In a mad dash the other day, just before I had to go out for Thanksgiving Dinner — we do things differently in Canada — I quickly put up a post about the compatibility of religion and politics. Some people have pointed out that the incompatibility here, if there even is one, is very different to the incompatibility between religion and science, which really do conflict. One commentator on that post put it this way:
Eric, your premise rests on this: “The point is this. Governance, just like science, should be based on reason and evidence, and not just on one’s personal prejudices, because one’s personal prejudices have no place in the making of laws, which should be blind to religious belief.”
And it fails because of one word: “should”. Science is so based. But politics is not based on that ideal. Democracy, politics and governance all are based as much on lies, distortions, half-truths, spin, greed, hero worship, concentrations of power, manipulating people, false advertising, character assassination, etc., etc., etc.
In this sense, there is not a definite outcome, as in science, for religion to be compatible or incompatible with.
And, of course, in this sense, I agree, but I would ask you to notice that science also suffers to a considerable degree from distortions, half-truths, spin, greed, hero-worship and concentrations of power. There’s a considerable dose of false accusation and character assassination around as well. Science is not all bright and shiny compared to the tawdriness and lack-lustre world of politics. Many people still think that Rosalind Franklin, for example, was unfairly treated, since her contribution to the discovery of the structure and function of DNA was considerable. Her work was shown to Watson without her knowledge or approval, and without it, Watson and Crick may not have had the evidence they needed to confirm their theory. The biological world was abuzz at the time with the race to discover the building blocks of life, and Franklin’s contribution has never been adequately or appropriately recognised. Science is a far messier world than is often acknowledged, and religion can find a resting place there too, as a number of accommodationists have shown. Certainly, the straight denial that religion and science are somehow compatible is difficult to establish, and probably has only a minority following amongst scientists (though not amongst senior scientists, perhaps). Of course, I don’t think religion has a place in science either, but it’s not a slam dunk when it comes to showing why not.
However, the importance of recognising the incompatibility of religion and politics, or religion and democratic forms of governance, is something that not many people have even bothered thinking about, and I think it could stand a bit of concentrated thought. After all, if, as Jonathan Haidt says, reason enters in only where intuition doesn’t object, religious believing at the centre of political process makes governance virtually impossible. This should be obvious in any case to those who watched President Obama’s promise simply crushed by ideological forces over which he had no control. Increasingly, the same kind of thing is cropping up in Canada and Britain, and other democracies, where religion is taking its toll on effective governance.
Let’s take an obvious example, which I have lately discussed — namely, Jeremy Hunt’s idiotic notion of reducing the period for legal abortion to 12 weeks. There is simply no factual basis for that number, as the experts have pointed out, even though Hunt claimed to have come to that number by looking at the evidence. And then, sotto voce, he told people that he didn’t think that his Christianity contributed to his conclusion. Since there is absolutely no good reason to accept the proposed reduction, and many good reasons to reject it, clearly his Christian intuition got the better of him. But what is more important is that this intrusion of the religious into the context of legislative decision-making is occurring just at a time when religion is increasingly making itself felt around the world, despite a severe drop off in the number of believers in most developed nations.
Most governments over the last few decades, with the remarkable exception of the United States, simply didn’t do God (and even with the US we must make some qualifications, as we will see below), but now Canada, in whose politics religion has seldom figured, is in the process of establishing an Office of Religious Freedom, staffed mainly by religious leaders and believers. As Doug Saunders points out in a perceptive op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail, this is happening despite the fact that
the core values of our common culture, the things that make us Western and modern – democracy, equality, the rule of law – were forged through the rejection of religion and the overthrow of spiritual authority.
In a world in which religious voices are increasingly clamouring for attention, this sends the wrong message, as Saunders says. Democracy was about separating ourselves from the authority of religious institutions, and yet more and more we see the religious fighting back, assuring us that they are not dead yet, and that they still want to exercise their authority where it will have the greatest impact, namely at the level of governance and legislation. This should be seen as a serious threat to our freedoms, and yet the silence from the progressive press — if such still exists — is overwhelming. Where are the people who fought for religious freedom? They are the ones who wanted religion shunted onto the sidelines, so countries could get on with governing themselves without divisive religious influences, but there are intolerably few of them around. But we should recognise that the increasing insistence by religious voices that they be heard, and that religious moral creeds be determinative for legislative decisions, is a fairly recent development, even in the United States. Few people today remember when it was possible for a candidate for the US presidency, Barry Goldwater, to state publicly that the political agenda of the religious right was a disgrace to conservatism. Religion, he said, had no place in national deliberations.
