Faith should not dictate political affiliation

When Rowan Williams and AC Grayling made headlines recently, one aspect of the God Debate was turned

Ask most people what it is from Jesus's teachings that they remember and they'll probably say something about loving your neighbour and looking after the poor. It's a little disconcerting, then, that the Christian movements both here and in the USA clearly feel most at home on the right of the political spectrum.

A handful of opinion polls paints the picture of what is going on in America: in 2004, 70 per cent of traditional evangelicals were Republican as opposed to only 20 per cent who were Democrats (Pew Forum poll); the majority of members of the Tea Party support the social agenda of the religious conservatives with heavy opposition to same-sex marriages and abortion (2011, Pew); non-believers are one and a half times more likely to believe that the earth is subject to global warming than are Christians (2010, Pew).

For the religious right, the Land of the Free will never become the Land of the Free Hand-outs. The Christian movement is a powerful constituency represented by various lobby groups which push for a low-tax agenda. And in parts of the country the movement is dominated by the mega-churches which preach the "Prosperity Gospel", that God wants us to be rich.

In Britain the position is less extreme, but still pronounced. The Church of England's label as the Conservative Party at prayer is admittedly tongue-in-cheek. Even so, the agendas of the Christian church and the political right-wing make comfortable bed-fellows. You know the kind of thing: anti-abortion, anti-unions, opposed to same-sex marriage and tough on crime. If, at this very moment, there is a church minister recruited straight from Central Casting pouring tea in a quaint village vicarage somewhere in the south west of England, his china cup and saucer are more likely to be delicately balanced on a copy of the Spectator than the New Statesman.

As for the New Atheists, when they warn of the social ills of religion, it is clear that their own humanist heaven on earth would be headed up by the kind of socially-progressive Guardian-reader to whom your typical tabloid editor would hardly give the time of day. (Even Christopher Hitchens with his famed views on foreign interventions claims to remain a Marxist at heart.) And it should be no surprise that the Liberal Democrats are the only mainstream party whose leader is openly an atheist. It was presumably for these reasons that before last year's general election Richard Dawkins took the surprising step of publicly endorsing the party.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. After all, when a country has an official religion (such as the UK) or an unofficial one (as in the case of the USA), one cannot be surprised that those who adopt it are more likely to be the small-C conservatives who are willing to toe the line drawn by the state. But last year controversial evolutionary psychologist Satosha Kanazawa offered another explanation. In a study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Social Psychology Quarterly, Kanazawa reported a link between atheism and social liberalism. Contentiously he suggested that they are the traits spawned by higher intelligence. His explanation was that to look after our own kin and to believe in God carried evolutionary survival benefits which today's more intelligent people are willing to reject.

No doubt Kanazawa would be among the first to admit that the list of the Christian intelligentsia is both long and impressive. Even so, there is much to be said for his theory. Religion is grounded in faith. According to Luke 18:17, Jesus urged us to receive the Kingdom of God, not by persuading ourselves with clever arguments, but rather as a little child would do. To be religious can be either passive (such as by continuing the religion handed down by one's parents or unthinkingly adopting the one foisted on us by society) or it can involve taking an active step such as that associated with born-again fundamentalism. Either way, it is more likely to be based on faith as opposed to argument. Some atheists reject God for the flimsiest of reasons, but their decision is nevertheless generally dictated by reason rather than faith. At a minimum, they can be expected to be more questioning than their religious counterparts. After all it is the atheist movement which has deep-rooted connections with free-thinking and critical thinking philosophies.

And so the events of the last fortnight must come as a surprise. Take AC Grayling. The human rights philosopher and atheist is now on the receiving end of criticism unimaginable a few weeks ago. He is to be the Master of the privately-funded educational institution New College of the Humanities, London. Whatever the rights or wrongs, it's a move which hardly smacks of the leftist leanings of those who share his theology. What's more, the most celebrated member to his professoriate is Richard Dawkins.

And to complete the volte face of the God Debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned on these very pages that the coalition government is committing the country to "radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted". This led to one of the Telegraph's most bizarre headlines a couple of days later: "David Cameron: I profoundly disagree with the Archbishop of Canterbury." I bet he does.

Maybe AC Grayling and the Archbishop are unintentionally teaching their supporters a lesson. It can hardly be in the interests of anyone involved in the God Debate if those who have yet to place a cross on the giant voting slip in the sky assume that a belief in various metaphysical matters carries with it a mandatory political affiliation.

If it did, perhaps most of us would choose agnosticism.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Independent and the Humanist and is a contributor to Skeptic Magazine. His email address is: andrewbelief@gmail.com

Show Hide image

Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories