Does God vote Labour or Tory?

Paul Vallelysees difficulties for both William Hague and Tony Blair in their attempts to bring the D

God, as we all know, is an Englishman. Having thus resolved the nationality and gender issues, only one big question remains: is He also a Tory? William Hague would like to think so, as he made evident in his address to the Conservative Christian Fellowship last week. He has a steep hill to climb, though: for years, there were those who supposed God was a socialist; after all, the political economy of first-century Christians is often described as "love communism". Now that syndicalism and collectivism have disappeared, they regard God, a right- thinking chap, as new Labour.

Yet Hague is determined to launch a counter-attack and reclaim the Almighty for the Conservatives - or at least to reconcile his party and the church after the antagonism of the Thatcher years. The Conservative leader's text was full of sections that could have been cut-and-pasted from the word processor of the authors of the dreaded Faith in the City report of the Runcie era - with much talk about "the spiritual and social mission of the church" and the insistence that "the churches have valuable experiences from which politicians can learn".

That is not the only thing that would have given a Thatcherite computer a system failure. There was Hague's admission of "faults and misunderstandings on both sides" in the Thatcher-Runcie stand-off. There was his genuflection towards the church's favourite cause, international debt forgiveness. And there was his warm talk of our "neighbours" in the developing world - where he picked out for special mention Nicaragua, once the icon of seventies radical chic.

If the Conservative leader has seen the light, it illuminates only the road to his electoral Damascus rather than the surrounding countryside: his aim is purely to win church-goers, and the far greater number of passive Christian well-wishers, back to the Tory banner. There are some advantages to this shallow focus - witness the letter last weekend by bishops complaining that Tony Blair's proposed closed list system will rob voters of the ability to make decisions based on individual moral issues such as abortion or the arms trade. But Blair has been altogether more subtle.

Just before his landslide election victory Blair wrote to Cardinal Hume in response to the publication by the Catholic church of a document entitled The Common Good, which was widely interpreted as a "Vote Labour" call by Catholic bishops. The letter, which has never been published, acknowledged the common agenda between his vision for new Labour and the social teaching of the Catholic church as described in the bishops' document.

Students of Catholic social teaching can trace Blair's approach on a whole range of issues - from the rhetoric of stakeholding to policies on devolution, the minimum wage and welfare-to-work - to the explicit doctrines of the church to which the Prime Minister's family belongs and which he attends each Sunday. Indeed, the central question before Catholic social thinkers is the same one that exercises the architects of the Third Way: how the creativity and dynamism of market forces can be kept in balance with both notions of individual freedom and a sense of social justice that protects the vulnerable and creates a sense of common purpose in society. The present Pope, however, as Hague will be pleased to hear, has been at pains to insist that "the church's social doctrine is not a 'third way' between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism". In his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II goes on to say: "The church does not propose economic and political systems or programmes."

Despite this disclaimer, Catholic social writings do shed light on the Third Way; as do the writings of the thinker whom the Prime Minister has in the past cited as one of his foundational influences.

John Macmurray is a Christian socialist philosopher so little-known that he merits only a mention in the bibliography of John Passmore's magisterial A Hundred Years of Philosophy. He was not obscure in his day. He was the Grote Professor of Mind and Logic before A J Ayer and a radio broadcaster so celebrated before the second world war that he was attacked in the Tory press as "the red professor of Gower Street". What doomed him to academic oblivion was his refusal to join either the mainstream of British linguistic philosophy (which had rejected metaphysics in favour of formal logic and mind-games) or the continental tradition which had abandoned serious philosophical method in its embrace of existential angst. Yet, according to Blair, Macmurray "confronted what will be the critical political question of the 21st century: the relationship between the individual and society".

Macmurray had a Third Way of his own. He refused to accept the determinism of Marxism but also rejected the social irresponsibility of the individualism of the liberal tradition. His solution was to reject "the tyranny of apparatus" but, simultaneously, to emphasise the importance of the communal. As Blair put it: "He places the individual firmly within a social setting [and says that] we are what we are, in part, because of [each] other".

