Religion and politics - an unholy mix

TONY Blair believes it's time for religious groups to play a bigger role in British political decision making. He's even appointed an unofficial "faith czar.

TONY Blair believes it's time for religious groups to play a bigger role in British political decision making. He's even appointed an unofficial "faith czar." EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES wonders whether he ought to leave well alone.

THE administration of George W. Bush in the United States is peopled and influenced by those on the moral far right of the United States. In many respects, these Evangelical Christians are just as fundamental in their beliefs as the adherents of Islam against whom we are fighting the war against terror.

Now the Prime Minister wants to increase the influence of religious groups on Government policy. Evangelical Christians are among inter-faith leaders working with senior ministers from right across Whitehall on a blueprint for incorporating their beliefs in a wide range of policies.

Headed by Home Office junior minister Fiona Mactaggart – responsible for community policy – a working party has embarked on a feasibility study.

It has all the hallmarks of a typical New Labour happy-clappy "let's embrace the world" project which, up until now, has never been part of the British political culture.

Ms Mactaggart says her steering group will "lay the foundations for the effective long-term involvement of the faith communities' perspectives and needs in policy development across Government."

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A Home Office spokesman said the move was in line with a commitment in Labour's 2001 General Election manifesto and was aimed at finding gaps in consultation with religious groups.

At the heart of the parliamentary Labour Party is the biggest nucleus of Christian Socialists that has ever sat at Westminster. Many of Mr Blair's ministers and backbenchers proudly proclaim their faith.

Look at who's involved with the Mactaggart steering group: trade minister Jacqui Smith; culture minister Estelle Morris; junior schools minister Stephen Twigg; and former minister John Battle – Tony Blair's unofficial "faith czar."

They've been joined by the left-wing Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Rev Timothy Stevens, lately suffragan Bishop of Dunwich in Suffolk; the general director of the Evangelical Alliance; the Chief Rabbi; and national representatives of the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu faiths.

The old adage in Britain has been: politics and religion don't mix. When liberal bishops have questioned government policy, they were promptly rounded upon and told not to interfere, especially during the Thatcher years. Remember the outpouring of rage and hostility at the Church of England's Faith in the City document of 1985, which attacked some aspects of the Tory's government's policies as they affected the disadvantaged in the inner cities?

But now it seems Tony Blair is determined to embark on some state sponsored crusade encompassing all faiths and giving them a say in the shaping of policy – another phase of the great New Labour project.

It's already facing opposition. The National Secular Society says giving "excessive regard" to faith views discriminates against the 30% of people in Britain with no religion and demanded to be given a voice as well.

It has written to the Home Office expressing "grave concerns" over the possibility of a move towards US-style faith-based welfare and rising numbers of faith schools.

Embracing organised religion into New Labour's big tent seems fraught in the extreme. Asking religious groups to advise on policy faces the danger of receiving answers he might not want to hear, or which are the very opposite of party policy.

Mr Blair did not, for instance, take any notice of the opposition among organised religions when he invoked the Parliament Act two years' ago to force through the lowering of the age of gay consensual sex to 16.

The Prime Minister is a deeply committed Christian, a high church Anglican who is married to a Roman Catholic and who on Sunday attended mass while on holiday in Barbados. Although he rarely discusses his faith in interviews, he spoke before the war with Iraq of being prepared to account to his "maker"' for the deaths it would involve.

Bringing faith and state closer together may be well intentioned. But religious belief is not the property of one political party and any attempt to imply that it is could land Tony Blair, and the religious personalities involved in the project, in deep water.

Not only does the Prime Minister risk alienating non-believers – many regular non-Labour worshippers will be angered at any attempt to ridicule their political views. And they won't be particularly happy if their religious chiefs get too closely involved with a Government to which they are instinctively hostile.

WHAT DO YOU THINK:

Should religious leaders help the Prime Minister with the New Labour project?

Write to Letters to the Editor, EADT, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail eadtletters@eadt.co.uk

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