LEADING ARTICLE:Anyone can play Bible games

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The Independent Online
A text for Tony Blair: Matthew 23, verse 27. It's about Pharisees, those who wear their religion on their sleeves like an armlet. It's also about passionate hatred of hypocrisy, and impossible faith. Politics must, in our kind of society, be about compromise and pluralism, acknowledging that unbelievers and believers in different things outnumber Christians by a wide margin. Playing the Christian card may win a trick but - unless he is betting on some outburst of revivalism as we approach the Millennium - in our secular society it runs the risk of alienating the majority who are young, faithless and sceptical.

There is nothing wrong with pious politicians. On the contrary, anything that shows our leaders, and would-be leaders to have regular access to the Bible's rich, historic language, to have a life (or a claim on eternal life), is entirely welcome. But when politicians mount the pulpit, Matthew 26: 52 applies - those who preach shall be judged by higher standards. The Labour Party is a vessel made of clay. The pursuit of power, which is what New Labour is about, is always going to lead to muddied hands and moral ambiguity.

Tony Blair cuts an attractive figure. He has many of the qualities of a good teacher. He might be a model Sunday school teacher or even - impious thought - an artist's model for the hero of the feeding of the 5,000. But that does not excuse his Easter parade of Sunday school theology. That he has faith is well and good but he must not insult our intelligence with platitudes about gospel socialism and an exegesis which ignores the entire chequered history of the Christian church.

He has also opened a season of selective biblical quotation. Against Luke 12: 48 - from those who have a lot, much shall be required - the right wing will cite the materialism of Luke 20: 25 about rendering unto Caesar. Against the Sermon on the Mount the Tories will counterpose the verses saying Christ's kingdom is not of this world. And so on. It's a good game, which the left will generally win. But it's a game.

Tony Blair knows full well that no true Christian, one who actually lived a life of love and self-sacrifice would survive in politics. He or she would never speak ill of an opponent, which would make the hustings a waste of time. So we must assume Blair's foray into territory the right has traditionally kept for itself, writing moreover in a fogeyish right- wing newspaper, was a ploy. That reference to the misogynist St Paul coupled with his ethical apostle Lady Thatcher was carefully calculated to appeal to the hard-liners. There is a game plan here and a (diabolically!) clever one too, putting all those Tory Catholics and Methodists on the defensive.

Let us not be taken in however. This is politics as usual. Read John 13: 34, about loving one another. Anyone trying to live by that sublime injunction could never take part in Prime Minister's question time, on either side of the despatch box.