Strong beliefs

Religious leaders and academics offer their views on the place of religion in contemporary politics

Tom Butler - Bishop of Southwark

Politicians are beginning to take very seriously the role of religion in the contemporary world. This is not only because global conflicts have a religious element and politicians are facing ethical questions that no previous generation has faced, but because the local faith group has a strong community base. At a time when politicians are increasingly seen as being detached from ordinary people, this is very important. Religious people have a part to play in helping frame the laws by which a democratic state is governed. After all, law at its best stems from the common mind of a people on what is in the common good. With goodwill and respect, all the great religions of the world can be accommodated - they are great precisely because they have proved to be of worth to many people in many places over a long period of history. When religious ideologies clash, the state must allow views to be expressed but reject any use of violence. Politics must be ethical if it is to earn the ongoing respect of the people, and spiritual in seeking what all world faiths desire - the common good.

Bhikhu Parekh - Professor of political philosophy, Westminster University

Religion has acquired considerable importance in contemporary politics, not only in the non-western Muslim world, but also in the west. Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals are a significant force in the US. Our own Prime Minister is guided by a religious view of the world. We cannot, therefore, ignore religion in shaping our political institutions and responses. The question is not whether religion has a role in politics, but what that role is and how it can be kept within limits. Religion can be a force for good as well as evil. It has inspired movements for global justice, environmental protection, human solidarity and a non-violent world. In order to get the best out of it, we should do at least two things. First, we should devise public institutions where religion is a valued conversational partner and is able to make its contribution. Second, as a precondition of that, we must lay down certain ground rules that no religious group may violate. These rules include acceptance of democratic institutions, maintenance of public order, tolerance, mutual respect and avoidance of incitement to hatred.

Fiona Hulbert - Course co-ordinator, politics and theology programme, Sarum College

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a feeling that religion should be separated from politics and reserved for private life, but that has become impractical, as religion is increasingly important to international relations. I do not think that any person of faith can separate their religion from their politics. Even people who define themselves as atheists or secularists have principles that direct them. The challenge in the political sphere is for people to work from their own convictions, but to realise that not everyone shares them. People of religious faith tend to feel that religion transcends the state, but the state can have a very important role in making sure that everybody is treated fairly. It is important for the state to remain neutral between religious communities, but trying to keep religion out of politics is not always helpful. In a worse-case scenario, where religious ideologies clash, the state can act as broker. But co-operation among faith groups in communities is much more common than the state needing to intervene.

Gurharpal Singh - Head of MA in politics and religion, Birmingham University

There has been something of a religious revival since the Iranian revolution, and not just in the Islamic world. Global and national policies increasingly have to be framed with reference to religious sensibilities and rights, and few can underestimate the role that religions today play, or seek to play, in public life. Ideally, politicians would declare their religious convictions, especially on matters of great public importance. But this rarely happens. In reality, it is impossible to separate politics and religion as neatly as politicians in liberal democracies would like. Perhaps the best formula for ensuring such separation in the west has emerged with the concept of the secular state. But critics of secularism would argue this is another theology that asserts its own - and narrow - conception of the political. To avoid serious situations of religious conflict, we have to move beyond the secularism paradigm to think about creating conditions where there is hard reflection on the nature of religious ideologies and their implications for non-adherents.

William Young - MA politics and religion student, Birmingham University

I took out a large loan to fund coming from the US to study in Birmingham. The chance to be one of the first students in a unique programme that intersects the study of religion with politics and economic thought, and working with classmates from dramatically different religious traditions, was too good to miss. I am an ordained Christian minister (Baptist) and have degrees from a small bible college and Vanderbilt University. My interest in globalisation led me to this course. I hope to examine further the role of religions in shaping not only good global government, but also a just economic order.

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