The false religion of politics
Ladies and gentlemen, I feel a complete humbug. I am neither a politician nor a theologian, I believe religion to be a profoundly private matter, and yet here I am, supposedly speaking about rewarding virtue and penalising vice.
Now among the sunlit and impossibly distant memories of my childhood and early education, which took place in a world as utterly lost as Atlantis, I have a surprising number of passages from the Bible - the King James Bible, of course, one of whose many virtues is to slip quietly into the imagination and remain there waiting its moment. In recent years this passage from St Luke's Gospel (Chapter 18) has come in to its own:
"And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. Two men went up in to the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself: "God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess." And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other, for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
And also from the Sermon on the Mount:
"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward."
What I wish to speak about here tonight is the false religion of politics, of the public virtue of modern liberalism, touching briefly on the recent and continuing unpleasantness in the Balkans and that other unpleasantness, closer to home, the appeasement of terror in Northern Ireland.
I would like to contrast that with real religion, a private matter for free men, what St Paul describes in those great pealing words as "The Law of Liberty" which politics can only enable, for as William Blake said: "He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer."
Against me stand two great symbols of the modern world's counterfeit of goodness - the fading image of Princess Diana, the apostle of well-publicise "caring", in which suffering and self-pity is a substitute for fortitude and true courage, and in which sainthood is attainable without any examination of private virtues. In fact, in total defiance of such examination. To raise the Princess's private life in the presence of one of her admirers is to risk vituperation and, quite possibly, violence.
Next to her glowers the Guardian newspaper, just one face of a great liberal monster which also includes the BBC and the rest of the bombers' chorus of Kosovo, and the strange Moonie-like cult of the "Ulster Peace Process".
Does state action advance its supposed aims?
All these measure man's goodness by his willingness to support state action, action whose avowed purpose is far more important than its effect. These people have enabled themselves to think that a ton of high explosive dropped on areas which may contain innocent people, is not just a necessary act (which I might have found acceptable, with a bit of difficulty) but a deed so virtuous in itself that its nastier results are readily excused. They have also persuaded themselves that law and truth are subject to the demands of political expediency, and can therefore be laid aside whenever the outcome is intended to be "Peace".
Peace itself is one of the most suspect words of the 20th century. Peace march means a parade of suckers, peace process means the bullying of democrats, peace campaign means KGB front organisation, peace in our time tends to mean war by next autumn. This worship of "peace" above virtue is one of the odder manifestation of the new faith, but I digress.
Our virtue is not determined by our public protestations
The First Church of Christ, Guardian Reader are all the same people who measure your goodness and mine by our willingness to make others pay higher taxes, our willingness to be kind to criminals who have attacked, robbed or killed other people, our willingness to forgive debts which are not to ourselves.
Now, in the stern version of religion which I was brought up to believe in, and I had uncles and aunts who still believed fiercely and knowledgeably in the Protestant settlement of 1688, and who read their Bibles until the pages were soft and worn with use, "in thy sight shall no man living be justified".
It doesn't matter how much of my own or other people's wealth I give away, in public or in private. The inconvenient truth is that we do not measure our own goodness - and I believe that applies to both the Catholic and Protestant traditions which have always seemed to me to be two paths to the same goal.
Private deeds of virtue
But it is especially important that we do not intend to measure it by public deeds for which we seek public merit, let alone votes and the rewards of office. Such an attitude seems to be to be positively sinful - and indeed I think that many of those who display the most public virtues, and have the highest opinion of themselves, often have private lives which openly defy Christian conventions on continence and constancy. The two are possibly connected by the fact that public virtue is often an unconscious or conscious substitute for private goodness.
I always like to mock gently at those who have stickers saying "Nuclear power, no thanks" on their cars. Nuclear power, one of the modern evils, has in its peaceful form done very little harm. In any case, your rejection or acceptance of it is irrelevant. It exists anyway. But the motor car, that poisoner of the air and killer of children, that passport to disease and laziness and destroyer of town and landscape, is something you brought yourself when you didn't have to, and driven when you could have walked, taken a train or bicycled. Which will do more good - the anti nuclear sticker, or the citizen who refuses to own or drive a car?
By this I do not intend any claim for myself. My own private life, though my own business, is anything but blameless - and I would not offer my own virtue as a reason for voting for me, or agreeing with me, or buying my book. On the other hand, I would expect, were I to enter public life, to be judged harshly if I failed to live up to the precepts I urges upon others. I expect, I have to say, to be judged pretty harshly anyway.
In fact, I would say only that I believed governments should seek to encourage the virtue which is only possible in conditions of well ordered freedom, and punish the wickedness and vice that also come from freedom, unless it is restrained by law and morality. If they could only do that, a free and Christian people would find their own solutions to most of the worldly problems that face us. As to the unworldly problems, these, thank God, are beyond the power of Whitehall, Westminster or even of Jamie Shea. And way beyond the abilities of Princess Tony, the would-be saviour of Kosovo and Northern Ireland.
God-fearing man enters politics knowing that much of modern political thought is bunkum - that power is the opposite of love, that men are not created equal, even if they are equal before God, and that the earthly pursuit of happiness is likely to end with a kick in the teeth. He knows that society is not perfectible and that small and modest improvement is wise. He knows that, in the long run, we are NOT all dead. He knows that an action can have consequences far distant in time and place, and unintended as well.
Lord Hailsham one said, quite rightly in my view, that it was absurd for any faction or party to claim it was closer to the gospel to any other. The Holy Ghost, as he put it, moves some men to be socialists and others to be Tories, some even to be Trotskyists. I would go further. It would be absurd for any of us to imagine that politics, in its current form, is anything other than a threat and a rival to religion. We should go into it, and affect it, only to reduce its influence and return to people the choice between good and evil that they alone can make. We should never justify immoral action by allegedly pious objectives.