<preform>Faith & Reason: Should religions advise their followers on how to vote?</preform>

Religious leaders have always expressed their views about the nature of society, but in offering political guidance all they can do is to enunciate a few broad principles
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The Independent Online

Although it has yet to be announced officially, politicians and the media are all taking a forthcoming general election for granted. It could be that the Prime Minister is playing an elaborate hoax on the public, but since my synagogue, which acts as a polling station, was warned several weeks ago to keep 5 May free, I rather doubt it.

Although it has yet to be announced officially, politicians and the media are all taking a forthcoming general election for granted. It could be that the Prime Minister is playing an elaborate hoax on the public, but since my synagogue, which acts as a polling station, was warned several weeks ago to keep 5 May free, I rather doubt it.

In the phoney war run-up to the real campaign, positions are being staked out that will appeal to targeted voters; to pensioners, to first-time home buyers, to motorists, to ethnic and religious minorities. Gordon Brown's budget on Wednesday was interpreted as wooing the grey vote; Mike O'Brien told readers of Muslim News that Labour would do more for them than the Conservatives, and Tony Blair assured readers of the Jewish Chronicle that in him Israel had a staunch friend. Then, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, caused a flurry by backing Michael Howard's stance on lowering the time limit for abortion and suggesting that past Catholic support for the Labour Party was no longer axiomatic.

After the influence of evangelical Christianity in the recent American presidential election, and John Kerry's loss of votes among his country's 50 million Catholics because he was perceived to be "soft" on abortion, one wonders if religious issues might exert pressure on a United Kingdom election for the first time since the Irish Home Rule debates of the 19th century. Certainly, candidates in the constituencies of north-west London will be carefully scrutinised for their policies on issues affecting Jewish voters, in a close election Muslim voters could sway marginal seats in the Midlands and North, and there is a strong Catholic presence in areas of Liverpool and Manchester.

Overall, though, that strange pursuit known as psephology tends to discount the notion of a block "Jewish" vote, "Catholic" vote or "Muslim" vote. Modern voters range over the political spectrum, and make their choice on a host of issues or simply on general impressions. The more interesting and enduring question is: To what extent can or should religions advise their followers on how to vote?

One way or another, that problem has exercised religions since ancient times. If we look at the Bible, compiled long before the notion of democratic voting, the ideal form of government undoubtedly would have been a theocracy. In theory, that still holds true for Islam, which recognises no distinction between sharia law and civil government. The Christian approach, first enunciated by Jesus, was to accept the separation of church and state by rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's. It is this Christian approach, developed by St Augustine in The City of God and confirmed by the fifth-century Pastoral Rule of St Gregory that imposed the duty of civil obedience on the clergy, which has prevailed in the West. According to Christian teaching, it is the state, not the church, that guarantees civil peace and reason, not revelation, which should decide all issues of temporal jurisdiction. Likewise, Jewish and Muslim minorities living within Western societies acknowledge the primacy of state law in all civil, non-religious matters.

Of course that does not preclude religions from seeking to guide and influence civil legislation. Basing their authority on scriptural teaching, religious leaders have always expressed strong views about the nature of society and social justice. But what basis exists in scripture for making authoritative statements about 21st-century problems like stem cell research, cloning, or Third World debt, when the Bible and the Koran were written many centuries ago, before such theological dilemmas were imaginable? Clearly, a process of inference and deduction has to be drawn from a suitable text, or the philosophical tradition of Natural Law - itself of medieval origin - invoked as support. But as William Blake observed "Both read the Bible day and night, But thou read'st black where I read white." The religious controversies over homosexuality, the war in Iraq, or equitable economic policy are just three examples that illustrate Blake's point.

All that religions can legitimately do in offering political guidance it seems to me is to enunciate a few broad principles. Before previous elections the Catholic Church has usually done this successfully in the letter that its bishops send out to their flock. It draws attention to what are regarded as the main issues. Cardinal O'Connor highlighted abortion from the current letter, but marriage and the family, criminal justice, education, the global common good and immigration were the main headings. Those are essential ingredients in constructing the just society to which all religions aspire. Which political party will best implement them is for the voters of all religions or none to decide.

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