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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 December, 2003, 11:11 GMT
Blending politics and religion
By Roger Childs
Producer, The Hand of God

Tony Blair
Blair knows religion is not a vote winner
How much faith should we have in our political leaders? For once, that is not a question about spin, but about religion. If those in power claim to feel the hand of God on their shoulders, should we feel comforted, inspired or just afraid?

Tony Blair, a prime minister with Anglo-Catholic conviction, is a smart enough politician to know that, in Britain, religion does not win votes.

As soon as it mixes with political air, it tends to bring with it the whiff of hypocrisy. When Mr Blair launched the 2001 election, hymnbook in hand, against a stained glass window, the press howled their derision.

Here ended the first lesson.

When an American journalist from Vanity Fair asked the prime minister a question about belief, his former communications manager Alistair Campbell stopped the interview in its tracks: "We don't do God," he barked from the sidelines. And they didn't.

Church v State

So, why is it that the British "don't do God"?

And why are American politicians apparently so much more relaxed about taking their faith into high office?

Well, firstly, of course, there's a simple matter of numbers.

Rev Barry Lynn, who runs Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, thinks that US politicians are almost bound to play the religious card, knowing that: "We have the highest church attendance rate in the western world, the highest percentage of people who believe in God, the highest percentage of people who attend religious ceremonies on a regular basis."

I can't imagine anything worse than rule by religious leaders and I would have nothing to do with it
Britain's chief rabbi
Jonathan Sacks
Most Americans really do see themselves as the Oath of Allegiance sees them: "one nation under God".

In that climate, it not only serves politicians to wear their religion on their sleeves, but on their T-shirts and any other garment that comes to hand.

Which is exactly why, in Barry Lynn's view, America's founding fathers wrote a constitution which, in its very First Amendment, erected a firewall between Church and State.

America was largely founded and peopled by religious refugees, many of whom had personally experienced the tyranny of state-sponsored religion, in Europe.

As a result, they made it unlawful for any federal government to establish or promote one faith over another, or to inhibit the free practice and expression of any individual faith. In short, although it may disturb many Conservative evangelicals to hear it, America is not a Christian country.

Its creed is liberty.

Henry's legacy

Not so the UK.

Many people now laugh at the well-meaning woolliness of the Church of England, but the fact remains that it is the religion of state.

The Queen is not, as Prince Charles has said he would like to be, "Defender of Faith", but "Defender of the Faith", the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

The Queen
One of the Queen's jobs is to defend the faith
Twenty-six of her bishops have seats and voting rights in the House of Lords. No other religion is afforded this privilege.

If the US constitution formally separates Church and State, then British law formally entwines them.

And here is the real irony.

Far from making Britain a more religious place, this seems to have made it less so.

Which is precisely the effect Henry VIII was after when he devised the system, in the 16th Century. Inventing a new religion with himself at its head was Henry's way of keeping turbulent priests in their place.

To this day, the critical voice of the Anglican Church is blunted by the fact that its leading bishops are appointed by the prime minister. Very few ever bite the hand that feeds them.

Powerless religion

There is a critical balance between power and prophecy.

Britain's Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, says we remove religion from the political landscape at our peril, because without what George W Bush once called "the vision thing", politics is reduced to short-term matters of popularity or profit.

By the same token, though, Dr Sacks is also adamant that the religious voice in politics should remain powerless.

Religion's ability to win people's hearts and minds should depend on force of argument rather than the argument of force.

Religion, he says, has at its worst been responsible for genocide, tyranny, despotism and terrorism, but always and only when it has become confused with power.

"I can't imagine anything worse than rule by religious leaders and I would have nothing to do with it. You know, in ancient Israel you had people with power called kings and you had people with no power at all called prophets. Now, can you remember the kings of Israel? I can't.

"But the words of the prophets of Israel will never be forgotten as long as people turn their eyes to heaven. And therefore it's that voice from the side, the voice that speaks not to party politics and immediate interest, but to the innermost soul of the human within us, the divine within us, which actually succeeds because it has no power at all. And that is the kind of society I'd like to live in."

The third episode of Michael Buerk's series The Hand of God was broadcast at 2235 on Tuesday 9 December, on BBC One.


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