Desmond Tutu was right

As the UK General Election campaign heats up, who says politics and religion don’t mix?

Chris Shannahan
29 May 2017

Vicar’s daughter Theresa May visits Al Madina Mosque, 2015. Credit: Flickr/UK Home Office. Some rights reserved.

At the height of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu confessed that he was confused about which Bible people were reading when they said that religion and politics do not mix. The Archbishop was right: religion and politics do mix, no matter what hardened secularists might assert about a public sphere free from religion. The more important questions to ask are, ‘what kind of religion and what kind of politics?’

In recent years the relationship between religious faith and politics has assumed a growing importance for three reasons. First, faith groups continue to possess significant levels of ‘social capital,’ especially in socially excluded communities. The political theologian Chris Baker calls this ‘religious capital’, or resources in the form of buildings, congregations and community activities. In recent decades politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have recognised that faith groups can help them to deliver (sometimes controversial) social policy agendas.

Second, in an ‘age of austerity,’ faith groups have become increasingly important and visible players in grass-roots campaigning on issues as wide-ranging as low pay, food poverty, racial justice and refugee rights. They have, to a degree, become welfare delivery agencies, filling the gaps previously occupied by the state. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward refer to this as “the new visibility of religion.”

Third, this new visibility places the spotlight on the values that drive faith-based action. This question is of vital importance because faith groups can use their religious capital to include or to exclude people, and to challenge injustice or to provide it with a spurious ideological justification.

What role then should religious leaders and people of faith play in politics, and what kind of theological values do those politicians who proclaim themselves to be people of faith communicate and embody? Should they be satisfied with driving the ambulance to the bottom of the cliff, ready to meet those who fall through the cracks of a shrinking welfare state, or as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once argued, should people of faith ram a spoke into the wheels of injustice?

In the recent US Presidential Election Donald Trump courted Evangelical Christians with his promises on healthcare, abortion and the appointment of ‘pro-life’ Justices to the US Supreme Court. His tactics seemed to work, but the months since his election have seen the rise of a faith-based movement ready to challenge his drive to the right.

The UK is currently in the midst of a similarly-polarised General Election campaign in which the role of faith has also become a source of debate. Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has been quizzed on his attitude towards homosexuality and abortion. Whilst Christian attitudes towards sexuality are often more progressive than some people might imagine, Farron is shaped by a form of Evangelicalism that condemns homosexuality as ‘sinful.’ As a person of faith myself I want to challenge such notions of the Christian Gospel. That said, Farron’s voting record as a Member of Parliament has been characterised by clear support for equal rights.

Interestingly, the Conservative leader, Theresa May, has referred to the fact that she is the daughter of a Church of England vicar, and that her Christian upbringing has shaped her political beliefs. But so far, the UK media has not quizzed May on her understanding of Christian values, nor on how her tenure as Conservative Home Secretary and Prime Minister reflect them. The New Statesman recently ran an article entitled, “Just What Kind of Christian is Theresa May?” That raises an important, though much broader, question.

Faith communities have social action built into their DNA, but their approaches vary significantly. Broadly speaking we can speak of ‘caring’ and ‘campaigning.’ Shaped by a ‘love your neighbour’ ethic of social responsibility, the dominant approach to faith-based social action continues to be the ‘caring’ approach that’s exemplified by soup runs, befriending projects and foodbanks. Such an approach has an honourable history, but it tends not to challenge the political status quo.

Shaped by a more radical religious tradition, the ‘campaigning’ approach asserts that social justice is a more fundamental theological value than consensual social responsibility. Such activism is generally far less widely welcomed by the political class because it asks fundamental questions about the way things are done, and because it underpins campaigns for far-reaching, systemic social change.

Two distinct theological frameworks characterise these differing approaches to faith-based activism. ‘Caring’ social action arises from theologies of the common good, which argue that, as a result of our common humanity, all government policies should be judged on the extent to which they enhance the well-being of the most vulnerable members of society. Such an approach seeks to balance the needs of the included and the excluded, but it doesn’t assert the need for fundamental structural changes in society.

By contrast, ‘campaigning’ social action, whilst committed to building a society that is characterised by a shared commitment to the common good, goes much further. Such activism is, if only implicitly, shaped by the core values of liberation theology, which emerged first in Latin America in the 1970s. Exemplified by the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez, liberation theology argues that in an unjust world, a God who has created all people in the divine image necessarily has a ‘preferential option for the poor’ and oppressed, and that as a consequence, Christian social action must be characterised by support for that option too.

Such social action argues for deep-seated structural changes that enable the building of a more egalitarian society. So when campaigners knock on people’s doors asking for their vote, they need to ask, ‘Do your policies put the few or the many at the front of the queue? How will your policies transform toxic debates about immigration into a narrative that treasures our diversity as a strength, and not as a problem that needs to be solved?’

There is no way of knowing how Theresa May’s upbringing as a vicar’s daughter shapes her internal wrestling with the kind of challenge that Jesus lays at the feet of his disciples in Matthew 24:31-46: ‘Have you fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and clothed the naked?’ We cannot see into her heart. All we can do is reflect on the impact of her actions as Home Secretary and Prime Minister. However, it is reasonable to pose a number of sample questions in the light of the forthcoming General Election that get at the relationship between faith and politics.

First, how might refusing to allow child refugees from ‘the jungle’ camp in Calais to settle in the UK, or the implicit xenophobia unleashed by the 2016 Brexit referendum, exemplify an ethic of ‘welcoming the stranger’?

Second, how might the increasing resort to foodbanks by NHS nurses or the withdrawing of free school lunches for Primary school children embody a commitment to ‘feeding the hungry’?

Third, how can we square the doubling of homelessness since 2010 or the massive rise in child poverty with ‘clothing the naked’?

Senior political leaders who consciously self-identify as people of faith would do well to reflect on these questions and others like them when they look in the mirror. Tutu was right: religion and politics do mix, but the more important question is this—does faith give rise to a commitment to building an inclusive and egalitarian society, or is it simply a cynical ploy to get elected?

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