Thursday, December 20, 2007

The importance of faith

By way of reply to Ourman, Davide Simonetti and others who have questioned my previous post about Nick Clegg, and an earlier one about whether Tony Blair should have discussed his faith, the first thing I want to say is no, I don't believe non-Christians are lesser people, no, I don't believe Christians have a monopoly on morality, and yes, I do agree with Archbishop Rowan that, while I would prefer it if Clegg was a Christian, it is his integrity that matters most.

But I do nevertheless believe that having a personal faith does on the whole make you a better politician, although as I will also make clear, there are always exceptions. So why do I believe this?

There are two main reasons. Firstly, I believe that faith can and usually does give politicians a stronger ethical framework for their actions. I am not saying here that atheists will invariably lack a moral compass, just that having an outside point of reference for one's political beliefs and decisions is helpful.

Canon David Sharp puts it thus: "The Protestant tradition particularly requires a careful examination of the conscience; what will be popular with the public or the party comes far lower down. [His] belief creates another criterion to be passed before he can act. Surely such extra moral tests, over and above strictly political considerations, are likely to make for more responsible decisions."

Secondly, and more fundamentally, I think that because faith in a higher being gives people an awareness of their own limitations and imperfections (the Biblical word "sin" is probably not helpful here) it generally tends to incline them towards humility, and this for me is an essential personal quality for anyone seeking to exercise power over people's lives.

This was why I found Tony Blair's particular brand of Christianity so perplexing. I don't doubt he is a Christian, as indeed is Margaret Thatcher, but his apparent Messiah complex and belief that he could singlehandedly save first the Labour Party, then Britain, then the World, often struck me as evidence of a rather anti-Christian state of mind.

Gordon Brown is a much more genuinely humble man in this regard. His Christianity is much more about applying Jesus's ethical teachings to present-day social problems than rescuing the planet from an axis of evil, and in this sense he seems to me to be a much better example of a Christian politician.

I realise that in the current climate, citing Gordon as a good example of anything is unlikely to convince many to change their point of view, but it is nevertheless as sincere an explanation as I can give of why I believe faith to be important in a political context.

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20 comments: said...

I guess that's one difference between him and Cameron

Anonymous said...

The problem, as Paul's post implicitly acknowledges, is that the Christian message is a pliable one, particularly in the context of a 21st century politics it was never intended for.
I'm a non-believer, but I root for the man who turns the money-lenders out of the temple. Lady Thatcher's most famous comment on Christ's teaching - "No-one would have remembered the Good Samaritan if he had just had good intentions. He also had money" - strikes me as, at best, a clueless misinterpretation, at worst, shockingly cynical.
However, no-one can deny the sincerity of Thatcher's faith. Who is to say that the Lady's interpretation of the Lord's message is not the right one? And even Blair and Bush could probably point to Matthew 10:34 in justification of their actions.

Charlie Marks said...

My favourite Christian politican is Hugo Chavez, someone who appreciates that Jesus was the first socialist...

Anonymous said...

When Tony Blair announced that God was helping him make political decisions, I feared for everyone of all faiths. Religious beliefs are not a problem, unless someone makes decisions based on them rather than on what the country needs or what their party wishes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response. Interesting and appreciated.

First off, I agree with Stephen Rouse. I also agree with the Chavez comment - that seems like Christianity to me.

In that sense I am behind genuinely Christian politicians. Share the wealth, thou shalt not kill etc. All good Socialist stuff.

But Thatcher is not a Christian. Blair is not a Christian. Bush is certainly not a Christian. In fact the whole US Christian thing seems so removed from Christianity. Christians for the Death Penalty? Christians for the Nuclear Deterrent?

It seems there is so much being done in the name of Christianity that it is refreshing to see someone who has dispensed with it.

As for some kind of ethical framework. As it has already been argued, this is so flexible. Or at least has been bent out of all shape by Bush/Blair etc.

I believe I live my life well and take some responsibility as a global citizen. I'm just back from three years volunteer work overseas. I say this, not as emphasis of my own good deeds but to lead into the next point - for every single Christian missionary I met on my travels who preached, Cum by Yahed and painted murals I met a dozen more, hardworking, non believing volunteers.

My point being you don't have to be Christian to be good. I am capable of working out for myself what is right and wrong. I believe recent history shows that this personal responsibility system works better than an incredibly pliable and ancient set of guidelines.

What would Jesus Do? Well he wouldn't have bombed Iraq and he'd certainly give more in overseas aid, he'd welcome migrants as brothers and he'd build more hospitals. I'd vote for all that.

I also believe there are good Christians and bad Christians and as a moral code, if properly adhered to I believe Christianity takes some beating.

I can agree with the ten commandments without believing in the "imaginary friend" bit. I also believe that if I am a good person it is out of a sense of correctness not because I am worried about burning in hell for eternity.

I do take offence to be told that by not being a christian I do not have a "moral compass" and that I have no sense of my own limitations.

To say this smacks of smugness and a suggestion, however softly put, that you, and Christians, and Christian politicans are better than me, other non believers, and non religious politicans.

If we have learnt anything follows Blair's crusades then surely it is that religion is no indicator of a person's "moral compasss". Let's guage their personality and ability regardless of their religious beliefs, not because of them.

Anonymous said...

Further to Ourman's closing comment, it would seem that the importance of faith is one thing, but the Faith of Importance is quite another.

Perhaps this is how we might tell apart the various political figures offered for consideration over the course of this discussion.

Paul Linford said...

I would add, in relation to the specific case of Nick Clegg, that the reason I won't be voting for him at the next GE is not the fact that he's not a Christian, but the fact that he's a krypto-Tory who in all probability would deliver us into the hands of a David Cameron-led Tory-Lib coalition if he got the chance.

Anonymous said...

As you acknowledge, religious belief does not lead to a particular set of policy prescriptions: Thatcher and Tutu are Anglicans, Widdecombe and Chavez both Catholic. Rather, careful examination of the conscience and awareness of one's limitations and imperfections are the key to behaving morally, whether or not you are a politician.

To me the question is whether a reliance on one tradition - one book, even - is the best way to develop either critical moral faculties or humility. Political theory and history both yield plenty of lessons on the best and worse that humanity is capable of.

There is nothing remotely perplexing about Blair’s behavior. Not only is history littered with religious figures who had Messiah complexes, the present is too. It is hard to think of anyone with less humility than George W Bush, or indeed Hugo Chavez.

Philosopher kings are rare creatures. Some thoughtful and humble politicians are religious, others not. And so as a voter I could not care less whether a leader believes in God.

Michael Rutherford said...

I'm not at all convinced. Surely when you say that those with faith have a stronger ethical framework, you're mean that they have a similar morality to you? There is no single definition of what is and isn't ethcial. To give you one example, the suicide bombers in London had a very strong faith and a very strong set of ethical beliefs. Does that mean they would be better at running a country than an atheist?

Don't forget that the war in Iraq was justified by a very Christian neo-conservative movement in the US.

I really don't think religion makes any difference as to someone's ability to run a country. Not that that will ever be an issue for Clegg anyway.

Harry Barnes said...

Isn't the important thing for all of us (politicians included) not whether we are Christians, holders of alternative religious beliefs, agnostics or atheists; but whether we hold to these (and many) other beliefs in a dogmatic way or not? As John Stuart Mill pointed out, those who only understand their own side of the case understand little of that - I would not, of course, wish to be dogmatic about this!

Davide Simonetti said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for the response. I still fail to see how belief in the supernatural makes one a better politician. A personal faith doesn't necessarily have to be religious, it could be a belief in justice or a fairer society, for example. I would argue that this is just as good as an "outside point of reference". My problems with this perceived need for politicians to have religious beliefs are perhaps prosaic. Firstly, if a politician finds himself in trouble or excluded from office because he or she lacks a belief in the supernatural, then this is dangerous in my opinion. It suggests that Britain is veering towards being a theocracy of sorts. This is why I find Clegg's position refreshing - if the only way Clegg could have won the leadership was by announcing his religious devotion to some deity or other, it would have set a bad precedent for other politicians aiming for higher office.

Secondly, in a multi-cultural society, a politician wearing his or her Christianity on their shirtsleeve can lead non-Christians to feel excluded. I think this was part of the problem with Blair. Blair's belief in a higher being certainly didn't give him an awareness of his own limitations and imperfections, as you rightly acknowledge, but there was nothing particularly perplexing about it. He took his religious beliefs too far and interpreted his policies as the will of God in the same evangelical way that Bush does. That's not to say that all Christian politicians behave in this messianic way, far from it, but it does expose the potential danger. I disagree that those who believe in the supernatural are generally more inclined towards humility. There are humble people of a secular bent and religious egomaniacs, as we constantly see. I think this has more to do with personality than with religiosity as there are also humble Christians and hubristic atheists.

