On the popularity of religious leaders

Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 19 - Oct 2005

According to a recent opinion poll, religious leaders are comparatively popular. On behalf of the BBC World Service, Gallup interviewed over 50,000 people in 68 countries, asking them who they trusted out of a list of types of people. Politicians were trusted by 13%, business leaders by 19%, journalists by 26%, military/police leaders also by 26%, and top of the list came religious leaders at 33%. When asked which types of people should be given more power, 35% favoured intellectuals, followed by religious leaders at 25%. Hardly surprisingly, the percentages vary widely from one country to another.

That the politicians are the least trusted ought to be surprising. In many of the countries canvassed, they are elected, and none of the others are. Why do we elect people we do not trust?

Part of the reason is no doubt the way political machines dominate elections in their own interests. Another part, perhaps, is that our political culture has got stuck in a rut, playing the old tunes of economic growth, technology and consumerism at a time when most people's real needs are quite different.

I suspect this represents an underlying malaise. Modern secular societies separate religion from governance, and in this, despite our efforts to impose our system on the rest of the world, we are the exception, not the rule. Most societies today, like ancient and medieval societies, do not compartmentalize life and truth the way we do. Questions about who ought to govern the people, and how, are set within wider questions, about who made us and the world, and for what purpose. Their understanding of God informs their understanding of politics. Thus the authors of Deuteronomy lay down laws for the nation, declaring that they come from God and are for the people's own good.

I doubt whether readers of Signs of the Times would wish to revert to the form of government practised in those days. Nevertheless the form we have is far from perfect. By separating religion from politics we have produced a political tradition in which our leaders ignore the spiritual dimension to life. Political parties win elections by keeping their sights low. Top priority goes to commodities self-serving individuals want for themselves and their families. Ever-increasing production and consumption has become the main aim of governments. Morally, it is something of a race to the bottom.

As a result we now produce and consume far too much. The most prevalent illnesses are those of over-consumption, and the most pressing threats come from the environmental effects of our excessive activity: the recent tsunami, and the two hurricanes, make the point only too clearly. It is not surprising that ever-increasing numbers seek a different approach to public as well as private life, one informed by higher moral values, if not also by overtly spiritual values.

Perhaps, then, one reason for the unpopularity of politicians is that they represent an approach to life which we can see is wrong. They may get our votes, but, like sex workers, they don't get our respect even if we use their services. Conversely, most people, even if they never go to church, associate religious leaders with the pursuit of higher standards; and this itself earns respect.

So why did we separate religion from politics? The usual reason given is that, when religion interferes in politics, it causes wars. Except in Israel, however, this is rarely true. Not even the conflict in Northern Ireland was provoked by religious initiatives. All that can really be said is that there was a stage when religious disagreements throughout Europe did cause wars: namely, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So the question is not 'Why does religion cause wars?', but 'Why did religion cause wars at a particular stage in European history?'

For historians this is well-trodden ground and the answers are clear enough. Most societies can encompass both theological and political disagreement without descending into war. Political debate produces the possibility of changes, not only of opinion but also of government. Like all debate, it presupposes certain rules of rationality: logic, publicly shared empirical evidence, and the principle that other people's experiences are as real to them as one's own are to oneself.

This is what was lacking in the age of the religious wars. On the one hand Protestants and Catholics still believed that governance should be in accordance with the will of God; on the other, they also believed there is no place for reason in religion. Divine revelation, they taught, provides certainty, which mere human reason can never match. If you feel absolutely certain that you are right, you also feel your opponents are certainly wrong. It was therefore an age of bigotry, of refusal to compromise, of determination to impose one's own view on others. Motivation was strong, as both Protestants and Catholics taught that the fires of hell awaited those whose views were incorrect.

Thus the religious wars were caused not because political debate was informed by religion, but because it was informed by anti-rational religion. This was well known by the seventeenth century rationalists: Chillingworth, Taylor, the Cambridge Platonists, Descartes, Locke and the Latitudinarians all reacted against religious violence by reaffirming the role of reason in religion. It was reason which enabled individuals to reflect on just how certain they really were, and ask themselves why others reached different conclusions. It was reason which enabled competing points of view to meet each other in public, display their arguments and evidence, and be judged on their merits. This is how we expect science and politics to operate today, and they thought religion should do so too. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that religious opinion was once again depicted as anti-rational.

Anti-rationalism still casts its shadow over western Christianity. On the other hand there is no reason why reason-affirming religion, as expressed by liberal theology, should not play a full part in political debate. It does not claim privileged access to truth. It respects the process of public debate, asking no more than that Christians take part as equals with non-Christians.

More positively, what liberal theology can offer to political debate is precisely what is most needed today: a way of inspiring political leaders to set their sights higher. As the recent series of major tragedies has shown, the most cherished ambitions of the world's political leaders are the wrong ones. We need a better - morally higher - vision of how humans should co-operate with each other and our natural environment, one which at the very least enables us to stop artificial global warming and the ever-increasing polarization of wealth.

In the past it was the role of religious traditions to offer higher and more moral visions, by setting political activity within a wider account of human life and its purpose: how we have been made, what we are like and how we can flourish. It is a tragic oddity that the religious traditions of western Europe have so discredited themselves that they have been excluded from political life.

Liberal theology, however, is not so discredited, and is in a strong position to express a spiritual dimension to human life as a context for our political life: a vision of a society under God, which cares for its environment, meets the needs of all its people, and rediscovers the rightful place of moral and spiritual values.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.