Can religion and politics mix today?



As the famous saying goes, you don’t talk about religion or politics at a dinner party. What about the two combined? Is that too toxic a mix to even begin to entertain as a topic of conversation at the dinner table, let alone in the public square?

It was Tony Blair’s ‘spin doctor’ Alistair Campbell who infamously declared, “We don’t do God”. His statement was a reflection of the fear that ‘doing God’ would compromise the secular-sacred divide and bring the combined influence of God and faith into the public square. Faith, according to Campbell, is strictly a private affair and God's services weren't required in a brave new secular world.

Others, however, would disagree with this notion and say that faith does indeed have a role to play in the decisions we make and the lives we live both in public as well as private. As Tony Blair himself said:

“Accept the premise that faith is not in decline…It is still here with us, not just surviving but thriving.”

This belief that faith still has a role to play in the public outworking of our lives has led many Christian men and women to take a lead in politics. Others have been more hesitant. Perhaps because the record of Christian engagement in public and political life is by no means an unblemished one.

In light of history, it’s important that the church and Christians ‘get it right’ when it comes political engagement. Below we explore two examples of ‘getting it wrong’ and identify a third ideal model of ‘getting it right’.


GETTING IT WRONG: THEOCRACY

The first is the idea that God somehow expects the Church to ‘take power’ and enforce Godly laws and behaviours on society at large. In the booklet ‘Neither Private nor Privileged’, Nick Spencer of the think-tank Theos calls this the ‘theocratic temptation’. At its most extreme it can lead to a kind of religious dictatorship (think of ISIS or the worst excesses of the medieval church in Europe).

It has been frequently pointed out that this kind of abuse is not confined to religious groups. Communist and fascist states behaved in a very similar way, combining a ‘religiously held’ set of atheistic beliefs with a willingness to use brutal force to impose them. Nonetheless, the fact that this thinking has been used to justify evil acts committed in the name of Christ means that we must pay careful attention to the Bible’s frequent warnings against abuse of worldly power.

Thankfully there are no credible voices today advocating the use of coercive power to enforce some kind of Christian state. The temptation to do so out of a misguided belief that ‘the ends justify the means’ is one that we must remain mindful of. But in modern Britain, it is probably the opposite extreme which has greater potential to cause problems.


GETTING IT WRONG: PRIVATISATION OF FAITH

The second error is to see our faith as an essentially ‘private matter’. This is dangerous because it tempts us to separate our inward beliefs and spirituality from our outward words and actions. The result is an impotent and hypocritical form of Christianity which suggests that ‘believing the right things’ is all that God requires of us. As the letter of James tells us: “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:12, NIV).

In the political realm, a privatised faith will cause us either to feel that we are under no obligation to speak out against unrighteousness and injustice (because our beliefs are our own concern), or to look to purely human ideologies for answers to society’s problems.

At the same time, there are enormous opportunities to bring Godly wisdom to a world which is grappling with profound economic, social, and environmental challenges. As we have seen, many important social movements in history have been led or supported by Christians. If the same is to happen in our generation, we need to bring our faith in Jesus to a very public form of expression.


GETTING IT RIGHT: DISTINCTIVE ENGAGEMENT

Moving beyond the temptations of theocracy or a ‘private’ faith is the calling to be involved yet remain distinctive; to be ‘in the world but not of it’. This means participating fully in society without losing essential Christian values, identity and vision in the process. Such a confident form of Christian engagement can accept the flaws and failures of our social and political institutions, not as an excuse to compromise our beliefs, but as the starting point for a journey of redemption and restoration in a sinful world – and an opportunity to demonstrate signs of the kingdom of God.

While being called to roll up our sleeves and get on with the messy business of political life, we are also called to offer a glimpse of a different way. All too often the world accepts selfishness and greed as the basis for our political and economic systems, yet Jesus commands his followers to love our neighbour as ourselves. All too often the world offers personal gratification and fulfilment as the ultimate goal, yet Jesus teaches that loving and honouring God is our highest calling. All too often the world is resigned to relationships tainted by fear and mistrust, yet Jesus calls his followers to live in communities characterised by love and mutual dependence.

Politics can be tribal and divisive. Authentic Christian engagement can only take place within a counter-cultural community that recognises it as a ‘body ministry’. Whatever the campaign or party affiliation, unity of heart among believers must transcend all other demands upon our identity.

Being ‘distinctively engaged’ offers a dynamic and fruitful approach that avoids the fears and pitfalls that have historically limited Christian influence in politics. One which rejects the notion that ‘the end justifies the means’, and instead offers up all policies, issues, debates and positions as an outworking of the prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done’.


This article was adapted from part of the Being Salt & Light resource, available to download here.