David Cameron and Eric Pickles say we should be proud that Britain is a Christian country. Many prominent, mainstream Jewish leaders agree and, presumably, with the implication that religious values should be brought to bear on public life. Yet while much of the opposition to this view has come from outspoken secularists, committed Jews should be no less suspicious of the idea of a Christian nation or of the influence of religion over politics. There are three main dangers.
The first is the threat of theocracy, the seizure of political power by religious leaders who consider themselves to be acting out God’s will. History teaches us that theocracy is fundamentally incompatible with liberal values, pluralism and human rights. While the problem today is most acute in certain parts of the Islamic world, Christianity has its own long and inglorious history of exercising state power against heretics and minorities, not least Jews.
Israeli secularists battle every day against what they see as coercive religious restrictions in public life. And while theocracy has not seriously threatened British public life since the 17th century, we would be wise not to drop our guard against this potent threat to democracy.
The second threat is that of cultural exclusivism. In 2012 Eric Pickles attacked the denigration of majority heritage, including the Christian faith, at the hands of multiculturalists in New Labour. He added, “If we are to remain a country where people of different backgrounds feel at ease and get along, we need more confidence in our national traditions. We need to draw a line.” Christianity here is not a matter of faith but rather an element of a shared cultural heritage which, in his view, is essential as a foundation for diversity.
But from a minority perspective, any talk of drawing lines between “our” culture and that of the other sounds ominous. For all the talk of tolerance as a Christian value, the degree of tolerance displayed by Christians throughout history has always been inversely proportional to their political power. British Christianity is tolerant primarily because of the liberal, secular nature of our society. And while diversity can certainly exist alongside an established church, there’s little reason to attribute Britain’s tolerance to its Christianity rather than to its liberalism.
This blurring of lines between Christian and liberal values reflects the final threat: the danger that faith becomes no more than a buttress for people’s subjective political agendas. On the day Pope Francis canonised John Paul II, a religious leader beloved of many right-wing American Republicans, he tweeted that inequality is the cause of social evil. One Catholic church, two political opinions.
But how can one religious tradition spawn contradictory political agendas, if religions are value-driven systems which aim to regulate people’s behaviour in society? If we can derive moral codes from religion, why not political messages? The controversial Israeli thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz explained that the Torah gives us no guidance as to whether its social legislation is designed to create a particular political system, or whether the laws are designed to be observed by individuals in whatever system they find themselves.
Some people think that it is the religious duty of every observant Jew to strive to create the kind of society in which the social and political laws of the Torah can be applied. But most Torah laws are situation-specific. The obligation to treat a slave in a certain way does not compel me to institute a system of slavery. Perhaps, then, the political laws of the Torah were intended only for the social context which existed in biblical times. Today we are free to choose whatever political system we like, on condition that we attempt to conduct ourselves with justice and righteousness.
For Leibowitz, this also won’t do. The Torah is clearly concerned with social matters. As such, Jewish tradition must have something to say not only about how we treat the poor as individuals, but about how they’re treated by government. But when we try to derive this kind of insight, we’re hampered by the gulf between the Bible’s social context and our own.
This gulf means we have no choice but to interpret, abstracting the principles underlying the Torah’s social commandments and finding new ways to realise them in our contemporary context. This position is also unacceptable to Leibowitz, as it makes the application of Torah dependent on our subjective opinions and opens us to the manipulation of religious principles in pursuit of tendentious political agendas.
If there’s no simple way to apply religion to politics, the concept of Britain as a Christian nation becomes meaningless at best, dangerous at worst. However, the potential contribution of faith to public life should not be written off. Religion is about values. It reminds us that politics must not become purely Machiavellian but should be grounded in a discussion of the common good (or, in religious terms, what God wants from us as a society). But no-one should be deluded that religious traditions can provide unambiguous answers. That’s our job, as fallible, imperfect human beings.