Monday, November 26, 2007

Vox populae: God, maybe

Tony Blair, and sundry other religious nutters, sorry, believers, express hurt and surprise that bringing their faith into the public domain is frowned upon. They shouldn't be. There are many excellent reasons why people in England, especially – though it applies to Britain generally and should apply even more to the other bit of the UK – take a dim view of this.

The first, and probably most important point, is that there is a long, long history of trying to keep politics and religion apart. It is paradoxical in a country which still has a state church, but that state church has, since the time of Elizabeth I, been founded on the principle that the authorities should not make windows into men's souls. To put it less subtly: after the time of Mary I, the CofE was reconstituted as stroke of pragmatic genius - the proverbial broad church – in which people could believe what they liked so long as they didn't upset the status quo.This attitude of "think what you like, just don't cause trouble" has its merits to this day

This attitude inspired the later, and better, separation of church and state on which the founding fathers of the US laid such emphasis. Still, the principle of not letting your religious views be the be-all and end-all of your political actions was a sound one then – the Cromwellian flirtation with theocracy surely illustrates the point well – and, though we haven't kept pace with the US, progressive measures such as Catholic and Jewish emancipation, letting people who really want a divorce to get divorced, not locking up gays and – go on – stopping women who want abortions having to risk their lives in back street coat-hanger-and-gin joints owe a lot to the view that individuals' religious beliefs shouldn't over-ride the greater good.

There are other reasons, however, why people might think an overtly religious politician is a bit of a nutter. There is the obvious point that if you don't share that belief, whatever it may be, it's hard not to see it as a bit, well, nutty. If you don't think Jesus is going to come back (and even if you did aren't put off by his unfulifilled promise to do so within the life time of his chums) or that Muhammad's shorthand was spot on when a messenger from Allah took him to one side then, however politely you may receive someone who takes a completely different view, you will naturally be cautious if they insist too loudly that their guess about God is better than yous.

Suspicion turns to alarm, however, when a politician insists that they are doing God's work. For all his faults, Tony Blair never quite got to the stage of arguing that his decision to invade Iraq, host the Good Friday peace talks or put Tessa Jowell in the cabinet were God's work. The messianic, I-can-do-no-wrong certitude he evinced was worrying enough – even for those who agreed with him on these various issues. Yet had Blair hinted, as he appears to be doing now, that he believed in what he was doing because he believed in God, is to invite a whole other level of distrust. It's effectively saying, God is on my side, rational debate doesn't come in to it. I don't need to think about what's right, because I know what is.

It's not as if there isn't historical precedent. The last British PM to have this sort of religious certitude was Gladstone (Churchill wasn't short of confidence, but his view was the he was right, Hitler was wrong. He didn't need God to tell him that Hitler was wrong).

Published just a day before Blair aired his doubts about being doubted, Chistopher Howse wrote this piece in the Telegraph about Gladstone.

He was increasingly driven by the notion that he had some great heroic task to perform, informed by the conviction that, as he confided to his diary in 1880: "The Almighty has employed me for His purposes in a manner larger and more special than before." The chosen battleground was Ireland.

The Almighty has a sense of humour, at least. Being singled out by God caused nothing but constitutional tension, however.

"The idea of a deluded, excited man of 82 trying to govern England and her great Empire with the miserable democrats under him is quite ridiculous," wrote the Queen in 1892. "It is like a bad joke!"

She was quick to notice a "weird look in his eyes". In short Victoria thought Gladstone mad, and said so on several occasions.

Oh for an unprincipled dilettante like Disraeli.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Queen Victoria was a Tory and an imperialist. Gladstone had reservations about imperial power. Note her scathing comment about "democrats". She's not a good judge of his premierships.

Gladstone may have been motivated by faith but he pursued the liberal agenda of the governments he led - believing it would lead to the justice and peace his faith dictated. It is possible to argue that his faith gave him the backbone and principle that too many leaders lack.

If you read Blair's comments carefully, it sounds as though he came to use religion to salve his conscience rather than to inform it. In that respect he is more like Cromwell.

12:25 am  
Blogger bill said...

Good points about Gladstone, who ever you may be. On Ireland, though, he went further than most of his party wanted. I'm not saying he was wrong to do so, but many principled supporters of Home Rule had spotted the iniquities of the situation there without recourse to the supernatural.

Parnell probably helped concentrate their minds. But his downfall is an indication of why mixing religious and Irish politics is a very bad idea. There followed the Messianic zeal and fervour of Pearce, the "priest-ridden" Free State, such things as Mother and Baby and Archbihop McQuaid then - on the other side = you had institutional sectarian discrimination and the rise of Ian Paisley.

12:15 pm  

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