Sunday, February 25, 2007

Secular Democracy

Writing in today's Times, Michael Portillo makes the case for shunning politicians too tightly bound up with their God:

"I worry because men of power who take instruction from unseen forces are essentially fanatics. Blair is filled with a self-confidence and self-satisfaction that are dangerous. They were evident last week as he refused to take responsibility for anything that has happened in Iraq since America and Britain occupied it. Those who look for judgment not from the electorate or parliament or a free press but from God release themselves from the constraints of democracy.

"If today the Church of England is wishy-washy and middle-of-the-road, that is no accident. It is the long-term result of Elizabeth’s design. Britain has benefited enormously from a weak clergy that has mainly remained aloft from politics. Britain’s established church, headed by the monarch, has made few demands of our leaders or people.

"When Blair correctly cites tolerance as one of Britain’s defining virtues, he should recognise that we owe it to those wise rulers who over centuries insisted on separating religion from politics.

Blair, "...was deeply uncomfortable when Jeremy Paxman asked him whether he and President Bush prayed together. If the answer was “no”, the prime minister was open to a charge of hypocrisy. Why wouldn’t two practising Christians share a moment of communication with their maker? If the answer was “yes”, the British electorate would be terrified. Not surprisingly he refused to answer.

"Britons should worry that religion and politics could again be bound together. If moderation and secularism have been overturned in parts of the Muslim world, why should not the same thing happen in Christian societies? Bush aroused that fear unwittingly when he referred to the war against terror as a “crusade”. The remark evoked a return to religious warfare by Christians under the banner of the cross. The idea is not so farfetched given that the president has also said that God had told him to “end the tyranny in Iraq”.

"In other societies theocrats, religious leaders or fanatics citing holy texts dictate violent actions. That constitutes the greatest threat to world peace today. For the first time since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, mainland Britain is menaced by religious violence, now committed at the behest of Al-Qaeda.

"But if our political leaders cite faith as their political guide, then how do we distinguish ourselves from the religious extremists who wreak havoc in our world? It may seem harmless to “do God” a little in an essentially moderate country like ours. But once you claim that He is judging you or telling you what to do, there is no logical defence against another who claims that his God is instructing him to blow up discotheques or fly planes into buildings. If one God sent the Americans into Iraq, why shouldn’t another insist that by every means it be defended against infidel attack?

"My guess is that historians will look back on the early 21st century in puzzlement. How was it possible, they will ask, that man had such deep scientific understanding but clung so tenaciously to his gods? Why did western politicians think that doing God (even a tiny bit) was an electoral or strategic asset? "

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