Politics and religion are both ways in which humanity has tried to organise its collective life. The roots of politics lie in our need to make collective decisions and the desire of some people to have others follow their lead. This leads to a range of political forms from participatory democracy to tyranny and genocide.
The roots of religion lie in our tendency to believe that most events are caused by beings with desires (rather than physical processes) and our reluctance to believe that when a loved one dies then that person is gone for good. This leads people to believe in the existence of gods, spirits, ghosts, witches and saints and their involvement in deciding the weather, the harvests and our recovery from illness. Religion also leads to a variety of human behaviour from visiting the sick to torturing suspected witches and to such public displays as sung evensong and the Haj.
In short both are natural for us humans and neither has clean hands.
For most of recorded history religion and politics have been inseparable. Priests have anointed kings and kings have chosen – and sometimes killed – bishops. Some of this remains in, for instance, the Queen’s role as head of the Anglican church and the US President’s annual prayer breakfast.
At least in the West much of the relationship between religion and politics over the centuries has been cynical and instrumental. Kings have valued religious endorsement (and the clerical condemnation of rebels) whilst bishops have valued royal favours (and the persecution of heretics). Neither side has been much interested in the real meaning of the less convenient scriptures (such as the sermon on the mount).
This is our heritage but it is not our present.
In that last 300 years we have come to see the welfare of the whole population as the proper goal of politics. This idea would have baffled almost all previous leaders who thought its purpose was either the building of god’s kingdom on earth or their own glory. (Many thought these synonymous of course.)
Christianity has also changed. Practicing Christians now hold a variety of religious opinions and few simply accept their supposed leaders’ teachings on morals, politics or even theology. We are in the era of ‘pick ’n mix’ religion where one person may hold ideas derived from Christianity, Buddhism and even Wicca without much sense of strain. (This, by the way, is frustrating for humanists who have difficulty knowing what they should disagree with!)
For brevity, and knowing that I’m over-simplifying, I’ll distinguish two ways in which religion can influence politics other than simply buttressing the state.
Firstly, religion may give people a sharp sense of compassion and motivate them to use political processes to, for instance, house the homeless, feed the starving, reform prisons and abolish slavery. I’ll call these people ‘God’s Reformers’. Much valuable work has been done by God’s Reformers but we should note that they have generally been a minority and have often had to fight the social conservatism of their fellow religionists. God’s reformers have become significant since the C18 Enlightenment.
Secondly, religion may make people believe that they alone know God’s will and that everyone should be forced to do it. I’ll call them God’s stormtroopers. They have brought down governments, introduced Prohibition, persecuted witches, demolished the twin towers and created tyrannies. Today, in the UK, they resist gay marriage and the choice of an easy death in old age. They have previously resisted law reforms concerning contraception, abortion and homosexuality. (Isn’t it surprising how often their concerns are sexual?) Like God’s reformers, God’s stormtroopers are also a minority amongst believers but it is a minority that often includes the most senior people in the ‘faith community’. They are unreasonably influential because they claim privileged knowledge of God’s will, because the state accords them special respect and because the media fail to hold them to account.
God’s stormtroopers are particularly problematic in a democracy – even such a flawed one as our own. Caution, reasoned discussion, a willingness to be persuaded and, inevitably, a willingness to compromise are vital democratic values. God’s stormtroopers, however, are strongly motivated, immune to persuasion and see any compromise as betrayal. Their hostility to democratic values is not incidental – it is fundamental. As John Knox put it "A man with God is always in the majority." Ayatollah Khomeini would not have disagreed. The logic of infinity – eternal life and an omnipotent God – trumps all ordinary arguments.
As a humanist I welcome and honour the contribution that God’s reformers have made to public life. Humanists claim no monopoly on compassion or good sense and God’s reformers generally use arguments I understand – even when their language is religious.
But I must resist the claims of God’s stormtroopers – even on those rare occasions when we finish on the same side. I resist these claims not just because they lead to oppressive conclusions but because to accept them is ultimately inconsistent with democratic politics; that is, with letting the people decide the laws that will govern us.
And I believe that all democrats and liberals, of whatever party or faith, should resist them too.