Mixing faith and politics: Cameron, Gove and a barmy blog

It would be unkind, but not unfair, to suggest that David Cameron’s Easter message showed rather less understanding of religion than the Bishops’ Election letter showed of politics. It seems that Magic FM’s reception in the Chilterns has improved as the election nears.

In a similar vein, Michael Gove’s polemic in this week’s Spectator sits oddly alongside his achievement in sidelining Religious Education through his education reforms, collateral damage in his search for his particular vision of the greater educational good.

Nonetheless, in their own way, each provides a reminder that the relationship between religion and politics needs a rather greater amount of attention than our society’s leaders and leader-writers seem willing to give it. Certainly it needs more thought than this article calling for religion to be banished from the public sphere.

The author, who is remarkably shy about his own commitments and associations, seems basically to be saying that we don’t want our politics to be like American politics. He manages to ignore the reality that in the US religion is rigorously separated from government, yet intrudes everywhere, and in the UK it is formally enshrined in the organs of state, yet is often invisible. Consideration of that alone should have given him pause to ask what exactly he means.

He publishes the demands he made to party leaders on his blog. Again he withholds any information about his own affiliations while seeking to deny those of religious affiliation the freedom he is currently exercising. He seems miffed that they haven’t recognised the significance of his campaigning by speedy – or indeed any – replies. These are his demands:

  1. Your party will not solicit financial or electoral support on religious grounds (any religion);
  2. Your party will not give any form of special access to policy-making or campaigning to any religious group;
  3. Your party will publicly repudiate any person or organization who solicits support for it on any religious basis (for or against any religion)

I’m not sure exactly what the first means. And I’m not sure the author does either. “You and I,” says politician X, “believe in justice for the oppressed. Your scriptures are full of it, your prayers talk about it. I believe our policies deliver on that better than any other party. I hope you will see that and support us.” Mr Heller, it would seem, would like to prevent politicians saying such things.

The second is an odd attempt to make specific what ought to be general: no government should give any interest group special access to policy-making. Or does Mr Heller believe that it’s okay for the RSPCA and the National Secular Society, and other non-religious groups to have access? Or does he mean what he really, really wants is a commitment to abolish bishops from the House of Lords?

The third is even more bizarre than the first. You’ve been inspired by your faith to campaign for the Living Wage. He wants you banned from publicly supporting a political party that promises it. Your church has been running a food bank and wants to get commitments from politicians to address the root causes of food poverty. He doesn’t want a party to listen to you because your faith is a living and visible part of your motivation to provide emergency supplies to those who need them.

Now, I suspect that isn’t what he really means, and he’d feel I’ve distorted what he meant. It is, however, a fair interpretation of his actual words. I don’t think he’s thought through the implications of his slogans. But he’s certainly a good candidate for this week’s poster boy for secularist bigotry.