When politicians grab and wave the chalice of religion, they tarnish its beauty and purpose, turning its gold to nickel. Or let me put it another way. They sully and invade the privacy of faith and misuse God for propaganda and political games. The master of this dark art was the Ayatollah Khomeini, who swept into power in Iran in 1979. His political takeover was disguised as religious salvation and we know what happened next.
Saudi Arabia is the most loathsome, extreme theocratic state. In India, the Hindu fundamentalist BJP party has successfully sold itself to countless supporters and the apartheid regime in South Africa cited the Bible to justify its racism. Nearer home, Tony Blair called upon his Catholic deity to vouch for his motives when accused of lying about Iraq. The Pope gave him special blessings. These are the more dramatic examples of politicking with God. Just as common and corrosive is the everyday manipulation of religion by politicians.
Recently, David Cameron did just that. The state should be secular, religiously neutral. Yet our PM, once a spin doctor, appropriated divinity efficiently and timed his message precisely. He chose this season of peace and goodwill to rouse muscular, Anglican jingoism, partly to pick a fight again with "multiculturalism" but mostly, I think, to cleanse the many sins of his government. This is a Christian country, with Christian values, he decreed, and "we should not be afraid to say so". Only it isn't. When you consider our domestic and foreign policy or how people behave, Britain cannot be called Christian. And I wish it was. Truly I do, even though I am a Muslim. For at its best, Christianity is one of the world's most humane and tender of religions and deserves a better class of worshipper than many of those who lay claim to it.
There are, of course, Britons who do follow the example of their Lord. I know good believers who shelter asylum-seekers, feed the hungry in soup kitchens, try hard to speak and do no evil, forgive those who hurt them and are not tempted by excessive materialism. They are, though, now diminishing. A major survey in 2010 found a long-term, steady decline in the number of practising Christians in Britain. Fifty per cent said they followed no organised religion. In 1983, that figure was 19 per cent. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, the numbers of disbelievers today is 64 per cent.
These figures delight fundamentalist atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. They are winning many devotees – but not from the pesky 6 per cent of the British population who are non-Christians. Atheism is a foreign concept in our communities and our children seem to carry on believing in high numbers. Oh, we know well enough the evils carried out in the name of all the world's major religions and the wicked individuals who think worship gives them immunity from censure and judgement. I had a very rich uncle, now dead, a foul man who gave nothing to the poor, but wads of notes to the mosque, paying for the respectability he never deserved. However, faith helps to stave off fears when you are part of a minority and many of us feel it wakes our consciences and reminds us of those human faults – vanity, selfishness, righteousness, prejudices and greed.
If Britain were a more Christian country its people would not tolerate the rich, ruling elite punishing the most disadvantaged with harsh laws and unfair rhetoric. They would revolt against the state-created poverty upon us. They would preserve the welfare state – born at a time when the country was more Christian and understood mutuality and societal obligations. That generosity is gone.
The most recent British Social Attitudes Survey was a depressing testimony of what the country has become. In 1997, the vast majority thought benefits were too low. Today, 54 per cent believe them too high; 63 per cent blame "feckless" or "lazy" parents for child poverty; 45 per cent oppose new housing and most do not want tax increases to fund social welfare. Penny Young, chief executive of the National Centre for Social Research, which carries out these surveys, observed: "The big question coming out of this year's report is whether we really are in it together or just in it for ourselves." And this is a supposedly Christian country with Christian values? Where is the Big Society, another clever-dick idea of the PM's?
One feels for the truly faithful, such as Archbishops John Sentamu and Rowan Williams and, most of all, the Reverend Giles Fraser, who left St Paul's when his church threatened to remove forcibly the peaceful people camped outside to protest against the capitalism that devastates economies, lives and the environment. These churchmen try to remind their people of Christ who came to save them, a child born to asylum-seekers. Their words are unheeded. Too many are like Cameron, part-time Christians of convenience, living for mammon, who use their religion as a weapon against those they despise, the poor, helpless and "alien": all those embraced by Jesus Christ in his time.
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