There has been a recent controversy in northern Ireland regarding the role that some fundamentalist Christians wish their faith to play in politics – there is a huge conversation to be had about this, and I look forward to exploring it at Greenbelt in a few weeks’ time – come and say hi if you’re a reader – but for now, here’s one small contribution:
When Senator Barack Obama recently addressed the role of religion in public life he said that religious politicians can no more divorce themselves from their convictions than can committed secularists. For we all bring a range of beliefs, experience, and prejudices to the table. But the problem arises when we offer no rationale for our policy positions other than referring to a religious or ideological text.
William Wilberforce, the British MP who campaigned for an end to the slave trade is often held up as an example of how faith should influence politics. No one would doubt that his view of scripture and the teachings of Christ led him to oppose the evil of human trafficking. But it may be inappropriate to use Wilberforce as a role model for traditionalist Christian activism today. Wilberforce did not simply uphold traditional Christian morality – if he had done so, the slave trade might have continued a lot longer than it did, for church authorities were often complicit in injustice themselves. No, in fact, what Wilberforce did was far more risky than simply siding with the religious establishment – on being confronted with the horrors of slavery, he reconsidered his theology in the light of experience and reason. In other words, he changed his mind about what he thought God believed. And he devoted his life to persuading others – using the same combination of scripture, reason and experience.
In that light, using Old Testament texts to maintain the status quo today does not represent the tradition of radical Christian activism personified by William Wilberforce. In fact, it may be doing the opposite.
What is most troubling in the debate is that faith-based activism has a lot more to be concerned about than the typical issues of private morality mentioned by some individuals and groups. Senator Obama made his remarks about religion and politics in a speech to a progressive Christian group in the United States, who have engaged with the vast issues of economic injustice, the dangers of climate change, racism, and the war in Iraq. This suggests another question to me: if William Wilberforce were around today, what aspects of religious faith would he criticize, and which oppressed groups would he defend? This is certain – religious power often comes late to the side of the oppressed; and good people are often proven wrong in even their most sincere convictions.
It should not surprise us when people of faith re-consider their beliefs, for religious faith is supposed to have conversion at its centre. The notion of change should not therefore be threatening to people of faith. And so, to put it simply, if we want to follow Wilberforce, might we start by asking ourselves: what part of our own religious traditions need to be converted?