Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I'm a believer, but I don't want a state run by God

No nation should wilfully split up its young and herd them into schools only with their own sort


Eric Pickles is like a Dickens character – the name, deportment, disposition, unctuousness and phoney piety. He is fighting a High Court ruling against prayers before council meetings following a case brought by the National Secular Society. If councillors do get their prayers answered, will that help those whose benefit cuts were implemented on Good Friday, costing them yet more human dignity and life chances?

Let's be kinder to the minister. Maybe his commitment to Christianity isn't phoney. Maybe it is expedient and utilitarian like David Cameron's. Last December, the PM sermonised to his flock: "We should not be afraid to say we are a Christian country." At an Easter gathering in Downing Street, more of the same was dished out with the canapés – simple fare, one hopes – for Lent.

Meanwhile troublesome bishops and cardinals are out of their pews, making a grab for ever more influence. We have witnessed their unseemly, un-Christian attitudes to gay marriages. George Carey, ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, and his new best friend, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, now command all Christians to wear the cross every day and to disobey rules which disallow such displays at work.

Other faiths too are getting more noisy and strident and politicians submit to their wiles. George Galloway's victory in part came out of his honourable anti-war stance on Iraq and Afghanistan but that was not all. He pandered smarmily to those Muslims who complain ceaselessly about the West and turned himself into a surrogate "traditional" Muslim – beard, no booze and plenty of wives and kids. Veiled Muslim women are defended by Sayeeda Warsi, co-chair of the Tory party, who knows full well that these coverings, chosen or not, signify the debasement and fear of femaleness. Together, religious and political leaders blame "aggressive secularism" and godlessness for all our ills.

Yet it is the proliferation of state-funded faith schools which is so divisive. Cohesion is being subverted by our own masters. Jewish, Hindu, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant and atheist children need to work, play, laugh and argue together. It is their right to meet and know each other, a right they are denied by communities, families and governments. Fear of hell-fire and clubbiness can lead to good results, and perhaps better behaved pupils, but no multifarious nation should wilfully split up its young and herd them into schools only with their own sort, when gory religious wars are once again breaking out across the globe. This week, we saw pictures of raped mothers, hanging women in pretty frocks, dead babies, starved men, victims of the Bosnian war, a conflagration in Europe when religion and politics were blended to make a deadly cocktail. No lessons were learnt here.

Let's be clear about terms and meanings. A secular state is not atheistic. India and the US, with their many millions of devout worshippers of diverse gods, are both secular nations. Every serious candidate for the US presidency needs strong Christian credentials as do ambitious senators and congress members. At state level, fanatical Christians have become a frightening force against abortion and gay rights.

In spite of all that, Thomas Jefferson's First Amendment stipulation of a high wall between church and state remains in place. Ardently Catholic, John F Kennedy passionately defended the principle: "No, faith is not allowed in the public square." He also explained why "absolute" partition protects lawmakers and believers from contaminating each other's spheres. Rick Santorum, the Catholic Republican fighting for the White House nomination, says this split is "vomit-inducing". He will not win the race.

Many Britons express fear and loathing of vote- winning Islamic parties in the Middle East and yet are either too lazy or hypocritical to object to brazen interference by our unelected priests, bishops, mullahs, and rabbis in policies and state governance. Religious leaders must, of course, express views with moral authority about laws and the behaviour of the ruling elites. They did so during the Iraq war and more recently on austerity policies. But today they are claiming the public square, doing deals with governments, getting state funds and gaining sway in matters that are not their business. Talk to teachers and you learn how they are daily faced with angry parents of this faith or that, wanting special provision or exemptions on the grounds that it is a divine requirement.

On Easter Monday it is important to acknowledge that religion matters profoundly to many of us. I pray to find solace and hope. But God should not be a political player. In Britain the mix and muddle between state and faith is advancing theocratic democracy. No politician dares to be an "aggressive secularist" or push to erect that Jeffersonian wall. Far easier to do what gorgeous George did. And win.


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