The last couple of weeks have once again shown that politics is a dirty business. Politicians and those who work with them are seen as seeking personal gain and self-promotion, ignoring the rules that everyone else must follow.
Also last week, newly scrutinized research from think tank Theos found that people are increasingly suspicious of those with religious views who hold high office, especially those they consider “old-fashioned” from a moral perspective.
But the values of the Christian faith are love, grace, justice and service. These are qualities that our society desperately needs in politics, but seem increasingly absent. And most politically engaged Christians believe they are called to put the love of Jesus into practice, loving and serving others with the same attitude of faithfulness, compassion, and self-sacrifice that he displayed.
There is an assumption in public life that the absence of faith is the natural and neutral position. But this is nonsense. There is no ‘neutrality’ in the public square. Everyone brings their values and views to your politics. But we also live in a democracy, which means that politicians have a duty to reflect the opinions and priorities of their voters, not just their own. This has always been a complex process.
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Another recent report, ‘Does Government Make God?’, by the government’s independent religious adviser, Colin Bloom, is a comprehensive review of how the public sector engages with faith in the UK today.
It recommends that “everyone on the public payroll”, including local and national politicians, NHS and teaching staff, police and prison officers, receive religious literacy training. This is very welcome. From a Christian perspective, it is clear that there is no longer even a basic understanding of Christian values, teaching, and observance that might have been taken for granted 50 years ago.
Politicians, public officials, and the media will best serve a diverse and pluralistic society by being curious about why people of faith think the way they do and why their faith is more than cultural. This will also help in understanding other religions, and the report is particularly clear that more needs to be done to emphasize, for example, that the vast majority of Muslims do not adhere to the views of Islamic fundamentalism, as do the 99 9999% of Christians consider the actions and statements of the Westboro Baptist Church egregious.
In fact, the Bloom report cautions against ‘believers’ who “generally are the cause of most of the problems the government encounters in the realm of faith. Copycats are often motivated by ego, money, prestige or power and abuse their position to further themselves or their causes, dressing them in religion to give them divine legitimacy.
Jesus spoke bluntly but truthfully to those ‘false believers’ whose religion was an outward display of their own power and pride.
But these people are not to be confused with ‘true believers’, who, “regardless of their faith, are sincere, devout and peaceful.” The latter add great value to the public debate.
Theos research and the Bloom report also present a challenge for people of faith, and again I speak from a Christian perspective, to work on our own cultural and political literacy, which is often woefully poor. Christians also need to understand the beliefs and values of our neighbors, and why certain parts of the Bible and traditional Christian teaching seem intolerant and exclusive in today’s society.
And if we are to live in a truly pluralistic society, people of all faiths (including atheism) must all be prepared to show the same curiosity about others’ beliefs that we would like others to show about ours.
Finally, we must avoid harsh or hateful speech about other groups, but at the same time we must absolutely not require that everyone conform to a uniform belief in the values of secular progressivism.
If we prevent people of faith from seeking to reflect the positive Christian values that underpin Western liberal democracy (justice, mercy, equality, honesty, responsibility), we are in danger of losing these values while continuing to empower those who seek primarily to serve themselves. . .
And before we dismiss Christianity as outdated, and those who hold to it as stuck in the past, just remember that Christianity has been mocked and patronized as ‘old’ or worse by hundreds of different world views over the last 2000 years. . Most of those worldviews are now forgotten in the dust. Meanwhile, Christianity endures and thrives with more believers around the world than ever before.
Tim Farron is MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and a former leader of the Liberal Democrats. He is the author of A Mucky Business: Why Christians Should Get Involved in Politics.