Politics and Religion at the Conservative Party Conference

Melanie Phillips writes:

I chaired a most interesting fringe meeting discussion this lunchtime at the Tory party conference on the intersection between religion and politics.

Unfortunately Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, had to leave early so we never got an opportunity to hear him develop his views on the subject. But I was very pleased to hear the other panellists, Adrian Hilton who writes the terrific Archbishop Cranmer blog: http://archbishopcranmer.com, Transport Minister John Hayes and Lisa Pearce of Open Doors which provides assistance for persecuted Christians around the world.

John Hayes spoke about the evils of a self-centred. consumerist society which had lost the sense of the divine. Adrian Hilton spoke passionately about the need to protect freedom of religion, which as he correctly observed was different from the far less contentious freedom to worship.

Much of the discussion was about the persecution of Christians across the world, and why western politicians and church leaders are so reluctant to acknowledge this persecution. For as Lisa Pearce said, what is happening is absolutely momentous: in the Middle East, Christianity is being systematically destroyed in the places where it all started. And no western leaders are even acknowledging this.

This stuff was so much more important than the manipulative flannel on display in the main conference hall. That’s why, of course, it was confined to a fringe meeting.

It is curious that the Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Education Secretary bang on about the need to uphold “fundamental British values” without so much as a glance at morality or a nod to religious liberty, as though our notions of right and wrong or good and evil were created ex nihilo and may be inculcated through political black holes and perpetuated in a vacuum of relativism. Politicians can be air-headed sophists, and political conferences can be vacuous affairs. Yesterday, while the Tory faithful were worshipping the golden Boris, the Conference Fringe was wrestling with theological orthodoxy, societal renewal and notions of national righteousness. Or at least the Cornerstone think-tank was.

There are some Conservatives who rebuff this blog because of its undisguised God-bothering mission and its unashamed association with Christianity. More bizarrely, there are Christians who refuse even to read it because of the word ‘conservatism’ in the strapline, as though the conservative vision of the natural order is somehow antithetical to the gospel of Christ which is in turn sullied by association with the philosophy of man. Neither intractable stance is remotely comprehensible.

Surely in our mature deliberations we can agree that religious commitment is not monolithic, but complex, multi-layered and nuanced in its apprehension of sacred texts, traditions, authorities and experiences. Surely we can agree on the need for sensitive reflection, ethical scrutiny and self-renewal to discern the practical wisdom necessary to wade through our human foibles and overcome our fallibilities as we wrestle with our moral duties and sociopolitical obligations. Surely we can agree in the cultivation of civic virtue that there are unresolvable tensions between pronouncements of religious omniscience and assertions of secular adherence, and that we must listen to the opposition and engage with the argument.

The intersection between politics and religion in a free society seeks to arrive at a social equilibrium where injustices may be fought and corruption rooted out; where the sick may be comforted and the poor given relief; where the ignorant may be taught and the virtuous promoted. This is a mission – or the vision of a partial mission – for the religious to be politically active and for the political to be religiously intelligent. To work for such an equilibrium within a framework of liberal democracy is to contribute to the liberty, mutual respect and cooperative exchange of ideas that best nourish religious practice, moral conduct and political engagement.

The injunction is to love one’s neighbour as oneself. That is the beginning and the end of our spiritual fraternity, and ought to be the foundational essence of all political policy. If religion is to be kept out of politics, or politics ceases to uphold the liberties by which religion may be freely practised in the public square, our discourse is impeded and our civilisation diminished.

In our moral diversity and epistemic divergence we may not always agree. But, for Christ’s sake, let’s keep a sense of perspective.