tisdag 11 mars 2008

Religion and politics in Britain

Over the past few years there has been a resurgence in conflict between religious and political interests. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s problems following his comments on the role of Sharia Law in Britain were one aspect of the problem. Controversies have also surfaced around so-called “gay marriage” legislation, proposed changes in abortion law and the rules governing scientific research on stem cells, embryos and reproduction. Developments in bio-technology mean that the latter issues are going to come under repeated scrutiny, whilst a related area of dispute concerns what are referred to as “end-of-life” issues such as euthanasia on the one hand and the practice of prolonging life through the use of technology to keep people barely alive, which spills over into the care of people who are old, frail and have perhaps lost their mental faculties. Concern amongst religious groups tends to focus on these topics, but with varying degrees of clarity, consistency and logic.

Religion in Britain, and, for that matter, in Western Europe in general, has a bad name. It has come under increasing intellectual attack, led by well-known militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins; that the arguments are directed primarily against naïve literal fundamentalist religion has not protected more sophisticated religious philosophies from the tide of ridicule unleashed.

The opprobrium suffered by religion in Britain today is not unjustified. The Catholic church has come under well-deserved criticism due to cover-ups of child abuse, and there is also the evil legacy of the brutal teaching style of the Irish Christian Brothers. Scriptural fundamentalists hold themselves up to ridicule by their denial of the theory of evolution and absurd defence of creationist views, based on a literal interpretation of scripture, which amounts to an abuse of ancient texts which were never intended to be read literally. Islamic social practices and Islamic terrorism are also seen as grounds for rejection of religion in general, whilst the US religious right are widely regarded are intolerant warmongers. Small wonder that religion has been pushed to the margin.

In this hostile environment, what role can Christians play in the political arena? Where medical and reproductive ethics are concerned, the matter is clear. They need to speak out. So too, should they speak out on war and peace issues. But one area they would do well to stay out of concerns what people to by mutual consent in their own bedrooms. The response to “gay marriage” is a case in point. In practice, following the initial fanfare, there has been little demand. But what was it really about? Mostly, the point of “gay marriage” seems to have related to property and pension rights, in particular as they interact with the tax system. And in the UK, the introduction of “gay marriage” has left other people who live together in an anomalous position; an example might be an elderly woman who was cared for by her niece, and would fall foul of inheritance tax legislation and could lose her home when the aunt died. Thus, the “gay marriage” legislation was primarily a means of dealing with a wider injustice which remains unaddressed. Christians might have picked this up and speak out but failed to do so, being excessively focussed on the narrower issue of what people were doing in their bedrooms.

Drawing attention to the major injustices, surely, is where Christians have an important role to take up, from which they have hitherto shied away. There is unjust legislation and there are unjust practices. Things do not get better. The controversy over the non-domiciled tax privileges is one example. The entire tax and benefits system is riddled with unjust anomalies and is, arguably, unjust in its core principles. There is the whole debate about rights and duties. Nobody has rights unless others carry out their duties. One of these, for instance, is the universal human duty, if they able, to support oneself and one’s family. But in order to exercise that duty, there is a basic economic right to earn a livelihood, a right that people are routinely denied.

Current affairs, too, ought to be seized on. The present financial crisis, which is only in its opening phases, is essentially about finance, credit, interest and the role of money. In the past, Christian doctrine has given much attention to these matters. Indeed, had the precepts not been forgotten, the present troubles would have been avoided. But who is speaking out today? Religious doctrine, for example the body of Catholic Social Teaching, has the potential to bring clarity to the present confused state of affairs.

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