Podium: Christianity and Politics Do Mix

By Harries, Richard | The Independent (London, England), February 1, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Podium: Christianity and Politics Do Mix


Harries, Richard, The Independent (London, England)


From a talk by the Bishop of Oxford to the Westminster Ethical Forum at St Matthew's Church, Westminster

NEW LABOUR has made ethics a central feature of its approach to government. It has sought to provide an "ethical foreign policy". It is also well known that a number of influential members of the Cabinet have long been members of the Christian Socialist Movement, including the Prime Minister himself.

At the same time, perhaps in reaction to this, William Hague recently made a major speech to the Conservative Christian Fellowship where he initiated a project to listen to British churches and where he stressed the ethical tradition of the Conservative Party, drawing on the role models of people such as William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury and Iain Macleod. In an allegedly secular society this is in one way all rather surprising. Yet every political philosophy is rooted in a set of values; and those values will express, consciously or unconsciously, a particular understanding of what it is to be a human being in society. My concern is whether a Christian understanding of what it is to be a human being in society points inexorably to any particular political philosophy or party. Or, to put it in terms of where we are now, whether a Christian perspective on existence has anything distinctive to say about what is now happening at Westminster. I am, of course, well aware of the hazards of this exercise. Almost every political philosophy, from extreme egalitarianism on the one hand to absolute monarchy on the other, has in its time been claimed in the name of Christianity. It was a priest, John Ball, who led the Peasants' Revolt with the refrain: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" And right-wing rulers such as General Pinochet, who have looked to the Church for support, are numerous. But, however foolish the attempt might seem and so fraught with the possibility of self- deception, it has to be attempted. I hope to indicate what I believe does constitute a distinctively Christian approach to the political realm, but first I want to look at the stated policy of New Labour in its own terms. As we all know, New Labour has abandoned the most widespread concept of socialism - the public ownership of the means of production and exchange. Furthermore, it has accepted that, at least for the first two years in office, there will be no rise in income tax.

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