Politics and religion

I don’t generally blog on politics. It’s not a subject which particularly enthuses me – at least in the traditional sense. I have no particular love of party politics. The confrontational Westminster style is just irritating and the negative campaigning is simply depressing. But this blog entry isn’t about any of those things anyway. Rather, it’s about a train of thought that was triggered by watching a programme from a few days ago.

The title, ‘Why the Scots don’t vote Tory’, caught my eye and I watched it on catchup. It wasn’t terribly informative and only hinted at some of the answers. Nevertheless, one comment caught my attention. One lady, a mother of seven (iirc), living in one of the wealthier areas of Glasgow, admitted that her family would probably be better off under Tory government, but felt that voters also had a moral obligation to consider the effect of their vote on others. The implication, of course, being that a Tory government would have the interests of only a small(er) part of society in mind. Sally Magnusson, the presenter, did venture the opinion that the apparent Tory focus on individual achievement and advancement grated on the Scots’ sense of community and fairness. I suspect this would have been a particularly fruitful line of enquiry, but it wasn’t really followed up.

Now, I’m in no particular position to argue the merits of one party over another in terms of their community focus or their social responsibility. Labour’s track record on this hasn’t exactly been exemplary either. Nor would I care to argue that this is a uniquely Scottish phenomenon. I’m sure our English, Welsh and Irish neighbours can be every bit as community-minded, just as Scots can be just as self-centred as anyone else. But it did get me thinking about something else I read recently about Emerging Church and its criticism of the established (or inherited) church.

One of the key criticisms of the established church (by EC) is that it is locked into, and colludes with, a ‘modern’ worldview. (As an aside, it can be argued that EC is just as guilty of this with respect to a postmodern worldview.) But, for the established church, what this means is that it is locked into a way of thinking that it sees as the correct way, yet is no longer how many people think – especially those in the younger generations. In particular, as it relates to this blog entry, established church is seen to be too individualistic – too much emphasis on a ‘personal faith’ in a ‘personal saviour’. (And, as another aside, in my opinion, this is a crucial area where EC falls into the very same trap – it risks ‘over-contextualising’ to the point where, although it may not be individuals, it can be a very small and exclusive clique.)

It’s an interesting question to ask though whether this has been the natural drift of the church or whether it has been pushed into this corner by the changing mindset of society. But therein lies the problem, as I see it, for the church. I think that the criticism that the established church has, generally speaking, colluded with society is a fair one. It’s almost as though, in its humility, the church hasn’t wanted to rock the boat and upset people by being too ‘in their face’ or too outspoken. It has listened to and agreed with the secular voices which have told it that religion and faith is a personal thing and not for the public arena.

This year there are celebrations marking the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation – an event steeped in social change, especially education (ironically individual). The Church of Scotland has had, and continues to have, a strong tradition of supporting social projects, both at home and overseas. That ‘community’ ethic, strong moral responsibility and social justice, still runs deep within the Scottish psyche, I believe. But it risks being subsumed and diluted as our society expands to include those from other parts who have chosen to make Scotland their home. Don’t misunderstand me though. I’m not saying that welcoming others into Scottish society is a bad thing, rather that it places a greater responsibility on the church in Scotland to be the voice of social concern and community focus.

At the moment I think it still listens too much to the voices which tell us that religion is a private matter. I think a parallel can be drawn with the side-lining of the Tories in Scotland (assuming the ‘individualist’ criticism is valid) and the increasing irrelevance of the church in Scotland. I also think it’s one of the dangers of jumping on the EC bandwagon – we risk becoming even more focussed on pleasing individuals rather than growing in relevance to society as a whole. I think that if the church were to find its prophetic voice again (and some have) then it would become more relevant. And that doesn’t simply mean being critical, but rather, showing the way forward (it’s not like we don’t have a good example to follow). And I also believe that if the church does that then there will also be pressure on the political parties to be more serious about social justice and community support and be less about selfish gain. Maybe even the Tories would be popular again.

Politics and religion can make for an awkward mix, but churches cannot disconnect from political life, for that would be a disconnection from public life. I don’t generally blog about politics, but maybe when I blog about faith and church and theology the politics is in there anyway.

4 responses to “Politics and religion”

  1. John, I think you hit on a lot of valid points.  The established church falls behind into irrelevance because people are happy where they are, and thus egradually stop relating to those who are outside. I think the EC focus on the individual is good, because people need that degree of attention. Jesus focussed on the individual before him. But then he invited that individual to join the group, and become part of the fellowship of his followers.
    The group is important, but not more important than the people not yet in the group. EC also can become inward-focussed, but like Jesus, all his groups of his followers need to be out and about in the community, and be relevant.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts even though you maybe feel uncomfortable talking about party politics. I like what you say about the “community ethic” and would like to add that my feeling is that in Scotland amongst many people, there is a strong sense of fairness and justice. At least I hope there is.

  3. Stewart,

    Thanks for the comments. I don’t entirely disagree that individual attention is a good thing, but its focus, as you rightly point out, should be to draw people into the body of Christ – we are a people called into community. EC, or at least some expressions of it, I feel, forget that community focus. I may also take issue with with the idea of “not yet in the group”. The focus needs to be on taking Christ into the world, not in expanding the clique that can be the church.


    Welcome to the blog (I meant to say that on your earlier comment) and thank you for taking the time to comment. I believe you are correct in your assessment of there being a strong stream of fairness and justice within Scottish society. In many ways it can be seen in the classic ‘supporting the underdog’ in sports or any other competition. Where it does need tempered, I believe, is when we appear to discourage achievement – we don’t like seeing people ‘get above themselves’. But I do believe it is possible to achieve a healthy balance of humility and striving for improvement.

  4. Politics and religion… I’ve come to the view that party politics should never appear in the pulpit. General politics can’t escape from the pulpit, however. Tutu once said, I think, something to the effect that anyone who says religion and politics don’t mix should examine their Bibles. Justice and mercy and love all flow from Scripture (Micah 6 ?) and when you throw in the Beatitudes into the mix with references to the poor in spirit (or just the poor) then the Gospel starts to look like a manifesto.
    There is a tendency amongst Scots particularly to view religion as a ‘private matter’ and its an easy trap for evangelicals to fall into. We forget the corporate dimension to service. We’re not operating on our own – ever.

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