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When leaders do God

As the general election nears, Nick Spencer argues political leadership shouldn't be a faith-free zone ...

As the general election nears, NICK SPENCER argues political leadership shouldn’t be a faith-free zone …

“We have really everything in common with America nowadays,” wrote Oscar Wilde in The Canterville Ghost, “except, of course, language.”

And religion, he might have added were he writing today, for if there is one thing that differentiates
these both theoretically Christian countries, it is their attitude to religion in politics.

For Americans, genuflecting before altar and Bible is a sine qua non, even to the extent of the latest President, not known for his piety or prayer, somehow finding God on the campaign trail. In the UK, by contrast, despite the fact that five of our last six Prime Ministers have been practising Christians of one sort or another, we (famously) don’t “do God”.

In reality we do: Thatcher lectured about faith; Brown spoke about being a son of the manse; Cameron often talked about his vague, undogmatic, cultural Anglicanism; May likes to remind us about the values of growing up in a vicarage. It was only really Tony Blair who stayed resolutely silent, at least when in office.

His was, nonetheless, an instructive example, his silence due to the recognition, early on, that for him public faith was a liability; and that recognition being due to the fact that everyone recognised how important it was to him. Cameron could talk about God a lot because no one thought it really mattered to him; Blair couldn’t because everyone thought it did.

Paradoxically, it seems the more important faith is to you as a leader, the less chance you have to talk about it freely. Thatcher was the exception here, and even she was more faith-shy when she got into power.

If this is so, it’s a problem, because it is precisely the most important motivating beliefs – those that matter most to our leaders – which we should be hearing about. For politicians to be scared off them by a manufactured media response, which sees talk of sin, or judgement, or prayer as some kind of subversion of the normal political processes, ultimately harms us all: gagging politicians, strangling public discourse, and starving public debate of fresh perspectives.

Believers are not innocent in all this, of course. Indeed, arguably one of the reasons why the media are so jumpy about believing politicians is because so many believers have preached rather than practised their faith, or have preferred to deploy faith instead of, rather than in partnership with, reason.

Nobody (sane) wants a political leader who, for example, really thinks that one particular group in society is sinful; or that God’s judgement obviates the electorate’s; or who thinks that prayer and Bible reading are an alternative to research and policy papers.

Yet these are straw men and women. Having studied a range of global political leaders who call themselves Christians, and having spent time with domestic Christian parliamentarians over the last 10 years, I’ve seen few signs of the kind of theocratic bogeymen of the secular imagination.

There are certainly some circumstances in which Christian political leaders deserve particular scrutiny, such as when there is big political capital to be made out of doing God (such as in Russia); or where political movements adopt the rhetoric of Christianity – “Christian nation”, “Christian people”, “Christian culture” – without adopting any Christian theology (such as has been the case with a number of European populist movements over recent years); or when candidates discover God on the campaign trail (Trump again).

Playing the faith card should not get any politician out of jail for free. However, these have been relative rarities in the UK, which makes our particular nervousness about faith all the harder to understand.

Ultimately, politics is rather like religion. For both to function, they require a fair amount of faith. But both can suffer from blind faith, the kind that pays no attention to the quality of the message or the ‘candidate’ and can lead to unthinking obedience.

“Respect those who labour among you and are over you”, St Paul wrote to the Christians in Salonica, before advising them to “test everything”. He was writing about church life, but it’s pretty good advice for politics too.    

  • Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos, and editor of The Mighty and the Almighty: how political leaders do God (Biteback, 2017).

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