Has the pro-faith left made inroads into central government? For today we have financial secretary Stephen Timms appealing to us lefties to stop being so fussy and precious about separation of church and state, minority rights, evidence-based policy and all that middle-class secularist nonsense. Because apparently:
Something important is happening on the left of politics. Faith, often in the past derided as conservative or irrelevant or heading for extinction, is now providing more and more of its energy and leadership.
The challenge to progressive politicians is to show they recognise faith-based perspectives and contributions as valid and mainstream, rather than irrelevant and marginal.
You’d think as a Treasury man Timms would have enough going on, yet he recently gave a speech to the government’s pet think tank on ‘building a politics based on hope.’ That think tank is of course the Institute of Public Policy Research: Timms also plugs their report (which I’ve discussed here.) And where else is hope to come from but ‘the contribution of Britain’s faith communities’?
I’ve been impressed by the rich stream of hope I find in the faith communities in my constituency and elsewhere. The hope they draw on helps them respond to circumstances now but also motivates their work for the future.
Because faith communities believe in a better, more just world, they work towards it. In doing so they offer a resource of hopefulness, which in progressive politics, we need to tap into.
Obviously to tap into this vast yearning reservoir of positive energy we need to relax the boundaries between church and state.
Many believe you shouldn’t mix faith and politics. I’ve taken the opposite view – believing instead that faith is a great starting point for politics.
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the last three leaders of the Labour party have had faith as the starting point for their politics. Or that Australia has a Labour prime minister who has argued that Christianity ‘must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.’ Or that the United States has as its Democratic president a man who learned his politics as a community organiser with churches in Chicago.
Now, trying to claim Obama for the pro-faith left is tricky because in the United States you cannot get elected Dog Location Co-ordinator without professing some form of Christian faith. That’s a big contrast to the days of the founding fathers – the Virginia Statute sounds like The God Delusion when you read it today.
Yet these days no one could stand as an openly atheist presidential candidate. You might as well argue for a return to British colonial rule.
Things are not much different in this country – remember the stir Nick Clegg made when he publicly doubted the sky-god? Could Attlee have been an outspoken heathen? Could Churchill? As Sam Harris said: ‘[N]early every person who has ever trimmed a hammer or swung a nail has been a devout member of one or another religious culture. There has been simply no one else to do the job.’
Of course it’s not Christian politicians per se that are the problem, it’s politicians like Timms who don’t know where faith ends and politics begin. Happily, the new American President is a better and wiser man than Stephen Timms. This is Obama the secularist:
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
As Ophelia recently said: ‘Welcome back to the reality-based community.’
Also: where are these faith communities Timms talks about? Sure I’ve known countless voluntary projects where kids can play football on Friday nights instead of hanging around on the streets, but they tend to be run by hard working individuals who want to improve their estates and don’t need eternal reward to encourage them. There have been incidences of young women from faith communities being immolated because of their sexuality. Presumably this isn’t the better and more just world than Timms meant.
The point is that religious observance is plummeting. So how are we to harness the energies of a dwindling minority? Maybe Timms shares the churches’ barely concealed hope that recession will send the masses stampeding back into the pews.
Or perhaps by ‘progressive politicians tapping into a resource of hope’ Timms means: ‘Let’s give more and more public money, and hand over more and more public services, to dubious-sounding initiatives and companies, as long as they include the words ‘faith-based’ in their bid proposal.’
Fair enough – it’s not like our economy doesn’t have the cash to spare.