Britain’s main party political leaders, far from “not doing God” (as former Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell once suggested), seem to have been talking about faith and the Almighty more than ever before in the past decade.
That is the headline conclusion from a survey of their major speeches carried out recently by Theos. But what does it mean in terms of the complex relationship between religion and politics in Britain today?
The research is indicative rather than definitive. The fact that religiously derived rhetoric has been employed on 186 occasions, mostly positively, by political leaders in major platform speeches between 1998-2007 does not show a straightforward equation between name checking and influence, though the two often grow together.
It is clear that 9/11 proved a public wake up call on religion, and not just through fears that malformed faith is feeding extremism. Though Europe remains an exception to the global tide of religiosity following the collapse of a simple ‘secularisation thesis’, which believed that modernity would melt away faith, politicians in Britain and elsewhere recognise that ‘the belief factor’ seeps into every major world issue right now – like it or not.
Moreover, as British governments of all hues are confronted with problems in the funding, delivery and effectiveness of public services, so the capacity of religious communities to mobilise volunteers and commitment – even at a time when their formal institutions and adherents are in decline – offers a tempting way forward for both. Government gets ‘social partnership’, the churches get credibility and recognition.
Probing the references in those political leaders’ speeches, the ‘recognition game’ seems to be very much at their heart. Post-ideological party politics is about building broad coalitions. Naming interest groups makes them feel special and creates affinity.
But it is not just religious motivation that is lauded. The ‘spirit of volunteering’, ‘caring’, ‘neighbourliness’, ‘fair-minded British values’ and other secular virtues also feature regularly. Focussing on faith references may detract from the concerted attempt at balance that speechwriters always try to create.
By all means recognise the importance of religion to many, the logic goes; but never forget that even more find their inspiration elsewhere. 72 per cent of us made a ‘civic Christian’ identification in the last census. But deep down, we are a decidedly mixed-conviction society. As the moral philosopher Alisdair Macintyre once cutely suggested, a persistent part of the national temperament is that perhaps there is no God, but it is wise to pray to him from time-to-time!
Things are very different to the US, where God-talk saturates politics, and a vice presidential candidate can proclaim in church that an oil pipeline for wealthy Alaskans is categorically “God’s will”, with few apparent consequences. Imagine the media furore that would follow in Britain.
But the difference is more than rhetorical. Interviewed in greater depth, most British politicians show themselves as wary as ever about an over-identification with specific religious commitments. Polling suggests widespread public cynicism towards attempts to ‘bring God into it’. Tony Blair’s perceived ‘self-righteousness’ produced much scepticism. That is why Campbell made his famously prohibitive remark about political God-talk.
Religion and politics is a hot discussion topic at the moment. But with the National Secular Society always on hand to proclaim that theocracy is at the door, and various Christian lobbyists saying that evil secularism is about to take over, the amount of heat generated far outstrips the available light.
Meanwhile, the tangible power of institutional Christianity is waning, belief is more diverse, and the issue of ‘religion’ has moved into the social arena. “What works for the common good?” is as much the rhetoric of the evangelical Faithworks Movement as it is of politicians looking over their shoulders at Britain’s struggling communities.
For many Christians, the fact that leading politicians value faith and entertain religious leaders is good news. I believe a more creatively critical response is needed. Throughout history, religious language has frequently been used and abused in politics. That there is more religious referencing in political speeches should make us ask deeper questions about the kind of deal between faith and governance this betokens.
Institutional religious interests, like the privileges of Establishment or the rolling out a new evangelical ‘service economy’, are too easily conflated with Gospel concerns. In this sense, public scepticism about politicians’ ‘God-bothering’ may turn out to have more theological weight than the enthusiasm of some Christians for constant affirmation from the powerful.
At its core the Gospel is about God’s suffering servant opening the door to a new kind of life not circumscribed by ‘the powers that be’. It involves speaking and acting act for personal and social transformation in ways that may prove deeply uncomfortable to both political and religious elites.
Christ's call to his followers is to be peacemakers, to put the last first, to share rather than grab, to forgive, to welcome the stranger, and to be gripped by the power of love not the love of power. On economics, asylum, war and a host of issues, this should put us in tension with the political consensus.
The Gospel means thoughtful witness, not political privilege or preferment for Christians. Significantly, none of the political speeches Theos surveyed mentioned Jesus’ disruption of the status quo, and few sermons do either. But what if faith is not a flag to be waved? What if it is a call to conversion – starting with us?
A version of this article was recently published in the Baptist Times newspaper - http://www.baptisttimes.co.uk/home.htm
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He was formerly global mission secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, the official ecumenical body. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard.