Religion and Politics don’t mix…?
It is often said that religion and politics don’t mix. Well, what a load of complete tosh that is! But before I try to explain my reasoning – let’s start with a little bit of etymology.
The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin word ‘relegio’ – which means ‘re-connect’. It’s the same root word from which Lego comes. Think of that, the next time you are building an edifice of plastic bricks with a grandchild or child. So ‘religion’ is the practice of ‘re-connecting’ ourselves to the divine source from which all life springs. For Christians, that divine source is the originally Jewish concept of God. But for others, its Allah, or Vishnu, or Mother Earth…or any other number of creative sources. All religions have in common the idea that if we could just re-connect ourselves to the Love which brought us forth, our lives would be fuller, more complete, more worthwhile.
Politics is, of course, the business of the polis – another Latin word meaning ‘the people’. It is ultimately about the way that we people choose to live together. It’s about the framing of laws, and the distribution of the community’s wealth. It’s about caring for the vulnerable in our midst, and, in short, loving our neighbour as ourselves.
So, if religion is – at the core – about reconnecting ourselves to whatever God we perceive, and if politics is about the way that we connect ourselves to one another, we have a simple concept to hang our entire world-view upon. It was a concept that Jesus expressed most clearly, but which is also common to every great religion. It’s a concept which can be summed up in five words: Love God. Love your neighbour.
Around the time of Jesus, there was another great teacher doing the rounds. His name was Rabbi Hillel, and he was once, famously, challenged to stand on one leg and recite the entire law of God. He accepted the challenge, stood on one leg, and said: “Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself. All the rest is just commentary”.
When you think about it, the command to love our neighbour is a profoundly political statement. Truly understood, it would radically reform the kind of nasty politics which we see around us so often these days. You know the kind of politics I mean – the kind of politics which blames the homeless and the poor for their own misery, or blames the collapse of our financial system on immigrants.
Margaret Thatcher knew that religion and politics belong together. Which is why she famously quoted the words of St Francis of Assisi on the steps of No. 10 in 1979. “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope’. I know, it was rather cringy…but we perhaps all remember her entry to No 10 better than any other Prime Minister, before or since, because she had the courage to quote a religious text.
All of this is essentially my way of saying how delighted I am that one of the first things we do, in this Borough, after electing a new Mayor, is that we bring them to church! For I believe, passionately, that any politics which divorces itself entirely from some form of religion is a poorer politics. It’s something I believed when I worked as a Government advisor in the early years of this century. And it’s something I continue to believe as a humble parish priest.
Party politics is essentially the battle of ideas. It is the assertion of one group of people that their ideas about how the world should be are better than another group of people’s ideas. The great religions of the world have often inspired politicians to rise beyond narrow party politics, and to embrace a fuller, wider, kinder sense of how the world should be. A quick glance into history should remind us that it is religions which first inspired the idea of charity. It remains one of the five pillars of Islam. It is central to the teachings of the Buddha, and of course to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Religions were most often the founders of systems of healthcare, and education. They were often flawed, sometimes rather narrow in their focus. But the essential idea that all human beings should have the right to see a doctor, and chance to expand the mind is essentially a religious idea.
Arguably, the state does a much better job of these things – not least because it has the resources to do so through taxation. But let us never forget that charity, healthcare and education all arise out of the religious imperative to love our neighbour.
In fact, I would argue that we need more religion in our politics. When we contemplate the various secular political systems under which we live, we find that we need religions to correct and steer. All too easily we accept the mantras of secular gurus, without asking ourselves what religions might have to offer as an alternative view.
Take, for example, the concept of economic growth. The success, or failure, of most modern politics is measured on the basis of GDP. The stated aim of most western governments is to achieve economic growth of around 2% per year. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it – until you realise that 2% growth over 10 years would equal 20%. So we live with an economic model which believes that in 10 years’ time, we could – indeed should - use 20% more of the world’s resources. Which is nuts, of course.
We find the concept of economic growth in the Scriptures too. Many times, prophets promise the people that if they will obey God, their flocks will multiply, and their cattle increase. But set against this are the imperatives of religion too. Such growth, according to the Scriptures, will only be achieved by a people who give a tithe of all their wealth back to God, and who welcome the stranger, and care for the poor, the sick, the widow and the orphan. This is a true blending of religion and politics. Economic growth is achieved not on the backs of the poor, but as a result of generosity to the poor.
So, I’m delighted that in this Borough we continue the debate about religion and politics. By appointing a Chaplain each year, you open yourselves to the possibility that whatever suspicions we might justifiably have about the motives of some religious people, religions themselves do still have the power to shape and mould our politics. I yearn, as do most of us I suspect, for a kinder, more humane, more caring society. And I pray that the interplay between our religion and our politics will continue to march towards such a goal.