“We don’t do God”: A call for faith to inspire politics

Religion-and-PoliticsIt has become popular in recent years to divorce faith and politics, and to treat them as if they are separate domains that don’t have any bearing on one another. When the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair attempted to talk about his Christian faith in an interview with the magazine Vanity Fair, his communications manager Alistair Campbell immediately stopped the interviewer’s questions. ‘We don’t do God’, was Campbell’s now famous retort. However, I believe that the attempt to separate faith and politics is not only unhelpful and unrealistic, but can also ultimately be dangerous and have grave consequences.

While there are certainly examples of where faith has been, and is still being, misused in the political sphere, this should certainly not mask the amazing social and political reform that has been inspired by faith. It could even be argued that the majority of great political reformers down the centuries have been motivated by faith, and many have even used religious language to express their views. In the UK, we have had a long tradition of faith inspiring political and social action – not least William Wilberforce’s stand against slavery in the eighteenth century, the faith-based leadership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1970s, and the profound Christian influence on the main political parties down the centuries. As former Prime Minister Harold Wilson put it, even the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism. The picture is the same worldwide, with faith motivating individuals (like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Mikhail Gorbachov, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) to bravely challenge corruption and prejudice.

Believing in the Dignity of All: Desmond M. TutuIt is, of course, not surprising that so many people are inspired through their faith to engage either directly or indirectly in the political sphere. In the Christian tradition, the Bible brims full of social justice, peace, equality, and freedom. As Desmond Tutu once famously stated: “When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading”. In all his tireless campaigning, in South Africa and beyond, Tutu has always maintained that poverty, sexism, homophobia, and racism are not merely political problems, they are spiritual and moral issues. “The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person,” he asserted. “When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you’. Because the good news to a hungry person is bread”.

Jesus’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ has especially inspired countless political leaders, not least Gandhi (“when your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world”) and Barack Obama (“a passage so radical that it’s doubtful that our Defence Department would survive its application”). Yet Jesus’s social and political influence went far beyond one sermon.  Jesus’ very presence, along with his teachings in general, were regarded as such a threat to the political powers of Rome and Jerusalem that they conspired to rid themselves of this first-century Palestinian rebel rouser.

obama prayingIf Jesus was concerned with engaging practically and compassionately with society and the world around us, surely it is only natural that Christians allow their relationship with him to do likewise. Barack Obama, for example, was not raised in a religious household, but he was moved to his baptism as an adult precisely because he saw in faith a vehicle for social change.  In his autobiography he talks about politics leading him to faith and faith leading him to politics. On the one hand, it was his work as a community organiser for churches in Chicago that led him to be drawn towards a political life. The pastors and other Christians who worked with the unemployed, drug addicted, and poverty stricken in the city “confirmed my belief in the capacity of ordinary people to do extraordinary things”. On the other hand, it was the power of religious traditions to spur social change that drew him to faith. The African-American religious tradition, as he put it, “understood in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities”.

However, Obama, like other Christians involved in social and political change, emphasizes that bringing his faith into politics certainly does not mean losing respect for those with different beliefs. In fact, the Christian faith teaches that all life is sacred, and so faith should actually lead to more respect and reverence for the world around us – for the environment, for animals, and for all other people, whether they share our beliefs or not. In other words, yes, our faith should inform and inspire our political views, but these views should also be transformed into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.

Keith Hebden protest drone warfareBy doing this, people of faith should echo the prophets of the Old Testament by being the first to speak out and protest against corrupt governments, greed-obsessed corporations, ethically-blind companies, and environmentally-damaging activities. A friend of mine, who is a Church of England vicar (and author of Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus), regards his tireless work for ethical and social justice as absolutely integral to his faith, and, as a result, he has even been arrested on numerous occasions while campaigning against drone warfare, nuclear weapons, and hate preaching. Other Christians, of course, work from the inside of the political systems to effect change, just as Daniel did in the Old Testament. Either way, the faith of each individual could contribute so much to the important issues of poverty, welfare cuts, economic debt (personal and national), the environment, asylum seekers, international aid, and so on.

Wall faith politics

For the Christian, God is connected to every single aspect of our lives and of the life of the world. Church does not start and finish on Sunday, but continues in whichever community God has placed us. I would argue that it is a duty for Christians, along with people of other faiths, to bring their faith into the political and social realm. If we do not, we run the danger of ending up with what Barack Obama calls “bad politics”, where the only people who bring their faith into the social and political sphere are those who want to misuse both politics and faith. By leaving our own faith out of our politics, we leave a vacuum in politics for those with insular and hateful beliefs, or for those who cynically use faith for their own means.

I once heard it said that religion is like water poured on our hearts. We all have either thorns or flowers growing in the garden of our hearts. If we pour water on thorns, they will grow. And so religion can make the thorns grow and choke the goodness in our hearts. This will then engender hatred, prejudice, and disunity. On the other hand, if we pour water on flowers, they will also grow. And so faith has the potential to make the flowers in our hearts flourish and thus bring so much love, joy, and peace to the world. Our aim should not be to stop faith being involved in politics. Rather, our aim should be to make sure that people have flowers, and not thorns, growing in their hearts, so that a loving, compassionate, and liberating faith can inspire politics and bring hope and new life to individuals, communities, and societies.

politics and faith

  • The above was a talk I gave to over 100 sixth formers at the Sixth Form Faith Day on Faith and Politics at St Teilo’s High School, Cardiff. In an exciting project, the sixth form students are starting their own “faith blog”, dealing with issues surrounding faith and society. In due course, I will provide the link.

