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Parliamentarians’ beliefs deserve a fair hearing

28 April 2017

Nick Spencer examines why they are nervous of talking about faith

THERESA MAY is a clergyman’s daughter. Unlike many of her peers, she never “kicked over the traces” of her ordained childhood, but remains an Anglican churchgoer, and talks of a world-view that was formed by, and is grounded in, her Christian view of the human person (not that she is given to such theorising).

For all that, Mrs May, an in­­­stinctively private politician, is not eager to talk about her faith, pre­ferring instead to talk of the values that she adopted when growing up in a vicarage (News, 21 April).

It is a truism: we British are not like our American cousins. Not only do our aspiring politicians not need to gen­uflect before Bible and altar in order to get into power: it is better if they don’t “do God” at all. The people don’t like it when they do.

The logic seems sound, until you interrogate the idea of the “people”. We assume that people are highly nervous when it comes to polit­icians’ doing God, but, given that a majority still choose some kind of Christian label, this seems unlikely. For all that the UK and the United States differ in these matters, to assume that we are at the very op­posite end of the spectrum, and that serious Christian faith in our leaders is an unmitigated vote-loser, is surely overdone.


THE real reason for such prime-ministerial reticence may lie not in what politicians say, but in what they are heard to say. A report published last year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Journalists in the UK, stated that religious groups, with the exception of Buddhists and Jews, were under-represented among UK journalists. The pro­portion of journalists that claimed affinity with Christianity was less than half of the proportion for the national population; the propor­tion claiming “no religion” was twice the national average.

More than half the journalists said that religion, or religious belief, was “unimportant”, against 37 per cent of the general popu­lation. Whereas 53 per cent of journ­alists were “specialists” of some kind, the lion’s share of those were in business, culture, sport, and entertainment, with precious few specialists in religion. In other words, it was British journalists rather than British politicians who tended not to do God.

All too often, this leads to a com­bination of bemusement and hostil­ity which renders a politician’s faith weird or threatening. “All too often” does not mean always: I have re­­cently made a round of interviews to talk about a new book on the faith of global political leaders which included 20 minutes of in­­formed, intelligent, searching, uninterrupted Q and A on BBC Radio 5 Live, entirely free of ag­­gres­­­sion, scaremongering, or manu­factured point-scoring. It was a joy, but also an ex­­ception.

In contrast, two days earlier, I was interviewed by a broadcaster who introduced our conversation by saying: “Do we want our politicians to be religious? Personally, I don’t. I’d prefer them to make their deci­sions based on science.” I just about stopped myself asking him for the scientific solution to North Korea’s military aggression.

Time and again, we stumble on theo-political interviews that are an­­imated by some combination of ignorance, incredulity, or naked headline-fishing. Witness Channel 4 News’s recent attempt to get the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, to say something in­­crim­inating about homosexuality and sin in the same sentence, unwilling to credit his repeated insistence that, in Christian thought, all people are sinners, not just some, and cer­tainly not just homosexuals.

Better still was Michael Parkinson’s interview with Tony Blair in March 2006, in which the then Prime Min­ister let slip that he believed in ultimate judgement. His comment was instantly interpreted as the
belief that divine judgement obviated or nullified earthly, political judge­ment.

Perhaps best known was the acid moment when Jeremy Paxman asked Mr Blair whether he and President Bush prayed together — the obvious shadow lurking in the question being that, had they done so, they would have been going to war in Iraq because God had told them to do so.


THAT we need more religious literacy in the media has become a tru­ism, and one that initiatives such as the Religion Media Centre, a new charity set up by Michael Wakelin, the former head of religion and ethics at the BBC, and others, should help to correct.

Religious literacy is not, however, simply a question of learning facts about religions: what they wear, eat, do, believe. That way lies a deepen­ing sense of them (weird, col­ourful religious people) and us (normal, secular, media types).

Rather, the challenge is to show that religious practices, beliefs, and patterns of behaviour are not examples from a different world, but examples of living differently in this world; and that belief in sin, judgement, prayer, or whatever else, is not to shortcut the normal processes of politics, but maybe, just maybe, enrich them.


Nick Spencer is research director at Theos, and editor of The Mighty and the Almighty: How political leaders do God, pub­lished by Biteback.


Hear Nick talk in more depth about how politicians "do God" in this week's Church Times Podcast here

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