Prime Minister Tony Blair has done the unthinkable – and in the eyes of some, the unforgivable. In a television -interview on 4 March he mentioned God and politics in the same breath.
He would answer to God, said Mr Blair, for his decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein. He added that his interest in politics ultimately stemmed from his belief in God: ‘I kind of got into religion and politics at the same time’, he said. ‘I began to think about the world differently’.
Though hardly the clearest confession of faith, this nevertheless implies that politics and religion can mix. This is, of course, contrary to received wisdom in the UK which requires that politicians ‘don’t do God’.
This expression was coined when Tony Blair was asked in an interview about his Christian faith. His erstwhile ‘spin doctor’ Alistair Campbell interrupted the Prime Minister’s reply to say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t do God’.
Referring to the incident, the London Daily Telegraph on 5 May 2003 commented, ‘One could write a book about everything that this little intervention has to tell us about Mr Blair and his style of government, and about Britain in 2003 … What does it tell us about modern Britain, that Mr Blair’s chief adviser on his “image” should think that it would look bad for him to mention God?’ 1
No one would deny that politics and religion can make uneasy bedfellows. On the one hand we have theocratic regimes like some Islamic nations today, which are governed according to religious law. The result is generally draconian and oppressive, especially for any who do not conform.
On the other hand, we have in many Western nations a situation where religious principles and morality are actively excluded from the process of government – making an amoral atheism the de facto arbiter of national life.
Where can we find the proper balance? In a right understanding of the Bible’s teaching on these things.
Firstly, the Bible teaches that there are absolute moral requirements ordained by God for the regulation of human society. Although famously expressed in the Ten Commandments, God’s requirements predate the Law of Sinai (for example, murder is condemned in Genesis 9:6) and find their fullest flower in the teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles (for example, we are to love our enemies).
Secondly, because man is a fallen creature – unable and unwilling to keep God’s laws – it was necessary for God to ordain ‘the powers that be’ (for us, the State) to ensure that human society would not self-destruct (Romans 13:1-7).
We are called not only to obey the rule of law but to pray for leaders and authorities that they might rule wisely, and thus facilitate the spread of the gospel (1 Timothy 2:2).
Thirdly, the church and the State are distinct. We are to ‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (Matthew 12:17; John 18:36).
We must not fall into the trap of taking the ancient theocratic State of Israel as our model for human society. Old Testament Israel is a picture of the church not of the State.
Where does this lead us? Surely, to a State that is independent of the church or any established religion but that is essentially moral in its laws and its exercise of authority. Those who rule should be guided by moral principles rather than pragmatic or self-serving considerations (‘give the voters what they want or they won’t vote for our lot next time around’).
It remains, of course, to define what ‘morality’ means in a secular context. This is a complex issue and we cannot develop it here. But our starting point should be that God has written ‘the works of the law’ on the consciences of all men.
The one thing we cannot afford are amoral politicians – who either have no beliefs or moral convictions, or who deliberately exclude such principles from their governance of the nation.
Politicians should not be afraid to ‘do God’ if he is indeed the source of their convictions.