By Rachel Auld
There is an old saying that the British Labour Party owes more to “Methodism than Marx”.
In a secular state, religion and politics are not supposed to mix, but they often do. How bad is this for politics, and what are the moral implications with respect to democracy?
In the USA, separation of church and state is a legal and political principle derived from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… ”
At a first glance, religion deals with all things spiritual, finding the meaning of life and one’s place in God’s world. Politics is about the organisation, structure of power and social management of the state, or in today’s globalised world, a set of states. Whilst they are at first different things, there is an obvious tendency for them to mix; they are both where people express their philosophical beliefs.
Britain has normally responded poorly to increased intervention of religion in politics. This is precisely the effect Henry VIII was after when he devised the system, in the 16th Century. Inventing a new religion with himself at its head was Henry’s way of keeping turbulent priests in their place. To this day, the Anglican Church is blunted by the fact that its leading bishops are appointed by the prime minister and sit in the House of Lords. Henry’s moves were obviously not popular with Catholics, and of course there was a backlash against and other religious fundamentalists; such as Oliver Cromwell. Religious parties are making a comeback in Europe, so much so countries like Poland may one day be governed by such a party. David Cameron has said the UK is a Christian country “and we should not be afraid to say so”. He staunchly defended the role of religion in politics and said the Bible in particular was crucial to British values.
The Gay Marriage bill changes in the traditional concept of marriage angered those in his party, among others, who generally associate with such Christian values. Whilst it allows for homosexual couples to get married, there was of course an “opt-out” clause in the bill which allowed Churches in England and Wales the right to refuse to hold such a ceremony on their premises for religious reasons. Whilst it was partly a political move to get the Bill through Westminster, it was of course, an attempt by the Tories to preserve traditional Christian attitudes on marriage, an instance where religion and politics mixed for perhaps not the best reasons.
Oscar Wilde was always a devoted Christian. He once wrote: “Christianity allows mankind to grasp at the skirts of the Infinite. Since Christ the dead world has woke up from sleep. Since him we have lived. Wilde was officially an Anglican for the vast majority of his life.” He had a lifelong interest and respect for the Catholic religion, and converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. Some things Wilde wrote indicate a more nuanced and thoughtful view of religion and society. He obviously had very controversial views for his time, especially with respect to traditional religion. He seemed to feel however, that religion had a lot to offer politics.
Religion, whatever the form, can have major social impact in some societies – for good or for evil. Of course in some religions any social impact they have may be secondary or incidental to their main declared aim of relating people to God. Religions generally have greater social impact in poorer societies, where they tend to be supported more strongly by the majority. Often one religion will predominate and will have substantial effect on the government – either the religion controlling the government, or the government using the religion in a majority-poverty society. An additional issue when a religion controls government is that they are often lacking in the kinds of skills needed for efficient government, lacking skills in business, in dealings, in compromising and in handling opponents. So with the best intentions, religious government often achieves little actual good.