There are perhaps many reasons why religion and politics are topics we are often taught to steer clear of in polite conversation, but something that these subjects have in common is that they are at once intensely personal – experiential even – and intensely public: they can shape the way we perceive the world, our identity and place in it, and our relationships with others. As such they can influence both our most intimate relationships, as well as those within local and national communities, and our understanding of our responsibilities towards those we may have never met because of geographical, social or historical separation. Such deep and at the same time far-reaching core values and beliefs can be difficult to articulate, particularly in contexts where they are not shared and where prior understanding or common experience cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, this difficulty has perhaps been reinforced by our reticence as a society when it comes to engaging in conversation about these themes.
Adam Dinham, Director of the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London suggests that ‘there is a lamentable quality of conversation about religion and faith after decades of relativist Religious Education (RE) in schools and secular normativities in universities and professions’. This conversational difficulty is increasingly problematic when we consider that, alongside the continued progression of secularization, we are also seeing a ‘return of religion to the public agenda’ and, as Grace Davie notes: ‘At precisely the moment that we need them most, we are losing the vocabulary, concepts and narratives that are necessary to talk intelligently about religion’.
We can unpack this a little by looking at a recent example. A diverse range of responses can be found amongst the media and political debates that followed the release of the Bishop’s Pastoral Letter that Sarah Dunlop discussed in her recent post to this blog, but I will focus here on one aspect: namely the criticism levied at these faith leaders on the basis of their ‘meddling’ in politics. For me, this raises a fundamental question about how faith is perceived in the public sphere. It implies that faith is rather like a commodity or resource that can be allocated, harnessed even, for particular purposes or activities – such as worship services (particularly to mark important state occasions) or helping the poor (especially where we’ve cut government-funded provision for them) – in much the same way that one might put aside some money for a holiday, or spend a certain amount of time each week undertaking paid employment or driving the kids around, or whatever. For some, this may indeed be the case. But for others it is not: their faith is a matter of relationship – with God and with others – and lived identity. And this applies to faith leaders as much to people of faith as to those whose vocations are in other fields.
It is interesting to consider what kind of message this accusation of interference in the political sends to people of faith in the country at large: need they not participate in the upcoming election? Or is the suggestion that they ought to wear a different ‘hat’ in order to do so, ensuring that their vote is not informed by their faith? This would seem to run somewhat contrary to objectives of the ‘Show Up’ campaign, which is supported by Christian groups from all three major political parties.
A quick look at the Old and New Testaments of the Bible show us that where the outworking of faith and obedience to God – sometimes in the form of speaking out publicly – intersects with vested financial or political interests, it is not always well received… but there are also times where it meets with humility and gives rise to a change of direction. Perhaps it is unsurprising then the Bishop’s Letter met with such a variety of responses – what remains to be seen is which of these will reverberate longest and to greatest effect within the UK’s social, political and economic cultures.