From Rowan Williams To Alastair Campbell: Can Religion And Politics Ever Mix?
It took two weeks and three resignations before the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out about Occupy London at St Pauls.
Dr Rowan Williams intervened after another day of drama, where St Paul’s Cathedral backed down on threats to take legal action against the protesters.
Williams threw his weight behind the camp, saying they were highlighting the "errors and irresponsibility" of the banks.
"The urgent larger issues raised by the protesters at St Paul's remain very much on the table and we need – as a Church and as society as a whole – to work to make sure that they are properly addressed”, he said in a statement.
It’s not the first time the Archbishop has intervened politically. In June 2011, he caused lashed out against the coalition’s lack of legitimacy in an article for the New Statesman, suggesting they were forcing through “radical policies for which no one voted” - a statement which was described as “wrong” and without much weight by Vince Cable, and derided for its lack of balance by Iain Duncan Smith.
In the same week that Williams backed the protesters, the second most senior cleric in the Church of England, Archbishop of York John Sentamu, suggested that spiritual health should be considered in the NHS bill during a House of Lords debate - arguing “Illness can be physical or mental but it can also be spiritual.”
The Archbishop of York’s Office refused to comment on his intervention in the health debate, instead pointing to a 2008 speech where Sentamu argued “not only do religion and politics mix, they must mix because religion enables politics to rediscover our duties and obligations to one another, to focus on service and community and to maintain a sense of liberty as a bulwark against an over-reaching state”.
The bottom line, says non-denominational Christian MP and chair of the the cross-party group Christians in Parliament Gary Streeter, is it’s about trying to make the world “a better place”.
“Well I think quite a few people are motivated by their faith to engage in the political process... I certainly am, I am a committed Christian and my website makes it clear that's why I am involved in politics.
“Nobody is trying to build a theocracy it's about bringing into the public sphere values we find in the bible and compassion, empathy and excellence.”
But what about if you view religion as over-reaching? Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association says religious leaders - like everyone else - are free to have views.
“But when Bishops of the Church of England make political statements, which are more often than not accompanied by uncritical media coverage including in the news, that is quite a different thing.”
Chief among the bones of contention for the Humanist Association are the ‘Lords Spiritual’, the 26 Church of England biships who sit in the House of Lords. Copson argues they are “paid lobbyists installed in parliament”.
“Clearly, while the Church retains its constitutional status as the established in England, and while it runs a third of our state-funded schools, and for as long as it has seats as of right for its bishops in our parliament, it is in a powerful and privileged position that means its contribution is perhaps less legitimate than if it were entering politics on an equal footing, like any other civil society, membership organisation.”
Alistair Campbell famously declared “we don’t do God” while acting as a spin doctor for Tony Blair. But when asked his views on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s intervention in Occupy London, he displayed some sympathy for the plight of priests: “I think it's very hard for them to stay out of politics. You are talking about deeply political issues”.
But for Tory MP Streeter says Church leaders can often “stumble into politics” and “simply just demonstrate they don't know what they're talking about in terms of how society works”.
“That's not what I mean about Christians engaging in politics. More than arguably our entire societal framework is traditionally based on the Judea -Christian heritage. Of course there have been lots of changes in the last 30 years, some of them good some of them not so good.”
And he claims nobody wants the “sort of repugnant” American model:
“There are probably more atheists and agnostics at Westminster than there are Christians. Let it be a level playing field. Let men and women of good character who are well-intentioned come into this field. but don't try to exclude us.”