Back in 2005 a churches’ report called Prosperity with a Purpose recommended that we should all learn to love free markets a bit more and give up on supposedly childish notions about economic alternatives. (I produced a quite detailed theological and economic critique at the time.)
The cover of the report included a rather nifty graphic involving a camel passing successfully through the eye of a needle. It did this through the artful theological device of making the needle unfeasibly large.
Meanwhile, just as Christians thought they were being worldly wise by announcing a new treaty with Mammon, hard-headed entrepreneur George Soros and former World Bank heavyweight luminary Joseph Stiglitz were warning that the global economy was becoming seriously unhinged and could collapse with terrible consequences for us all. But what did they know?
As someone who attends both church and political meetings, I am struck that you often get more preoccupation with finance in the former and more serious attention to God in the latter. At least in terms of being sanguine about their respective claims.
For instance, I have rarely encountered ecclesiastical committees where people would make the elementary mistake of claiming a pay-per-view porn film on expenses. Yet our Home Secretary, whose job involves detailed political management, was guilty of just such a remarkable oversight.
On the other hand, while churches are busily confining the divine to unseemly arguments about genitals and organisational joinery, those who have to deal with governance realise that faith is a powerful force for good and ill in the much larger issues of resources and power.
Tony Blair recently announced that politicians should "do God" after all, despite the advice of his former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, during his period of office. He did not mean that they should make their policies or electorates captive to a particular messianic vision (though he has been accused of just this in relation to Iraq), but that they needed to recognise the role and relevance of religious belief in the way the great majority of people on the planet look at their lives.
Meanwhile, in the recent global economy debate at St Paul’s Cathedral, Gordon Brown remarked that, by the same token, “politicians have got to be very careful that they don’t turn out to try to be bishops.” Which begs a fascinating question about what, exactly, he thinks a bishop is or does!
Religion and politics do not and cannot operate in hermetically sealed boxes. Belief influences power and power influences belief. When politicians appeal to faith to legitimate their policies, many will rightly feel sceptical. The abuses wrought by so doing have been enormously damaging in Christian history and beyond.
But it is equally healthy to know what it is that politicians believe in, other than their own power or that of the market, and to be able to hold them to account in those terms. That frees people of faith to be able to explore ways of using power and doing economics which are not simply conformed to the ‘realism’ of the present system. Because it may turn out to be a lot less secure (and realistic) than they are tempted to believe.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. 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. His forthcoming book, Threatened With Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, will be published soon.
This article is adapted from the regular ‘Westminster Watch’ column Simon Barrow writes for Third Way magazine, with acknowledgments. http://www.thirdway.org.uk/