There are few terms that evoke greater distrust among many wise and sceptical people on both sides of the Atlantic right now than ‘faith-based politics’. A large part of that distrust comes from an awareness of the potency and even toxicity that can arise from religious or ideological emotion and commitment – and not just among those whose beliefs (religious or otherwise) are other than, or opposite to, our own.
The problem is clearly a real one. If politics is appropriately seen as the art of the possible, religion can all too easily become the possibility of totalising it into something with motives and means attuned to the dominance of the few (those who share our type of conviction) over the many (those who do not). Or, just as dangerously, the predominance of the many over the few. Either path leads not to negotiable plurality but to oppressive tribalism.
The conclusion that many people therefore reach, again on both religious and non-religious grounds, is that in addition to properly distinguishing the roles of church and state (something I would argue is essential to the possible integrity of either) somehow ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ should be kept far apart in any and every sense, including the civil – alongside their intellectual cognates, political theory and theological vision. This is what could be termed ‘hard case secularism’.
The difficulty here is that even if this total separation was desirable, it would not be possible – because political commitments and actions do, in fact, mix with or effect religious commitments and actions (and vice versa), whether we like that or not. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei exist. That’s the truth. And short of proscribing the expression or embodiment of particular beliefs in public or political terms, they always will. Though whether and how they are allowed to ‘rule’ is another matter, we should note.
The issue, then, is not so much whether politics and religion mixing is a good thing or not. It is, “How do we tell the difference between good religion and politics and bad religion and politics?” Or, put more neutrally, “What kind of religion shapes what kind of politics?” and vice versa.
Moreover, even if the prohibition on any kind of admixture between politics and religion of different kinds was possible, we have to ask: are habits of compartmentalisation helpful to healthy public life? Is it good for politics that it is somehow insured or inured against spiritual or pastoral scrutiny, and against commitments that relativize its temporal claims? Surely that is the path to a kind of non-religious absolutism?
Equally, is it good for religious commitments to be insured or inured against political scrutiny – that is, scrutiny about their material interests, their use or misuse of power, and their tangible deployment within the worlds of civic and governing action? Does that not simply lead to a situation in which beliefs can harden inhumanely because they are bereft of perspectives outside of themselves that can call them to temporal account?
In short, politics and religion will go on interacting (because religious persons live in a political world, and political persons live in a world shaped by religion or belief), and politics and religion should go on interacting (because both are more dangerous when they get their own way untrammelled by probing from other spaces).
But that still leaves us with the question of whether politics can bear too much piety or piety too much politics, and who decides? At this juncture my own specific experience – which is as a dissenting Christian engaging in the kind of politics that challenges corporate power and advocates levelling compassion towards people and planet – is that what we need is not a theory we can all agree on (that will never come), but revisable practices which challenge us towards both intellectual reflexivity and the purification of the heart.
This is a topic that merits much further investigation. But let me conclude these initial probings by referring to two of my favourite maxims about politics as the aspirational art of the achievable and belief as the humanising quest for the highest.
One is Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s conviction about the necessity of holding together in dialectical tension “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” How we might re-express that today, I would suggest, is “try to be realistic even when the reality you have to deal with isn’t what you want; but also know that reality can still be shaped differently by those who realise that it is often too mean or narrow.”
The other is religious prophet and non-theorist Jesus’ saying, “Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” What this means in a wider context, I would suggest, is something like “maintain a cunning mind that can probe darkness and angularity, but tune it to the good through purity of motive and direction.”
Here is principled, self-aware wisdom, derived respectively from political and religious sources, which can help us to be political without being overcome by present reality, and to be spiritual without being overcome by lack of engagement with present reality.
Of course that still leaves open what, in practical terms is meant by ‘the good’. But that is (or ought to be) what healthy politics and healthy religion are always seeking to discover.
Simon Barrow is co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia (www.ekklesia.co.uk).