Saturday, 15 February 2014

Some politicians don't do God, others don't dare do without

We all know the Alistair Campbell quotation, but it seems to me that there are other examples of being too religious holding back Westminster careers (Northern Ireland is an exception). Sarah Teather's professed Roman Catholicism is said to have contributed to her sacking from government. Her fundamental belief may have led her to vote against gay marriage (thus triggering an unreasoning hate campaign in certain quarters) but it also inspired her concern for the well-being of children and fair treatment of immigrants. Similarly, Alan Beith may have progressed further - at the least succeeded in election to the Speakership - if he had not also been a prominent Methodist and an active member of parliamentary Christian groups. If my thesis is correct, there is no way that Tim Farron will get into government - though admittedly Christianity does not seem to have done Steve Webb much harm.

It is also obvious that the reverse is true in the United States. Though the First Amendment proscribes a national church (thus circumventing any Protestant/Catholic/Unitarian disputes), USA has been, according to the Pledge of Allegiance since 1954, "one nation under God" - and that deity is implicitly the God of Abraham. Any US politician who does not at least pay lip service to a belief in God fights an uphill battle. In Islamic republics it is often fatal not to do so.

What I hadn't realised, and what triggered this post, is that, according to Amit Varna in a supplement to the Hindu Business Line, India is rather similar to the States. He cites "Arvind Kejriwal, once an atheist, [who] rediscovered religion as he ran for public office, and breathlessly thanked ‘the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru’ when he became chief minister of Delhi. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and put those ravings down to cynical roleplay rather than to genuine self-delusion.."

Varna concludes: "Believers sometimes rationalise their distaste for atheists by arguing that religion is the source of morality, and that atheists can’t possible have any incentive to behave ethically. Let’s leave aside the historical issue of the staggering amount of violence committed in the name of religion – there is also a case to be made that codes of conduct existed before religions did, and that religions merely codified what already existed, and might even have been hardwired into us. Ultimately, we behave the way we behave, do the things we do, out of regard for our fellow human beings, and for our own humanity. And if that is all we ever believe in, well, it’s good enough."

This is the opinion I subscribe to. Its implementation would mean electors judging representatives by their deeds, not their words or their labels. It would mean Americans and others abandoning their prejudice against atheists, agnostics and religious minorities. It would also mean electors here giving up their suspicion of public religious confession.

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