Religious leaders were not elected. They have no right to tell us how to vote

Bishops feel they have the right to influence elections because politicians have indulged them for years
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The Independent Online

Just don't talk about God or politics I was told when I first arrived in this country. These volatile subjects brought on unseemly quarrels which were inappropriate at dinner tables and social occasions. In England, it just wasn't the done thing. Once in a while, if anyone forgot and wandered into these areas, hostesses would skilfully steer them back to safer subjects. Politicians avoided God in their speeches, and the Godly kept well away from politics, except when they were trying to remind people about the poor. Today, everybody is talking about God: God and politics, God in politics, God and the elections, God and education, God and terrorism, God and the Tories, God and George Bush, and God and our own semi-Catholic First Family, a newish development and not altogether a blessing.

Since the election of the US neocons and the day Islamicist Stalinists shattered the twin towers, God has become a big-time player in international and domestic politics. He has been enlisted by all sides, and his representatives on Earth - the bishops, mullahs, rabbis and priests - are now arrogantly intervening in elections, institutions and policies. Religious leaders have more or less demolished the secularist spirit of America and are now poised to do the same in the UK. They have never had it so good.

Last week, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor suggested that Catholics should vote for Michael Howard because the Tory leader expressed reservations about the current time limit on legal abortions. The Cardinal is convinced that Howard, if elected, would rescind legal abortions altogether, which is what all good Catholics apparently want. Then, quick as pigeons swooping to food scraps, Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, and Iqbal Sacranie, the voice of the Muslim Council of Britain, both added their bit, agreeing with the Cardinal that abortion was a faith and politics issue and that it had become too easy for girls and women to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies. Yesterday, the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced to break his silence and he joined the other pigeons. His weakness does not become him.

Are these leaders responding to the zeitgeist? Today, ours is a nation with a devoutly Christian Prime Minister, Chancellor, and a cabinet with a number of ardent believers - Ruth Kelly (a member of Opus Dei, no less) Paul Boateng, Tessa Jowell, Jack Straw among them. When in Downing Street, Alastair Campbell said to journalists that New Labour didn't "do God". That was nonsense. When Gordon Brown romanticises the Empire, he always brings in his Christian missionary relatives with a preachy tremble in his voice. I have no doubt at all that Tony and Cherie prayed with George and his missus before they sent off their armies on the crusade in Iraq. The rescue of Africa is couched in biblical language.

To his credit, Tony Blair so far has held to his view that abortion should not be made into an election battle. But he has not said that religious leaders should refrain from interfering in an issue with ethical and medical implications. I, too, am convinced that the abortion time limit must be revisited in light of what we now know and have seen of foetal development. But the forces of conservatism want us to go back to the days of no legal abortion, to force women to breed whatever.

As a person of faith, I believe religion must be confined to the private sphere and that the state must rest on egalitarian and secular principles. There are some obvious exceptions to this position. Temples, churches and mosques have to be built in public spaces, and collective celebrations can't be confined behind closed doors. But there are many other key areas of life where religion is now encroaching in a way that threatens to lead us into a new barbarism. Bin Laden, the BJP and George Bush Jnr have much more in common than they would ever like to accept.

When politics is driven by extreme ideology, (Nazism, Stalinism, perhaps even uncontrolled Capitalism) the result is disastrous. When politics is driven by religions fired up by zealots, the result is also disastrous.

I am not saying that religions should never participate in political debates - they should, they must. It used to annoy Margaret Thatcher that so many top people in the Church of England criticised her divisive policies. The late, luminously decent, Bishop of Liverpool, David Shepherd, was a thorn who pricked the establishment to remind them of their duties to the disenfranchised. New Labour has been incensed with church and mosque spokespeople who have been vocal opponents of the occupation of Iraq. Abortion, marriage, binge drinking, drugs policies, family breakdowns, world poverty, environmental devastation, gay rights, racial and gender equality, arms dealing and foreign policy need to be discussed by all Britons, atheists, agnostics and people of faith. But this discussion must take place within the framework of a secular state and without religious leaders abusing their power to influence elections. We did not elect these men - and they are all men. They have no right to tell us who we may elect.

The reason they feel they have these rights is because New Labour and the Tories have indulged them for years, pandered to their demands, promoted them to key advisory positions. This week, Tony Blair is planning to woo Christians; meanwhile Jack Straw and Charles Clarke are promising the world to Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, going in and out of mosques, gurdwaras, temples with clean handkerchiefs on their heads. The law to stop incitement to religious hatred is on its way. State funded separate schools grow and grow. Faith groups claim an absolute, inviolable right never to be criticised, mocked, challenged. Not in art, in the media, nor by politicians. The protests against the play Behzti by a young Sikh woman playwright in Birmingham, the demonstrations against the BBC for broadcasting the musical Jerry Springer - The Opera, the death threats I get for criticising Muslim fanatics, all come from a new confidence that the keepers of the state are on the side of the easily offended, especially if they are worshippers.

Complete freedom of expression does not exist in any country, nor should it. Society could not survive the brutality such freedom would unleash. Good manners, etiquette, political correctness, social mores, mutual respect, libel laws, all curtail our freedom to say what we wish. And most of the time we consent to these limits for the greater good. When groups within countries are obviously without a voice and a presence, they need some protection. But today, religious groups are not only becoming over-powerful in the dialogues of the nation, they are trying to cut off our tongues and our imaginations and to remake the nation with the collusion of key politicians. Thomas Jefferson believed the "wall of separation between church and state" was sacred. Today, that wall is being kicked down in his country and ours, and we should be very afraid of the consequences.