Summary of the discussion
Our discussion on July 2nd covered a wide range of topics from the newspapers, recent TV news or our own experiences, which it is not easy to summarise. These topics included President Obama’s recent speech at Charleston, which seemed to express a depth of personal faith which had not always been in evidence during his Presidency, and the debate about whether Tim Farron’s faith made him more or less suitable as a potential leader of a political party. This contrasted with the well-known “We don’t do God” heard during Tony Blair’s time in office (though not words from his own mouth but from Alastair Campbell, his Director of Communications). So what is the role of faith in politics?
The fear that “We don’t do God” and the debate about Tim Farron express is that religious people often have a conviction about the absolute truth of their views, and an unwillingness to compromise or negotiate with others who do not share their faith. When such attitudes gain political power the result is often a disastrous form of moral dictatorship. Most people would say that current events in Syria and Iraq are a clear example of that- and clearly linked to the recent attack on holidaymakers in Tunisia, and the attempts of many refugees to cross the Mediterranean and gain access to Europe.
The question of the relationship of faith and political power is therefore crucial, and not just to be asked of Islam, but also of Christianity (and other faiths). Inter-faith dialogue can often be superficial – we heard of one meeting where participants were encouraged to bring passages from their own scriptures to share. Most brought passages that expressed what they felt the difference religions shared in common. A Rabbi surprised the others by quoting the verses from Psalm 137: “O daughter of Babylon, you devastator. Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us. Happy those who take your babies and dash them against the rock.” We should not only share with one another the easy passages, he explained, but also the ones which cause offence and harm, and deal with them honestly together.
We also thought about the way the present Government is trying to reduce the costs of Welfare, with £23,000 limits etc. The Old Testament reading in the prayers was from Nehemiah, where after the Exile in Babylon, the Law was read to the people in an attempt to restore and rebuild a new and just community. Part of that Law was an assertion that the resources people needed to create prosperity for themselves (in those days, mainly agricultural land) should be shared by all the people, not monopolised by a tiny minority. But our modern society is one where resources are owned by a few, so many are therefore left dependent on Welfare, and resented because of that by others. Perhaps that is one example where faith should play a far bigger role in politics that it does at present.