of successive governments, including Mr Blair's, with his rigorous questioning. And now David Cameron must be having similar thoughts to Margaret Thatcher concerning Old Etonian, Justin Welby. Of all people, the former oil executive, "within a month", questioning how benefit cuts would affect the poorest children - what is it about the post of Archbishop that suddenly turns sound men into bleeding-heart liberals? Certainly arch-conservative columnist, Melanie Phillips, who sometimes talks good sense, is at a loss to explain it and can only vent her spleen on such meddlesome men.

Strangely enough I heard her on The Moral Maze last week maintaining, I think, that belief in God was needed to underpin ethical behaviour; I recall her mentioning "conscience". It might occur to her that the way we treat the vulnerable, such as children, in our society is, or should be, a matter of conscience. I guess it certainly is for Justin Welby and his 44 merry colleagues. It seems to me that they are doing no more than their Christian conscience demands, as paralleled in the early equivalent of a welfare state. "They only asked us to remember the poor - the very thing I was eager to do." In this case, the Children's Society, because it is that admirable charity which has, I suspect, enlisted the bishops' and other church leaders' support, is asking for the welfare uprating bill to be amended in the House of Lords next week in order to protect children in particular from the ravages of inflation, which the financially robust are able to ride. The letter written by the bishops and published by the Sunday Telegraph seems to me a justifiable request to a still well-off government to remember the poor. And it seems to me that faith without a public conscience is dead. So I am glad that the new Archbishop has already indicated his intention to follow Jesus in being "on the side of the poor" and powerless.

Having said that let me add a postscript concerning the plight of politicians. It is all too easy and all too frequently done to indulge in government-bashing. After all the High Court of Parliament is adversarial, and it is right that governments be held to account. However on Saturday I was talking to someone who has had the closest contact with the highest ranks of government, and he said that ministers have an impossible job; their days are filled with meetings and briefings from civil servants and advisers. They really have no time for quiet reflection about the big issues. Once in power they hardly have time to think. The implication of what he said, I take it, was, "Have some sympathy for these people. They're trying their hardest with impossible jobs."

On Saturday, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who's not a politician I readily warm to, gave a speech looking to the next General Election. It was mischievously cast by the media as a leadership salvo. For me, more interesting because I suspect more genuine, was what she said at the outset: "It’s often said that politics is about public service, and of course it is. But to me, it’s about much more than that. Politics is a passion. A passion to make a difference. To change lives for the better. To stand up for people who work hard and want to get on in life. To help people to help themselves and their families. To help those in genuine need." I do appreciate that there's a bit of coding about strivers and skivers in those last phrases. Nevertheless the phrase "a passion to make a difference" does, I reckon, reflect the initial and fundamental motivation of the majority of those who enter the risky front line of politics, with its minefield of corrupting power. I guess that's why St Paul urged, "Pray every way you know how,... especially for those in power to govern well".

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