Religion in politics? Yesterday’s man makes yesterday’s argument

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a speech at Lambeth Palace on 16 February entitled “Faith in Politics.”

In it, Mr Brown said that he opposed both theocracy and “liberal secularism”, but he thought that faith had a place in politics because it brought with it a moral structure that would otherwise be lacking. He opined that liberal secularism’s desire to drive “faith” from the public square would make it an “empty square”.

Mr Brown said: “The suggestion that somebody is a more moral person simply by virtue of having faith or having a particular faith is, I believe, a perversion of the religious idea itself”. Yet his whole speech revolved around the idea that religious people have a special moral insight that is denied to those who do not believe in God. He says that religiously-motivated politicians should bring their faith-inspired values to their political thinking, but not try to use their position to impose specific religious doctrines or to claim that their actions were inspired by God (an obvious dig at his arch-enemy Tony Blair). All decisions must be rational and for the benefit of the majority.

Mr Brown complained — as did his predecessor — that it was difficult for him to express his “faith” openly while he was in Number 10 because “no one speech then could deal with all the necessary caveats,” and he would have been “laughed out of court”.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “Mr Brown’s attack on secular liberalism and his characterising of it as the other side of the coin to theocracy is unfortunate. Secular liberalism certainly wouldn’t deny a place in the democratic process for any citizen, whether religious or not. But it would deny a particular religion a privileged voice in the legislative process.

“But there is an overweening emphasis on Christianity in Mr Brown’s speech – and although he does not criticise other religious traditions, he doesn’t praise them either. He admits that this is no longer a religious country, but still, for some reason, thinks religious people should have a special place in running it. This is no longer tenable.

“Religious individuals can, of course, take part in elections and bring their values to the debates on law-making. But they cannot expect their particular take on life to dominate and control, which is what Mr Brown seems to imagine is a desirable outcome. On so many issues the religious establishment has taken a stance that is opposed to the desires of the population – on euthanasia, on homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion. Fortunately, because of liberal secularism, their will has not prevailed in most instances in parliament. But we constantly see the privileged influence of religion in our legislature trying to impose theocratic values. In some instances, such as the assisted dying debate, they have succeeded.

“Only liberal secularism can save us from this destructive resurgence of religion in politics. It seeks not to deprive believers of their stake in democracy, merely to ensure that democracy is protected from religious power-seeking.”