- May 1, 2014
- Posted by: Faith Associates
- Categories: Politics, Blog
Mixing faith and politics is treacherous territory in Britain and it is rare for senior politicians to make their faith part of their political personality. But David Cameron took that risk this Easter when on three separate occasions he highlighted his strong faith, ultimately declaring himself “evangelical” about his Christian beliefs.
Historically faith has been a personal matter, not part of the conversation. But that does not mean it is insignificant. Never before have two of the three main parties been led by self-confessed atheists – Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband.
It is because faith matters that Tony Blair, already unusual in his conspicuous Christianity, did not convert to Catholicism until after he had left Downing Street. As a result there has still never been a Catholic prime minister. Nor has there been a non-Christian one. Discreet atheism and pragmatic observance have been the general rule. That is more than a mere symbol. There is an established church. Anglican appointments still pass through No 10.
As Alastair “We don’t do God” Campbell says, religion makes bad politics. “People don’t like the sense that a politician is allying their faith with their politics,” he told BBC radio after David Cameron’s Easter address. He had warned Blair against writing about his faith too. “It looks as if Christians have to be Labour.”
But faith is often a powerful motivation for politicians. If Clement Attlee talked vaguely of liking Christian ethics but not the mumbo jumbo, his party never forgot the truth of the claim that it owed more to Methodism than to Marxism.
Christian Socialism – a movement created in the late 1950s to influence Labour policy – by the 1990s claimed the party leader John Smith as well as Tony Blair as adherents. Now, Blue Labour sees the values of faith communities as a base on which to build. Ed Miliband describes himself as an atheist, but also acknowledges the importance of his Jewish inheritance. “I am not religious,” he says, “but I am Jewish.” He talks of the “huge contribution” the Jewish community makes to society in exactly the language of David Cameron’s Easter message.
Even Margaret Thatcher, so notoriously at odds with her bitter Anglican critics for most of her years in power, had a close and important friendship with the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits. Now David Cameron, the man who once described his faith in terms of a dodgy radio reception – “Like Magic FM in the Chilterns, it comes and goes” – is claiming Christian inspiration for his politics.
The Anglican church has not been “the Conservative party at prayer” for at least fifty years. But the Tories’ core vote, sorely tried by same sex marriage and the metropolitan drift of the leadership, is disproportionately Christian, at least culturally, and that won’t have escaped party strategists anxious to woo them back from Ukip.
Yet there are indications that Cameron is not only doing politics when he does God. He and Samantha are reported to have become regular churchgoers at St Mary Abbotts in Notting Hill. He would not be the first prime minister whose faith was reinforced by power. The loneliness of the top job revived Jim Callaghan’s. He wore his Baptist inheritance lightly until the arrival of the IMF to bail out the British economy drove him to prayer. Stanley Baldwin’s sense of a religious duty to serve kept him suffering at the national helm to the despair of his rivals until 1937.
More significantly, as Tony Blair also recognised, faith is returning to mainstream Britain. Whatever the conventions, it is becoming part of the political conversation. The new Britons, arriving just as the UK looked like lapsing entirely into secularism, have brought both a revived version of Christianity and more recently Islam. As a result, politicians face a challenge that goes beyond electoral considerations. They have to balance what the influential Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi calls “faith in faith” – the recognition that people of faith have more in common with each other than with non-believers – with the risk of putting faith into political contention.
Nor is it only the revival of the numbers practising religion that will increasingly shape the environment. As Cameron was forcefully reminded earlier this week when 40 Anglican bishops and 600 other faith leaders wrote in protest at the way government policies were forcing people to rely on food banks, the churches have always felt empowered to protest at policies they feel threaten the vulnerable.
But now, the trend to roll back the state and recruit voluntary and community organisations to perform some of its functions gives faith bodies a different and more legitimate kind of place on the Westminster stage. From schools to finding jobs for ex-prisoners, the politicians are inviting faith organisations to get involved. The godly no longer have to rely on their moral authority. They are becoming partners in government.
• This article was amended on 28 April 2014. An earlier version said Attlee’s Labour party never forgot the truth of the claim that it owed as much to Methodism as to the trade unions. The claim, by a former general secretary Morgan Phillips, was that the party owed more to Methodism than to Marxism.