Manipulating politics through religion

6:00 pm - March 24th 2008

by Simon Barrow    

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There’s often a row about religion over the Easter holiday, usually involving a pronouncement made a bishop that the media has half-grasped and wants to turn into a good old scrap between believers and others.

This year, however, the bundle has been much more political. It was kicked off by Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s gaudy intervention in the debate about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, specifically the careful provisions for admixed embryos for time limited research purposes aimed at tackling a range of life-threatening diseases.

With the government currently agonising over how to frame the Commons vote on this Bill, and specifically whether and how to allow for ‘conscience’ in the process, the Cardinal and his allies no doubt think that they are winning. But this would be a serious miscalculation.

I tend towards thinking that a free vote might be best, at least on some provisions, but if the PM changes the procedure he had previously specified under overt religious pressure, that will only increase the anger and determination of those who want to resist what they will see as the Catholic Church trying to run parliament.

Likewise, if the argument is that ethical and scientific questions about cellular research ought to transcend politics, well the Cardinal has succeeded only in politicising and polarising them further.

In the process, he has got the intention and reality of the science wrong, used outrageously alarmist language, treated some MPs as if they are ‘his’ troops in a war, assumed that all Christians and people of goodwill should share his view (they don’t), and behaved as if controversial matters can be solved by big institutions throwing their weight around.

My objection to all this is that it is precisely the wrong way for religion to engage politics. Of course, there will many who will talk about keeping the two spheres entirely separate. But that’s far too simplistic.

‘Keep religion out of politics’ begs a much better question. Namely, what kind of religion and what kind of politics? Apartheid South Africa wanted to keep Desmond Tutu out of politics. The Burmese dictatorship wants Buddhist monks kept out of politics. China wants the Dalai Lama kept out of politics – and Tibet.

In each of those instances, and in the case of liberation theology, persons of religious conviction have been working with people, not against them or in collusion with state. That will be broadly welcomed by everyone of good will, religious or not. Unless they are on the side of the powerful, the unaccountably rich or the downright oppressive, of course.

At Easter some of us recall that Jesus directly challenged overbearing religion allied to the state and got killed for it. According to the narrative Christians seek to live by, he was vindicated by the gift of life, not by the manipulations of power politics.

This message has long been subsumed by a Church that did a deal with Imperial power in the shape of Constantine. But in its origins, and in the many subversive strands that have survived throughout history, the Gospel is about levelling not domination. The proper place of the church shaped by the story of Jesus is therefore alongside people not bearing down upon them from on high.

In other words, there is a powerful argument from within the tradition against its abuse, as well as an argument stemming from democratic polity about the proper separation of religious institutions from government (with which I correspondingly agree).

I don’t want a monochrome society where people are stereotyped either by religious or by non-religious labels, or where people try to coerce each other into believing or not believing. I want a plural society in which there is space for the opinion and public involvement of all, but not for the arbitrary or unfair dominance of any one interest group, religious or non-religious.

Politics, including democratic politics, is frequently about manipulation. Christian politics, the think tank I co-direct argues, should be about persuasion and partnership. This is a far cry from the approach taken by some church leaders. Which is why it is right that they should be challenged and made to feel uncomfortable, not least by those of us who they would otherwise want to count as ‘their own’.

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About the author
Simon Barrow is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is co-director of Ekklesia, a think tank looking at issues of religion in society from a radical Christian perspective. He is a writer, theologian, consultant and commentator and also blogs at FaithInSociety
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Reader comments

1. douglas clark


That is a good article. The problem with extremists of either a religious or secular bent, is that they cut the ground out from under folk who would probably find that they agree more than they disagree, whatever the label on the tin.

The problem, it seems to me, is that some atheists are now seeing it as a badge of courage to go around saying religionists are deluded nutters – this is their language, not mine – and conversely religious leaders are trying to steer their flock into deeply conservative positions, with no scriptural basis whatsoever.

Neither position is particularily helpful to folk who occupy any sort of middle ground.

OK, I don’t think there is a God, but it isn’t the ultimate definition of me, likewise you appear to think that there is a God, but it isn’t ultimately the definition of you either. Despite what you might think 🙂

I am, for your amusement, a doubting atheist.

Oh, and I agree on the free vote.

2. yexiaonan

“China wants Dalai Lama to keep out of politics – and Tibet” seems neither here nor there.

Dalai Lama as the religious and spiritual leader of Tibet Buddhism while being the head of Tibet Government In-Exile (“TGIE”) is not only mixing religion with politics, but is in fact using religion as a pretext to pursue his political agenda.

His political demands are often hidden and being drowned out by his call for human right, cultural preservation and compassion.

To understand Dalai Lama’s political demands, one only needs to understand firstly
the “Sino-China 17-Point Agreement” which he enthusiastically endorsed in 1951
which he later rescinded (leading to his escape or “exile” in 1959).

Also, one needs to understand his so-called “Middle Way” approach for a political settlement with China; mainly seeking a return to theocratic rule of a “Greater Tibet”
head by him and his former nobility, local chieftan and serf-owning supporters.

Herein lies Dalai Lama’s deceit and hyprocrisy.

For a qucik reference, one may go to YouTube to search for “7 Lies About Tibet and
His Holiness”.

And after watching this ‘quick reference’ propaganda video, try and Free Tibet

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