Failing to recognise the importance of the separation of church and state, and religion and governance, is to set the clock back to the seventeenth century. That is not to say that religion had no influence on politics since that time; but it is to say that religion, qua religion, did not play that role. Think of some of the greatest ”religious” campaigns over the last few centuries, the campaign to abolish slavery, the campaign for women’s rights, the campaign to desegregate American society or to defeat Apartheid in South Africa. These campaigns were conducted, to a large extent, by religious reformers, yet religious language was not the main vehicle in terms of which they were carried out. They spoke in a language that appealed to all people, whether or not they shared the religious presuppositions of those who were making the appeal. Christopher Hitchens points out, in his book god is not Great, that Martin Luther King may have used the language of the Bible, as the only text that his audience had in common, but that he used it in a way which simply skimmed over the surface features of the story. In his rhetoric of entering the promised land, he does not speak of the genocide, and the theft of land from a people already there. If he had, he would have had to take note that the people from whom he was claiming freedom were Christians like himself. Hitchens concludes that King was not really a Christian:
In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, [Hitchens writes] was he a Christian. 
But of course he was a Christian, even though he depended upon non-Christians, labour leaders and socialists for support. He spoke as a Christian in a secular way, to a secular world. He did not claim that the United States should live up to its Christian heritage. He said that it should live up to its democratic principles, and that in those terms it was at fault.
But now it is different. I watched it happen in the church during the last decade of the last century. As some of us in the church began to be concerned about issues of justice, many people in the church began pushing back, reaffirming the moral traditions of the church, reasserting the values which secular society had ignored. That’s what makes phenomena like George Carey or Ann Widdecombe and their Christian anti-gay marriage protests, possible. These are leaders of protest movements which, in the name of freedom, are opposing the expansion of marriage rights to include gay people — that is, they are opposing, in the name of freedom, widening the bounds of freedom. The opposition to gay people and gay marriage is being made as a way of reaffirming tradition, and this should remind us that the freedoms we enjoy were wrenched from the hands of traditional authorities. Religious possession of tradition is clearly expressed by George Carey (former Archbishop of Canterbury) in the following clip. Here he speaks of the “plunder” of tradition by those who want to change he law of marriage:
That is pure bigotry, even though he is too dense to recognise it. It was outside the hall, where the Coalition for Marriage was having its protest meeting, that the voice of reason was heard, some young people putting the issue into perspective. It is about options, they said, about an expansion of freedom to include them. I used to visit an older lady in the church who opposed gay people with a kind of crude virulence that shocked me. She yearned for the day when such things were simply not mentioned, supposing that, when they were not mentioned, there was no one to suffer. The hidden, she thought, were not suffering; but the truth is that their sufferings were just unheard. Christians think that, if their tradition is not honoured, everything will simply fall apart, not recognising that much of the change that has taken place over the last two centuries has been a rejection of that tradition in the name of freedom. Christians and other religionists are afraid of expanding freedoms, because their traditions will figure in those traditions much less, if they stick to their stated beliefs, beliefs which, according to Carey, can only be plundered, because they cannot change. It is that inability to comprehend other points of view which makes Christianity and other religions incompatible with democratic governance.
I mentioned the unheard voices of the oppressed, to which my parishioner took such brutal exception. Martin Luther King refused to remain silent. But he did not speak as a Christian leader as such, and that is important. He spoke in a Christian way as the leader of a secular movement. That, I think, is what Hitchens saw, and he was right. What King did was to use Christian tradition to claim secular (democratic) rights. The difference is that Christians are now affirming Christian tradition to oppose such rights, and are demanding that their moral priorities be reflected in the laws of the land. As this happens, I think, we will find our liberties, one after another, come under attack. In Canada, laws restricting abortion were struck down by the Supreme Court. For Christians, this is a scandal, and yet almost all abortions in Canada are early. It is the absence of a law saying that they must be that Christians object to. The law should express moral revulsion at abortion, because that is what Christians feel. The law should not accommodate gay people, because of the revulsion that Christians and Muslims (and possibly people of other faiths) feel at the thought of gay sex. A country whose law endorses gay sex is an affront to the feelings of Christians and Muslims.
I am quite prepared to admit that politics and governance are not like science, but I still insist that religion is incompatible with democratic polities, and if we do not remember that our freedoms are based upon a rejection of religious authority over the laws that will govern us, we are destined to play out, in reverse, the record of the liberalisation of our societies. The religious bars will increasingly make of our lives a prison-house. We need to remember that, in general, religion in the West, for the last two or three centuries was itself, due largely to the staggeringly rapid accumulation of knowledge, in retreat before the forces of secularisation. In the new global environment, where what is done in other places has an immediate impact on us, the religious polities elsewhere have revived the flagging spirits of Christians in the great democracies. The migration of people from Asia and Africa to those democracies, people professing other religious faiths, and professing them unflinchingly, because they never experienced the secularisation pressures of the last few centuries as Christianity did, also has had an impact on our political and legislative lives. Now, in the West, politicians must appeal to those whose religion has not undergone Enlightenment transformation. In response, Christians are reasserting themselves, claiming the centrality of Christianity to the cultures of the West, and insisting that their moral priorities be recognised as cultural norms. This is new, as anyone who lived through the post-war years will recognise, and it is dangerous, and there seems to me to be too little recognition of the dangers that this increased religious self-assertion poses to the hard-won freedoms of the great democracies.