Not so long ago being in a position of public leadership and also a professing Christian was seen as a virtue and nothing to be ashamed of. Margaret Thatcher may not have been everyone’s favourite politician (to put it mildly), but you can’t deny the convictions of her Christian faith. In her 2002 book Statecraft, she writes:
‘I believe in what are often referred to as “Judaeo-Christian” values: indeed my whole political philosophy is based on them’
A more enlightening understanding of her Christian beliefs can be gauged from a speech she gave to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988. This is an extract from it:
‘What then are the distinctive marks of Christianity?
‘They stem not from the social but from the spiritual side of our lives, and personally, I would identify three beliefs in particular:
‘First, that from the beginning man has been endowed by God with the fundamental right to choose between good and evil. And second, that we were made in God’s own image and, therefore, we are expected to use all our own power of thought and judgement in exercising that choice; and further, that if we open our hearts to God, He has promised to work within us. And third, that Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, when faced with His terrible choice and lonely vigil chose to lay down His life that our sins may be forgiven…
‘I think back to many discussions in my early life when we all agreed that if you try to take the fruits of Christianity without its roots, the fruits will wither. And they will not come again unless you nurture the roots.
‘But we must not profess the Christian faith and go to Church simply because we want social reforms and benefits or a better standard of behaviour;but because we accept the sanctity of life, the responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ expressed so well in the hymn:
‘”When I survey the wondrous Cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.”‘
Compare this to the famous “We don’t do God” intervention by Alistair Campbell only fifteen years later when Tony Blair was asked a question about his faith in an interview. Even now though David Cameron professes to be a Christian and that God is allowed to be mentioned again in government now his party is running the country with the Lib Dems, Cameron likens his faith to the patchy reception of Magic FM in the Chilterns that fades in and out. Not exactly the driving force of his political motivations.
At the weekend I read with interest an article in the Spectator by Melanie McDonagh entitled ‘Can you trust a Christian?’. In it she discussed the current state of Christianity amongst our political leaders. This is some of what she said:
‘For some time we have known about the tension between George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith over welfare reform. The Chancellor wanted more welfare cuts, and the Work and Pensions Secretary resisted: real reform, he said, would cost money. So far, so understandable. But a new biography of the Chancellor by Janan Ganesh reveals another element behind the struggle. Ganesh writes that Osborne ‘questioned the analytical rigour of the Christian Conservatives who hovered behind the project’. A Treasury source is quoted making it clearer still: ‘He thinks the people pushing this are such total advocates and evangelicals that they blind themselves to any downsides.’
‘To put it another way, the Christianity of Mr Duncan Smith and his associates makes them suspect. As ‘evangelicals’, they don’t function intellectually the way that others do. That’s new. Until very recently, politicians and pundits regarded Christianity as a system of beliefs and values. Grown-ups might have doctrinal differences, but Christianity was a respectable and rational foundation for a world view. When Lady T rowed with bishops, she dealt with them on their own scriptural terms, saying that the Good Samaritan had to make money to give it away in the first place. Religion was part of public debate, not an impediment to it.
‘It would be unfair to suggest that Mr Osborne’s reservations about religion in public life are anything but typical.
‘When Evan Harris headed the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, he felt that expert witnesses should declare their religious affiliation before giving their opinions. In 2009 the World Association of Medical Editors took this into an academic context, and said that editors of medical journals should require contributors to declare any interests that might affect their views. Yes, but which views? Patricia Casey, a professor of psychiatry at University College Dublin, wrote a commentary in 2008 on a paper about the effects of abortion on mental health for the British Journal of Psychiatry. She was promptly taken to task for not declaring her Catholicism — yet some of her critics had themselves undeclared interests as abortion providers. The authors of a recent paper on abortion and mental health, funded by the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, didn’t feel obliged to say that the foundation was also biased: it was ideologically pro-choice. But crucially, it’s religious belief that appears to undermine the validity of your research and your academic integrity. Secular prejudice doesn’t count.
‘It’s an extraordinarily offensive assumption that people convinced of a political persuasion can be seen as rational, as long as they don’t go to church, mosque or synagogue. And if they are religious, it is to be assumed that their options are dictated to them by a priest, rabbi or imam.’
Coincidentally, two other articles have appeared in the last few days broaching this subject. One is by Andrew Lilico at Conservative Home asking why it is that when anyone argues against abortion or for any reduction in abortion time-limits it is assumed that they must have religious beliefs that are corrupting their judgement.
The second was by Matthew Parris in the Times. In it he argued that we have a right to know when those in public life are basing their opinions on faith-based views rather than science or something else more measurable. He talks of an occasion when he heard an MP argue persuasively for a review of the 24-week abortion limit. He says that he respected the MP’s arguments until he discovered that he was Catholic at which point Parris ‘reappraised the value of his testimony’ believing it was purely based on the MP’s Christian beliefs and therefore of no value.
I find this approach to judging someone for these reasons disturbing as does Peter Saunders at Christian Medical Comment who says:
‘It is an example of a growing trend in media debates on public policy whereby those advocating a particular position try to advance their case, not by countering their opponents’ arguments, but rather by undermining their personal credibility. This is essentially avoiding the argument by launching an ad hominem attack. To say that someone only takes a certain position because they are a Christian or a Jew or a Sikh or a ‘bigot’ is just an excuse for not engaging in serious debate about the issue in hand. It is disingenuous, cowardly and disrespectful.’
The problem with Parris’ approach is that if such declarations were required, potentially there would be no end to the list. Judgement according to faith is not as simple as ‘the Bible says this’ or ‘the Bible says that’. Our values, thoughts, words and actions are all affected by what we believe and that includes every single person irrespective of whether they believe in God, something else or nothing. If you are an atheist, you still have to get your values from somewhere.
I find it so frustrating and counter-intuitive when those who do not believe in a god think that their values and beliefs are worth more than those whose religious perspectives have been tried and tested over the centuries and have come through intact. Christianity in particular has not collapsed despite argument after argument being thrown at it. Instead, time and again its moral framework has proven to hold great truth and virtue when others fall apart. Arrogance of superiority has a habit of blinding us to our own moral faults and intellectual failings.
Those who consider that religion and rational thinking are incompatible have a lot to learn. My Christian beliefs and convictions do not stop me from learning from science and evaluating evidence that is presented to me. I hold them together, sometimes admittedly in tension, but the two help me to understand the world I live in. I don’t need science to justify my beliefs, but often it will compliment them and I’m not afraid to hold the two together simultaneously. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that I’ve unplugged my brain and instead expect the Bible to tell me the answer to every specific question I have. If anything, it makes me think harder than my peers with no faith because my own causes me to ask the big questions about existence and life that they often ignore or approach in a superficial way.
When Isaac Newton took his ideas on gravity and the laws of motion to the Royal Society they didn’t have a problem with the fact that he believed God was essential to the nature and absoluteness of space or that he would write, “The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”
I wonder if he was doing the same thing now how many would dismiss him because in their opinion someone with his religous beliefs couldn’t be accepted as a serious and respectable scientist?