As you point out, Gordon Brown's Presbyterian background does make him seem more humble in this regard and I appreciate the fact that he doesn't bang on about his Christianity the way Blair tried to do. I do wonder sometimes whether his particular faith over-rides his commitment to democratic principles (the way he fought tooth and nail to prevent a proper leadership contest and his failure to hold an election that would have given him a proper mandate) or whether this is just the usual power struggles we get in politics.

I have no problem at all with politicians having religious beliefs whether it's Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam or Paganism, just as I have no problem with politicians who, like Clegg, declare they have no religious belief. It is entirely a personal matter and shouldn't be an issue at all unless, as with Blair, those religious beliefs (or lack of them in Clegg's case) are rammed in our faces and mythological beings are blamed for bad policy or if those beliefs are somehow imposed on us. I'm still making my mind up about Nick Clegg and I'll watch closely how he performs, but like Rowan Williams and yourself (and hopefully the rest of the country), I'll judge him on his performance, policies and integrity not his lack of faith. I hope that clarifies my position in what is an interesting discussion.

Gareth said...

I have a personal faith - or at least bordering on a faith - that God does not exist.

As for an 'ethical framework' I take my lead from many different sources including, but not limited to (by any means) the Bible. The worry is that many religious people are instructed solely by their religion or their interpretation of it - fundamentalists are not noted for their liberalism.

Anonymous said...

Christian is as Christian votes - Mr Blair's govt was distinctively anti-Christian in seeking to promote Islam and homosexuality via non-discriminatory legislation - give me a good atheist as a prime Minister any day rather than Christians like that

Terry (Christian)

Anonymous said...

I can assure you, as an atheist I do still have an 'outside point of reference' for my beliefs and decisions - I am a human being, responsible for my own actions, and everything I do has a cause and an effect. It's simple - I treat people as they deserve to be treated, with respect and dignity. I don't see why it should require a religious belief to be a good and morally just person.

Joe Otten said...

I agree with most of the comments here.

If you choose a moral compass like that of Gordon Brown over one like that of George Bush, is it any longer an outside point of reference? Surely by choosing it, it becomes an inside point of reference?

And if you don't choose it, if you just go with your upbringing, isn't that a little reckless?

Pete Hindle said...

Religious choice should be celebrated as a freedom we have in today's society. What people choose to believe is ultimately irrelevant, as their actions are much more of a clue as to their intentions. Even debating religious preference of elected officials takes us into some pretty argumentative territory.

Anonymous said...

Well said, minxlj. Treat others as you would expect them to treat you.

The PM's presbyterian background is evident. Clegg does not believe in the Almighty yet his children are being raised in a Catholic environment I read. Where is Dave in all this I wonder?

Paul Linford said...

Dave has said he believes in God and that he is a practising churchgoer.

Politaholic said...

Faith "generally inclines" people towards humility? Did you say humility? Blair? Thatcher? Dear Ann Widdicombe oozes humility from every pore. David Blunkett. And Brown...I mean, humility?! Ah, but perhaps they all suffer from an "anti-Christian state of mind". Who decides what a Christian state of mind is? (I'm sure the above-named all think their state of mind is impeccably Christian). And if Christians don't have a Christian state of mind then what? Ian Paisley, who must know something about the Protestant tradition, doesn't strike me as overburdened with humility....I can't speak as one of the "elect" myself, but it seems to me that religious certainty engenders arrogance as much as anything else.

Anonymous said...

The belief in a ‘God’ is a basic right. However once you have that belief then other issues follow.

As an example how does the person view gay rights? As you well know the Church is very split over this issue. As it directly could influence a proportion of the electorate any politician should also be explicit on such issues.

The way Gordon Brown tackles such issues is to do a McCavity -

In these cases do the ‘Christian’ politicians place their beliefs over their electorates’ wishes or vice versa? How on earth can a member of Opus Dei, in all honesty, be responsible for equal rights?

How do you feel about those whose religious views are different to yours but held with equal conviction? Does their faith excuse stoning for adultery or amputations for theft?

Belief can be a very dangerous thing.