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Robert Sutcliffe: why religion and politics don't mix

The latest from our regular weekend columnist

Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha stop for a drink by a beach during their holiday on the Spanish island of Lanzarote in Teguise

Tony Blair’s press adviser Alastair Campbell famously cut short an interviewer wanting to question his master about his religious beliefs, saying: “We don’t do God.”

Mr Campbell is a well-known atheist so may have felt personally uncomfortable watching his boss wade into such waters, but more likely he correctly divined that the British prefer, on the whole, for religious beliefs to be kept out of politics.

There is a good reason for this. Good pubs operate a sensible rule that religion and politics should not be discussed in their hallowed portals. Firstly because of their potentially incendiary quality and secondly because arguments rapidly become tedious point-scoring exercises with customers leaving in droves.

And politicians once they have started dragging God into their debates find it hard to put the genie back into the bottle. So it was interesting to see David Cameron opining about these matters in an article for the Church Times.

Although he rapidly admits he is not a regular attender of the Church of England’s services and is “a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith” he is anxious for Christians “to do even more” and “get out there and actually change people’s lives.”

Why Mr Cameron should have chosen this precise moment to put “God back into politics” as The Daily Telegraph described it is not clear, (er, Easter anyone?), though its news report said it might be seen as proffering an “olive branch” to those upset by gay marriage and welfare reform.

Indeed, the Prime Minister appears to have a much wider vision than merely appeasing those who may disagree with his Government’s policies.

He thinks Christianity has the power to “improve the spiritual, physical and moral state of our country and even the world”.

Given the incredible impact Christianity has had on the world down the ages that is no doubt true, though whether the current Church of England exerts much real sway on people’s minds these days is another matter.

Thinking back about recent political leaders it is interesting to see how they handled the God question.

Mr Blair, though not allowed to “do” God, is undoubtedly the keenest Christian. He apparently reads parts of the Bible every day though, one suspects, probably the New Testament and not some of the more racy, non-PC chapters from the Old Testament.

And it seems from the sneering questioning of Jeremy Paxman that he did pray with President George Bush during the height of the Iraq crisis.

Gordon Brown was always introduced as the Son of the Manse though I don’t have any strong recollection of him elaborating on his actual religious beliefs although it was obvious he was a man of considerable moral fibre.

John Major may have been vaguely Christian but apart from his famous ‘back to basics’ moral crusade which ended in tears thanks to a succession of ministers being embroiled in a series of sex and sleaze scandals it’s hard to recall anything specifically religious.

Margaret Thatcher was very definitely Christian though, inevitably, in her own unique way. My favourite anecdote was her slightly bizarre interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable which stressed that he was only able to help the victim thanks to his prudence in storing up riches.

And Neil Kinnock and Nick Clegg were brave enough to come out as full-blown atheists, albeit ones anxious to stress their Christian credentials - ie “we don’t believe in God but we love the values etc...”

The instinctive male horror at the sound of ‘shrill’ female voices was given a fresh airing this week with the revelation that The Travellers Club was maintaining its policy of keeping ladies at arms length.

Although women are not entirely unfamiliar to members of the near 200-year-old men-only private club in Pall Mall – they are allowed as guests in selected parts of it – it appears change is still some way off.

When its chairman, Anthony Layden, canvassed whether the rules should be changed, those voting against were a resounding 60% to 40%. In a phrase which could have come straight out of a Jane Austen novel, Mr Layden explained there was “a degree of mutual incomprehension” between members.

Chaps can now relax in their leather armchairs, their conviviality unthreatened once more.

A new series on BBC Radio 4 gives the old north/south divide another good stir.

Myth of the North, presented by former Guardian hack Martin Wainwright aims to show how northerners are endlessly traduced by wily southerners.

The cliché about being “grim oop north” is so entrenched I can’t ever see it dying out.

Personally, I quite enjoy all the cracks about northerners doing nothing but cultivating allotments in their flat caps, flying pigeons and racing whippets all day.

My particular favourite was an episode of Yes, Minister which featured an amusing sketch with a reluctant politician facing a proposed move northwards being reassured by Sir Humphrey that, yes, the north did contain schools.

 

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