Religion and politics do not mix

By Daniel Finkelstein, April 4, 2008

The Catholic Church’s victory over the Embryo Bill is a blow for freedom.

At my age, Martin Luther King Junior was dead. Before the age of 38, he had led the boycott against apartheid on the buses of Alabama, become leader of the civil-rights movement, marched on Washington and told his audience that he had a dream, spent many nights in jail and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

And then, exactly 40 years ago today, he was assassinated.

It is not merely this anniversary that prompts me to think of Dr King, however. It is the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. For this debate has been accompanied by a great deal of discussion about whether religion and politics mix.

The argument, in a nutshell, has been this. The Catholic Church regards various parts of the Bill as unacceptable, and this led Catholic MPs in the Labour Party to chafe against the imposition of a three-line whip. In the case of ministers, this whipping would have forced them to vote against their conscience or resign.

In reply, supporters of the Bill objected to the involvement of the Church. In addition to, they say, misunderstanding the provisions of the new law, the Church had no right to start rallying its faithful. It should stay out of politics. And why is embryology a special issue of conscience requiring a free vote? Surely all political issues are issues of conscience.

Let me pick my way through this. And I am going to start with Martin Luther King.

The career of Dr King is a standing contradiction to the idea that religion and politics shouldn’t mix. In 1957, he founded the organisation that led the civil-rights resolve. Its principle of non-violent defiance set the tone for one of the greatest political movements in the history of modern civilisation. Its name? The Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Dr King, or the Reverend Dr King as his congregants called him, rallied the churches of the south and his voice rang out from the pulpit.

It is impossible to separate the Church and the civil-rights movement. The Church’s role was not simply to provide the organisational base of the movement — it acted as its spiritual guide and its inspiration.

And what is true of the civil-rights movement is true of the history of many of the great liberating moments of recent history.

Take Britain. The abolition of slavery, the factory acts, the alleviation of poverty, the foundation of the ragged schools — all the result of religious activists. William Wilberforce would not have begun his great work if he had not first becoming a committed Christian. The Earl of Shaftesbury was an evangelical Tory.

Or take America. This week, Abraham Lincoln’s letter to young schoolchildren went on sale, explaining how he regarded himself as God’s instrument in setting the Southern slaves free.

Liberals often complain about the inclinations of religious leaders. They forget the irreplaceable contribution made by religion to the civilising of mankind.

All this means that religion is inevitably mixed in with politics. Religious conviction is one of the major components of the political views of many people. And many of the phrases bandied about by politicians — fairness, justice, compassion — are given their content by religious debate over centuries.

It is obviously unacceptable if those people proceed without making a proper argument, merely relying on faith to advance their point. But in, for example, the case of the Catholic Church and embryology, that isn’t the case at all. They are making a perfectly serious argument.

Which brings me to the question of whipping. Our major political parties are coalitions, and inside them members differ over all sorts of things. So, the opponents of the Catholic Church ask, in what sense is an issue like embryology any more one of conscience than, say, the question of whether we should fight the Iraq war?

It’s a good question. But the answer is not to insist that MPs vote against their conscience on embryology. It is to allow much more freedom to vote with one’s conscience on all sorts of issues.

The Catholic Church is unlikely to win on the substantive issues in the Bill, but it has already won a notable victory on procedure. Gordon Brown has retreated (partially, at least) from his plan to force a three-line whip on his ministers. There will now be a free vote on the most controversial clauses.

And despite the fact that I am with the scientists rather than the Church on much of the Bill, I celebrate this procedural victory.

Political parties should not be able to claim a monopoly on conscience, narrowing every question to a debate between Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat.

The Catholic Church has struck a blow for freedom.

Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times

Last updated: 3:31pm, January 30 2009