Monday, October 01, 2007

Religion and Politics

With the prospect of a general election in the UK looking ever more likely, I thought I'd have a look at the religious beliefs of Gordon Brown (the Labour prime minister) and David Cameron (the opposition Conservative leader).

Former prime minister Tony Blair, of course, was a devout Christian in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. His wife is Catholic and Blair's conversion has been long anticipated (although equally long-delayed). However, he was careful to keep religion out of the political sphere. I saw him refer to it just once, years ago when he was still relatively unknown. On a TV show he explained his opposition to the death penalty in terms of his Christian faith.

Gordon Brown is, if anything, even more devout than Blair. His father was a Church of Scotland minister and his ethos is strongly Puritan. Today's European social democratic parties owe much of their philosophy to nineteenth-century Methodists and non-conformist Protestants. Brown's Christianity is very much in that tradition. He is teetotal, echoing the temperance campaigns of the early twentieth century, and very serious in demeanour. However, even more than Brown, he keeps his religion under wraps. No one really knows where he stands on abortion and gay rights, although he has abstained from all anti-gay discrimination measures put before the UK Parliament in the last decade. All this has made him a cipher for the secular left, like Johann Hari, who desperately hope his Christianity won't make an appearance. Given the tradition that Brown comes from, their fears are probably groundless.

David Cameron also claims to be religious. He told the BBC, "I believe in God and I try to get to church more than Christmas and Easter, but perhaps not as often as I should, but I don't feel I have a direct line." In this sense, his views are very much along the lines of most of the British who have a very relaxed view about religion, but on balance do believe in something. Again, commentators like Michael Portillo are hoping that any religious views he does have remain on the back-burner. In Cameron's case, I can't see him ever mentioning God on the stump. His beliefs are both fuzzy and unfocused without any philosophical depth.

Thus, if we do have a general election, both major parties have leaders with broadly Christian credentials. Although, Brown's are much stronger, I doubt a Conservative government would give any comfort to the neo-atheist tendency, nor cause them much concern.

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Elliot said...

Religion & politics here in Canada tend to be similarly relaxed, and this is probably partly due to the British heritage. The new Conservative Party has tried to pull some 'moral majority' American-style stuff but most people don't like it and so they've toned it down. Political leaders tend to keep it to themselves. One tends to find out about the actual (as opposed to nominal) religious views of P.M's only after the person is retired from office or dead. And here too our left-wing party (the NDP) has some definite historical religious-populist roots, mixed in with more secular socialism.

It's interesting to hear about the situation in the UK (and a welcome difference from the increasingly disturbing way religion gets used in US politics.) I'd heard that Labour's socialism was "more Methodist than Marxist."

One interesting thing I read recently from Philip Jenkins was that the UK's established church and the history of having to make allowances for complementary schooling for Catholics and non-conformists, actually helped the situation when Muslim immigrants arrived. The UK educational system, he said, was used to dealing with religious minorities, and simply put similar procedures in place for Muslims as they already had for other Christian groups. France, on the other hand, has had a much harder time since they didn't recognize any religious differences at all. At least that was Jenkins' view.

Niall said...

One thing I'd like to know is to how Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims feel about politicians. Do the warm more toward the secular ones or the Christian ones? Do they fear either brand?

jack perry said...

Mississippi is one of those places where in one of the debate for the governor's race, the Democratic candidate advocated time set aside in schools for prayer, while the Republican candidate dismissed it as playing politics, and unconstitutional to boot.

In much of the rest of the nation, the positions would be reversed. Democrats in the South, take note, were historically the party of rural conservatism, by which I mean, keep our guns loaded before the Yankee comes back to take 'em, keep our cotton plantations staffed by desperately poor workers before the Yankee comes to corrupt 'em with manufacturing jobs, and keep our racially incorrect types out of our homes, our swimming pools, and our schools. The Democrats of Wilmington, NC violently overthrew the city government one century ago after a coalition of blacks and Republicans unseated the Democratic city council. That sort of changed over the last forty years or so.

Curiously, the most "progressive" American presidents have been Southern Democrats: Johnson, Carter, Clinton. The only Southern Republican to win was... George W. Bush, who hasn't been ashamed to wear religion on his sleeve.

Oddly enough, this all seems related, but I apologize for the long comment.