The strengths of faith-based politics
Jonathan Clatworthy is a retired Church of England priest and has been a member of the Green Party since 1986. He was the Green candidate for Liverpool Walton in May’s election. Here, he discusses the strengths of faith-based politics.
This is part of a series we are running on faith and green politics launched with this article. Bright Green would like to invite activists and progressive politicians who are believers to tell us how faith and politics go together in their lives. Write to us at email@example.com.
The Green Party, according to surveys, has a greater proportion of atheists and fewer religious believers than either the British population or other parties. Yet many believers join enthusiastically because it expresses their values far better than any other party.
Admittedly the mass media give the impression that Christianity is all about crazy dogmas, male supremacy, homophobia and anti-evolutionism. But we know how accurate they are, and meanwhile the Party’s emphasis on social justice is put into action by food banks which are nearly all run by churches, and the most influential report urging action on climate change has just been published by the Pope.
Underneath the froth, faith traditions have unique strengths. One of them is their depth of values. Don’t knock it because of the silly bits.
Facts are easier: people can know about extinctions of species and greenhouse gases without caring. We respond in different ways because we have different values. People join the Green Party because they share our values. Political movements are stronger when they can explain and justify their values.
Most public debate these days is very shallow. A lot of it is about how people feel. If a development project threatens a rare bird, one side cites the statistics about the bird while the other side cite jobs created and value to the economy. We have absolutely no way of measuring the bird against the jobs to reach a rational conclusion. Our values against theirs. Everybody’s values are just surd facts about how they feel. Maybe the decision will be made by whoever can influence the feelings of the decision-makers.
This is the product of postmodern relativism. Back in the days of Enlightenment grand narratives we thought there were absolute truths and objectively true values. No longer. We create our own values. Different people create different values, and there is no authority above us to judge some values better than others.
This may seem attractive when you are out on a demo opposing officialdom: our values are just as good as theirs. But conversely, their values are just as good as ours. If we are the accidental product of atoms put together by laws of nature in such a way as to invent values, all that rhetoric about fracking being wrong really only tells us how our hormones make us feel. Take a few tablets and it won’t be wrong any more.
It is a gift to the ruling classes. If everyone’s values are just as valid as everyone else’s, the values that prevail will be those of the most powerful. They then decree their values to be the right ones, and persuade majorities to vote for them. It has just happened!
In practice not even the ruling classes uphold it consistently. IS captures opponents, videos them being beheaded and broadcasts the event for all to see. They think they are doing the right thing. We could say that in their society it really is the right thing to do. Our society creates our values, their society creates their values; they are not wrong, just different. Well no, we don’t buy it. We shout at the television, making sure it understands that those acts are evil.
When faced with acts that horrify us, deep down we really do believe in higher moral standards. Conversely, if we didn’t, the only reason for getting involved in politics would be some kind of self-interest. So where do we get our values from? Where do they exist? How do we find out what they are?
Secular modernists have for centuries argued about right and wrong. If we find out what the true standards are, we can solve our problems and the world can make progress. The way to do this without invoking a supernatural authority is to say some values foster the happiest societies with the most fulfilled people. Different ethicists do it in different ways, but somehow we find out what works best and we deduce what to do.
Political activists can use these. They tell us that some lifestyles really are better than others and we really can make progress.
This was the basis of the massive programmes of social engineering that developed from the eighteenth century onwards. Some were constructive, like the wider provision of education and health care. Others were disastrous. Hitler, Stalin and Mao all thought they knew how to make the world a better place.
Even the most benign social engineers generate resistance. In effect they are telling us that they are the educated experts, they know what is best for us, we should just do as we are told. The rest of us do not love them for it. We feel we are being treated like alcoholics, told to stop drinking for our own good. We don’t like it, especially if we don’t trust their expertise.
What went wrong with this non-religious modernist pursuit of progress? Why did postmodernists rebel? What we are looking for are right answers, authoritative explanations of why ruining the environment and letting the disabled starve are bad things to do, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just plain wrong. What we got instead was a variety of different proposals, by some intellectuals, about how we might all be happier if we behaved the way they tell us. Even if one of them is right, the rest of us are yet to be bullied into obedience.
When humans make good proposals, they still have the limitations humans have. To accept their authority we would have to trust that they know everything relevant and really have the best interests of everyone at heart. Governments often make the mistake of assuming they do, and thereby cause disaster. Historically, supreme knowledge and benevolence had previously been attributed to the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims. It was transferred to the educated classes and from there to governments. They don’t have it.
The religious dimension
Every time we think the things we disapprove of really are wrong, we imply a higher authority. Usually we don’t speculate about what this authority is; but if we did, we might be better able to explain why we believe what we do.
This is where faith traditions score. They do have narratives to explain higher authority, how we relate to it and what lifestyle choices are best in the light of it.
Why should we pay any attention to it? No reason at all, unless we throw in a few more hypotheses. If it is more than just impersonal laws of nature, if it does know everything and have our best interests at heart, then it should be worth speculating about what an authority like that might advise.
Most faith traditions throw in a lot more too. Much of it, like the recent debates about same-sex partnerships, conflicts with what Green Party members think; but there is nothing to stop us valuing the positives and rejecting the negatives, which is what the growing ‘spiritual but not religious’ movement does.
I am not suggesting that believers are better party members, or do things differently. Janet the believer and John the unbeliever recycle their plastic, deliver leaflets and oppose fracking in the same way and for the same reasons. John knows more about the dangers of fracking, but Janet is just as willing to go on the demo. In the same way Janet has a richer account of why she holds the values they share, but John is just as keen on them.
The practical strengths of faith-based politics are something like this.
1) Relationship. Spiritual traditions offer a range of practices to help us relate to our highest values: praying, meditating, reflecting on how to live in harmony with the universe.
2) Analysis. Believers have narratives to explain who made us, for what purpose, and how therefore we ought to live. This easily leads to both policy preferences and practical action.
3) Commitment. People who understand what they believe, why they believe it and how it fits coherently with their other beliefs, are more likely to express it in practical action and influence others.
These strengths help explain why local voluntary work is disproportionately done by religious believers. Drip by drip, the hymns they sing, the prayers they offer and the sermons they listen to sink into their minds, offering an account of who they are and what the purpose of their life is. I am not suggesting that it is done well, but it is done; and nobody else does it better.