"There’s more religion in the English soul than is usually given credit for, but it’s hidden pretty deep.” So says Lord Harries, crossbench peer and former Bishop of Oxford. It is a hopeful statement from an ordained priest of a church with dwindling attendance – it’s estimated that only 15 per cent of adults in the UK attend church at least once a month.
What is the public sentiment towards religion, and do our politicians reflect that mood? We have an established Christian church. Our head of state is ‘defender of the faith’ and the supreme governor of the Church of England. Our parliamentarians hold morning prayers daily before debate begins. Parliament has its own chapel and chaplain. Twenty-four bishops sit in the House of Lords, and, last year in Westminster Hall, the Pope delivered a speech on religion.
Yet, on that same state visit, Benedict XVI attacked the “aggressive secularisation” in this country. “There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or least [sic] relegated to the purely private sphere,” he said.
Whatever the case in the country at large, faith is not marginalised in Parliament. Is that just
an anachronistic throwback, or an indication that religious belief still informs politics? When Tony Blair’s former communications manager Alastair Campbell interrupted a Vanity Fair interview to say: “We don’t do God”, was he right?
"Jesus is the most important person in the history of the Labour movement”. It’s the hottest day of the year, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the sun had gone to Maurice Glasman’s head.
But sitting on the House of Lords terrace, Lord Glasman explains why the Labour Party should value Jesus of Nazareth: “They used to march in England, in the North and in the Midlands, with images of Jesus in their unions. He represented association, trade unionism, the working man, liberty. Jesus gave them hope that their world was not exhausted by their bosses.”
It is a glimpse of Glasman’s broader objective to put faith back on the map of political discourse, and a fundamental facet of Blue Labour, his ideological brainchild.
Glasman is Jewish. He was educated at Clapton Jewish Day School before attending Jewish Free School in North London. “Growing up, there were three institutions that everybody supported – Spurs, the Labour Party and the United Synagogue,” he explains. “My whole upbringing has been within the framework of those three.”
The debate over faith in politics has been revitalised by two recent events – House of Lords reform and a recent intervention by Rowan Williams.
The Archbishop of Canterbury recently guest-edited the New Statesman and criticised strongly both the government and Labour Party. He questioned whether the coalition had a mandate for reform, writing that ministers were committed to “radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted”.
Prime minister David Cameron responded that he “profoundly disagreed” with the Archbishop’s statement, while work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith dismissed Williams’s comments as “a little unbalanced and unfair”.
Cameron and Duncan Smith’s reactions were not shared by some Conservative backbenchers, however. Nicky Morgan, a committed Christian who was elected as Conservative MP for Loughborough in 2010, was quick to champion Williams.
“I absolutely defend his right to say it,” she says, a silver cross proudly worn above her shirt. “It’s tricky, because he, unfortunately, seems to have a rather left-wing heritage. The Archbishop is free to criticise government policy and warn if he thinks that politicians aren’t heeding people’s fears or needs. But he has to be very careful not to be seen to be doing it from a particular political perspective.”
There’s an appetite in the House for hearing what the Archbishop has to say, she affirms. A recent cross-party meeting of MPs with Williams was “absolutely packed”.
But others do not share Morgan’s enthusiasm for the Archbishop’s intervention. While Christian Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron feels that Williams’s left-wing credentials aren’t problematic – “It makes a nice change for a Christian figure to critique a government from the progressive wing, shall we say, of politics rather than sounding reactionary” – he is critical: “The content of his remarks was wrong. The idea that we have no mandate… this is the first government since 1931 to have a mandate of any kind. Every other government has had minority electorate support. It was a very peculiar and silly thing to have said.”
Farron, a reform Christian, attends church in Kendal. Now president of the Lib Dems, he formulated his political beliefs before his religious ones. “I joined the Liberals when I was 16. I became a Christian when I was 18. I remember thinking, ‘It’s probably true, all this. Better do something about it’. I was a Liberal before I made any personal decision to become a Christian.”
The reverse is true for Conservative MP Gary Streeter, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group of Christians in Parliament. “Your faith will always be more important than your party,” he states. “The gospel is greater than your political doctrine.”
Streeter credits his faith with his involvement in politics: “I’ve always worn my faith on my sleeve, and I felt being involved in politics was the call of God. There aren’t many in this place who’d tell you that.”
