6:00 pm - March 24th 2008
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’.
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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