Faith in our Politicians?

If a week is a long time in politics, a century is an aeon. In the aftermath of our most recent democratic outing we have caught a glimpse of just how much has changed.  For the half century leading up to the beginning of the twentieth century, the Liberal Party enjoyed a prominence to which its modern-day heirs, the Liberal Democrats, could scarcely dare aspire. Yet, the fortunes of political parties wax and wane. It is of no great historical moment, in one sense, that the party of Gladstone has suffered near annihilation at the Ballot Box. What became clear this June was a change much more profound than that of political fashion. Despite their many differences, it is, I submit, the profound similarity of Tim Farron to W.E. Gladstone, leader of the Liberals through much of Victoria’s reign that demonstrates just how much has changed.

Both men were driven by their profound Christian faith; and both drew comment for being unusually religious within their chosen sphere. However, whereas Gladstone presided as Prime Minister over the course of four governments: chairing 556 Cabinet meetings (a feat unlikely to be matched by any political leader), as a politician whose religion was ‘on show’. When Tim Farron stood up to announce his resignation from the part leadership he explained his reasons as follows,

 ‘To be a political leader – … in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me. …I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in.’

That one of Gladstone’s successors has come to the conclusion that it is no longer possible for him to hold on both to his faith and his position is astonishing. And it is a wakeup call for all of us, whether we share Tim Farron’s faith or not.

On the same day as Farron was announcing his resignation, a grim story was unfolding on the other side of London. The devastating fire at the Grenfell tower, which began in the early hours of that morning, had left an untold number dead and hundreds homeless. As the population of North Kensington mourned, and as those displaced from their homes sought sanctuary, where was it that help could be found? The answer became immediately apparent. Churches, Mosques and Gurdwaras swung immediately into action and began meeting the needs of desperate people at once. The religious communities of North Kensington demonstrated an agility and speed of response to the community’s needs that Government agencies (both local and national) seemed quite unable to match.

A friend of mine, Mark, who is the Area Dean of Kensington, was interviewed on various news outlets in the aftermath of the tragedy.  In one interview, Nicky Campbell of BBC Five Live pretty much sneered at him, ‘prayers are fine…if that’s your thing…but what about going ahead’. To which Mark replied, something to the effect of ‘Nicky you know how it is, when the media circus has left, the community is still here, and we will carry on, feeding clothing and homing people, because asChristians we are passionate about love truth and justice’. If history is any sort of guide, then the ongoing, relentless, sacrificial care that meets the needs of the people of North Kensington over the long term, will be inspired by religious faith.

A generation, born in the ‘60s and ‘70s has grown up humming along to John Lennon’s Imagine and found that it is actually pretty easy to ‘imagine there’s no heaven’, if you try. The idea, as immortalised by Lennon, that religion is the source of many ills and that we would all be much better off without it, has become almost axiomatic in public life. Those in possession of a serious faith in anything beyond themselves are increasingly viewed as a potentially dangerous liability. Disastrously though there is nothing to replace their faith, and, vitally, no viable means of replacing the actions that their faith inspires.

To take the churches as one example, a survey by the Theos think tank of 2014 found that 10 million people had (either themselves or a close relative) accessed a community service from the church, in addition to Weddings, Baptism and Funerals. The largest supplier of food banks in the UK, serving those who most need it, is the Trussell Trust whose work is completely based in the Christian faith. The Church is the single largest provider of community based youth work in the UK. In an Article for the Guardian in 2005, Roy Hattersley made the following observation:

 …It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian or, better still, to take Christianity à la carte. …Yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night.

The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me.

I don’t mean to appropriate that quote to make a claim to moral superiority, nothing could be further from my mind, but I do believe that Mr Hattersley’s observation is crucial.

Many in society may feel that we have ‘moved on’ and that religion serves only to retard progress. But that narrative is far too simplistic, there are innumerable ways in which religious faith serves to enhance the common good. If there is anything that our country needs at the moment it is more faith in public life, not less.

I leave you with an extended quotation from GK Chesterton which I think captures an aspect of this rather brilliantly:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good ——” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediæval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.[1]


[1] Gilbert K. Chesterton, Heretics (New York: John Lane, 1919), 23–24.