Community, he argued in Conditions of Freedom (1950), was prior to politics because "a democratic polity is possible only for a human community which has established a common way of life upon a basis of mutual trust". Real community has the same dynamics as friendship, which was "the supreme value in life, and the source of all other values".

There is nothing from the political philosophy of Burke or Disraeli or, more recently, Macleod or Butler, with its emphasis on individual freedom, to comfort William Hague in this. Macmurray's thinking is rooted in the philosophy of personalism which was developed by the French thinker Emmanuel Mounier in the 1930s. Macmurray was one of his interlocutors and is regarded as the leading British exponent of the tradition.

Personalism was a philosophy that rejected the split between mind and body which had dominated western thinking since Descartes; instead it celebrated the unity of the individual based on the notion that it is through creative action that human beings realise their potential. "The basic impulse in a world of persons is not the isolated perception of self . . . but the communication of consciousness," argued Mounier. "The adult only finds himself in his relationship to others." Human freedom and fulfilment do not consist in escaping from other human beings or in withdrawing from social obligations but in communicating, mutuality and sharing in a common life.

There is one other personalist philosopher with significant purchase upon modern thinking. A young philosophy teacher at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow began to take an interest in Mounier and the German personalist Max Scheler. In 1969 Karol Wojtyla published, in Polish, a new account of personalism, called The Acting Person. A decade later he became Pope John Paul II. Personalism has imbued his teaching ever since.

For Macmurray and John Paul II the Third Way is philosophical or anthropological rather than political or economic. Science, art and religion constitute three complementary ways of viewing the world; mechanistic and organic models of thinking are therefore incomplete without one that understands the world in terms of personality. "Persons not purposes are absolute," says Macmurray; "People before profit," says the Pope.

Blair takes care not to make links publicly with Catholic doctrine, for there are parts of it which might prove too demanding. John Paul II's personalism has brought to Catholic social teaching the insistence that work - in the broad sense of "creative human action" - is the quintessential human activity. Gordon Brown's signing of this week's European economic policy on job creation would go some way to pleasing the Pope.

But Catholic social teaching condemns as unethical Brown's continued use of unemployment as a tool to control inflation, with the benefit for the many falling as a disproportionate burden on the shoulders of an unfortunate few. Unemployment can never be, as Norman Lamont put it, "a price worth paying" because human beings cannot be used as mere instruments. A policy of full employment may suit Catholic social teaching, but it does not suit Labour or the Tories at present.

This is the risk that Hague takes when he tries to use religion to persuade the voters of Middle England to return to the Tory fold. He is wielding a double-edged sword. In an age in which capitalists will do almost anything to make money, scientists will acknowledge no limits on where they may push the bounds of technological achievement and democrats drift into a relativism in which morality is simply a way of expressing preferences, religion stands as a kind of nostalgic pennant for a time of mythic moral certainty. It is no surprise that the leaders of political parties want to appropriate something of that. As Macmurray suggested, the decline of religion and the growth of the state may be interlinked.

But to do it Hague will have to come up with more than a few general statements about how Judaeo-Christian ideas concerning the freedom and dignity of individual human beings chime in with Tory traditions about the importance of freedom and the need to protect it from the encroachments of the state. He will need more than a single-sentence reference to the "doctrines of creation and incarnation". And he will have to do better than a few half-baked suggestions about how the church might take over the running of children's homes. To make sense of it he will have to come to terms with the philosophical anthropology which undergirds religion in the way that Blair has attempted. And in the end he will probably find, as Blair has, that the demands it makes may be as wide-ranging as the quick-fix solutions it offers.

"The New Politics: Catholic social teaching for the 21st century" edited by Paul Vallely is published this month by SCM Press (£14.95)