Jonathan Bartley

How the 'doing God' debate challenges religion and politics

By Jonathan Bartley
October 5, 2010

In its literal sense "doing God" is a theological nonsense. Something that is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient cannot be contained, utilised or otherwise actioned. Christianity itself suggests you can only really respond to an invitation to join in what God is already doing.

It may sound like semantics, or the kind of meaningless discussion about how many angels you can fit on the head of a pin. It is actually an important distinction. Some try to "do God" according to their own often controlling and narrow agenda, making God in their own image. But others may "do God", recognising that they can't call the shots, as God's agenda is somewhat larger and more important than their own.

The difference between the two approaches tends to involve alternative ideas of where God can be found. For the former, God tends to be hanging out in the obviously religious things. When both politicians and the religious talk about "doing God", they invariably mean the contribution of faith groups, support for faith schools, resourcing for religious projects, exemptions and opt-outs from equality laws for faith-based organisations and general niceness to religious people and their institutions.

But that's not "doing God". That's "doing religion" – and doing it badly. And, as such, reinforces a religious-secular divide, which makes God very small indeed and ignores the idea that God might be found in all sorts of other places.

What was refreshing about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was that they seemed to sometimes get the bigger picture. Both repeatedly referred to their own faith as something that shaped their sociopolitical outlook and led them in their attempts to form policy for the benefit of the most vulnerable, who, Christian tradition has it, God hangs out with. Where they failed – sometimes monumentally – was in their interpretation of how God might help them. You would be hard pushed to make the case that the God – at least revealed in Jesus Christ – was up for invading Iraq, however much Blair might have felt he had prayed about it.

Another failing of the Blair-Brown era was to allow the churches to "do them". Churches and religious pressure groups repeatedly mount the case at elections that religious people can determine the outcome. And, in doing so, they reinforce the unhelpful approach to "doing God", making themselves into an interest group to be appeased, a constituency whose narrow self-interests must be met.

So what should Ed Miliband's new approach be to faith? Stephen Timms suggests that Labour's "relationship with faith groups will not be primarily about winning votes. We need to work with religious groups because they are a source of values and our natural allies in the fight for justice." Setting aside this rather optimistic view of politics, this kind of argument doesn't hold up entirely either. There are good values and there are bad values. Both can be found in religious communities. And good and bad values also come from outside religious communities, too.

As Timms shows in his own argument, "doing God" often also assumes that the religious can be pushed into one block and treated as the same. They can't. Yes, Timms is absolutely right to highlight the drive from the churches around campaigns of trade justice, and Make Poverty History. But the religious don't have a monopoly on such values. Again, to believe that they do is to fall into the sacred-secular dualism, which maintains that anyone who doesn't have a faith can't have good moral values. Such a belief is, of course, contrary to the teachings of Christianity, which maintains that all have a moral sense, being made in God's image.

But if the history of Christianity, and indeed its teachings, tell us anything it is that often what God wants isn't particularly religious. "Doing God" should involve challenging religion as much as supporting it. If God is found with the excluded, then "doing God" would mean challenging faith schools to be more inclusive and end their discrimination against the non-religious. If God is found with the powerless, it would mean kicking appointed bishops out of the House of Lords and asking them to stand for political office, just like everyone else. If God is with the disadvantaged, it would mean ending unfair privileges for religious institutions.

Doing God – or more accurately joining in with what God is doing – is not about sucking up to the religious, or supporting what they do. It is about doing what is right. People of faith believe, after all, that all those who do right, are doing God's work whether they realise it or not.

So Miliband should "do God" in the sense that he should take on the churches and other faith groups where they act unjustly, and work with them when they work for justice. But he certainly shouldn't be taken in by the myth that they can deliver him the next election.


(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This piece is adapted from an article in his Guardian Comment-is-Free column.

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