Lord Harries adds: “In my experience, there’s a higher percentage of serious religious believers in Parliament – certainly, in the Lords – than there is the country as a whole. Some surprising people have faith. You’ll find the same in the Commons.”
Organised religion in Parliament very much flies under the radar – apart from daily prayers in the Chamber, the Speaker’s chaplain holds a weekly Communion service, the Christians in Parliament APPG hold monthly services and various prayer events, while other denominations and religions hold annual services and meetings on the parliamentary estate.
Christianity is the dominant faith here, but others are represented strongly. Labour MP Sadiq Khan, a practising Muslim, first joined the party in the 1980s, and recalls that then people didn’t talk about faith or religion so openly. “It was something you left at the door,” he says. “If we’re going to engage better with communities now, we need to recognise that faith plays a big part in people’s lives.”
Khan is keen not to define himself by his religion, but understands it is important to speak about it. “I don’t define myself by my faith or my ethnicity, but others do,” he explains. “Two months after I was elected, the London July bombing happened. It was important that I said something about this. The perpetrators claimed to be members of my faith and were using that as justification. I couldn’t not speak out.”
There isn’t a formal organisation for Muslims in Parliament. “Lord Sheikh [chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum] organises Friday prayers if there are people around,” the shadow justice secretary continues, “but there’s no formal structure.” Would he attend if there were a formal meeting? “There aren’t enough hours in the day.” He laughs. “I suspect they haven’t [held formal meetings] so far because there haven’t been the numbers.”
Likewise, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, says there is no formal structure of worship for Jews in Parliament either. “Once a year, we light candles at Hanukkah time,” says the crossbench peer. “We’ve done so for about 10 years in the Speaker’s Chamber, not because Jews are organised either in the Commons or Lords, but just that there happen to be Jews in both Houses, so we get together. I don’t see Jews in either House as joined by… they’re not an identifiable group. They’re sharply divided in their politics – and also in their understanding of Judaism as a religion. Jews don’t, as such, organise politically.”
As Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks uses the Lords’ Chamber differently from some of his more political colleagues: “I tend to get involved in debates in the Lords that are more about the big subjects – from the big society to marriage, the family to human rights – rather than pieces of legislation. Issues of conscience. You want a place where there are different moral voices.”
There are advantages and disadvantages to formal, overt organisation, Nicky Morgan explains. “I’m sure a number of people here are Christians or Sikhs or Muslims, but they don’t want to bang on about it. Once people know you’re of a particular faith, you get lobbied by all the groups from that faith, assuming you’ll agree with them.”
When elected, she was confronted with a choice about how far to involve her faith in her politics. “I could either be a quiet Christian, or get involved with such things as the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and speak out. I haven’t mentioned it very much in the Chamber yet – that’s not to say I wouldn’t.”
Tony Blair, who converted to Roman Catholicism after stepping down as prime minister in 2007, has revealed since that he wasn’t more open about his faith while in office because he feared being labelled “a nutter”.
In this area, faith can have a real impact on how a politician is perceived. Conservative MP Gary Streeter, who jokingly refers to himself as a “religious maniac”, argues that it all comes down to that greatest of political sins, hypocrisy. A poster above a desk in his office invites people to “pray for their MP”.
“You shouldn’t tell people you’re something if you’re not, but you don’t have to tell them everything; you’re entitled to a private life.” It can even work to your advantage, he says.
“Though people might mock it, deep down inside, especially in a crisis, they want to know about the character and values people represent. It gives them a point of contact. Provided you don’t make a mockery of it by being hypocritical, that is.”
For Farron, it is about keeping your word: “A Christian needs to be a good advert for his saviour. The fundamental reason why I rebelled over the Lisbon Treaty – four years ago now – and then on tuition fees was more about keeping your word than it was about the substance of the issue. Not that I wasn’t also concerned about the substance of the issue. If you’re a Christian, or a person of any other faith, it should be an overwhelming part of your world view.”
Glasman sees four issues where he would not choose his party loyalty over his religion – although he adds that Labour has always been “hugely in favour” on all these issues. “The first is circumcision. Circumcision is an essential part of Jewish continuity. God forbid, if the Labour Party ever got to the stage where there was a whip in favour of banning circumcision, I’d never vote for that. Same with kosher food. Same with Jewish burial and Jewish schools.”