6 thoughts on ““We don’t do God”: A call for faith to inspire politics

  1. I agree completely and it made me think of a passage by Robert Dolling (d. 1902), the anglo-catholic “slum priest” in Portsmouth and elsewhere:

    “[The OT prophets] were essentially political and social reformers, speaking with the authority of the voice of God, and under the influence of a power which carried them into the palaces of kings and made their voice heard throughout the land of Israel and even penetrated into the countries which were brought into contact with their own nation. You find these inspired men of God having one single purpose, and that was to preach the God of Justice, a purpose the execution of which involved a most vigorous onslaught on every kind of oppression and every species of wrong. In fact, I suppose there has never been gathered together in any volume such magnificent statements of the rights of the weak and the helpless as you will find in almost every one of the writings of the prophets of the OT”.

    It is quoted in “Love’s Redeeming Work”, the anthology of Anglican writings put togther by Rowan Williams and others.

  2. This is really interesting. I would argue that the most important thing here is that the calibere of the ethics and intentions of politicians is more important than whether these are inspired by religion or otherwise. There seems to be a contradiction in saying that Christians and those of other faiths ‘should’ bring their faith into the political realm whilst maintaining that people can use faith cynically for their own means. Either you disregard as ‘faith’ that which is not in favour of the aims in the last paragraph, or you accept that justification by faith isn’t always ethical. You seem to come to the conclusion that ‘liberating faith’ is the stuff that should be brought into the political arena and the rest should be left out.
    Who is the judge?

    • I’m not sure that it is so much a matter of “who is the judge?” as, how does any of us judge? I think the answer is simple, ‘good’ faith enhances Life; the life or the poor as well as the rich, the life of the natural environment as well as the city, the life of the female as well as the male, those living in developing countries as much as the Westerner, the gay person as much as the straight one etc.

      ‘Bad religion’ diminishes Life.

  3. Jesus taught love. Over and over. Love, forgiveness, turning the other cheek, doing to others as you would have them do to you, loving enemies, loving the flaky and the self-serving, don’t be judgmental, don’t be a hypocrite, don’t get bogged down in religiosity, serve, be humble, put others first….
    If we, the Christians, teach that version of Christianity to the rising generation – making sure we try our best to practice it ourselves as we go – we will plant flower seeds in hearts. The world beyond our reach may well be out there planting thorns – all we can hope to do is to choke the thorns out with flowers. As long as we do that, democracy stand a chance of being dominated by flowers, not thorns.
    If we turn Christianity into a tirade against injustice, we will end up planting thorns. Justice means different things to different people. Justice to some Christians means burning down abortion clinics, or marching against Gay Rights activists. Someone planted thorns in them in the name of Christ – and you can bet it was done by a church that claimed to be fighting for justice.
    We need to get out there in public and proclaim Christ as the Lord of tenderheartedness and forgiveness. We need to “show not tell” this message. It has the potential to sway politics across the parties. It has the potential to bring God’s Kingdom into being, here, on earth, as it is in heaven.
    Wilberforce campaigned against slavery because Love directed his thinking. He compelled others to follow because they, too, were walking the path of love. Mother Theresa was slated for not doing enough political stuff – for not campaigning against injustice, or for not using her power to build chains of hospitals and orphanages for the poor. Her critics were right – she didn’t focus on that stuff – but only because she was too busy ensuring that forgotten individuals received love as they died. It didn’t matter to her whether they died in a makeshift bed on a floor, or in a beautifully equipped clinic. What mattered was that someone held their hand and smiled and talked with them in those final hours.
    I think she made the better choice. If we all want to see the better kind of justice prevail, I suspect that first we have to figure out how to love our enemies, how to turn the other cheek, how to lose our lives in the service of others….

  4. Pingback: The Times They are a Changing | A View from the Nest

  5. Jews have for a long time have made common cause with the Christian Left. We were there along side Martin Luther King, we were there in the 19th and early 20th century fighting for the abolition of slavery and fighting for women’s rights.
    The principle behind this is Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, and this includes everybody, not just one religious group.

    We have to realize that everybody can be brought into misfortune. A simple car accident, a machine shop accident, a debilitating illness, a layoff, can turn a well paid earner into a homeless person.

    It is true that for the last 30 years, very well organized selfish interests have been misusing religion to advance a very narrow, rigid really, very ugly version of Christianity. They have been very tenacious, very energized and very narrow in their focus. But their version of a theocracy would be a terrible place to live in for anybody not just like them.

    The religious left buttresses the religious right. We need to be just as well organized, energetic and pushback on these attempted roll backs of human rights and freedoms. There is a place for atheists too. The Christian Left tends to be more accepting of the differences. I can accept some of the sometimes abrasive comments on religion for the common cause of working for a better place for all of us to live.

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