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Dishonest to God: Keeping God out of politics

Stephen Timms

RWarnock.jpgThe final sentence sums up this book: mending parliamentary democracy 'entails doing all we can to fend off the forces of theocracy'. And it is the churches the author has in her sights.

Many will be surprised to read that theocracy threatens Britain's democracy.  Baroness Warnock - distinguished philosopher, architect of legislation on human fertilisation and embryology, and still a powerful voice well into her eighties - has a couple of examples from the House of Lords: the defeat of private members' bills on assisted dying, and the deletion of constraints on religious employment from the Equality Bill just before the General Election.

The book is steeped in House of Lords proceedings.  The author refers to people by their full Lords titles - Baroness Rendell of Blabergh, for example, is author Ruth Rendell.  It's outlook - as the title hints - is rooted in the 1960s.  And the argument is heavy going at times.

It is by no means wholly negative about Christian faith.  Baroness Warnock, a churchgoer in her youth, is an admirer of church music and church buildings.  She recognises the profound positive influence of Christian faith on British law and life.  She laments what she sees as the removal of Romanticism from the church: 'The Church has become little more than a wealthy charity that holds supporters' meetings which few attend and where a good deal of positive thinking is encouraged by jolly singsongs'.  She does not want disestablishment of the Church of England, although she would like the bishops out of the Lords.  She accepts that believers will, quite properly, draw on their faith for moral and political judgments.  But she strongly objects to claims that faith is the only viable source of morality, and wants to prise religion and morality apart.

I can't share her fears about political involvement from a faith starting point.  It seems to me we could do with much more of it.  It is a misunderstanding of the experience of faith to suggest that believers should leave their faith behind when they engage with politics.  Baroness Warnock doesn't explicitly suggest that they should, but that seems to be where her argument is heading.

The reason we could do with much more of it is because - in 21st century Britain - faith is among the best sources we have for the values which make communities work, and which make politics work: responsibility, solidarity, patience, compassion, truthfulness.  Strictures which Baroness Warnock sees as safeguards against theocracy are far more likely, in reality, to deter exactly those people whom politics needs.  Why should they bother, if they have to obey rules inspired by a 1960s misunderstanding of faith?

This might be fine if legions of well motivated people outside the faith communities were pressing forward to pursue the non-religious morality commended by Baroness Warnock.  But there aren't.  Rather than working out how to exclude people whose starting point is faith, and make it more difficult for them, we should be planning how to encourage their participation.  This may well make it harder to legalize euthanasia.  But it will also deepen the links between political decisions and the people affected by them, and strengthen the influence of values which - while rooted in faith - are supported across society, irrespective of faith.  That is the kind of renewal politics needs.

This book is well intentioned.  But it misunderstands contemporary society, and how to draw on its strengths to achieve good politics.

Stephen Timms