Politicians should not listen to religious leaders

These leaders are, all too frequently, under the impression they represent the sole voice of morality

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There was a famous Abbot of Ampleforth, the Roman Catholic boarding school, who is said to have met a fellow headmaster at a conference. "We like to think that we prepare our boys to face life," the man said. "Really?" the Abbot said. "At Ampleforth, we prepare our boys to face death." Very amusing, no doubt, but not really an idea to base education policy on.

There was a famous Abbot of Ampleforth, the Roman Catholic boarding school, who is said to have met a fellow headmaster at a conference. "We like to think that we prepare our boys to face life," the man said. "Really?" the Abbot said. "At Ampleforth, we prepare our boys to face death." Very amusing, no doubt, but not really an idea to base education policy on.

In the run-up to the general election, various leaders of religious faiths have been surfacing and making their voices heard. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor incited Roman Catholics to vote against any parliamentary candidate supporting abortion. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, voiced disapproval of abortion policy as it now stands in this country.

Political leaders have been quick to respond to these comments. The Faithworks organisation has mounted three lectures, by the leaders of the three main parties, in which they each addressed the issue of what they could do for Christians.

Charles Kennedy neatly side-stepped the main question by saying that headlines about picketing evangelicals, abortion obsessives and issues of sexuality distorted the real concerns of Christians, which were - well, he talked about what he wanted to talk about. Michael Howard, in a magazine interview, said that he would be in favour of reducing the abortion limits from 24 to 20 weeks, but not further.

And yesterday, speaking in the Faithworks series, the Prime Minister said he wanted churches to "play a bigger, not a lesser role in the future". Considering that he is, supposedly, the first Prime Minister since Gladstone to keep a Bible by his bedside, and recently appointed a member of Opus Dei to control the nation's schools, that sounds deeply worrying.

Politicians are playing a very dangerous game when they start to listen to religious leaders. Such leaders are, all too frequently, under the impression that they represent the sole voice of morality. We have often heard religious leaders, recently, suggest that it was time that "morality" was given a voice in political debate.

What they mean, naturally, is "my morality". Those who are in favour of women's access to abortion are also driven by ethical convictions. And in other areas where the churches have insisted that "morality" has been swept aside, what they mean is that other ethical views have been listened to. The slow establishment of sexual liberties over the last 40 years, the decline of marriage as an institution, the simplification of divorce, the decriminalisation of homosexuality are not the triumph of immorality over morality; they represent the establishment of values which, for many people, are more ethically just than anything the churches can offer.

It is true, as well, that the position of the churches does not need to be workable in any public sense. Cardinal Murphy O'Connor has the luxury of preaching that abortion is immoral; he also has the luxury of insisting that contraception is no less immoral. Any politician must see that the most efficient way of saving young women from the traumatic procedure of abortion is to propagate information about contraception in schools. A cardinal can complacently insist that both are evil, and damn the consequences.

The consequences of listening to religious leaders can, indeed, be grim. In Africa, the Roman Catholic church has assiduously discouraged the use of condoms, and spread the lie that they are no use in preventing the spread of HIV. The Pontifical Council for the Family has declared condoms unsafe as a form of Aids prevention. .

Those are relatively mainstream positions. There are many such arguments, very popular in faith organisations, which must not be permitted to spread into the wider community. Divorce was only legalised in Italy, thanks to the pressure of the Roman Catholic Church, as late as 1970; in Spain in 1981; in Ireland, 1995; in Malta and the Philippines, it is still illegal. Thanks to the pressure of a ghastly coalition of faith groups, creationism is being taught not just in US but in British schools - some of those whose "extraordinary dedication" Mr Blair was praising yesterday. No one can doubt that many religious leaders would like to recriminalise homosexuality.

So before political leaders lightly say they would like to give churches a more leading role in future, they should consider that they are not just drawing the Christian vote, but actively putting off many people who consider the churches anti-freedom, irresponsible, and directly inimical to our ethical values.

I suggest that, if you feel strongly about this, you should write to your parliamentary candidates, asking them about their views on abortion rights, the liberal teaching of sexual health in schools, their history of support of homosexual law reform, and, if necessary, whether they think the BBC was right to broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera. If you get an answer back which might have been dictated by the Spanish Inquisition, then do what I propose to do, and what the vast liberal majority of voters would surely do: vote for someone else.

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