As London just elected its Mayor and the nation has voted for the National Local Council elections, I ask the following question: “What happens when politicians cross the line?” Indeed, elected to carry out civil responsibilities, they have no right either to promote specific religions or to undermine them. What should Christians do when these things begin to happen?
Some Christians naively pray that one day we might have a Christian Prime Minister, thinking it would be an opportunity for the nation to hear the gospel.
There is no doubt that Britain needs the gospel and a truly godly Prime Minister would be good for the country, but we must be clear about what the role of politicians really is. It is not the job of the Prime Minister, members of Parliament or indeed the Mayor of London, to preach or promote any one religion above another.
Jesus made it abundantly clear that what we call the “state” should not dictate the religious beliefs of its people, or favour the beliefs of any one group. When he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17), he clearly limited the role of the state. State rulers are supposed to govern in civil, not religious matters. They have no authority either to promote or suppress religious beliefs. This is not only the clear teaching of Jesus, but it is also plain common sense. Jesus made it clear that the state should not dictate the religious beliefs of its people.
I can think of two glaring examples from current politics where this common sense has gone completely out of the window.
One is Mayoral Candidate, Ken Livingstone’s recent pledge to make London a beacon for Islamic values, and the other is Prime Minister David Cameron’s insistence on changing the fundamental nature of marriage in British society.
At a recent meeting in Finsbury Park Mosque Ken Livingstone stated that he was stunned to read the words of Muhammad, “no Arab is superior to a non-Arab, no white man is superior to a black man”. Ken Livingstone went on to say that he wanted to “educate the massive numbers who have no understanding of Islam apart from what they read in the worst of our newspapers and that will help to cement our city as a beacon to demonstrate the words of the prophet?”
At last year’s Conservative Party Conference the Prime Minister announced his government’s plans to consult on legalising gay marriage. The consultation seems to have taken second place to determined plans to change the law no matter what. For David Cameron it is a matter of principle. He said, “Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” Personally, I think both these men hold their respective political views with conviction. However, I remind myself that politicians need votes to be in office. Ken Livingstone is looking to be re-elected as London Mayor and is clearly courting the “Muslim vote”. David Cameron’s sudden and surprising push for gay marriage, despite the existing provisions for civil partnership, has been seen as an attempt to re-brand the Conservative Party as modern, progressive and more appealing.
State rulers govern in civil, not religious matters. They have no authority either to promote or suppress religious beliefs.
But what is really happening here? What is the background to this apparent political flirting with religion on the one hand and, on the other hand, trampling on the religious heritage of the vast majority of the British people? What is wrong with Ken Livingstone extolling some select statements from Islam that appear to support his secular values in order to win votes from the Muslims? For their part, is the government justified in the belief that marriage is a state-owned institution that can be changed at will in order to achieve political objectives? Christians need to be absolutely clear about these questions. We must have our wits about us and understand what is happening to our society. At first sight it seems confusing, but when we grasp what is really going on, not only can we make sense of what motivates politicians across the political spectrum, but also understand what we as Christians can do about it.
What unites Ken Livingstone and David Cameron? They hold entirely different political beliefs and have vastly different views on a number of policy issues. Their views on religion are also different. Ken Livingstone is an avowed atheist; David Cameron is not. But they have one underlying common belief that has caused them equally to cross the line when it comes to their role in public life – they are both influenced by secularism.
As a Christian, I believe in a form of secularism. The State has no moral authority to dictate the religion of its people. In separating the roles of “church” and “state”, Jesus radically transformed the way religion up to that point was organised. The New Testament presents Church and State working together in different, yet complementary roles.
Christians are to support the State, pray for their leaders and be good citizens. But we are also called to oppose the State when it begins to try to control what we believe. We must speak out when our leaders begin to flirt with religion (as Ken Livingstone is doing with Islam) and when they attempt to undermine our religious values (as David Cameron is doing with marriage).
The kind of secularism I oppose is the secularism which is motivating both Ken Livingstone and David Cameron. It is a modern invention which sets itself up as the standard for all things and is leading our society into fragmentation and despair. It promotes the politics of cynicism and rejects Christian values in the name of sweet reasonableness.
The reasoning goes like this: this world (the things we can see and touch) is the real world. It is all that we can be really sure about. And, in this real world, the only sure guide is our reason. Anything outside these two things (tangible experience and reason) is a matter of opinion. So, anything to do with religion is clearly merely a matter of personal opinion. Morality is also a matter of personal preference since it, like religion, cannot be proved by reason or tangible experience.
Secularism is the thinking that influences many politicians today, whatever their particular brand of politics.
