How many times have you heard people say “Religion andPolitics shouldn’t mix”? Sometimes it is said by secularists, atheists or humanists who are ideologically opposed to the church having any role or influence in society.
I am reading “Reimagining Britain” the latest book by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. It is a very political book. It deals with British society, especially through the lens of housing, education and healthcare. Justin demonstrates a breadth of knowledge across many areas and he quotes frequently from current academic research. Justin brings biblical teaching to bear on the problems of housing, education and healthcare. Is Justin wrong in his approach? Is he meddling in areas that are nothing to do with the church?
Today my personal bible study was on Deuteronomy 15:1-11. This passage was written more than 3,000 years ago. In it God makes clear his commitment to the poor. His instructions are both positive and negative: he tells his people that it is their religious duty to care for their fellow Israelites, and also that they must not use debt as a means of keeping their coreligionists impoverished for generations.
Down the centuries, individuals inspired by the Judea-Christian ethic have made a difference to society. They have taken the teaching of Scripture and have applied it to their situation. Sometimes the influence is so pervasive that we take for granted biblical influence in British society. We value fair play, honesty and integrity in public life, doing good for others, caring for the poor and the sick. We only notice these things every now and then when we are confronted by examples of other cultures, or other times in history, when these values were not adhered to.
Nineteenth century British politics was a great period for Christian politicians changing society for the better. There were numerous acts of parliament to improve factory conditions, housing and education. Many people of faith have entered politics to serve their community.
Deuteronomy, and numerous other passages in both Old and New Testaments, are political as well as religious. They deal with many of the moral, ethical and societal issues that governments tackle too. You cannot make a clear division between what is political and what is religious because they are often dealing with the same issues. And so Justin Welby is quite right to express his religious devotion through a book that insightfully examines the present, and then looks to a better future for the society in which we live.
However, Justin is not party political, and I suspect that this is what most people probably mean when they say churchmen should not meddle in politics. Justin puts it very well:
“God is neither left wing nor right-wing, but stands above all such forms of political or economic ideology. God relates to human beings, loves the poor, the widow and the orphan, endows the earth richly with goods and fruitfulness enough to satisfy every human need, and judges our selfishness and self-seeking. Individuals are therefore expected to use and develop what they have received, living in relationship with God and with each other, so that when they face God’s judgement they are prepared in every way, with a good account of life and nothing wasted. They are to live in expectation of the return of Christ, trusting his mercy and grace shown to them, captured by his love so that they may live in love with their neighbours.” (p.152)
“Reimagining Britain” by Justin Welby is published by Bloomsbury.