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Paul Vallely: Politicians struggle to speak of faith

04 June 2021

But grass-roots support can help them to make good decisions, says Paul Vallely

SHOULD the Church keep out of politics? Some Conservative backbenchers are in no doubt, as are conservative theologians who rely on St Paul and Luther for authority. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams takes a very different view.

From Genesis onwards, the Hebrew Scriptures make clear that God created man to live in society. The point of a chosen people, Lord Williams said, is that it embodies the values God cares about which Jesus recalibrates. He was speaking with the former Labour Cabinet minister Ruth Kelly about the part played by faith in public life.

But if the churchman had no difficulty speaking of politics, the politician found it harder to speak of religion. While Secretary of State for Education, “there was a danger that if I started talking too much about my faith my whole political message would be lost,” she told the Tablet Spring Festival. A former Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Barron, fell victim to this: “The media only wanted to talk to him about his attitude to homosexuality.”

That said, both the politician and the prelate felt that the Churches’ social teaching could make its influence felt. “Catholic social teaching was really salient in informing my political principles,” Dr Kelly said, referring to the concept of subsidiarity from a 1931 papal encyclical. This insists that all decisions and actions are best taken as low down the political chain as possible. “Subsidiarity led me to different conclusions from my colleagues. I’d ask: Can this issue be solved by the family, or local community?”, not just by the State.

Catholic and Anglican social teaching insists that human beings are made in the image of God — and that, Lord Williams said, “has implications for freedom, self-determination, and self-determination in community. Embracing people’s dignity is key to the distinctiveness of Christian thinking.”

Both speakers were sceptical about the notion of progressive versus conservative Christianity. “Social justice isn’t the same as progress,” Lord Williams said. “We can share the goal of social justice but differ how to get to it.” It was wrong always to equate social justice with state action, Dr Kelly agreed.

But what happens when a politician’s or a cleric’s opinion differs from that of wider society? Dr Kelly took the Burkean view that politicians are elected to exercise their consciences, not the consciences of their constituents. On issues such as renewal of Trident, abortion, or assisted suicide, Lord Williams suggested, politicians should consult both their spiritual director and their constituents.

And after that? If a law is passed that you disagree with, “you just have to keep on talking to see if you can change people’s minds,” the theologian said. “It’s a long job and an unrewarding one.” Inside the system, Dr Kelly said, she just had to do “the best I could to limit the damage that I see in any particular piece of legislation”.

The Church acted best, both agreed, at the grass-roots rather than in national politics, where ideology and gesture set in. At the local level, people were more likely to see the humanity of their opponents and make compromises. Their example, and their voices, were crucial. Sometimes, politicians need the support of people at the grass-roots to give them permission to do the right thing.

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