Wednesday November 28, 2007


In a recent interview on BBC1, former prime minister, Tony Blair, confessed what we all already knew – that his vision whilst in government was strongly underpinned by his religious faith. And yet, during his term as prime minister, he was more than a little coy about admitting these religious underpinnings. As Alasdair Campbell famously said, “We don’t do God.”

This mixture of conviction and coyness says a lot about the attitude to religion in the UK. Many of the faithful complain that we are a society that is anti-religion, but I do not think that the evidence supports this. We still live in a society in which the Anglican church and the state are tethered together and in which Anglican bishops have the automatic right to sit in the house of Lords. Those who hold high office are expected to be seen trooping in and out of the churches on Sunday: stolidly religious, but not demonstratively so. That seems to be how we like our politicians.

The attitude we hold with respect to religion in public life seems rather similar to our attitude to what are often called “family values”. Political commentators everywhere extol the virtues of the family as the fundamental moral unit (in this, echoing Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families”), and as a result, we like our politicians married. We like it even more if they have children that they can pose with for photographs. But we don’t like to think of our politicians actually having sex. It is the exactly same with religion. On the one hand, we like our politicians, it seems, to be stolidly, institutionally religious. Yet at the same time, we don’t like to think of them manifesting any degree of unseemly enthusiasm for their religion. Religion, like sex, is something to be done in private, preferably with one’s socks still on.

This double attitude is unhelpful. Although there are many ideologues who claim that religion should be driven out of public life, I am not sure I agree that this is either possible or desirable. Certainly, I see no good argument for giving religion any kind of privileged place in public life, and there are no doubt good arguments for disestablishment of church and state, and for resisting any attempt to grant privileges and protections in law for those ideas and practices specifically judged to be religious. As I have argued before on this site, what needs to be protected is not religion, but people. I can see no reason why religious groups should be guaranteed any more protection or a priori influence in public life than any other group bound together by mutual interest – ornithologists, trainspotters and philosophers, for example.

Having said this, we need to allow that religion will – whether we like it or not – have a role to play in public life. Public life must be rooted in the lives of the public, and religion (like trainspotting, ornithology and philosophy) is just something that many people are bound up in – to use the old, and probably bogus, etymology of “religion” as rooted in the Latin religare, “to bind fast”. We may think religion is good for people, or we may not, and this question should be open to public debate and to investigation, but we should neither exclude it from public life nor should we grant it any kind of privileged role.

This public debate concerning religion cannot occur as long as we maintain a dual attitude by virtue of which we both want a role for religion, and at the same time we think it is inappropriate to discuss it. This tension is one that can drive the religiously motivated aspects of political life underground, and this means that the true reasons and motivations for action are no longer available to public scrutiny.

What is needed, I think, is the kind of honesty and courage that is so often lacking. Let those who hold public office and make decisions rooted in their religious convictions admit to the sources of their inspiration and account for themselves. And let those who lack religious convictions at last honestly admit to the fact (after all, how many openly atheist or agnostic politicians can you name?) Then, when we can see clearly and in the light of day the ideas, aspirations and motivations of those who are in power, and we can begin to have a more serious debate than is permitted by the pantomime of respectability we are accustomed to.

Had Mr. Blair been possessed of this degree of staightforwardness with respect to this issue, openly admitting to the extent to which he was influenced by his faith, explaining the nature of what was clearly a vitally important influence upon him, not attempting to disguise the issue, then it would have been up to the rest of us to have decided whether, in the end, the decisions he was making and the motivations that underpinned them were those of a man of some wisdom, whether they were, in his own words, those of a “nutter”, or whether the truth was somewhere in between. And this, in a democracy, seems to be only appropriate.

# · PeterAtLarge

This sounds pretty civilized to this ex-pat Brit, living in the States since the early 60s. I have watched with dismay as the “religious” right took a stranglehold on the country’s political life and nearly throttled it. Thank “God,” this madness does show signs of abating, but what you describe in the UK sounds relatively benign to me. Cheers, PaL

# · Will

Relatively, perhaps… But I wonder if here in the UK we have had a similarly Manichean vision underpinning our foreign policy for the previous few years, even if less apparent. And this tendency to divide the world into absolutely good and absolutely evil is one that, I think, undermines the kind of subtlety that ethics demands…

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