Alastair Campbell’s comments on religion are (in)famous by now. Campbell said of Blair’s operation in Number 10, “we don’t do God”. In a speech after leaving office, Blair himself talked about this refusal to “do God”. He argued here was a cultural element to it, that “in Britain […] to admit to having faith leads to a whole series of suppositions, none of which are very helpful to the practising politician,” and that there was an assumption that people would assume that religion “makes you act, as a leader, at the promptings of an inscrutable deity”.
Such ideas have resurfaced again with Tim Farron’s tenure as the leader of the Liberal Democrats, to the rise of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Now, of course all politicians can believe whatever they want; private beliefs are private beliefs and to judge a politician based on if they pray and who they pray to, would be fundamentally wrong.
The issue instead becomes thorny when considering the ways in which religious belief can inform views on, and creation of, policy.
Recently on Good Morning Britain, Jacob Rees-Mogg discussed his views on issues from abortion, to Brexit, and same-sex marriage. Rees-Mogg references “the teaching of the Catholic church,” and that the church decides “what is sacrament,” and that marriage is a sacrament. Piers Morgan mentioned his own Catholicism, and his disagreement with the church on the issue of equal marriage. It’s worth noting that Rees-Mogg refuses to say that he opposes equal marriage, instead saying that he “accepts the teaching of the Catholic church”. He’s then asked, as Tim Farron infamously was, if he thinks that gay sex is a sin.
Likewise, Rees-Mogg was asked, if he became Prime Minister, “Would the teachings of the church take precedence over your political views?”. This highlights just how religion and policy may intertwine, and in the case of Jacob Rees-Mogg, they do so explicitly. When looking at Rees-Mogg’s voting record, he voted against same sex marriage and equal gay rights. He even says that abortion – in any circumstances – “is morally indefensible”.
Rees-Mogg then went on to say that Liberal Democrats aren’t tolerant of religion, and that we live in a multi-faith society, “until you’re a Christian”. The issues that were raised around Tim Farron weren’t simply that he was religious. They were concerns that his faith might inform his policy and, as the leader of what’s supposed to be a liberal political party, take them in less than liberal directions.
When resigning as Liberal Democrat leader, Farron also mentioned the idea that criticism of his belief shows that we don’t live in a multi-faith society. As well as this, he says that “there are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of their faith upon society,” going on to say that it is “not liberal,” to do so. It is worth noting that when politicians discuss faith and how it relates to policy, it is often done in terms of the things they’re against. Rees-Mogg’s faith leads him to be against same sex marriage and abortion. But this faith is never used to talk about what a politician stands for. It’s been argued in The Guardian that people who bring religion to their politics are “obsessed with sex,” something that the Rees-Mogg GMB interview seems to reinforce.
This “obsession with sex” shows the one-sided way in which religion seems to inform faith. Rees-Mogg’s faith doesn’t seem to stop him for voting consistently for welfare cuts. While we don’t know how selectively Rees-Mogg follows the scripture, we can see how selectively it impacts his politics. It says in scripture that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”. Rees-Mogg voted for reducing housing benefit, against raising welfare benefits in line with prices, and for the reduction of cap gains tax.
Rees-Mogg can, of course, believe what he wants. In spite of what he says, the UK is a multi-faith country and is trying to be liberal and inclusive, in spite of things like the rise of xenophobia after the Brexit vote. And if it really is what they believe, then politicians should “do God” with respect to policy, if it’s what they believe and if they think it will make the country a better place. After all, in our democracy, not all of their views will get through the house. Rees-Mogg even said so himself, that there “wouldn’t be a majority in the house,” to change the law on equal marriage, even if he doesn’t agree with that law.
The problem is being selective with the scripture that impacts policy making, using it as a shield against bigotry, while refusing to use it to reduce poverty. To do so is betrayal, not only of the people of the country, but the scriptures that politicians like Rees-Mogg say they so ardently believe in.