Joan Bakewell: Good God! A politician who doesn't believe...

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The Independent Online

It was a single-word answer, which is rare for a politician. And it was a question he wasn't expecting. That's when you catch them out. Nick Clegg was clearly surprised to be asked whether he believed in God. The slight hesitancy of his answer suggests not so much a last-minute doubt about the deity but a quick mental calculation of how this would play with the voters.

Received wisdom has it that political leaders must acknowledge a higher power at some point in their lives to be electable. In America, of course, it counts far more than here: it would be a brave candidate in the States who would be as explicit about his agnosticism. In the event Nick Clegg thought an answer of such blinding clarity and lack of ambiguity called for a clarifying statement which he issued the same day.

"I am not an active believer but the last thing I would do when talking or thinking about religion is to approach it with a closed heart or a closed mind". There's space for a conversion, then. You can't imagine Richard Dawkins doing that: "The God Delusion might be the title of my book but I have great sympathy for the deluded." Is that what Nick Clegg was telling us?

No he wasn't. He was moving to check the fall-out among the devout who might think that not sharing their belief in God meant he was in some way less qualified as a leader than they would like. Where does he stand on faith schools, for example? Would he like to see religion taken out of education and restored to the private sphere?

Clegg is married to a Catholic and committed to bringing up his children as Catholics. So presumably their mother tends their spiritual life while their father worries about maths and geography. What's more, he went to Westminster School whose place of worship happens to be one of the country's most renowned abbey churches. So he has clearly been exposed to anthems and ecclesiastical finery, soaring Gothic architecture and the Church of England liturgy. Set against such a background, his confession to not believing in God suggests a resolute honesty that does him credit. But will it damage his politics?

Neil Kinnock was the last candidate for prime ministerial office to deny the existence of God. It was seen at the time not to have played well with the electorate. But that was years ago, and the country is now more forthright and secure in its secular outlook. We have moved as a nation to being less religious. Empty churches, full shops is now the character of a British Sunday. One only has to notice the overwhelming prevalence of silly reindeer songs over genuine Christmas carols at festive occasions to realise the game is over for a serious national consensus about what Christmas is about.

But then there was Tony Blair, probably the most genuinely religious prime minister since Gladstone. He was clearly embarrassed to speak of it : "You talk about it in our political system and people think you're a nutter." But along with George Bush he showed a conviction in the rightness of his own decisions that would not yield to argument, pressure or the combined advice of military leaders, intelligence services, and more than a million people marching in protest on the streets.

George Bush has often made reference to his conversations with God, and one must imagine that in the watches of the night Blair, too, sought guidance from a supernatural being. Christians believe that God did and can intervene in human history and change it. People in crisis turn to prayer and trust their God to help them directly or at least guide them to the right answer.

Thus a devout leader will put the destiny of his people in the hands of a supernatural force in which a majority of them may not believe. If, like me, you believe that prayer is an internalised form of contemplation rather than an appeal to a remote and powerful deity, you will believe that Tony Blair was merely grappling with his conscience. And whether he calls it God or not might not matter. Except that it obviously matters to him.

For a Christian leader to take his country to war is a serious matter. He must believe he will be answerable at the Day of Judgement for decisions that have resulted in so much death and suffering. Blair will have to make the case to his God that the invasion of Iraq was a just war and all that about loving your enemies was so much celestial fluff.

The justification of the just war has been argued about and developed in Christian theology by such heavyweights as Augustine and Aquinas, and the debate goes on today. It would be good to hear a Christian appraisal of recent Middle East conflicts in those terms. Nick Clegg, of course, will have no such religious fall-back position. He'll simply have to make up his own mind.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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