Labour MP Stephen Timms is another practising Christian. He explains that voting along religious lines rather than with your party is not against the rules.
“I voted against the legalisation of euthanasia when we last debated it,” he says. “If one wished to vote along religious lines on an issue of that kind, that wouldn’t normally be a problem with the whips. You might make yourself a bit uncomfortable – unpopular sometimes – by doing it, but within the whipping system there isn’t a problem.”
Timms believes a lot of MPs use their faith as a “starting point” for what they do. “People often say you shouldn’t mix faith and politics, and if you do you’re asking for trouble, but it’s actually a good starting point for politics. It’s a very good source of exactly the values that make politics work. In politics at the moment, there’s a lot about the search for values.”
Last year, Timms was stabbed by a constituent at a surgery meeting, allegedly in revenge for the Iraq war. Roshonara Choudhry was a Muslim, and much of the press reportage focused on this.
In an interview shortly after the attack, the Labour MP for East Ham said: “I can’t say that I feel bitter”, but added, “I don’t think at the moment forgiveness is really an issue, because clearly there is no sense of regret, let alone remorse.”
Was this a religious response to the experience? Timms still finds it difficult to answer. He points to a painting in the corner of his Westminster office. It was made for him by boys from the Minhaj-ul-Quran mosque in his constituency, and depicts the story of Joseph and Pharaoh – from the Book of Genesis for Christians. The story is also told in the Koran, where Joseph is ‘Yusuf’.
“A very positive thing that came from [the stabbing] was that I was inundated with letters, cards and emails from Muslims,” Timms says. “A lot of these said, ‘We’re praying for you for a speedy recovery’. Looking back, I’d say that my conclusion about the potential for us having a coherent society is a positive one.”
Regarding the influence of religion on policy, there is one issue that currently dominates – House of Lords reform. Farron says: “I’m an elected member of the House of Commons, proving that Christians can be elected to that Chamber. I’m sure that Christians can get elected to the other Chamber as well. It’s a blooming outrage that you still have half of Parliament unelected – utterly ridiculous.”
Glasman disagrees: “Nothing further expresses the idiotic liberalism of the government than the idea that you have PR for the Lords with 15-year terms, where there is no continuity between terms, where you lose all tradition, all knowledge of the House, all history of legislation, all representation of interests.”
The Labour peer would like to see the bishops’ bench retained as part of any reformed upper house. “If the argument is that this place would improve if there weren’t bishops, I’d state the absolute opposite. I’d support having the bishops and imams, and rabbis, and whoever they have in Sikhism and Hinduism… Do we want to fill the place with party politicians who mean nothing, and void it of religious leaders who really are leaders? It’s stupid.”
Baroness Flather, a crossbench peer who describes herself as a “Hindu atheist”, would not be sorry to see the bishops’ bench go. “Bishops shouldn’t be in the House of Lords. Most of the time they take the religious line, and not necessarily the best line. There are certain things that a Muslim will oppose and the bishops will oppose. Assisted dying is the big thing: it’s constantly opposed by the religious people.” She also finds morning prayers in the chamber “obnoxious”. “You have to turn your back to the throne and kneel on the benches. There’s a huge row of bottoms around you – it’s so strange. Kneeling on the benches, what do you think is sticking out? It’s your bloody bum! I find it awful.”
Farron claims he is “agnostic” about morning prayers. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, but you look around and see people who aren’t Christian – no criticism of them – going along as a way to get a seat in the morning. It’s the parliamentary equivalent of the Germans putting their beach towels on the sunlounger.”
Gandhi once said: “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.” Some politicians might ‘do God’, others do not, but it would be wrong to dismiss religion’s impact on politics all together.
Although Baroness Flather is not in favour of the mingling of faith and politics, she is visibly moved by certain religious people. “The two most inspirational women I’ve met were a Catholic nun and a Salvation Army colonel. The colonel used to tell me, ‘You don’t believe in God, but he believes in you’… I’m going to cry now.” She wipes away tears. “This isn’t crying, it’s just valuing somebody.”
Whether atheist, agnostic or self-confessed “religious maniac”, they can’t be ignored. We may have an established Church in this country, but it doesn’t mean, it seems, that Parliament has to have an established line on religion.