The visit of new UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the White House raises a host of interesting geopolitical questions, not least concerning the whole issue of faith-based politics.
Former Prime minister Tony Blair’s media fixer, Alastair Campbell, once dealt with a question about religion with the famous riposte, “We don’t do God”.
Yet Mr Blair was still the most overtly ‘Christian’ British national leader this century. His faith, though private, was publicly known.
He consorted widely with religious leaders. He had an intellectual dalliance with Catholic theologian Hans Kung’s ‘global ethics’ project. And he gave strong backing to the Establishment of the Church of England, the extension of faith schools, and a religious stake in public service provision.
What’s more, the Blair-Bush alliance on Iraq and the influence the ex-PM exercised in relation to Democratic Unionist supremo Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland were not short on religious resonances.
If all this, together with the preservation of bishops in an unelected second chamber and huge faith influence on public policy areas like bioethics does not amount to “doing God”, secularists are bound to ask, what on earth does?
Yet there are factors that point in the opposite direction too. Blair defied religious leaders on the Iraq war – in ways which will come back to haunt him and his successors.
He pushed through ambiguous Religious Hatred legislation against opposition from a coalition that included the religious right as well as human rights activists.
And he notably refused to allow the Catholic Church and others an ‘opt out’ from gay adoption through public agencies, while permitting exceptions in other areas of equality which deeply disturb civic egalitarians.
The record, then, is a mixed one. But overall it would be hard to argue that while inherited Christian institutions are clearly in numeric, financial, intellectual, social and cultural decline, the degree of influence they have in the public square has been consolidated and in some senses extended.
Even so, the writing is on the wall for the particular privileging of faith interests in many areas of life. Courts are refusing the extension of interpretations of ‘religious rights’ (the ‘silver chastity ring’ case in West Sussex). And the equalities agenda, strongly resisted by faith leaders in terms of sexual orientation, is still moving forward.
All of which poses the question: in what ways will Gordon Brown, well-known son of a Presbyterian manse, ‘do’ or ‘not do’ God?
The early signs are that he will speak less than Blair on the issue of faith, and that while his commitments on global debt and poverty are overtly sourced in a firmly Christian vision, Mr Brown remains a pluralist.
He is liberal on ethical issues, economically and socially tough, and in seeking change in the relation between Church and State he remains open to ‘creeping disestablishment’ – while resistant to a kind of secularism that would be overtly anti-religious.
On faith schools and welfare, Mr Brown will pursue the Blair agenda, to the disquiet of those (both outside and inside the churches) who worry about threats to diversity and equality of provision if some faith agendas are allowed to proliferate through public subsidy.
Confusion and argument about these questions is likely to deepen until the question of how to re-negotiate faith involvement in the public square is properly considered. At the moment, both church leaders and politicians are solidly locked into what some call ‘the Christendom mindset’.
This is the notion that faith concerns are identical with the preservation of the material interests of religious institutions, and may be adequately measured by them. So the Church of England sees the spiritual barometer of national life according to whether its own desire to run publicly-funded schools, maintain its unique status in relation to the crown, and have privileged access to government, is defended.
But there are visions of the Christian message which would see such things not only as questionable but inimical to the way of Christ as one of self-dispossession and neighbour-love without condition.
It is history and politics which has often made the Gospel in its Western guise so unhealthily dependent on this-worldly favours.
The alternative is not disconnecting faith from politics (which isn’t possible anyway), but viewing it as a contribution to be made in terms of witness, rather than control; and civil society activism alongside others, rather than top-down security built on a church alliance with the state.
Whether Gordon Brown can be persuaded to re-invest in a truly Non Conformist conscience remains doubtful. Many of the free churches seem to have lost that years ago, and the Church of Scotland retains its privileged position, too – in an attenuated way.
But we are likely to see further cracks in the Establishment armoury under the new PM’s tutelage, nonetheless.
This is an edited version of an article that will appear in Third Way magazine (http://www.thirdway.org.uk/).
Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog is: http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com/