Religion and politics. ‘Evidence and reason’ are vitally important, but on the big questions we all rely on faith. | Conservative Home

This morning’s Financial Times sports an article about the apparently growing influence of Christian MPs in the Conservative Party, citing the likes of Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates as evidence of its role in the party’s “rightward shift in recent years”.

Whether or not there has actually been such a rightward shift seems to depend on the extent to which one judges the Government by its actions or its vibes. Whilst the party certainly strikes a different tone these days to that it did under David Cameron, in terms of actual policy it’s a hard claim to argue, with both taxes and legal immigration at historic highs.

But perhaps the most interesting claim in the piece was from Steve Baker, who whilst religious “values the UK’s tradition of secular politics”, according to the FT. It quotes him thus: “While my faith is strong, I am absolutely clear all public policy should be justified by evidence and reason.”

This is a very common trope, the idea that politicians should confine their faith to a private sphere but be secular in their policymaking. Indeed, it seems increasingly to be a rule of admission in progressive politics. Consider Tim Farron, who resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats after finding it difficult to reconcile politics with “remaining faithful to Christ”.

Or more recently, Kate Forbes’ near-successful bid to lead the Scottish National Party, despite her openness about how her political views informed her politics. As I wrote at the time:

“A religious politician has as much right to vote according to their principles as an irreligious one. (And even if for whatever reason you don’t concede that, you might suspect that they will do so anyway.)

“Much as with Lee Anderson and the death penalty (another comparison she won’t thank us for), Forbes’ candidacy puts the spotlight again on the question of major strands of public opinion which are deeply under-represented in public life.”

(Obviously the experience is a bit different if your faith, like Archbishop Welby’s, seems fortuitously always to position oneself on the progressive side of an issue.)

However, Baker’s quote highlights a deeper problem with the idea of every politician maintaining a sharp personal separation of church and state than representation.

Few people are likely to disagree with him that “all public policy should be justified by evidence and reason”. But evidence and reason can only operate within frameworks of values that precede them. Contra the great fallacy of some Enlightenment thinkers (not all, of course) we cannot simply reason our way to every answer from the bare facts.

As such all politics, and not just that with a religious flavour, rests on a foundation of essentially pre-rational beliefs each of us has about right and wrong and how the world ought to be. “Evidence and reason” can and should be our method for working out how to solve problems, but they cannot in isolation decide for us what those problems are.

Certain issues which seem to serve as a touchstone for the “religious right” do so, in part at least, because they bring this tension to the surface. Consider abortion, which has recently threatened a rupture amongst Conservative MPs. The biggest dividing lines in that debate – at what point a foetus becomes a pre-natal child with rights, and how to resolve the resulting clash of rights with a mother seeking a termination – have no easy, objective answer.

There is, of course, fundamentalist religious politics that seeks to abandon evidence and reason altogether, substituting instead rote dogma or scriptural literalism. So too is there authoritarian religious politics, which seeks to impose in detail the moral prescriptions of a particular faith on the entire lives of non-believers. If a secular or liberal politics means avoiding and abjuring that, then it is a just cause.

But (and I write as an irreligious man) it is something else to expect religious MPs to divorce completely their faith from their politics.

So to do not only illiberal (at least so long as liberalism stands for a pluralist attitude rather than its own detailed creed), but it is impossible, at least without asking them to completely shut down their moral compass and navigate by the stars of their irreligious colleagues, whose own normative beliefs are, per Hume, ultimately no more rationally grounded than their own.

Here endeth today’s sermon. Happy Easter to all ConservativeHome readers.

The post Religion and politics. ‘Evidence and reason’ are vitally important, but on the big questions we all rely on faith. appeared first on Conservative Home.

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