Thursday, 30 July 2009

God's politics

(Shock horror - a post on politics!)

There's been a heck of a lot of chat about SNP Candidate (for the Glasgow North-East by-election, whenever that is) David Kerr's religious views and whether they should impact upon people's intentions to vote for him. A lot of it has been pretty biased, partisan and snotty (and no, I'm not going to categorise those by linking to them).

But then I read Lallands Peat Worrier and his take on David Kerr, his beliefs and its role in informing his politics. And I agreed with pretty much all of it. It's a cracking article and well worth a read - on the basis that my summary (next paragraph) won't do it justice.

Basically, what Lallands argues is that David Kerr's religious views (that is, his membership of the Catholic organisation Opus Dei and its associated belief structure) may probably inform his views on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage. Thus while his religious beliefs may be of no concern to the average voter in Glasgow North East (though, if I remember rightly, something like 60%+ of the electorate in that constituency describe themselves as Catholic) the impact of these beliefs on his political and moral views may well do. It makes voting for him a trade-off: do you support his views on independence and ignore his views on abortion for example (not that we know what they are given his framing that as a "theological question" rather than a political one) or will his views on abortion feature more strongly in a decision to vote for someone over constitutional preferences?

All voting is a trade-off. There's never a candidate with whom you agree with 100%. And if there is, chances are they are standing in a different constituency (or country... President Obama perhaps?). But the point is parties (supposedly) select the candidate they believe will represent the constituency best and when they are elected they (should) vote with the best interests of the constituency at heart - or, at worst, abstain where there is a distinct clash with personal moral views). Note the caveats in that sentence.

The problem with by-elections over General Elections is that every single aspect of a candidate's life - political, private, economic and, yes, religious - is examined and scrutinised in much more detail than ever before. More will be known in Glasgow North East about David Kerr and Willie Bain than even about David Cameron and Gordon Brown. And this is a good thing - it allows the voters to make a better judgement about the character of the candidate before they elect them.

Alastair Campbell famously said "We don't do God." But then his most famous charge converted to Catholicism. With all the respect that comes with being the country's most famous former spin doctor, I think he's wrong. Whether you believe in God, accept religion (or whatever faith) or simply recognise right from wrong, religion plays a part in every day life - and, most especially, in politics. Note I didn't say "Christianity" there. It is my belief that moral decision-making, the belief in right and wrong and acceptance of a need for a rule of law derives from the moral code of religion. And again, I stress religion - not one but many.

Now I don't profess that religion makes you a good person or that you have to be religious to know right from wrong. What I'm arguing is that religion has informed those moral decisions, moral choices, for generations, and that we have, as a society, derived our own moral compass from previous generations... right back to when religion was politics.

Basically, this is a long and winded way of saying that religion matters in politics. Of course it does. But it shouldn't be the only thing that matters when you go to the polls (if it ever happens) in Glasgow North-East. To make an informed decision about the candidates you should know as much about them as you can. But that should be limited to what will inform their politics I think.

Knowing that David Kerr is a member of Opus Dei is useful in as far as it gives you a rough idea of where his theological leanings lie - and thus how his politics (should he have to vote on these issues) will go. His membership of Opus Dei will not tell you where he stands on the economy, health service, defence spending, international relations, the constitution, education, refuse collection striking or anything else. For those things - if they matter to you - you'll have to ask him.


Indy 30 July 2009 at 13:20  

In my view it is the candidate's views on issues like abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage that voters have a valid interest in - not their religion.

I also feel it is slightly annoying when the assumption is made (not in your case) that only people with a religious commitment can take a 'moral' view on matters.

My views on abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage are informed by my morality just as David's views are - though my views would probably be the exact opposite of his. However his views are no more 'moral' than mine simply because his are based on biblical teaching and mine are not. I think David would agree with me on that.

It is a bit of a minefield.

Malc 30 July 2009 at 13:23  

"In my view it is the candidate's views on issues like abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage that voters have a valid interest in - not their religion."

That's pretty much my point Indy. Explained much more succinctly than I put it too. Ever think of blogging? ;)

PJ 30 July 2009 at 16:46  

I disagree with you slightly Indy, I do think that voters have a valid interest in the religious beliefs of their candidates because undoubtedly that is of formative importance to their viewpoints on topics such as abortion and euthanasia. But in a society that is no longer dominated by religious beliefs and their associated moral codes there is such a lack of understanding about the influence of specific religious teachings that it is sadly often used as a negative campaigning tool.

There are far too many 'grey' people in politics, more career fence-sitters than career politicans. So I find myself more interested in those who have the courage and the trust in their beliefs to stand out from the crowd even though they will be well aware that they will face detailed scrutiny and criticism.

I agree with Malc that it is highly unlikely that I will ever find a candidate that I agree with all of the time, and to be honest it's hard enough keeping faith in a political party most of the time. But I'm a great admirer of courage and a firm believer in the power of positive discourse in society and politics. Perhaps David Kerr will ultimately benefit from the many current discussions about his religious beliefs, such as this one, because whether we agree with his beliefs or not perhaps if we understand them better we'll understand the man and his potential better too.

Just out of curiosity Indy - where have you come across "the assumption that only people with a religious commitment can take a 'moral' view on things?" That's a debate I wouldn't mind getting stuck into...!

subrosa 30 July 2009 at 17:54  

Good post Malc. Whether a candidate's religion is important depends upon their electorate. They decide. In my area of Scotland religion is of no or minimal importance and never has been in my lifetime, but it is of great importance to many in the West.

We all acquire our standards of right and good conduct from an early age, usually through religious, social or political avenues.

While I more or less agree with Indy, I feel Mr Kerr ought to take the lead with this issue and avoid it spiraling into 'the' issue of the by-election.

It is complex. What does he do? Issue a pamphlet outlining his views on the issues which concern his voters? Have a public meeting?

From what I read he's a man of intelligence and wide experience so he possibly already has his strategy planned.

Caron 30 July 2009 at 19:50  

It's great to see some decent, informed debate on this. I was really annoyed by the fact that he was being bashed for his religious beliefs. Do we really want a situation where people with those beliefs are going to be harassed if they stand for Parliament? I was very worried by the tone of some of what was said about David Kerr's membership of Opus Dei especially from that guardian of civil liberties Murdo Fraser. Just who was it who brought in Section 28 again?

There are religious and non religious people in all parties and I completely agree with Indy that neither is better or worse.

I think the electorate has a right to know how all the candidates would vote on these issues so they can make their minds up for themselves how important they are.

There are plenty of misogynistic, homophobic atheists around as well, which is worth pointing out. It's not as if the religious are all reactionary and the atheist are all progressive.

Lallands Peat Worrier 31 July 2009 at 21:20  


Glad to have provoked you. Its a complex issue - made all the more interesting when it is dealt with in a way which embraces rather than rejects this busy detail.

Yousuf Hamid 1 August 2009 at 11:48  

This is a really interesting post which I've just got rond to reading. A lot of food for thought.

Shuna 1 August 2009 at 12:39  


your post is great.
One of the things my mum used to tell me was when she was a member of the young socialists. She used to have great discussions with her pal, Norman Hogg (became Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld - that Norman Hogg) about whether they considered themselves Christian Socialists of Socialist Christians - they could never quite work it out because they saw both as important. Chicken and egg!

For me - I am a Christian, and it does colour my views on issues but life also colours my interpretation of my faith. I am not a rigid, unbending christian - but more of a 'this is the situation, the moral WWJD?'

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