The creedal exegetes of secular Britain tend to cling devoutly to
the belief that religion and politics should not mix. Indeed, when any
wayward politician is so naïve as to publicly associate the guiding
influence of religion and the political decision-making process great
furores of protest rumble through the messageboards and forums of
cyberspace. With an armoury of selective historical prejudice and
sheer impolite diatribe, the angry mob slays the religious beast before
it can even raise an argument in protest.
This really is quite curious. For when delicate issues arise,
the British public quite rightly expect that the role of individual
conscience will be protected against the political machine. The
neutrality of conscience clearly agitates far less than the religion
that may, or may not, inform it. Politicians, chasing away unhealthy
headlines, implicitly participate in the ruse. Invariably the result
is a limitation on the application of morality to those debates
commonly accepted to lie outside the concrete constituencies of
political persuasion. Morality, if only subliminally, is depicted as
an extraordinary candidate, somehow alien to the mundane mechanisms of
the everyday political process. When the political cedes the public
space, however grudgingly, conscience is then, and only then, freed to
the light of day.
Now, the rules of political pragmatism clearly dictate that idealism and politics are far from comfortable bedfellows. And one would not wish to deny the thrill-seeking adrenalin addicts of the Anglo-Saxon body-politic the chance to cajole and whip their way through the obstacles and challenges of the democratic process. Yet one wonders what extra dimension might be added to the political system, what extra layer of meaning and action, might be ignited if religion was welcomed onto the public platform of politics.
An example. It is generally accepted by politicians of all persuasions that Mondeo man is in a bit of a fix, slowly squeezed from all four points of the monetary compass. His mortgage rates are climbing whilst his utility bills soar. The price of his petrol continues to march ever upward, whilst the price of his food increases week by week. And yet, never has the political establishment been so audacious as to question the record-breaking profits of the big oil companies. Not once has a politician publicly inquired whether the profits of supermarket behemoths can be justified in the face of such sharp food price hikes. Never yet has any politician vigorously and consistently pursued the absurd wage and bonus structures of high street banks and traders.
If the rules of pragmatism dictate that modern politics, structured as it is, needs to cosy up to big business and big money, then a representational deficit occurs. Put simply, who will shout loudly and earnestly for those people who feel the pinch ever more acutely, and ever more perilously, than the social elite ever will? Who has sufficient liberty, both ideological and political, to truly challenge the root inequalities of modern society?
A few months ago, when the Catholic Church attempted to contribute to the abortion and embryology debates, it was blasted for traversing outside the private sphere that had been assigned to it and seeking to claim a public voice of its own. And yet it achieved one startling success: news reporters and talk shows gradually portrayed the protest of the Catholic Church as synonymous with the ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ argument. Perhaps emboldened by the efforts of the Catholic Church, the Church of England recently conducted its own foray into the borderlands of public politics, and in so doing illustrated the powerful role religious establishments can play in calling to account the inadequacies, spiritual and political, of the contemporary political system.
If nothing else, this suggests that the public realm is not truly an arena alien to the Church, because the public realm is not truly an arena alien to either morality or ethics. Indeed, perhaps it is only the establishment of the Church that, in contemporary British society, possesses sufficient strength and independence to allow it to fight for representation of a slighted electorate in the face of an increasingly abstract political elite.