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Why faith is not a private matter

Author: Mark Scott

Why faith is not a private matter

Christians can engage in politics confident that their faith does not belong behind closed doors, writes Mark Scott.

It was Tony Blair’s ‘spin doctor’ Alistair Campbell who infamously declared, “We don’t do God”.

His statement was a reflection of the fear that ‘doing God’ would compromise the secular-sacred divide and bring the combined influence of God and faith into the public square.

Faith, according to Campbell, is strictly a private affair and God's services weren't required in a brave new secular world.

Others, however, would disagree with this notion and say that faith does indeed have a role to play in the decisions we make and the lives we live both in public as well as private. As Tony Blair himself said:

“Accept the premise that faith is not in decline…It is still here with us, not just surviving but thriving.”

This belief that faith still has a role to play in the public outworking of our lives has led many Christian men and women to take a lead in politics.

Others have been more hesitant.

Perhaps because the record of Christian engagement in public and political life is by no means an unblemished one.

In light of history, it’s important that the church and Christians ‘get it right’ when it comes political engagement.

Getting it wrong

In the past, the world has witnessed what Nick Spence of religious thinktank Theos calls a “theocratic temptation”.

This, in essence, is the temptation towards a religious takeover, where faith groups set and enforce the rules.

At its most extreme this can look like the recent rise of the Islamic State or, looking to history, the excesses of the medieval church.

The Bible frequently warns against this abuse of worldly power and so our faith should never become an excuse for coercion.

However, in the UK, the other extreme is perhaps the more prominent.

The temptation towards keeping faith behind closed doors has meant some people of faith have kept their distance from the public square.

For them it’s all about the individual and their beliefs. It’s the vertical relationship with God that’s paramount to their convictions, not necessarily the horizontal relationship with other people.

But in James 2:12 we read that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead”.

In the political realm, a privatised faith will cause us either to feel that we are under no obligation to speak out against injustice (because our beliefs are our own concern), or to look to purely human answers to society’s problems.

Distinctive engagement

When we move beyond these temptations, we can arrive at a right understanding of the relationship between our faith and public life.

At Christians in Politics we call it ‘distinctive engagement’. This means participating fully in society without losing essential Christian values, identity and vision in the process.

Such a confident form of Christian engagement can accept the flaws and failures of our social and political institutions, not as an excuse to compromise our beliefs, but as the starting point for a journey of redemption and restoration in a sinful world.

We see the idea of ‘distinctive engagement’ in the Catholic Social Teaching of the ‘common good’, which Pope John Paul II reasserted in the face of growing disillusionment with politics and its tendency towards corruption. 

He challenged people of faith to draw on Christian values of truthfulness, justice and fairness to go into the public square and impact society for good.

Being ‘distinctively engaged’ offers a dynamic and fruitful approach that avoids the fears and pitfalls that have historically limited Christian influence in politics.

It is an approach that rejects the notion that faith belongs behind closed doors, and instead offers up all policies, issues, debates and positions as an outworking of the prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done’.

 

  • Mark Scott is events and communications manager for Christians in Politics, a non-denominational all-party platform for Christians involved, or seeking to get involved, in politics and public life.

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