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7 January 1997

Living Marxism's New Year Message - Get Religion out of Politics

Mike Fitzpatrick, for whom giving up religion was far more than a New Year's resolution, despairs at the intrusion of religion into politics

'As a society we are in desperate need of a new vision. Those of us who are followers want leaders who will inspire us and fill us with hope. There is more to life than consumerism and individualism. We are aware that the language of politics is impoverished compared to our needs. We need not only justice but love, not only rights but forgiveness, not only welfare but healing.'

Roy McCloughry, 'Belief in Politics: People, Policies and Personal Faith' (interviews with John Major, Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown, Clare Short, Peter Lilley, David Alton and many more), Hodder and Stoughton, 1996

'During an epoch of triumphant reaction, Messrs Democrats, Social Democrats, Anarchists and other representatives of the "left" camp begin to exude more than their usual amount of moral effluvia, similar to persons who perspire doubly in fear'

Leon Trotsky, 'Their Morals and Ours', 1939

Election year has opened with an outpouring of moralising and sermonising, not only from the expected sources of the churches, but also from politicians from across the political spectrum. The growing intrusion of religion into politics is a retrograde trend which should be fiercely resisted.

John Major has seized the opportunity provided by the publication of a book of his recent speeches - 'Our Nation's Future' - to relaunch his 'back to basics' moral initiative with a declaration of his commitment to family values. On New Year's Day the Guardian provided a platform for several Anglican bishops to proclaim their concern about declining standards of public morality and to call for spiritual renewal. An accompanying editorial endorsed the bishops' recognition of the 'deep moral anxiety' of the nation and their appeal for a more public and political role for morality. The collection of interviews with leading politicians of all the major parties, published in 'Belief in Politics' late last year, offers confessions of religious piety as a claim to popular legitimacy.

The leading voice in the procession of politicians back into the churches is that of Tony Blair, who was the first to recognise the potential appeal of old-time religion. There can be no doubt that in a society which has lost faith in so much of its economic, political and social values, and suffers such a sense of atomisation and individuation, there is a nostalgia for the certitudes of religious dogma and for the reassurance provided by ancient rituals. For those concerned about the breakdown of order in society, the churches offer codes of behaviour invested with divine authority as a means of restoring social control.

Indeed, the yearning for spiritual compensation for human distress is even more evident in the popularity of diverse forms of 'New Age' religiosity, which offer a more individualistic and fashionable form of escape than the traditional churches. For New Labour, however, considerations of electoral expediency always come first, and its cautious evangelists have chosen to pitch their gospel tent somewhere in the shrinking space between Catholicism and the Church of England.

The intrusion of religion into politics is a dangerous development. It marks a retreat from the historic separation between church and state which has been a feature of the gradual (though uneven, interrupted, and in a country which still has an established church headed by the monarchy, incomplete) progress of human civilisation over the past three centuries. It is striking that in its decadent phase, Britain appears to be moving towards the sort of theocracy which it condemns in the Islamic world.

Religion offers an illusory solution to the problems of modern society. The churches promise salvation in another world as a consolation for the sufferings of the real world. But pursuing the chimera of metaphysical wholeness is an evasion of the problems thrown up by the existing order of society.

Worse still, politicians' attempts to bolster their waning popularity by parading their religious and moral convictions has the effect of reviving the political influence of the churches. After decades of declining congregations and prestige, representatives of all major religious denominations now enjoy unprecedented mass media attention for their pronouncements on matters of public policy. This is a particular scandal in Britain, long one of the most secular countries in the world.

The growing social influence of the clergy is of particular concern because of the uniformly socially conservative and reactionary character of their pronouncements (despite their tepid criticisms of the Conservative Party). On matters of sexual morality (abortion, homosexuality) or family values, the churches can be relied upon to uphold authoritarian and repressive codes of conduct. The bishops are not slow to exploit their new-found influence. Thus Tony Blair, the most sanctimonious man in British politics, finds himself under attack from the Catholic hierarchy for his equivocal stand on abortion.

New Labour is set to open British politics up to clerical reaction in a similar way to the Republican Party in the USA. Ronald Reagan and George Bush both sought electoral advantage by appealing to the constituency of the anti-abortion, anti-gay, evangelical 'moral majority' in the USA. Though Bob Dole subsequently experienced a considerable backlash against this strategy, the consequences in terms of a growing climate of intolerance and prejudice in American politics and society more widely were grim.

Meanwhile in Britain, as Roy McCloughry notes in the introduction to 'Belief in Politics', in his interviews of British politicians, 'it is the similarity of ideas and attitudes rather than the difference which is striking'. The collective loss of confidence of the British political establishment is nowhere better revealed than in their common confessions of religious piety and appeals to traditional sources of moral authority. It is not surprising to note that today's representatives of the class that once promised to 'strangle the last lord with the entrails of the last priest' cannot on the eve of the millennium summon up the courage to get rid of either Britain's degraded monarchy or its established church.

Have a great year.
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