In a single stroke those that hold to this form of secularism have separated religion from fact and values from truth – leaving the field wide open to treat religious and moral issues in any way they so choose.
Some politicians play (what one Christian philosopher calls) the “good cop” and others play the “bad cop”. The good cops say, “You can hold your religious views and embrace your values; we’ll even applaud you for having them – just as long as you realise your private and personal religious views have no real place in public life.” The bad cop secularists say, “You have no right to hold such invalid opinions; they are backward and harmful. We will do all that we can do to eradicate them from society.”
Both ways, the prospects are bleak. Secularism is the thinking that influences many politicians today, whatever their particular brand of politics. Ken Livingstone feels free to cherry-pick statements from Islamic teaching and extol them as examples of the values he believes in. He does this despite the fact that his secular interpretation of them is entirely false. Muhammad was speaking as a Muslim to Muslims. There is no way you can use his words to support the secular agenda Ken Livingstone has for London.
Extract from Ken Livingstone’s speech at Finsbury Park Mosque, Friday 16th March 2012
The mayor’s job is a platform. What the mayor says is reported. The mayor can be an educator.
And I was amazed last year because for the first time in my life I read the last sermon of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), and I was stunned. This was something that could be written for today and seemed to be an agenda for all humanity. And the sentences that stuck in my mind as I read that were the lines that say no Arab is superior to a non-Arab, no white man is superior to a black man. And it went on to say that God created you in tribes and nations so that you would get to understand one another. And you will not terrorise or convert or oppress but that you should get to know one another. That is a creed for all of us. It is what underpins our lives in this city. And I want to as mayor in the next four years to make sure every non-Muslim knows and understands the words and the message of that sermon. Because it will stop the demonization of Islam that is daily spewed out by poisonous newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. So as well as doing things to help make your lives easier financially, it’s what I can do to educate the massive numbers who have no understanding of Islam apart from what they read in the worst of our newspapers and that will help to cement our city as a beacon to demonstrate the words of the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and that amazing sermon he gave in his life. ‘Assalamu alaikum
Extract from David Cameron’s Conservative Party Conference speech, 5th October 2011
I once stood before a Conservative conference and said it shouldn’t matter whether commitment was between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and another man. You applauded me for that. Five years on, we’re consulting on legalising gay marriage. And to anyone who has reservations, I say: Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.
In the sermon that so impressed Ken Livingstone, Muhammad upholds Islam as the only true religion and imposes Sharia as the only path for society which must come under submission to Allah. Does Ken Livingstone believe that? In all likelihood, he does not. But when politicians cross the line and flirt with religion, they open the door to misunderstanding what they are actually promoting.
Frankly, Muslims ought to be outraged. I know I would be angry if Ken Livingstone came to KT and praised some words of Jesus taken out of context or imposed a secular interpretation, for example, on the Sermon on the Mount – especially if he was doing it in order to win our votes. Christians must speak out when our leaders begin to flirt with religion and when they attempt to undermine our religious values.
What of David Cameron’s secularism? For Christians, marriage is a sacred institution given by God for the covenantal union of a man and woman. Civil partnership already exists as a safeguard for the rights of same-sex couples. The fact that there was not a universal Christian outcry against that legislation shows that current opposition to gay marriage is not altogether rooted in bigotry. Christian tolerance is astonishing and secularists should be paying more attention to the strong opposition to changing the law on marriage coming from virtually every branch of the Christian religion in Britain.
But it looks increasingly unlikely that the government itself will back down. After all, their proposals are in line with the secularism championed by the Prime Minister. Quite simply, he has crossed the line and it cannot be remedied by promises that churches will not be forced to marry gay couples. If the argument is equality, then pressure groups will be increasingly intolerant of the “inequality” that will exist in the churches that refuse to accept the new secular version of marriage.
The European Court of Human Rights has recently ruled that same-sex marriage is not a human right but, if gay couples were allowed to marry by law, any church that offers weddings will be guilty of discrimination if it refuses to marry same-sex couples. All this calls both for urgent action and long-term engagement on the part of Christians. In the long term, we must win the intellectual debate concerning what is truth and what are standards by which we asses right and wrong. These are not just matters of opinion. There is such a thing as religious truth. Morality rests on something more stable than the shifting sands of human opinion. Christianity is not just an idea; it is backed up by both reason and evidence.
In the immediate, we must let the Government know that we will not allow them to cross the line and dictate to us what we must believe and how we must behave in matters of Christian conscience. We must also send the message to Ken Livingstone that we do not accept his religious manifesto for the next four years. He may win the Muslim vote but he will alienate the 1.2 million Christian in London who regularly go to church as well as millions more who value our Christian heritage.