Politics and Religion

I was told when I was young that politics and religion were not suitable subjects to be brought up when one happened to find oneself in polite company. I can now see why, given how easy it is for people who might otherwise get on well and find common ground to fall out, due to them having differently held views. I was also told that politics and religion should not be allowed to mix. Having seen people with deeply held religious convictions holding widely differing political views (and religious ones as well come to that), and the damage that can result when religion is brought into politics, I can quite see why some would come to such a view. With the caveat that we need to be wise and timing and context is all important, I disagree with both propositions as the issues covered by politics and religion are far too important not to be delved into more deeply and, at the very least, religion should inform our politics.

As is often the case, a series of events and reports that have recently occurred, although this subject has been on at least the back burner for many a year, have spurred me to write on the subject now. The first is a very recent article with the title “Gay marriage is a threat to freedom” and the second goes back to 1660 and relates to the transcript of the trial of John Bunyan, which culminated in him spending the next 12 years in prison, where he wrote Pilgrims Progress, the one book besides the Bible that I would choose to take with me if such a choice needed to be made. On the surface, these two incidents 354 years apart, would seem to bear little relation as is my own political soul searching, discussed in my recent Political ramblings blog post, and why I could even end up voting UKIP.

When it comes to political allegiances, I have none. I am torn between the right wing notion of minimal state interference and free enterprise, such that wealth is created that may benefit others (although wealth sadly all too often remains concentrated in the hands of the few) and the left wing one of the need for more state interference in the interest of the common good and increasing taxation to fund programs to help the poorer members of society. In the end, my own view, and I realise I am in a minority here, is to support the candidate who I believe will do the most good and work with politicians of all shades when we share a common aim. I feel I am now too old to become a politician in the party political sense and, in any case, my calling is to preach the gospel, do what I am best suited for that will practically show love to my neighbour and pass the baton to the next generation. I do, however, reject the teaching of my youth, not to get involved politically and, while there are warnings I would want to make, I would encourage those inspired by their religion to not discount forging a career in politics.

The subject of gay marriage and its threat to freedom is a subject that I have covered in my “The Gay Conundrum” book and a number of blogs on the subject, and I do so out of deference to my gay friends who believe that certain measures are needed in the public square to tackle homophobia, just as much in the same way it may be needed to tackle racism. Ironically, the article was written by an atheist, Brendan O’Neil, who one would not expect to be overly concerned about religious freedom, for what I can make out, and as I have argued in my writings, the freedoms most affected are often religious ones. The backdrop is the introduction of the gay marriage bill in the Australian parliament. O’Neill criticised proponents of gay marriage who seek to draw a parallel between freedom and the redefinition of marriage – “everywhere gay marriage has been introduced it has battered freedom, not boosted it. Love and marriage might go together like horse and carriage, but freedom and gay marriage certainly do not”. Having observed closely and commented on such matters these past few years, I entirely concur.

It may be difficult for people growing up in multi-cultural Britain to imagine that in John Bunyan’s day it was beholden upon British citizens to attend the established church and it was prohibited to preach without a licence, but such was the case. Bunyan was guilty on both counts and it is why he was brought to trial. Despite the judge giving him an opportunity to leave the court a free man on the provisio he applied for a licence to preach, which no doubt would have been granted, he refused to do so, despite the likelihood that his family would become destitute if he were sent away from them. As Bunyan told the judge: “I must refuse your terms. I must repeat that it is God who constrains me to preach, and no man or company of men may grant or deny me leave to preach“.

Just before the last general election, I was a member of an inter-faith group that was involved in organising a political hustings, which attracted all the main candidates for the constituency being contested. I was invited to ask a question, which I thought carefully about. In the end, my question was to do with some of the issues raised in the two articles. It was on the lines: “how do you see the role of and work with the faith communities in addressing social issues in our society and how does that square with the tendency to penalise religious people who acting according to their beliefs and conscience?” The example cited was that of the bed and breakfast owners that were being taking to court for refusing a double room to a gay couple. While if it were me, I would likely not refused a room but at the same time I understood the sensibilities of the B&B owners and was interested in the responses of the candidates. All were unanimous regarding the important role they saw for the faith communities but only the UKIP candidate showed true empathy with the B&B owners and assured me that the harassment the B&B owners were experiencing would not happen under UKIP. More recently, I met up with that UKIP candidate and it was he that pointed me to the transcript of Bunyan’s trial and it was the issue of freedom of conscience as much as any that drew him to UKIP.

The Bible says little about personal political involvement, which may be unsurprising given that the Old Testament was mostly set in a theocracy (Israel), surrounded by nations that were mostly ruled by despots, and the context of the New Testament was that all that was written took place in the Roman Empire that was ruled by Caesar, another despot, and Jesus was quite clear we must render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. The Bible also talks at length about the kingdom that is not of this world and the principles of that kingdom that we need to abide by and make our priority, and which may, and has throughout history, brought the people of God into conflict with the rulers of the nations where they were to be found.

There is one Bible passage that does throw particular light on what our attitude should be to politics and politicians: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” 1Timothy 2:1-4, which also brings me to why freedom of conscience matters and why I am happy to go out on a limb making that point! I somehow doubt that this will feature among the main debating points ahead of the general election next June but as I see it, having the environment where religious folk can peacefully practice their religion, which includes serving the poor and needy, remains for me a key issue!

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