What has religion got to do with politics? Adam Cantwell-Corn caught up with a Bishop, a deputy Imam, a Quaker, a Rastafarian and a couple of atheists to find out.
Illustration: Hugh Cowling (mis-credited in the print edition)
Photo: Shawn Naphtali Sobers
“It’s very difficult for me to see why we haven’t thought again about our whole economic model;, one that might work.”
A Green party hopeful? A protester of some sort? Nope, it’s the Anglican Bishop of Bristol talking. The Bishops of the Church of England (CofE) caused a bit of a stir with an open letter in February. The letter scorned mainstream politics as “sterile and moribund” and urged the political class to move beyond “arguments about who might manage the existing system best.”
“Something strange has happened to politics, in the sense that the main political parties, don’t come at you with a raft of policies that are a product of a coherent political philosophy”, the Bishop of Bristol, Mike Hill, tells me.
The letter has been branded left-wing by some commentators and politicians. But what is the aim? To reassert the relevance of the Church in modern life?
The aim is to say, “Here is a raft of issues to think about before you cast your vote, and P.S. please do cast your vote!”, he says. But doesn’t exhorting people to vote give this “sterile and moribund” environment authority? Standing by the need to vote, Mike recognises one of “the fatal cocktails to mix was the whole idea of spin doctors, PR people, the media etc…”
The cross and the X
But can religion rejuvenate politics? According to Bristol census data, those identifying as of “no-religion” increased from around from 25% to 37% between 2001 and 2011. And a 2014 study found that more than half of the British public think that religion does more harm than good. I met up with a couple of the 160,000 odd atheists in the city to find out how they think religion fits into a modern democracy.
“It depends on how much weight they are afforded by the powers that be”
William Williams, a member of the University of Bristol atheist and agnostic society tells me. But that influence may not be progressive says Rob, another member:
“… if you look back in history or even today, when we have triumphs of equality, such as the rights of gay people to marry, it tends to be religious groups that stand in the way..”
I put it to the Bishop, who sits unelected in the House of Lords, that the closeness of the CofE with the political elite feeds into popular disenchantment. While defending the Bishops’ place in the Lords, he concedes,
“speaking personally I wouldn’t go into a corner and sob if they were to chuck the Bishops out..”
Indeed, despite this recent letter, the CofE in particular appears to be cut from the same cloth as the political establishment. A case in point is the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby who is, an Eton- educated former oil industry executive. Then there is the Queen; Both Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and Head of State in the UK and 16 former colonies.
And what of the social conservatism of the Church? The Bishop identifies as “quite economically left wing” but concurs that the CofE
“tends to be socially conservative, but in a world of on- going and rapid change, it’s not a bad thing to have a group represented whose instinct it is to tap the brake occasionally..”
To some, however, this ‘brake tapping’ is how religious groups find themselves on the wrong side of history. Bishop Hill himself was signatory to a 2013 letter urging the Government to stop legislating for gay marriage, and eventually voted against it in the House of Lords.
Eddy Knasel, a Bristolian Quaker agrees that “historically, Christianity has sided with the mighty”. However, Eddy is clearly proud of the record of Quakerism. The Quakers played a powerful role in the Bristol movement to abolish slavery, and currently mount campaigns combatting the arms trade and clamping down on tax dodgers.
Formerly a Labour party member, Eddy, who as a young man wore a “Real Ale Drinkers Against The Bomb” badge, was inspired by the core Quaker “testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity and truth.”
Laudable principles, but what role is there for such ideas today? “Religions’ role is to set moral standards” Eddy says, adding
“there is very little morality in party politics nowadays”.
This sentiment seems to echo that of the Bishops’ letter : the desire for a coherent moral and political vision to replace the empty soundbites. But what sort of morality? Eddy concedes that morality comes in different forms:
“Margaret Thatcher took moral positions on things…and Margaret Thatcher ruined the lives of millions of people”.
Ras Bandele Selassie, a well- known and respected Elder of the Rastafarian community, takes the conversation away from the narrow version of politics as based around elections. “Politics becomes a part of the whole Livity” he says, referring to the concept of how Rastas live their faith in all that they do.
“It’s all about inner structure – what you eat, where you eat, what you wear. If someone, when they are not voting, believes that the ‘X’ is the only part of politics….then believes that he’s not political… yet the Livity…he sends his children to school, and when he turns on his water pipe he wants water to come.”
So what can religion offer?
To Ras Bandele and a fellow Rasta, a central purpose of Rastafari is to provide an identity and direction in a sometimes hostile world. The key, however, is how that identity plays out in relationships with others.
Ras gives a humorous but clear example:
“we need to work on the common things of humanity….when we go to pray, or food we gonna eat…we have that in common…and you can come see mine; But don’t cause no problems… then we can learn! What a great blessing – I might have my fried dumpling, you might have your chips, but no problem.”
“Don’t cuss my fried dumpling, and I won’t cuss your chips!”
This sentiment is echoed by Zaheer Shabir, deputy Imam at Bristol Jamia Mosque, Totterdown. “There has to be a common ground of at least beginning to understand each other.”
Referring to the compatibility of diverse – even divergent – cultures, Zaheer, who has met the leadership of both the EDL and UKIP, says
“Allah has created us in all different shapes, nations and tribes in order to get to know each other – then it’s up to the humans who have the capacity to get to know each other.”
The real question; What’s the effect?
The concerns of Ras B, Eddy the Quaker and Bishop Hill are startlingly similar. And all point to a lack of principles and, crucially, a lack of honesty and straightforwardness in mainstream political life. Reflecting Bishop Hill’s comments of the “fatal cocktail” of PR and spin doctors, Ras B points to the inability, or unwillingness, of politicians to speak openly.
“What the papers gonna say, ‘am I saying the wrong thing?… What is the right thing to say? It’s choking… it’s a stifling thing”.
So, whereas there is a deep seated scepticism of both religion and politics-as-usual, the real question is not about the source of influence, but the effect.
I ask the Bishop whether the Church of England is any different to the special interest groups that the letter rails against? Apart from not making financial donations,
“I’m not sure that we are that different” he says.
However, he is certain that the politics of faith can, and must, rise above the squabble and din of electoral politics.
“it sounds like this old Bishop is quite revolutionary. We need to rethink how can we live together on this planet in a way that all human beings can flourish”.