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Commentary

Arch sceptic

Agnostics anonymous

Within a fortnight of one hairy lefty announcing his retirement, another hairy lefty trumpeted his own return to the front line of public life. Two more contrasting figures than Archibishop Rowan Williams and MP George Galloway it is difficult to imagine. And yet both shed light on the evolving tensions between religion and progressive politics.

On winning his by-election, George Galloway invoked Keir Hardie and the god of Islam alike, with no apparent cognitive dissonance. After his victory night ascription of 'all praise to Allah', he then painted his victory as 'a rebirth of real Labourism'. It's a cliché that old Labour owed more to Methodism than Marx, but the mosque as the source of authentic socialism is a new one.

But more than socialism or any god, Galloway worships power. This character trait would be clear even if he hadn't gone to such abject lengths to prove it in his audience with Saddam Hussein. Whether he himself has converted to Islam or kept his Catholic faith is irrelevant next to the fact that he succeeded in leveraging religion to bring himself power. He won on an essentially theocratic ticket, as the best Muslim among the candidates.

Meanwhile, Dr Williams remains in theory the most prominent religious representative in Britain. When he rose to that position he was perceived as a potential liberalising force. Yet his term in office has shown that having progressive views counts for little when the platform from which you air your views is founded on the received authority of a traditional institution. Push for the ordination of gays, for example, and that institution could tear itself apart and take your authority with it.

How can a broad-minded moral code be made consistent with an ancient moral law? There is no simple answer to this, or to anything much, in the winding intricacies of the Archbishop's writings and speeches. And yet, for all that he was criticised as overly relativist, he still thought, fundamentally, that society ought to accommodate itself to religion rather than the other way around.

The Archbishop's speech on 'supplementary jurisdictions' in 2008, widely viewed as the biggest mistake of his term in office, made the case for permitting sharia law in the UK. In giving privileged status to religious loyalties even where they lead to the sectarian break-up of society, he showed how seriously religion threatens Enlightenment ideals. It took Galloway to provide a full demonstration of how to exploit sectarianism even while spouting the rhetoric of the Enlightenment. But in both men we see how the marriage of religion and progressive politics can easily become an abusive relationship.