THE BLOG
20/02/2015 12:09 GMT | Updated 22/04/2015 06:59 BST

British Values and Politics

Writing about politics and religion, two subjects locked in a taboo, is increasingly difficult. Religious leaders do so at their peril. Party politics, and plain "politics" by default, for many has become a pejorative term. British values are supposed to emerge from somewhere else.

Anglican bishops made some trenchant points about the parlous state of British political culture this week. The Prime Minister fell into knee-jerk defensive mode in response to their long and substantial letter. Like a Greek chorus, back-benchers supplied, for the hundredth time, the standard inane comments about the Church staying out of Politics. And so a timely Anglican letter prompted by the forthcoming British general elections became front-page news in The Times. Perhaps it was the editor's idea of a penance on Ash Wednesday.

The conclusion drawn from this skirmish might be that, however hard anyone tries, it is too much to hope the British media will discuss politics as embodying national values. The idea seems lost on politicians and journalists that the practice of democracy, inequality, and the treatment of the poor, migrants and asylum seekers might have some relationship to - ever-elusive - British values, and religious leaders might have something important to say.

Indeed it is precisely religious promotion of justice and the common good in the public square, deemed out-of-order, by the tabloids, that was once the intellectual meat of politics. But that is when politics was about more than, pace Machiavelli, how Princes might stay in power. That is why religious leaders today have the temerity to talk about politics; they have inherited a set of ideals and traditions that cross, most notably, the Abrahamic faiths. They believe politics is about something big: what sort of society and world order we want to live in; values actually.

The distinction can be made between politics that means something moral and big and politics that doesn't; the pursuit of power for its own sake. This is often cast as politics versus Party politics. But that is far too demeaning of Party politics despite its dark arts.

Take the 1960s civil rights movement in the USA re-remembered in the recently released Martin Luther King biopic Selma. It took King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council, reinforced by other faith leaders by 1965 to provide the pressure, but it took President Lyndon B. Johnson with his Party political tactics and wheeler-dealer skills to get black civil and voting rights through Congress and into law.

Getting things done, successful legislation and implementation of policies conducive to greater justice and the common good, is the politics of good politicians. But it sometimes requires getting hands dirty. And Lyndon B. Johnson was a master of political tactics. Getting serious thinking about great political themes onto the agenda, asking what sort of society do we want, is the politics that religious leaders do, and should do. Clean hands may be preserved. Regardless that the brickbats come out from the tabloid and right-wing Press.

Getting this wrong, here, or in other parts of the world is costly. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt paid the price for conflating the two senses of politics, not understanding that different skills and experience were needed for religiously motivated social mobilization and for governance and politics in the Party politics sense. Piety was not rewarded with competence by divine intervention. They soon discovered that Islam is not the solution to putting bread of the table or running a complex state overseen by the military. Nor, come to that, is Christianity or Judaism. That really is a categorical error between religion and politics.

The point is recognising that politics and economics are semi-autonomous spheres each demanding special skills and intelligence, but each are open to moral interrogation and critique. Religious leaders have a special responsibility; they draw on a special organic treasure house of wisdom and ideas, to provide this critique, and to alert politicians - and the media - to think more seriously about where they are taking a political culture.

Politicians in turn have a duty to stop and listen, to heed the voices that say short-term economic advantage must not override systemic human rights violations. Short-term military gains must not override the longer term consequences of the West supporting brutal dictatorships - particularly violent alienated youth, and seeking electoral advantage based on dog-whistle xenophobia and populism must not be allowed to undermine a nation's moral integrity. Look at Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey's response to the refugee crisis. Compare it to ours.

If we are finding it so hard to define British values perhaps it is because we have begun to lose sight of what politics is really all about. When religious leaders point this out, it might be good to engage in dialogue rather than in defensive rhetoric.