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Why should we keep faith out of politics, asks Gordon Brown

by
24 February 2011

by Ed Beavan

POLITICIANS with religious beliefs should not have to leave their “con­sciences at the door” of Parliament, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a speech at Lambeth Palace last week.

Mr Brown was speaking at the in­vita­tion of the Archbishop of Can­ter­bury, in a lecture, “Faith and Politics?” He questioned why there was a “conventional orthodoxy” today that religious belief should be kept at “arm’s length” in the public square, even though the involvement of faith groups in campaigns such as Make Poverty History was re­garded as “un­controversial” and “natural”.

He acknowledged that there had been a huge change in the relation­ship between faith and politics in the past century in the UK, which had seen a rise in liberal secularism. But this “standard version of liberal secularism” needed to be rejected, “because it unfairly expects people of faith to leave their conscience at the entrance to the public square”.

To ask politicians of faith to leave their religious beliefs “at the door of the House of Commons chamber, or of No. 10, and thus bring a dimin­ished version of ourselves to the public square, is an ‘ask’ which should be as intolerable to the true liberal as it is to the true believer”.

Mr Brown also criticised theo­cratic approaches to politics, when “politicians might claim divine authorisation of their decisions.”

He said: “To claim or imply divine sanction for a political cause is wrong,” both politically and reli­giously, because “surely part of our faith is the knowledge that the mind of God is unknowable.”

He also warned against an attitude of moral superiority by politicians of faith, which he believed was “a per­version of the religious idea itself”.

He criticised a recent trend in British politics in which religious views were deemed acceptable in the narrow area known as “conscience issues” such as abortion or euthan­asia. Such a demarcation was “com­pletely artificial”, he said.

Mr Brown called for “rich faith politics” with “deliberation and demo­­cratic contestation of argu­ments”. Such a “pluralism of politics does not require each of us to abandon our values, only that we be prepared to subject them to scrutiny, and debate not just conclusions but assump­tions.”

He admitted that he had struggled to talk about how his faith influ­enced his politics during his time as Prime Minister because “no one speech then could deal with all the necessary caveats,” and he would have been “laughed out of court”.

Such a speech might have led to headlines such as “Glum Gordon rams Scotch Calvinism down En­gland’s throat”, Mr Brown joked. He also spoke about the death of his baby daughter, Jennifer, after she was born prematurely in December 2001.

Mr Brown and his wife, Sarah, had asked their minister to baptise Jen­nifer when she was in intensive care, as “a recognition that every single life, even the shortest life, has a pur­pose, and that every single person is irreplaceable”.

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